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How to Create a Successful MMO


Hello everyone. My name is Jeff Strain, one of the co-founders of ArenaNet, the studio behind Guild Wars. It was an honor to be asked to speak about the MMO industry today at the GC Developer's Conference, which is among the most influential developer conferences in the world. It's an equal honor to be able to represent the talented team at ArenaNet and be able to convey some of the development philosophies of the world-class designers, artists, and programmers who built Guild Wars. And of course I am honored that those of you sitting here actually took the time to come hear what I have to say. Thank you.

When I initially accepted the invitation to speak today, I provided a generic topic – "The Future of the MMO industry" – because I had not written anything yet, and I wanted to give myself plenty of room to explore different topics. To those of you who chose to come today believing that I would make far-reaching predictions about the games we'll be creating ten years from now, I apologize. The truth is, I hope that I am completely ignorant about what kind of games we'll be making in ten years, because I hope some hotshot kid comes out of nowhere and changes everything out from under us before then. If that doesn't happen, we've all failed to embrace and protect the culture of innovation that made it possible for us to be here in the first place.

I ultimately decided to address something much more relevant to those of us in this room today, and that is what it takes to create a successful MMO in today's crowded and brutal market. The formula is not as simple as it was a few years ago, as the very visible failure of many recent high-profile MMOs makes clear. I don't claim to have all the answers, but I can share some of the beliefs that I and many of my peers at ArenaNet hold based on our experience with Guild Wars. These beliefs are guiding us in the development of Guild Wars 2, so I sure as hell hope we're right!


Most MMOs fail

Don't be fooled by the much-hyped success of the top MMOs on the market. The game industry is littered with the carnage of MMOs that have failed over the past few years. Due largely to the social nature of MMOs, gamers rarely commit to more than one or two MMOs at a time. This is in contrast to the traditional game market, in which there is room for many games to be successful, even within the same genre. You may play ten different action games this year, but you are very unlikely to play more than one or two MMOs. This means that it is not enough to make a great game – instead you must make a game that is so overwhelmingly superior that it can actively break apart an established community and bring that community to your game. In today's market, that is a tall order.

Regardless of the business model, the primary factor that determines whether an MMO lives or dies is the size of its active player base. There appears to be a tipping point at around 150,000 players. MMOs that reach this critical mass within a few months of release tend to continue to grow and thrive, and those that do not tend to shrink and ultimately die. The majority of MMOs that are released into the market never reach this threshold.

This is a tough industry, and only the most committed studios and publishers with solid long-term financial backing should be undertaking MMO development. I can assure you that releasing an MMO into the market before the development team is proud of it will result in writing off every penny invested in its development. The best publishers are willing to give development teams time for polish and balance. In the MMO market, there is simply no other option, and many publishers are not willing to make this commitment.

Guild Wars launched successfully in April 2005, and has done quite well over the past two years. Initially this was largely attributable to its business model, which did away with the customary subscription requirement and made it very easy for new players to give the game a try. Over time, we were able to keep the player population growing by releasing new content and substantial game updates on a regular basis. However, the market today is very different than the market in 2005, and many of the points I will be discussing in this presentation are based on lessons we have learned – often the hard way – with Guild Wars, and that the ArenaNet development team feels are crucial to the success of any new MMO product entering the market today.


An MMO cookbook

I spoke with several game designers while preparing this presentation, and asked them a single question: What does it take to make a successful MMO? I expected to gather a wide range of responses and perspectives, but I was surprised to find that their input largely overlapped. When you take a broad look at the industry, as both a player and a designer, and analyze what worked and what did not work in the MMOs that have entered the market for the last few years, a few essential lessons emerge that can help guide all of us in our MMO design efforts.

Before you start building the ultimate MMO, you should accept that "MMO" is a technology, not a game design. It still feels like many MMOs are trying to build on the fundamental designs established by UO and EQ in the late '90s. In the heyday of Doom and Quake we all eventually realized that "3D" was a technology, distinct from the "FPS," which was a game design. It's time we accepted that for MMOs as well. We are finding ways to overcome many of the limitations of the technology that dictated the early MMO design, such as Internet latency and limited global scalability. These improvements can enable a new class of online games that break out of the traditional MMO mold and explore new territory. It can be a daunting proposition to willfully walk away from what seems to be a "sure thing" in game design, but lack of differentiation is probably the number one reason that MMOs fail, so we all need to leave the comfort zone and start innovating, or risk creating yet another "me too" MMO.

According to James Phinney, lead designer of StarCraft and Guild Wars, every great game starts with one question: "What do I want to play next?". This may seem an obvious statement, but his point is that designers are often asked to make a game that is specifically designed to be "better" than a successful game from a competitor, rather than making a game that is exciting and new. How many designers have been asked to make a "GTA killer", or a "Guitar Hero killer", or a "WoW killer"? I personally have heard numerous designers and producers working on unreleased MMO projects describe their game in these terms: "It's like WoW, but..." I just shake my head when I hear this, because the team that is best poised to deliver a successful game that is an evolution of WoW is... well, the WoW team. They've got their thing, and they're good at it. Let's all carve out our own thing, and be the best at it. Truly great games are made by passionate teams who are on fire with the notion of changing the industry. If you are aiming at a competitor rather than aiming to make something fresh and innovative, you've lost.

When he hears me exhorting developers to innovate, Eric Flannum, the content design lead on Guild Wars and lead designer of Sacrifice, is quick to point out that it's not enough to be different – it also has to be better. His point is that change, just for the sake of change, is not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes designs endure and genres emerge for good reason, and arbitrarily changing things that work just so you can label your game as innovative can lead to failure as quickly as producing a generic also-ran. His point is scary for me, because it's easy for me to look at something and criticize it for being nothing new, but I don't have the design talent to walk the fine line between innovation and alienation. Very few people do, and the ability to do so is the hallmark of a talented designer. While a game can be successful by refining and polishing an established design, most successful games are created with this principal of "structured innovation" and give players a sense of something new and exciting, while still being accessible and familiar.

James Phinney also believes that half of the appeal of an MMO isn't anything we as designers do – it's simply the fact that there are other players, so we should make a world that players want to live in. Scorched badlands can convey a sense of loss, stark alien landscapes are creepy and fascinating, and gloomy dungeons and caverns are the definitive locale for adventure. However, none of these environments will make your players feel a strong sense of place. Dystopia may be exciting, but it's not home. It is a truism that MMOs are all about community, and the success or failure of your MMO will largely be gated by how well the community coalesces and feels a strong sense of place in your world.

The importance of giving players a home was a lesson we learned with Guild Wars. Players start out in the Kingdom of Ascalon, an idyllic, beautiful land of vivid colors and gentle landscapes. Early in the game, Ascalon is destroyed in an event known as the Searing, and players find themselves playing through a blasted, dreary landscape of ruins and mud. While this certainly added a sense of drama and loss to the story, players were upset that they could not go back to Ascalon, because it had become their home in the game. In each new campaign, and even more so with the upcoming Eye of the North expansion, we were careful to establish "home" very early and maintain it as a sanctuary for players.

Don't force your players to endure play mechanics they experienced ten years ago. The much-maligned FedEx quest is a classic example of an old-school mechanic that is still manifesting in modern games. Even if you have the best intentions at the beginning of the project to avoid FedEx quests, you will often be stymied by the fact that the FedEx quest is a manifestation of the traditional MMO RPG design, and you can't change the symptom if you are not willing to address the cause. The traditional MMO world is a steady-state machine, much like an episode of the classic Star Trek television series, in which characters, equipment, and the state of the universe had to be reset be the end of the episode. While this design certainly allows for content to be scalable – fetch 20 pig hides, fetch 40 pig hides, kill 10 rats, kill the rat queen – it doesn't allow players to be part of an epic quest, or feel like their actions have a material impact on the world around them. Ten years ago, players were willing to accept this in order to enjoy the benefits of the communal play, but today they expect more.

As a general rule, be nice to your players! With each generation of MMOs, players become less tolerant of being forced to spend time resting after battles to restore health, onerous consequences for dying, the length of time required to level up and reach the mid-game, and high failure rates for activities such as crafting. Early MMOs could be "meaner" because there were fewer choices, but today players have options, so be nice to them.

Don't design an MMO around the assumption that players are a "type" of gamer. I often hear developers discussing whether an individual is a roleplayer, or a PvP player, or a solo player. Our belief is that while you can certainly find players who exclusively fall into one category, most players dabble in everything. It is tempting to believe that because a player is playing an MMO, and because good MMOs are social games, every player must therefore like to play with other players in a group. Our experience with Guild Wars is that this is an erroneous and dangerous assumption. On any given day, a player may want to play with his guild, or he may want to play with his best friend, or he may want to play alone. The fact that he is playing in a large communal environment is not a predictor of how he wants to play. We should be striving to make games that let you play how you want to play right now, and offer you the flexibility to progress with any combination of players you like.

Don't underestimate the importance of solo play! Sometimes your friends aren't online, sometimes you want to kill 30 minutes while everyone groups together, and sometimes you just don't want to go to committee on every damn decision. The quality of the solo play experience is just as important to the success of an MMO as the quality of the multiplayer experience. A few months before the release of Guild Wars we added computer-controlled henchmen to the game as a way to pad out your party when your friends weren't around. Later we enhanced this feature and introduced computer-controlled Heroes, which gave you control over their actions and more fully supported the notion of playing the game entirely on your own. While it may seem counterintuitive to add features that support the solo play experience into an MMO, we believe that Guild Wars would not have been as successful had we not added these features.

Two-player gaming, or as we call it "buddy gaming", is not a generic case of multi-player gaming, but is instead its own form of play that deserves special attention. Increasingly, MMOs are used as a setting for "real world" social interaction, including dating, spending time with your kids, or hanging out with your best friend or spouse. Just as the real social dynamics in a one-on-one setting greatly differ from the dynamics of a large group setting, the game experience when playing with one person differs from the experience of playing with a group. You can slow down, smell the flowers, discuss what you've seen and what you'd like to do, strategize and assist each other, and communicate on a more sincere level. In short, it's a more intimate form of community, and we should be supporting it explicitly.

Pay close attention to complexity creep. Don't assume that most of your players are reading your website and consuming information about your game. Most of your players will never read your website, never visit fansites, and never participate in forum discussions. We are often immersed in the community forums and rants and raves posted to game fansites, and it is easy to lose perspective about the knowledge level of most of our players. Players who participate in fansites and send six-page emails to your community team are experts at your game – they probably know more about it than you do – so it's important to realize that they do not represent the average player. The vast majority of your players are not digging into every detail of every spell or creating lists of animations so that they can react when they see the basilisk twitch its nose. They want to play, not study, so take care to create a game that allows them to do so.

Film, television, and book franchises are just not good candidates for MMOs. Even MMOs based on the "Big Two" franchises – you know the ones – have not lived up to the expectations of their developers. Today, and historically, the biggest MMOs are based on universes that were created for the purpose of supporting games. MMOs are all about exploration, personal glory, hanging out with friends, and meeting new people. You can't take a universe that was created to support a linear, non-interactive viewing experience that has its own six-volume set of rules and expect a development team to deliver something innovative and fresh within that universe that allows millions of players to be the hero. The best games, MMO or otherwise, are created first and foremost to be games, and the world, story, and setting are there to serve that end, not the other way around. It seems like I hear about a new MMO in development based on a sci-fi or fantasy license every week, and it worries me tremendously. MMOs are expensive, expectations are high, and huge failures will disenfranchise publishers and make life more difficult for new MMO developers. If you want to take a popular movie license and spin out a DS game to support its launch, then go for it – I think that's an appropriate form of media collaboration – but let developers design MMOs that are not constrained by the rules and restrictions of a licensing body.

Finally, you can make everyone happy, but you can't make everyone happy all the time. It is risky to try to make decisions that appeal to all players equally. Don't fall into the trap of making decisions based on what causes the least amount of pain, because this can lead to a game that is just kind of "okay" and doesn't really excite anybody. When you have a large, active, and passionate player base, every decision you make, every change to the game, no matter how convinced you are that it makes the game strictly better, will piss someone off, and they'll post about it, blog about it, rant to the press about it, loudly and publicly predict that this is the "beginning of the end" of your game, and send hate mail to your community and support teams. MMO developers have to have thick skins, but always remember that if one of your players is angry with you, it is because he really cares about the game, and that's much healthier for you than apathy. Go with your instincts and make the right decision for your game.


You can't develop an MMO in a traditional game-studio culture

Surprisingly, many of the more high-profile MMO failures were developed by the largest, most well established publishers in the industry. These projects had the benefit of solid financing, large teams, established IPs, and proven development methodologies that had been refined over decades of developing successful games in other genres. What happened? You can certainly make a list of everything that went wrong – the game industry is full of "armchair generals" who would love to do so for you – but ultimately the quality of a game is determined by the development culture that created it, and creating a successful MMO requires a radically different development culture than the culture optimized to produce traditional video games. While these large publishers have refined the process of creating traditional video games to an art, many of them have not yet realized that an MMO requires a completely different development process, and a studio culture to compliment that process.

The defining characteristic of top MMO development teams is their awareness that they are delivering a service, rather than creating a product, and that release day is the beginning of a long-term relationship with their customers, rather than the end of the project. Traditionally, release day is the time to go home, repair your relationship with your spouse or significant other, and sleep for a few days, but the weeks and months following the release of an MMO are the most critical point of your development cycle. It's the time to make it clear to your customers that you will stand by your game, and that their trust in you as the developer will be rewarded. Regardless of your business model, you are asking players to invest hundreds or thousands of hours playing your game, and you need to demonstrate that you are committed to protecting the economy, quickly fixing bugs and exploits, and adding live content. If the entire development team is recovering at the beach in those first critical weeks, you will be unable to demonstrate your willingness and ability to support your game, and your players will be hesitant to invest their time and money with you.

The message is clear: avoid the Big Crunch. I'm not saying that we should expect to work 8-hour days in the weeks leading up to release, but we certainly can't work 16-hour days for six months before release and then expect to sustain that pace over the several-year lifespan of a successful MMO. If you are planning for success, you have to build a sustainable work culture, and you need to establish that culture before release. The work load will not decrease after launch – if anything, it will increase, so build a sustainable work culture and stand by it. It's not just a morale issue – it will have a critical impact on the success or failure of your business.

An MMO must deliver content at three distinct stages: the early game, which is the first twenty hours, the mid game, which is the first few hundred hours, and the late game, which is at a thousand hours and beyond. Each of these stages represents a chance for your game to continue to grow, or to decline and ultimately fail. The traditional QA model is just not equipped to deal with this – there is simply no way to effectively test 1,000 hours of content in the final months of the project, particularly when you are not focused only on bugs, but instead on that hard-to-define feeling of satisfaction that a good MMO provides hour after hour. The only way to ship an MMO into the market and have confidence that it will survive at each of these thresholds is to ensure that your entire team is playing the game, every day, for at least two years before release. That sounds difficult, because you first have to ensure that everyone enjoys playing the game, then allocate time in the development schedule for them to play it, and finally ensure that you actually have something playable two years before release. Despite the difficulties of fully achieving this goal, at ArenaNet we believe that this philosophy was crucial to the success of Guild Wars.

It's crucial to get feedback from outside the development team at a very early stage. We started alpha testing over three years before Guild Wars was released. To say that the game was crude at that point is a bit of an understatement – I think we're still tracking down screenshots from that period and trying to get them burned. It was a very controversial decision at the time, and generated a lot of heated debate within the development team, because it flew in the face of the traditional wisdom that you should never show anyone outside the company what you are working on until it is perfect. I wish I could tell you that every tester we brought into the alpha test was honest, abided by the NDA, and gave the development team carefully-considered and high-quality feedback after each of the tri-weekly play sessions, but that would not be the truth. There were several times after we launched the program that we revisited the notion and discussed whether the good outweighed the bad. But we kept at it, and by the time Guild Wars shipped in April, 2005 it was clear that the game had benefited from the alpha test program, and today we consider it an essential component of the development process.

The primary value of the external alpha test program was that it gave the designers the opportunity to experiment with different ideas and get immediate feedback from the thousand or so external testers. During that time, and to this day, we published between ten and twenty builds a day, and our alpha testers had access to every build. If we introduced a new system or design change into the game, even in crude, first-iteration form, we got immediate feedback on it. This prevented us from spending weeks refining a design that was fundamentally flawed, which in turn freed the development team to be experimental and try new things. I've noticed a similar phenomenon at my son's skate park. The older kids who are too cool to wear helmets and protective pads skate carefully, while the younger kids whose mothers force them to wear protective gear go absolutely crazy hurling themselves down ramps, jumping on rails, and exceeding highway speed limits. Think of having a thousand external testers in the early stages of development as protective gear – it may make you look uncool, but it sure frees you to try some crazy stuff.

All RPGs live or die based on the quality and quantity of their content, and this is even more true for MMOs, since players are expecting thousands, not hundreds, of hours of content. In a state-of-the art, first-person shooter designed to provide fifty hours of play, it makes sense to allocate the programming budget to focus on the latest graphics technologies. In an MMO, your programming budget should skew heavily toward development tools for artists and designers. Some of your content will always require dedicated content programmers with good design sensibilities – and they are a valuable and rare breed indeed – but ultimately your ability to put content generation directly into the hands of your designers and artists is crucial to your ability to generate the amount and quality of content that today's MMO players expect. It has been my experience that traditional development studios tend to assign tools development to their junior-level programmers, while the more seasoned programmers work on graphics or other "sexy" technologies, and I think this is a mistake. The quality of your tools determines the quality of your game, and it also directly impacts the morale of your development team, because nobody wants to spend the next two years building dungeons in a text editor! Invest heavily in your development tools – they will be your most valuable asset.


Don't count on subscriptions

In the early years of the MMO industry, from roughly 1997 to 2001, there were a few big MMOs that had active player populations. By the time we started ArenaNet in the summer of 2000, we knew of at least eighty MMOs that were in development. Based on the success of UO and EQ, publishers were reviewing their portfolios and planning to migrate their existing game franchises to the online world, where they believed they could adopt a subscription model and "make bank". Clearly, it did not work out that way. As more MMOs came into the market, two things changed. First, players now had a choice about which game they would play, and as a result their expectations for polish, content quantity, and service increased substantially. Second, and perhaps more telling for the future of the industry, it became clear that the subscription model forced players to choose a single game, rather than playing many different games.

Gamers will no longer buy the argument that every MMO requires a subscription fee to offset server and bandwidth costs. It's not true – you know it, and they know it. Gamers may buy the argument that your MMO requires a subscription fee, if you can tell them what they are getting for their money. This is the legacy of games like Guild Wars, Maple Story, and Silkroad Online, all of which introduced new business models into the MMO genre and were quite successful. The subscription model is still perfectly viable, but the pain threshold is very low now. It's no secret that gamers don't want to pay a subscription fee. If you can convince them that your game offers enough value to justify it, more power to you! But be prepared to defend your decision, often and loudly, and back it up over the lifetime of your game.

Be very aware of the choice you are asking players to make, and the frequency of that choice. In a subscription model you are asking players to make a choice every month, and it is a fairly drastic choice: Stay married, or get divorced? It is certainly the case that if every player decides to stay married every month, you can make more money from each player in the subscription model. But that will rarely be the case, and not something that you should count on. Every month, some percentage of your player base will decide on divorce, and as with marriage in the real word, once you are divorced you rarely get married to the same person again. If you go the subscription route, you'll need to have the confidence that your marriage rate will exceed your divorce rate.

With Guild Wars we ask players to make a choice only one time, and that choice is whether to buy the game, or not to buy the game. While we don't enjoy a recurring revenue stream each month, we do benefit from the fact that most Guild Wars players come back to the game when we release new content, so we are less concerned about players putting the game down for a few months. Players don't have to decide whether to stay married or get divorced, they just have to decide whether they want to play today or not. Beyond the benefit of a lower pain threshold to get into the game, this is the core strength of the Guild Wars business model, and one of the reasons it continues to thrive when many other subscription-based MMOs are struggling.

Innovate with your game play, and innovate with your business model! The two go hand in hand, and are mutually dependent on each other. Decide on your business model first, and then build your game around it. Guild Wars can be successful with its business model because we decided that we would not charge a subscription fee before we wrote the first line of code, and every design and technology decision we made served that purpose. We could never turn Guild Wars into a subscription-based game, just as Turbine could not suddenly decide to eliminate the subscription model for Lord of the Rings Online. If you decide to require players to subscribe to your game, be prepared to build a game that thoroughly justifies it.


Don't believe you are making WoW 2.0 with a quarter of WoW's budget

Many recent MMOs failed because they were rushed to market, had less content, or were not as polished as established games. It's no secret that WoW has been a big success, and there is a reason for that success. While it may not be the most innovative product on the market, WoW offers a tremendous amount of content and is an exceptionally polished game. Everyone wants to duplicate that success, but I'm not sure that everyone is realistic about what that means. WoW was in development for five years, was built on an established and very popular game universe, and probably cost more than $40 million to create. Don't believe that there is some magic design element that you will add to your MMO that will allow you to steal all of WoW's subscription customers. If you find yourself saying, "It's like WoW, but...," you're in trouble. To reiterate an earlier point – go do your own thing, and let them do theirs.

Developing a new MMO requires a lot of money and a lot of time. If you are starting today and don't have at least three years and $30 million dollars, consider developing in another genre. Also be prepared to attract and manage a large development team. We have 140 full-time developers working on Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 at ArenaNet, and that number will probably have to grow throughout the Guild Wars 2 development cycle. It is much easier and less risky to make exciting, innovative games in other genres. Unfortunately, some of us just can't make that decision – we're intoxicated by the thought of building the ultimate MMO, and we feel compelled to dedicate our lives to that pursuit. If that describes you, then by all means jump in and let's keep pushing the boundaries of possibility together. But bring cash – lot's of it – and make sure that you are working with people on the business side who are willing to let you make the best game you can make, because there are no successful B-titles in the MMO industry.

I'll end by paraphrasing the famous Japanese game designer, Masaya Matsuura: Go forth, and do weird and difficult things! Thank you.