The MMO Panel at Comic Con this year was chaired by George Chronis of DFC Intelligence, a video games and entertainment research and analyst firm who put the members of the expert panel through their paces. On the panel were Min Kim, director of Game Operations for Nexon America, Hendrik Strandberg, Executive Director of Product Development for Turbine, John Smedley, President of Sony Online Entertainment, Leo Olebe, Marketing Director for Bioware, and Dave Brevik, Studio Director of Gazillion.
George kicked things off with a recital of statistics drawn from their research, one of which was the projection that between 2008 and 2014, the number of players of online games would increase by 45% to about 516 million players. The questions to the panel revolved around the challenges they faced, the changes they hope to wrought and the changes the industry was going through as the MMO genre begins to mature.
As expected, each member of the panel referred to their own games and experience as they answered the questions, the first being about the challenges of turning an established IP into an MMO. Dave Brevik ,who confirmed that Gazillion was working on a Marvel Universe MMO spoke of the challenges fitting the Marvel Universe into MMO game mechanics. "It's obviously not written for game balance." After all, the creators of Captain America did not have to balance his powers against that of Wolverine or Cyclops. Leo Olebe concurred and added that with popular IPs such as Star Wars that Bioware was working on, expectations are high and the pressure is on "getting it right" with Hendrik adding that there was also the added challenge of working with the IP holder and not letting passion for the subject blind you to the needs of a game.
Moving on to the free to play business model, Min shared his experience as the company that first enjoyed unprecedented success in bringing that model to the US market. "In 2003," he said, "the general feeling was that Free to Play just would not happen in the US." Yet, in 2005, Maplestory managed to draw in 6 million registered accounts and in 2007, realized $29 million in micro-transactions. A figure, he opined that was equivalent to 120,000 subscriptions.
John agreed that for the sheer size of the market, Game Studios just could not ignore the Free to Play business model. "It introduced new ideas to Western gamers," he said. "We had no concept on what items would sell." He continued on to give the example of an item in a Free to Play game of Min's that he played, Combat Arms. "One of the items is Chatroom Moderator. You can become a moderator and do things like kick people out... and people buy it!"
A beta test these days seems to be as much a marketing tool as a testing tool, George opined, and asked the panel for their thoughts. The panel members were not slow to agree, stating that the challenge was to design the beta and have the game at a state that they would meet the expectations of players viewing the beta period as a sneak peek into the game. At the same time they had to manage those expectations and still use the players as testers, funneling that passion to obtain useful feedback, and challenging the players to find and report bugs and possible exploits.
In speaking of changes in design and play, each member of the panel again used their own games as examples. Leo reiterated the often-heard goal of Bioware to bring the neglected "4th pillar" of MMOs, the story aspect, back into the game. He also spoke of raising the bar in voice acting in games, saying that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be leading the pack in that aspect as well by bringing a fully voiced game into the MMO space.
John spoke of real time reactive combat in DC Universe Online and cross platform gaming. "You'll throw a bus on your PC and your friend on a Console will catch it. We'll be taking stuff out of the game and into the social space." Perhaps he was also speaking of The Agency, which will be using email and text messages to alert players of in game happenings.
Min was of the opinion that games would turn more and more to bite-sized content, where players could play the game in small chunks at a time. "You can see it in the social phenomenon of Facebook and Twitter." Whereupon John informed the audience that SOE was actually making Facebook games. "The sheer size of the player base you can reach with a Free to play model is huge. We had 45,000 people trying to register in the first hour of Free Realms." He continued, "It isn't something you can get in a box [business] model."
In reference to the hard core MMO, an audience member alluded to the early days of EQ and asked if MMOs were watered down these days and if Devs would ever go back to the "hard fun" model. Hendrik answered, "Play Asheron's Call," to the amusement of the audience.
No matter how you look at it, Game Studios are in the business of making money. "World of Warcraft proved to us that Easy was what the majority of players wanted." Said John and Leo summed up the recipe for success succinctly, "The goal we have," he said, "is to capture the core, but captivate the masses."
It was a good panel for Comic Con with the panelists speaking to a general audience, not a crowd of MMO journalists or hard-core MMO fans. They shared experiences and the repartee between them amused and raised laughs of appreciation and applause from the audience.