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Panel: The MMO Rant

Dana Massey Posted:
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AGC Panel: The MMO Rant

Five industry heavyweights yell and scream about problems they see

The MMO Rant has become the crown jewel of AGC’s panel schedule. Every year, four or five respected industry leaders get up and tell everyone what really pisses them off. This year, the fun was moderated by Jessica Mulligan. Mulligan is best known for her work at Turbine and later Nevrax. She was joined on the panel by Scott “Lum the Mad” Jennings, formerly of Mythic Entertainment and currently a designer with NCSoft; Richard Vogel, the co-Studio Director of BioWare Austin; Lorin Jameson, the Studio Technical Director at SOE Austin; and Matt Firor, the former Executive Producer at Mythic Entertainment who stepped in for his old boss Mark Jacobs.

The format of the rant is simple. Each panelist got five minutes to say what they thought was wrong with MMORPGs. Then, half an hour was used for others to yell and scream.

Scott Jennings kicked things off with a rant on “service after the sale”. He pointed out that customer service people are universally the lowest paid across the industry and pointed out that Blizzard was among the industry leader in this category with a ratio of one CS rep per 5000 players. He pointed out that many companies go even further and simply farm this out to a third party.

He then took aim at World of WarCraft’s peer-to-peer patch distribution system, calling it “insane”.

Finally, Jennings took a swipe at David Perry and Acclaim’s plan to support their MMORPGs through advertising. He joked that players could even turn them off for a “50% decrease in experience gain”. While his point was taken, it did somewhat misrepresent what Acclaim actually has planned. Nonetheless, he was quite clearly against such a model.

Richard Vogel of BioWare Austin jumped up to the plate next and swung at “risk adversity”. He is baffled at why every single company wants to make another World of Warcraft. He pointed to Asian games as lightyears ahead of North American in terms of original gameplay ideas, business models and more.

“Everyone is risk adverse,” he emphasized.

Vogel argued that there must be risk to grow the market and that while everyone drools over WoW, he doesn’t believe MMORPGs are even mass market. In the grand scheme of things, he pointed out, 7-million subscribers really isn’t that many.

He went on to say that he foresaw no innovative MMOs in the next three years (for the BioWare Austin fans, you just got a release date hint!) and urged developers to “chase the white space”, or where no one else is. Right now, everyone is just doing fantasy (perhaps another hint?).

He then added that innovation needs to be top down. There must be a culture of innovation at a company. He pointed out that in most MMORPGs now choices simply do not matter and that they amount to giant, complex Pez Dispensers. He wants to change that.

Lorin Jameson of SOE stepped up next and his speech centered on quality. He doesn’t particularly care if companies copy WoW, he just wants them to learn the right lessons.

WoW, Jameson argues, didn’t succeed because of the basic mechanics. Blizzard didn’t innovate on much of anything when it came to the game itself. Blizzard’s only innovation was quality.

Jameson argues that no one seems to realize that and instead they rip off base mechanics, do a shoddy job and hope for the best.

The key point Jameson wanted to make was that no MMORPG should ever launch early. Yes, there are many reasons to do it, but simply put, companies don’t get a second chance, so avoid it at all costs.

Jameson doesn’t care if we rip off WoW, he just wants us to rip off the right thing: quality. To which Mulligan quipped: “So, we’re not only thieves, we’re bad thieves!”

Jessica Mulligan then took her turn at the podium for easily the most entertaining display. She did Steven Colbert proud with her impersonation of his popular segment “The Word”. In that segment, Colbert spouts highly conservative positions to the camera, while a screen beside him tells “the truth” of what he is saying.

For Mulligan, she used power point and gave her pitch that she sees companies making to angel investors and venture capitalists. Her presentation was entitled “Prepare to be WoWed” and she proceeded to pitch a fictional game called “Dark Age of the WarDragons”.

It was really one of those moments you need to be there to appreciate, but the gist of her presentation was that people need to stop funding terrible, unoriginal games and believing outrageous promises that inexperienced developers make.

Matt Firor was the final speaker. He had only two minutes to prepare, having been convinced only moments before the panel to jump on. Mark Jacobs, the General Manager of EA Mythic and Matt’s former boss had cancelled at the last minute due to an illness.

Firor frantically scribbled notes throughout the other people’s presentations and came off surprisingly well given the time he had to prepare.

First, he responded to Scott Jennings and his condemnation of the World of WarCraft peer-to-peer patch model. Firor believes that is a novel solution to a novel problem and that is where innovation comes from in this industry. MMORPGs are a new frontier and no one expects some of the problems people run up against: such as the need to give 7-million people one patch.

He added that it is a bit odd that the industry as a whole meets each year and says how terribly we’re doing things. He believes that the fact people enjoy these games is something to proud of and that people make fantasy games because people play fantasy games. The money each company makes from these games is hardly insignificant.

The after-speech segment of the rant was a mish-mash of insightful and incoherent, as it usually is. Gordon Walton, who appeared to have been the original replacement for Jacobs before Firor relegated him to the corner, delivered a speech in a similar vein to Matt’s, but with a lot more yelling.

One highlight was Vogel clarifying that he by no means intends to produce an entirely radically new game, but feels that realistic companies should pick two or three major things to innovate on with a new title.

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Dana Massey