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What Goes Into an MMO

Michael Hampden Posted:
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"What Goes Into an MMORPG"

We look at some of the ways people go about coordinating and building these massive projects

Article by Michael Hampden

Editor's Note: Since this feature was written for us by Michael Hampden he has accepted a position (on July 22nd, 2006) with EI Interactive, the new owners and operators of Horizons: Empire of Istaria. This article does not necessarily reflect the specific views or practices of EI Interactive.

We’ve all played MMOs (at least I should hope you have – no idea why you’d be reading the site if you hadn’t!), but have you ever wondered just what goes into the tremendous process that is creating an MMO?

Thousands upon thousands of man hours are spent during the development. It is the merger of the wonderful right-brained “nothing is impossible” creativity of talented artists, to the ingenuity and hard work of the “well we can do that, but it’ll be hard” left-brained programmers. Design is there somewhere in the middle, not to mention support staff, producers, and a whole host of other roles.

So how does this all come together? How do these games get shipped?

It takes some wonderful technological tools to both organize the development of an MMO, and to streamline the development process. We’re going to look at some of those tools in this article.

The crux of any good MMO development team is planning and organization. Careful planning and organizing are required in order to develop a superb final product. And if that planning and organization isn’t present? Well, it’s a bit like throwing crap at a wall and just praying it will stick.

One tool that has become extremely helpful to MMO developers in this process is Wiki. A Wiki is a type of website that allows users who don’t know html to edit and post new written content. Think of it as a giant internet chalkboard, where specific users (or anyone at all depending on security settings) can write or edit anything they want. Developers use Wikis for a number of things, including the editing and maintenance of design documents, organizing milestones, development schedules, or simply posting random ideas for other members of the team to comment on and improve.

Wiki is also an excellent tool for collaborating with members of the development team that may not be working on-site with the rest of the team, or even collaborating with other studios the developer might employ. Wiki is a tremendous tool, simply because it allows developers to easily post a document or thought that the entire development team can then view or edit. Obviously, not all MMO developers employ the use of a Wiki engine, but the system is becoming more popular every day.

Alright, so you’ve got the Wiki – but there are some ideas that you simply cannot get across without the use of voice. Obviously, it can be very inconvenient and even expensive to use the phone for everything. But what options do developers have? This is where VOIP (Voice over IP) comes in. Skype is a program that is set-up much like conventional instant messaging software. The difference is that Skype that allows users to communicate with voice as well as text. All you need is a headset, and the vocal quality is usually superb.

This comes in extremely handy for developers in a number of ways. For instance, developers can co-coordinate with employees who work off-site, or conference-call with outsourcing studios. Skype can also be used to allow in-house employees to conference call with each other while they collaborate on a project without disrupting others around the office.

So you can see how useful Skype and Wiki would be for communicating, planning and organizing during the development process.

However, what do you do if you need to create an enormous, beautiful, and above all realistic looking forest? Well, you could chain forty 3D modelers to their desks and whip them periodically (we call this the old method) or… you could use Speedtree.

In the old days of game development, 3D models that represented trees had to be created by 3D modelers, this was (and really still is) a brutally time consuming process. Speedtree changes all that. Speedtree allows developers to quickly and easily model their own tree models using tools that come with the license. Speedtree also comes with over 1 Gigabyte of pre-made trees, which can be quickly adapted to a developer’s engine and then implemented into the game world. Speedtree can also create shrubs, weeds, really any kind of organic plant life a developer would need.

You’ve probably seen many Speedtree made trees in MMOs you’re currently playing, or in screenshots of upcoming games. IDV Inc., the makers of Speedtree does not provide a list of all developers using Speedtree. However, from testimonials on their website, we can glean that users of Speedtree include MMO developers: Webzen, Perpetual Entertainment, NC Soft, Sigil Games, Realtime Worlds, and EA/Mythic. If that list tells you anything, it’s that Speedtree is a very popular product amongst MMO developers, and these developers are responsible for creating some truly immense virtual worlds.

By now I’m sure you’re getting the picture. MMO making is a Herculean effort. It would be an awful shame if some of that effort were to be wasted just because of bad file management. Imagine you’re a 3D modeler. You’ve just spent several hours modifying your game’s model for a Galactic Broadsword +2, and you’re very pleased with your work. You come back an hour later to do add that final touch, and you find that one of your co-workers has overwritten the file by mistake. What a nightmare. Well, Game Developers have been using “revision management” tools for years to prevent scenarios such as this, and the majority of them will tell you that Perforce is the software when it comes to revision management.

What exactly does Perforce do? Well, for our purposes, I’ll explain it like this. Perforce essentially creates a virtual “library” for files that Developers need to create or edit during the development process. Various permissions can be set up, so that when one member of the team, “checks-out” a file, another member cannot edit the file until it has been “checked” back in. This prevents team members of destroying each others work (by accident anyway). Perforce can be used to handle everything from programmer code, to artist’s files, or even the game design document itself.

According to their website, “Perforce is used by more than 160,000 people at 3,500 organizations worldwide”. MMO developers who use Perforce include, Sigil Games Online, Turbine Entertainment Software, Sony Online Entertainment, Electronic Arts, CCP Games, and new MMO heavyweight BioWare. If the biggest names in the business are using it, you know they’re doing something right.

An MMO is a lot of work to complete, most MMO teams range from 30 to teams of up to 200 individuals. Thankfully, developers have software such as this to make their jobs easier. These are only a few of the tools developers use during the process of creating an MMO. We didn’t even go into things like Engines, or 3D modeling software this time. Look for information on that in our next Tech Feature, when we look at the Unreal Engine, as well as other tools and technology used by developers to make the games you so enjoy.

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Michael Hampden