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Garrett Fuller: Putting An MMO Out Of Its Misery

Columns By Garrett Fuller on August 26, 2009

Putting An MMO Out Of Its Misery

The life cycle of development for an MMO is risky. Game developers, publishers, and investors can look at the rewards all they want with years of revenue and subscriptions stretching out into the future, yet they have to build the game first. MMOs have a strange existence in the world. Developers secretly build them over with years of work. Marketing teams look to push announcements to build hype around the game and develop a following of fans and players to show to investors or publishers. Players get excited with years of announcements and hype surrounding the launch of their favorite IP as an MMO. Then... the cookie crumbles. The MMO is launched to the world with a sink or swim approach. Many MMOs die, but not every MMO gets to really live. Let's try to discover when development is too much and the game does not live up to the hype. Or even worse, when a game has lost its fun and should just go away.


Tabula Rasa is our first example, NCSoft's futuristic exciting dive into Richard Garriott's world that was going to push the boundries of game play and MMO story. People may forget that the development of Tabula Rasa took a long time. Many major changes were done to the game because the original design was almost too far removed. Musical Instruments as weapons, anime style avatars that wore clothing which Jean Paul Gauttier would even question... if you have never seen the screenshots of this world try searching them out. Fortunately, Tabula Rasa's team realized this growing problem and changed the look and feel of the game to more closely resemble Starship Troopers. The game kept its core elements, like collecting the symbols for your tablet, using symbols that could cross language barriers even here on Earth, and fighting aliens. The problem was that all these great ideas took time. They did sound great and even looked cool, but in the end the players did not come along for this new journey. Tabula Rasa closed shortly after launch.

Our next example is a game that still exists today, but was heavily impacted by changes which the developers thought were for the better, but ended up being much worse on the player side. You guessed it...Star Wars Galaxies! Star Wars Galaxies, in the beginning, was a complex game. Skills and systems were in place that made players work hard for their achievements and gear. Cracking the code to become a Jedi was next to impossible. Players had their work cut out for them, yet, the community was solid and devoted to the game. The game makers then decided to work in some changes for players to dare I say, make things easier with the Combat Upgrade and New Game Experience. The result was alienating their existing player base in favor of trying to draw in a new one. Players who went through this process still speak with anger about how they were treated. The lesson here is, if you want to make changes, take into account the fact that your paying customers first. Star Wars Galaxies still is alive today and players can still log into the game with all of its changes, however with The Old Republic on the horizon, just how much life does this game have left in it? I hear Spare cleaning out his shotgun.

So we have seen huge plans go to ruin with the launch of a game and a game lost its player base due to a huge change after production. Our next example will show the survival factor by looking at Ultima Online. For many, this was the original MMO. Yes there were MUDs and other games, but UO made the leap to the somewhat mainstream for the genre. The game is coming up on its twelve year anniversary and it is still alive today. The original game has changed a lot, it has even changed companies. Yet the community remains and still logs in to play in the open world. Perhaps part of the longevity of this game, and a game like EVE Online, is the open world factor. Many MMOs have gotten away from that design, but these two games prove that it does have some staying power over the long term. Here is a world, make your own fun. I must confess that Ultima is one of the few games I have truly role-played in with the Bloodclan Orcs guild. It was a blast speaking in Orc all the time and following their style. The open world format in Ultima Online has driven its long life into almost teenage years. The game is still profitable and the community remains loyal, some MMOs would love to have that level of success.

Any developer, manager, or business development person will tell you MMOs are a tough genre to handle. You have to balance a long development lifecycle, marketing strategies, and investments before you can even launch the game. Perhaps the recent push of MMOs with major IPs has fallen into the trap set by the word epic. Do you know that word? We hear it a lot in the MMO industry. It must be EPIC! Well epic takes time, epic takes money, and sometimes players are overwhelmed by the epic factor of just how much work they will have to put into a game. Many gamers I talk to always say they would play an MMO, they just don't want to do the work. While hardcore MMO players will say, if you cannot compete, don't play. Who sets this expectation? I think the fault lies on the game makers. If and when you set the expectations too high in the areas of hype, storyline, EPIC game play, etc. you give your players a reason to be disappointed in the result when the expectations are either too high or too low. This is the balancing act. MMOs that cannot balance these expectations with players in mind should quite honestly be put out of their misery.

In closing, I often wonder if game developers ask the question in meetings, is this fun? MMOs that die, die for a reason. I truly believe it is because there is a huge lack of fun in the game. Something just did not jive with the players and that was it, game over. Perhaps before investors spend money, marketing plots the hype, and developers start designing endless code for a game, the game makers should ask that simple question: Will this be fun, Or should we put this idea out of its misery from the get go and save people a lot of time and money? Games are recreation for many people, if they are not fun, do not make them. If you make them like a job, people will eventually quit and find a better one. The story of the MMO industry is a good one to study for anyone wanting to develop video games. There are triumphs and losses, while some losses limp on into the next decade, others have been put out of their misery.

Garrett Fuller Garrett Fuller Editorials
Garrett Fuller has been playing MMOs since 1997. He originally joined as a writer in 2005. In 2007 Garrett went on to handle Industry Relations for Then, in July 2009, Garrett happily rejoined his old team at as the site's News Manager. Garrett lives in Hillsborough, NJ with his wife, son and daughter.

His column appears here every Wednesday.
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