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Developer Perspectives: Does Focusing Flourish or Fail? Depends On Your Budget

Columns By Sanya Weathers on August 07, 2009

Does Focusing Flourish or Fail? Depends On Your Budget

One of my favorite questions to ask producers during interviews is, "What surprised you in terms of your player base?" The reason I love that question is because it's guaranteed content. Almost every other question in a standard MMO puff piece has the potential to end in a non-answer, either because the subject isn't allowed to answer or the answer was a null of some kind. The player base surprise question always has an answer, because the demographic reality of every MMO ever launched startled the developers in some way.


Early on in our genre's history, the surprise was, "Girls play TOO!" The developers did not employ girls, had never known any girls to appear down at the ol' hobby shop, and in several cases did not appear to know any girls. Certainly many had never seen an actual naked girl, given the surprising places breasts were attached to supposedly human torsos without supporting musculature.

Fortunately, in 2009 only the congenitally brain damaged are still surprised that those of us who squat to pee also like video games, and only complete monkeys fail to earmark some of their marketing/branding strategy towards attracting female MMO players. The industry does not do the whole marketing to women thing *well,* in some cases mistaking "pink and froofy" for "appealing to anyone likely to be old enough to have a credit card." But progress has been made, so I'm content for the time being. And I'm way off track, as usual.

These days, the surprises are not quite as forehead-slapping obvious as an entire gender, but still pretty eyebrow raising in hindsight.

"We planned, developed, and focus tested for tweens and young teens, but a third of our players are adults over thirty."

Well, here's the thing. When you develop a game for younger players, people who possibly don't know a genre's conventions and would find them irritating/too high a barrier to entry, what do you do first?

You design an easy to use, intuitive interface with every feature focused on helping to enjoy the content. You bug test and polish to make sure that there are no issues that might cause a young person to become frustrated, and wander away to a competitor. You make the trial/free content/demo so compelling that the little darling races to wheedle credit card data out of Mom and Dad. If there are puzzles, help is a click away - in the game, not on a third party site that your developers don't control.

These are things adults like, too.

"We intended this to be a PVP game, and yet we have all these roleplayers."

Oh, my biscuits and gravy, but this one gets on my nerves. There is this weird blind spot running through the industry, resulting in studios treating "PVP" and "roleplayers" as totally discrete entities. It's bizarre, too, because at every studio that I've ever visited, partied with, or worked for, most of the dev team knows better. And yet there's still this confusion at certain levels, usually at the "selling it" level, at the idea of PVP and RP being in the same pool.

For the impaired among us: There's no conflict between PVP and RP. In fact, many of the most devoted roleplayers prefer PVP games, because you can actually follow arguments, wars, and other violent storylines to their logical conclusion. If someone besmirches your honor, you can challenge them to a duel, and you're not bound by whether or not the target is willing to accept. If someone steals your stuff or taunts you or insults your mate, you can kick their ass. It's not just storytelling, it's action, too.

"We designed a sandbox/world with no endgame, intending that players be able to tell the stories that are most important to them, but a large percentage of our players are really angry that there isn't more developer-built content for them to do."

The deal with this one tends to be expectations. If you sell the game like a traditional MMO, if you position the game as a competitor to products that have a great deal of developer-built content, well, people are going to expect quests and dungeons and a full featured end game. Even if you sell the game properly, if a newcomer logs into the world and immediately has fifty quests to do, that player will expect that you will continue to provide that kind of experience to him. You can't hold a player's hand through thirty levels and then dump him in a deserted wasteland to go make his own fun.

In this era of behemoth, multifaceted MMOs getting all the press, it's hard to avoid wanting to be all things to all people. The problem is that being all things to all people takes years of development, lots of experience across the entire team with shipped products, and millions of dollars - and really good product management and oversight.

So if your PVP game is doing well, but a handful of people want it to have hardcore PVE raid content? Say no. If adults are playing your kid's game, and want there to be a server without cuss filters? Say no. If you want to build a storyteller's paradise, and some lily-livered suit hits the panic button and demands hand-feeding like he's seeing in the game HE happens to be playing? Say no. If you wuss out and say yes, remember that nothing in an MMO is forever, and start saying no.

Because unless you have five years and fifty million dollars, your best chance at getting that five and fifty is to identify a niche and serve it well.

Sanya Weathers / I''ve been complaining about video games for fifteen years. Fifteen years, people. In internet years, I''m not just old, I''m DEAD.