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Developer Perspectives: No Endgame For MMO Devs

By Sanya Weathers on June 26, 2009 | Columns | Comments

No Endgame For MMO Devs

Generally speaking, if your natural element is a small company, you are ill-equipped to cope with the politics and the maneuvering that comes with a big company (or any large group of people) unless you’re either a) a genuine cold hearted dick, or b) capable of keeping your mouth shut when the situation demands it.

How else do things go wrong? So much of the modern MMO business is hype, pure and simple. You don’t keep players with hype, but that is the fastest way to get them in numbers sufficient to have a shot at a critical mass. That is, the critical mass necessary to justify massive budgets, eight figure venture capital infusions, and five year development plans… which is why many of the early pioneers have moved on to free to play games, niche games, or browser games. But I digress.

The trouble is human nature. If you’re ever in a bad mood, try faking happiness for a few hours. Keep a smile on your face, a positive tone to your voice, and odds are your fake good mood will become a real one. That’s just the way people are wired.

Now imagine your entire job is saying happy things. Even if you think you’re inoculated, you might find yourself thinking spin you yourself wrote is the truth, because you’re still a human being.

Closer to E3 than you'd imagine.

Compounding all of this is the way the MMO industry networks. I didn’t get to know so many people because I’ve got such great social skills. The same hundred people see each other at the same five conferences, year after year. I used to call E3 “summer camp,” and the Austin Game Conference my “high school reunion.” Everyone knows everyone else. Half of the group has a supersized personality, half of *those* people have supersized personality disorders, and many people are drinking heavily. For three days straight.

This is a recipe for awesome, mind you. I mean, after three days of drinking, the bi-curious reporters and the tri-anything developers find each other. The Ultimate Game is designed repeatedly on cocktail napkins. Funny stories from the early days of the industry are told and retold until even the newbs feel like they were really there the day the contract came through and everyone including the quest girls went down to the strip club and… ahem.

But it also gets ugly. Some people are mean drunks. Rumors about whose engine can’t handle 20 people doing PVP start flying around, along with discussions of whose customer service sucks, and my favorite, who stole what feature from whom. (The latter is usually a topic only among people at their first conference – the vets know that everyone steals from everyone. Besides, copying a feature without the underlying structure usually fails, so why get uptight about it?)

Most of all, you have grudges, and the more senior someone is, the more likely they are to have done something worthy of earning a grudge. After all, it takes power to hurt someone, or to permanently damage a reputation. Only when you’re powerful can you pass on a game that turns out to be a hit, piss on a contract at the last minute, ruin someone’s day in a fit of pique, dismiss the opinion of a new hire who leaves to become the competition’s lead designer, give an interview where you imply an old friend’s failure was their own stupid fault, blow minor incidents totally out of proportion, publicly humiliate allies, or worse. Hubris is a bitch, a bitch that most powerful people end up flirting with if not openly sleeping with.

Beyond all of that, there is the basic fact that without a great deal of effort, people at the top of any field lose touch with the things that made them great. The first to go is usually empathy for ordinary people, which unfortunately makes up the bulk of the potential customers and employees – all people who rely on you to care. Perspective goes next, because of the all encompassing bubble of pleasant sounding people who avoid confronting you. Creative thinking goes at some point, or at least the proof of it, because risks cannot be taken with millions of dollars of other peoples’ money. And one’s sense of fun disappears when someone is isolated, which is just death to a game maker. But simple things stop being enjoyable, until finally “fun” is limited to things beyond the range or experience of the average gamer.

Let’s not cry for multimillionaires who fall from grace. The year off as required by the non-competes has been and will be the rejuvenation of anyone who has lost their mojo. Unlike the working stiffs who make up the bulk of the MMO industry (and pay the heaviest price when things go wrong), the sort of person who signs a one year non-compete does so because he or she is going to be paid so well that they can easily afford a year off from work. That’s a luxury most people don’t have. The people at the top get kicked out only to land on a giant pile of money.

Old game people don’t retire, anyway, they just recharge and make new games. The personalities that started companies in the 90s are the kind that can sell you on a dream, and now those personalities have experience and money. Millions of dollars in your pocket buys respect from venture fund outfits (oh yes – the more you personally have, the less of it you’ll have to personally risk!) and the emotional space to make a new game.

Yeah. No tears here.

And yet… Once you’ve worked on an exciting project that everyone is equally passionate about, you never forget the people who were there beside you. No matter what else happens, no matter what goes right or horribly wrong, you remember the people as they were when everything was wonderful. Part of you will always be loyal to the memory of “used to be.”

One person doesn’t make an MMO. Two hundred people make an MMO. Five of them make all the real decisions, sure, and the person at the top was one of them – and his or her blessing was on the other four. Responsibility must be taken. But with MMOs, there is no endgame for any of us, but always something new around the corner.

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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.