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The Small Dev Team Myth

Dan Fortier Posted:
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"The Small Dev Team Myth"

Editorial by Dan Fortier

Recently there has been some debate as to what gamers should expect from MMOs produced by lower budget development teams. With the recent release of games like SEED and Dark and Light this topic seems more interesting than ever. Should we excuse incomplete products and poor game performance because they lack the resources of the big boys?

To get the answer we are going to have to go back in time a bit to the late 1990's when bunch of guys from two smaller companies formed a company called Mythic Entertainment and with a small, but hard working crew of designers, created Dark Age of Camelot. To this day many gamers still hold it up as one of the top PvP titles for its creative use of Realm vs Realm combat. Although they recently were bought out by EA they still have made an indelible mark on the genre.

Meanwhile, another band of unknowns surfaced in Iceland calling themselves Crowd Control Productions (CCP) with a crazy idea to create a Sci-fi MMORPG called EVE. With a staff under two dozen they managed to create a very deep and interactive product which now holds the record for concurrent users on one server cluster.

Another example is Cryptic Studios which started with five employees and recently had only 17. They had to create a workable version of City of Heroes before even getting a publisher and now they already have a sequel to their name. Being able to create a successful title without any big licensed names from the comic industry is quite an achievement.

What do these three examples have in common besides their small beginnings? They let their work speak for itself. They had not only a dream, but a plan and they had the skills and drive to make it work. There are plenty of other examples of small budget successes in and out of the MMORPG genre. They all refuse to allow their underdog status to hold them back and none of them use it as a crutch for a poor product.

It seems that the MMO market is full of upstarts looking to make it big in a market where success is measured in millions of dollars and thousands of customers. Many of the top grossing products simply play it safe holding on to the tried and true formula of grinding, classes and ultra-loot: So much so that it has opened the door for well designed products to capture this dissident market with some against-the-grain ideas.

Despite the fact that online games have been around for over 20 years in some form or another, MMOs are still a new brand of game that require lots of forethought and maintenance. The rocky launch of several titles has taught players to expect the first few months to be the roughest. The ‘never quite finished’ label has allowed more recent titles to be launched with less and less of the promised content, with the hope that it will be ‘patched in later’.

Unfortunately, this has also allowed some less than scrupulous companies and designers to push out a poorly designed, poorly tested pile of code disguised as a game. They delay their customer complaints with lists of upcoming features and extreme time sinks designed to keep players occupied until the next patch. It seems that too many small teams are lured in by the prospect of a large monthly paycheck and get in over their head trying to produce a game beyond their price and skill range.

Some small companies like Runestone, the makers of SEED, were at least honest and up front with their customers about the state of the game. They allowed their Beta testers to freely discuss the flaws of their game in open forums and explained that they needed to release the game to fund the future development of the project. Although it’s not my kind of game, I respect the courage to own up to the state of their game and their willingness to try and earn the trust of their fans while working to improve the game. While releasing a half-finished game is never a good thing, you should at least let your customers know what they are getting into.

On the other hand you have others who, either through lack of communication or blatant lies, mislead their fans as to the state of the game. They release a completely unfinished and untested product that has virtually none of the expected features. Thankfully these companies are few and far between because they not only damage their own reputation and encourage more dishonest behavior, but also make future customers of MMOs less likely to take a chance on small projects for fear of being burned again.

Thankfully there are several games in production that seem ready to break these trends and provide a fun and engaging experience from the start. Supporting a new and innovative game is a great idea and everyone should broaden their horizons, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of the truth or quality. People will always play what they enjoy and gamers will always vote with their wallets. We may not all have the same idea of our perfect game, but if we all decided to expect more for our money, the gaming world would be a lot nicer place.

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Dan Fortier