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Opinion: For God's sake, don't make an MMO for your first indie game - Part 1

Indie MMOs can succeed. But if you've never made a game before, yours probably won't.

Philip Harker Posted:
Editorials 0

So, you’re a new independent game developer who wants to create an MMORPG— the greatest one that has ever existed. You’re going to have dragons and spells and castles and armies, or perhaps spaceships and laser guns and hundreds of planets, all wrapped up in a “living, breathing world” with thousands of players building a society together. 

Sounds exciting. It might even sound feasible. Perhaps you come with some talent: you might be a skilled 3D artist or a brilliant fiction writer and worldbuilder, or maybe you’ve got some programming experience from university. But before diving into your project, designing dungeons and drawing assets, it’s worth looking at the hallowed and well-trodden path you are walking.

The MMO community has had a number of successful indie titles over the years. But the scene of indie MMOs is bleak when accounting for survivorship bias. Far too many massively multiplayer games have been built on the dreams of a starry-eyed game dev studio (like yours), hyped up by a large community (perhaps with millions in funding), and fallen apart. 

But not you, you think. You will be the exception to the rule. You have been studying the realm of MMOs for your entire life— you see what is wrong with the genre and how to fix it. You will be the indie developer who rises above the others to go down in the grand history of gaming. You will make an incredible game all by yourself. And you will not, in five years' time, be called out in an embarrassing article on MMORPG.com.

Consider this a reality check.

The last thing that the MMO community needs is more seven-figure vaporware made by amateurs. By starting with something smaller and working your way up, you will be doing a great service to yourself, to your audience, and the games industry as a whole.

Problem 1: The Cost

Players often forget this, but developing a video game is extremely expensive. Just look at Starfield, a game that cost at least $200 million to develop (and possibly more) after many years of work. Even a little indie game like Shovel Knight has racked up a production budget as high as $9 million, according to a report from Game Developer.

These staggering figures mostly come from the cost of labor. Video games need specialized workers of all kinds, everything from digital artists to network engineers to quest writers. These people rightly demand high salaries. Your content-rich game is going to take many years to develop, and your budget is going to balloon at a staggering rate.

Of course, you could try to get money from a publisher or investor, with whom you would share the revenue from your game. Good luck with that if you haven’t ever shipped a game on your own— these people are looking for a return on their investment, and they get dozens of game ideas from more experienced devs every day.

Crowdfunding is another option— a fraught one, to say the least. MMORPGs, in particular, are notorious for generating a ton of hype around some early trailers, getting inexplicably funded on Kickstarter or Patreon for millions of dollars, and then blowing well past their budgets and timelines to a state of limbo. Failed and “upcoming” titles like Chronicles of Elyria, Crowfall, and Pantheon are testaments to the ability of poorly planned MMOs to make millions of dollars simply disappear. 

Fine, you might say. You don’t need money for a team. You will be a solo developer, doing all the physics programming, level design, and soundtrack composition yourself. Eric Barone did it for Stardew Valley, so why can’t you? Fine. Assuming that you are willing to self-fund your development or work in your free time, you might be able to make something resembling an MMO after years of hard work. But even after you launch the game, your game is going to have an additional (and sizable) cost that many games don’t have to worry about: the servers.

An MMORPG like World of Warcraft operates hundreds of realms around the clock, all across the world. These realms aren’t just digital abstractions; they are made of real hardware, operating servers that require constant power, supervision, and maintenance. You either need to set up your own servers (have fun with that electricity bill) or contract them to an outside company (read: expensive).

Ultimately, your MMO is going to be a live service as much as it is a game, and your players  will expect you to invest in it as such. That raises another problem: acquiring the players.

Problem 2: The Playerbase

Creating a piece of work (like a video game) and marketing the same piece of work are two different tasks requiring two completely different skill sets. Too often, talented indie developers pour their hearts and souls into a game that might be fantastic but goes undiscovered. If a great game built for distribution to the masses goes unplayed, then in the long run it is worthless— both to you and popular culture. Your game needs to be marketed to people in order to get a return on your investment. 

Marketing is extremely expensive. You cannot skimp out on your marketing budget, because you need to tell as many people about your game. You need to inform streamers, YouTubers, journalists, and anyone else who will listen that your game exists. You need to pay money for ads on all kinds of platforms to spread the word. 

The entire value proposition of an MMO is the fact that the game has been marketed well, and, as such, will have a large player base for new players to interact with. Think about it— who would play a tiny MMO where they’re the only player in a given realm? Your game is going to live and die on popularity— without a high concurrent player count, you will be outcompeted by games with more players, more hype, and more money behind them.

So even if your indie MMO is great, it cannot ever be a “hidden gem” game that people might occasionally stumble on through a Humble Bundle or a Steam sale. Without a persistent and ongoing playerbase, the game is not worth playing. It might not even be playable. The marketing must never end.

But alright. Perhaps through some miracle of the almighty, you now have a huge game with a huge player count and you are able to keep marketing profitably to maintain your core audience. Well done. But now you’ve got yet another problem on your hands. You have to actually deal with the players.

Problem 3: The Playerbase (again)

The MMO of today is more than just a game. It’s a platform, a foundation for an enormous community of people who all have their own desires and complaints. Your game will be loaded with hackers, exploiters, griefers, trolls, and every manner of terrible human being you can imagine. You will have to respond to the playerbase’s issues and concerns, being polite and smiley even if you know that their issues are obviously nonsense.

That’s the thing about players— they just love complaining. Complaining is easy and fun. If the player is having an issue with their game, it’s not their fault, it’s the fault of the dev (read: you). Dev man bad. Fix your game, dev man! No, they don’t really know what they’re complaining about, or how to even begin fixing it, but that doesn’t matter! Their beloved class/weapon/mount is broken/underpowered/unbalanced. Or something like that. Figure it out— that’s your job.

Not only do you need to market the game after launch, you will need to create new content— expansion packs, updates, events, all kinds of ongoing things to the point where your game is never truly done. Because if the content stops coming, so will the players.

Ultimately, the position of “MMO developer” is as much a role of “community manager” as it is one of “game experience creator.” MMOs are not the sorts of games that can be built, launched, and abandoned by their makers with an expectation of profit. You will have to deal with bug reports, support tickets, bad publicity, and angry emails. And at the end of the day, players, however justified or not, are probably going to find a way to blame you personally when something goes wrong. 

Build your skills, build your resources

Here, then, is the hard knock lesson: you cannot start your game development career with a solo MMO. It’s just not feasible. At best you will waste a lot of your time, at worst you will (intentionally or not) be ripping off thousands of people as you spend a decade building a game that might never come out. 

That doesn’t mean you should give up on your ambition. Maybe your concept for an MMO actually has potential. Make no mistake, your game idea sucks, but with some work your idea could be translated into an actual game design. 

This has absolutely happened in the past. This entire article has been deriding failed games, but it would serve you well to look at the successful MMOs launched by ambitious and scrappy indie studios— Embers Adrift, an incredibly successful game, was made by a relatively small team. Albion Online is one of the most-played MMOs on the market. Indie MMOs, even when they’re a studio’s first title, can succeed.

But please, start small. If you’ve never made a game before, pick up a free game engine and play around. Learn some basic concepts of programming, design, and art. Make some tiny little projects, and build up to the point where you can release a small game on your own. Grow your audience and learn how the industry works. Once you understand the ins and outs of how big games get made (hint: with big teams and big budgets), you can return to your MMO concept with a fresh and experienced set of eyes.


Philip Harker

Philip is a lifelong gamer and writer. His interest in MMOs started in 2010 with Runescape (he was way too young to be playing online games), but in recent times he's become particularly interested in MMO depictions of war, economics, and politics. He's fascinated not just by games like Foxhole, EVE Online, No Man's Sky, and others, but by the communities that add amazing richness to the game experience. Philip edits Polar Stories (polarstories.ca) and he has print and digital bylines all around. Website: philharker.ca