Some Thoughts on MMO Development

MMO design and development has been an interest of mine for some time, and I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the topic, as well as occasionally getting the chance to pick the brains of folks that do it for a living. I’ve also been working with a team that’s trying to develop one in the not-too-immediate future, but I can’t claim to be an expert or anything. As I’ve heard it said in the industry a time or two, “theory’s nice and everything, but we’ll talk when you’ve shipped it”.

Still, I had something of an epiphany this morning while letting some things I’ve heard recently rattle around in my head, and as with most epiphanies, it’s time to scribble it down, let it mature, and see if it holds up in the long run.

So, one supposes, it’s a bit more of a theory.

 

In any case, I’d been thinking for some time on ideas of “core experience” in game design and other things, and this all came together this morning in a new and interesting fashion, so bear with me, or better yet, come explore it with me.

Core Experience and MMOs

Core Experience is a concept we’re very fond of in ITGM(that would be the Interactive Design and Game Development department for those playing along at home) at SCAD. The idea is (basically) that, as a game designer it’s important to stay focus on delivering a game that’s geared in a particular direction. It keeps you from wandering around and diluting the game down until it gets lost in itself and stops being fun, etc. So, a key part of the process ends up being determining and re-iterating what the core experience of a given game is.

MMOs have always seemed to break this concept a bit. It frequently seems like there isn’t really a core concept to most of the big ones, or at best they end up being basically collections of sub-games that each have their own core experience. Is World of Warcraft about leveling? Raiding? PvP? Was Star Wars Galaxies about leveling? Hunting? Space? Crafting? Socializing? It’s confused me in the past, but I think I’ve figured it out this morning, while mulling over some thoughts on a pre-release MMO I’m currently beta-testing.

MMOs, ideally, *do* have core experience-based design. With the way that they’ve been developed in recent years particular, I’ve come around to the opinion that it’s about stages of development and the core experience for each stage.

The development cycle is different for most MMOs. Where in general, games release, there’s maybe a little post-launch support and patching, and then the team moves on to expansions or sequels or whatever, MMO development carries on through Live after launch. They’re also, by nature, generally larger, more expensive things, especially if you try to have EVERYTHING absolutely ready for launch(rarely the case anymore).

So, What’s the Big Epiphany?

The theory that’s come to me, now, is sort of an idea of what it’s starting to look like an ideal approach to MMO design might be. I’ve been through a lot of Beta tests and gotten to see at a bit of a remove how a number of companies do their development, and I think there are actually companies out there that work this way. But I’m not sure about it, of course. I’d love to have some experienced MMO developers put in opinion on all this.

There are a few basic premises at work here, based on conversations I’ve had, interviews I’ve read, and so on. They boil down to these:

  1. MMOs bleed money until they launch. This is probably a given. It costs money to develop, there’s none coming in from customers until launch, etcetera. We can also assume we want to bleed as little as possible, which means shorter development times are really better when they’re possible.
  2. MMOs need to launch with as many of their desired systems in place as possible. I’ve heard this one said quite a few times by different people. One of the most commonly-cited examples I’ve heard here is Star Wars Galaxies, which launched without space combat included. The principle behind this one, as I understand it, is that MMOs rarely get a second chance to hook players, and an incomplete major feature will hurt less than one completely missing, as players are often willing to hang around on the promise that it’ll get fleshed-out where they’re not willing to hang around for a system that doesn’t exist at all yet. Anecdotally, this has seemed to be the case in a lot of the communities I’ve had experience with.
  3. MMOs need to have some part of the experience be compelling and interesting. Again sort of a given, and true of all games. There has to be a good, solid game there to hold attention.

The theory that has come about, for me, is how you juggle all these issues and others to produce the best MMO you can. Watching some recent development efforts at close range and thinking back on previous ones, I think I may have hit upon a promising answer.

During development, make lists of everything that would be in the ideal, unlimited time/money/talent version of the game. Of these, figure out what the most important and interesting and fun ones are. There’s your launch target list. Of those things, pick ONE to be the core experience of the game for launch. Usually I’d expect this to be whatever the combat/questing/leveling mechanics are, because that’s typically what the bulk of the game is going to rest on. Whatever this core experience portion of the design is, should be finished, polished and fun as can be by the time launch hits. It’s the foundation that the players are going to rest on for a while, so it needs to be able to stand up well.

What about the rest? Well, these are certainly launch features still. But you worry a little less about them. It’s important to have them finished to a degree and certainly playable, but maybe not to the extent you’d initially envisioned. Finished, but without the same glossy shine your core has gotten. Enough that the people who are excited about those features have something to play with, and can see that yes, it’s working, and there’s something here that can be grown on. After launch, you start watching players, seeing where their interest lies in these basic-function systems, and you use that to prioritize what you work on polishing up first during your live updates.

Seriously?

Yeah, seriously. I’m not sure we’re in a time where studios can really rack up expenses to fully-develop an MMO all the way through, with a few fringe exceptions. I think that to remain viable, at least for the near future, players and developers are going to have to come to terms with MMO development occurring in stages, with a fast foundational development to a complete and playable but lightweight release, followed by a fleet and nimble live development schedule that really fills out the game to a full-fledged title. I don’t know how well players will adapt to that sort of development. I’ve noticed them get more demanding and less-reasonable as the MMO space continues to grow. It’s a difficult thing to handle, but I think it could be done.

I’m not sure that this style of development has been put into practice explicitly. But I can think of a couple of studios that seem to have done so. Cryptic Studios, based on their public forum statements for Star Trek Online, seems to be doing something along these lines (in fact, some of those public comments are what helped my own little revelation along). It’s been long enough that my memory is a little fuzzy, but I think that Blizzard could be said to have done this with World of Warcraft to an extent. From what I remember of launch, the basic combat was very smooth, and quests were pretty smooth as well, and then there was some kinda iffy PvP and crafting, maybe a somewhat marginal instance or three and a raid. But the core of the game was basically there, and over time the rest got much better until eventually it became what it is today.

I dunno, I’m still evaluating all these thoughts for sensible-ness and the like. I’m certainly keen to hear what other people think (though I don’t think many folks read this thing, yet). In any case, comments, email, which-whatever. They’re quite welcome.

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One Response to Some Thoughts on MMO Development

  1. Syd K. says:

    “You only get one chance to launch,” is a statement that’s stuck with me ever since (I think) Jack Emmert cited it as a lesson learned from City of Heroes, which launched without crafting, or PvP, or post-40 content… all of which it now has, with bonus villain-centric companion game. (Granted, he wasn’t happy with how CoV came out either, but that’s a whole other thing… sort of.)

    A lot of today’s audiences have grown up in a period of instant gratification – we have live streaming TV and movies, we have Wikipedia and YouTube, we have digital distribution for PC games, and so on. If your product, whether it’s a game or a show or whatever, cannot grab their attention within the first fifteen minutes and then hold onto it somehow, they’re going to go looking for a fix somewhere else and forget all about you.

    Drives me crazy, but it’s becoming more and more obvious to me that the DAMNED KIDS THESE DAYS are nigh-impossible to please. Just look at the STO public forums. MAN.

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