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Developer Perspectives: The Startup Staff

Sanya Weathers Posted:
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So you want to staff up your MMO company. What do you need?

You need programmers. Lots of them. You'll need programmers to handle the game client, game engine, and servers. You'll need a tools programmer to handle the things the other people in the company need - tools to get the art integrated, the monsters placed and pathed, the NPCs talking, and more. Oh, you'll need a web programmer, one who will interact with the server programmer, someone to build out the website and the leader-boards. You'll need a CS programmer, someone whose sole job is the accounts database (and you'll need him well before beta starts - heck, before your CSRs start).

Aside from the programmers, you need lots of technical people. You'll need database specialists, infrastructure/network specialists, and you'll definitely need someone whose entire job is security. Someone who can handle the patcher, putting together builds, and running the process of bringing versions from one server to another is nice to have.

Alright, you've got the technical know-how. You need a game! You need a designer who is watching the big picture to make sure everything works as a whole. You need someone heading up the economy (currency, items, crafting). You need someone managing the content to make sure the quests or missions are coherent and plentiful. Game combat system design is a full time job for several people. Class design/class balance is another job. Monsters and NPCs don't spring out of the air; someone's got to design them. All of those people will need at least a small team, and that's before we get to the vast army of world builders you'll need to get the world populated with stuff.

Wait, you can't implement stuff that isn't built. You need artists. You need concept artists to make sure everything is planned out in such a way that every piece can do several jobs. You need environment artists to build, well, buildings. But not just buildings - caves, rocks, trees, interiors, exteriors, and all kinds of places ranging from swamps to steppes. Even terrain calls for its own type of artist. You'll want character artists to handle the playable races, NPCs, monsters, pets, and so forth. And if it moves it'll need to be animated, which calls for animators.

You've got something to look at, stuff to do... oh, right, you need something to hear. Everything in the game will make a noise, and if it dies, you'll want to hear its scream. When nothing is screaming or buzzing or firing or smashing, some ambient music might be nice. You'll need a theme song as well. If you want to go with what is in my opinion the most annoying trend on earth, you'll need to record hours and hours of voiceovers, and you'll want a pro to handle it all.

Is it built? Great, now we can... test it. Nothing beats a fully staffed QA team, methodically going through the whole game and smoothing out the rough edges before a customer cuts himself. Beta testers find things by stumbling into them, and that's just not enough to catch everything. Fifty QA people aren't enough if you've only got a few months.

But all right. You've got the game, now you've got to support it. You'll need technical support people, because unless you're building strictly for the iPhone, you're dealing with a situation where your customers are using hundreds of different configurations... but they all expect the game to work the minute they log in. You need billing people because if you get nothing else right, you need to collect the money without causing double charges. You'll need people to help your customers with password changes, fraud, theft, and frustration. You'll need in game support working 24/7 to at least resolve the game-stopping issues, and ideally more than that - the odds are, the only employee a customer will ever meet is a CSR (Customer Support Representative), so it makes sense to have a well paid professional handling that interaction.

Players can't play the game all the time, but they can think about it. They can hang out with their friends outside the game, but only if you've built a community to support that with tools and meeting places and things to do. Live events don't plan themselves, but they do create lifelong subscribers and fans. Community people, properly deployed, manage betas, coordinate between production/CS/marketing, fix or mitigate problems via messaging, and handle the media.

Before anyone plays it, they have to know about it. You’ll need marketing, public relations, retailers, and distributors.

So, yeah, there you go. Your MMO staff.

And now, all of us at a startup will just indulge in a little hysterical laughter, because somehow, we’re building games with fewer than thirty people. Here’s how it’s done:

- Forget the fancy specialization. Your technical people will just have to figure out how to write the game and keep it running at the same time. Your concept artists are also designers and builders. You'll try to use as many default tools as you can find. They aren't perfect, but you'll learn to be really creative, because you'll have to design your way around the flaws. Oh, and speaking of design, no one is a pure designer thinking deep thoughts. Designers are also the writers, the world builders, and the testers. Heck, your class designer might end up becoming the resident expert on the engine.

- Cut corners. That sounds bad, but budgets are not infinite and neither is your time. I once heard the phrase "don't let perfect be the enemy of good." You can always go back and improve something as long as you were at least good to start with. I cannot name a single MMO that didn't go back and revamp certain zones after a year or two. The very best MMOs tend to revamp areas that weren't that bad, just to make sure the game as a whole reflects the current economy and player-base.

- Never mind the hype. You are not going to go to trade shows. You will not get the cover of a magazine. Your beta is for fixing things, not soft-launching the game, because your beta is for finding bugs. (There is no QA team.) You will spend quite a bit of time explaining that a game with a 300 million dollar budget has a different sort of beta, and not everyone will get that, but the players that do are pearls beyond price.

- Cultivate players as allies. If you've got an infinite budget, you can afford to be impersonal with your players. (I guess. I always wonder how much money that "we own you" attitude leaves on the table, but I digress.) You at a startup can't afford it. You literally cannot launch without the support of your community. They will be your testers, your ad-hoc designers, your marketing team, your motivation when you feel like giving up. If they think you have potential, you do.

Making an MMO as a startup company on a shoestring is like a centipede walking - if you think about too hard, you'll get your hundred feet all tangled up. But I've done it a couple times now. Just put one foot in front of the other, don't look up, and see how far you can go.

Sanya is currently the Director of Community for Pitchblack Games, a startup MMO company working on Prime Battle For Dominus. She has been working in the MMO industry since 2000, either as a journalist, a writer, or a community weenie.


Sanya Weathers