How not to make an MMO

Here is a simple observation about the MMO landscape out there: most people only play one massive multiplayer game at a time. It is fairly straightforward to figure out why this is true. It’s about money. Unlike most other video games, MMO’s commonly require a monthly fee to play. So it is a financial commitment, but as long as you are just playing a single MMO you tend to get a return on your money in terms of fund and enjoyment you derive doing whatever it is you usually do in your favorite game. If you decide to play two MMO’s at a time, you are now paying two monthly fees, and you are forced to split your time among the two. This is not always practical since these games are often designed to be time sinks. Grinding, questing and raiding all requires certain time investment and so in most cases one of your subscriptions will be neglected. So it seems only logical to cancel the game subscription you are playing less and keep the one you are paying more. The company who made the less “addictive” of the two games loses a customer.

No other video game genre or type works this way. If you purchase a single player game, it is yours and you are free to play or neglect it. There is no financial drain you experience when you don’t play a game you purchased. If you buy two games and one is clearly better, you don’t necessarily feel bad about buying the other one. You can always go back to it later, and the publisher does not lose money because you are not playing it.

The other side of the equation coin is the so called network effect. Since MMO’s are inherently social games, most people want to play whatever their friends are playing. Because of this players tend to cluster around the titles that are already popular. Paradoxically, the only reliable way for an MMO to get more subscribers is by having a large subscriber base. It just so happens that the game with the largest number of active players is World of Warcraft. It has been the largest and most popular game on the market since inception, and no publisher has ever managed to match or exceed their subscriber count. New games come and go but Warcraft remains. Why is that?

Well, it’s because no one wants to pay two monthly fees at the same time. Some folks are willing to do this for a month or two in order to try out a new and exciting game but sooner or later they must make a decision and cancel one account. Which game do you keep though? The new one which most of your friends are playing, or the one only a few are? Let me rephrase that question: do you keep WoW and play with all your buddies, or do you keep the new MMO and play with Bob from work and his friend.

The big problem with the MMO market is that most people who are into this genre already have, or used to have a WoW account. If they are actively playing the game, the social pressure will usually prevent them from jumping ship. Those who have quit the game at some point, are probably not in the market for a new MMO. And if they were, they would just go back to WoW and play with their former guild mates and friends. Stealing customers from Blizzard is like trying to intercept a large number of satellites from a Jupiter sized object. You either need a lot of mass (eg. subscriber base) or a lot of thrust (ie. a kick ass game) – and you know you are not going to have the required mass at the launch date.

In fact, there are only two groups of people who can be easily snatched away:

  1. People who don’t like MMO’s in general
  2. People who don’t like World of Warcraft

The first group is going to be a tough sell for obvious reasons. The second group is your optimal target audience. They are the folks who have the disposable income to pay for your game, are not averse to the whole MMO idea, and have absolutely no interest in your main competitor. The only thing you need to do is to offer them a game they would like.

Sadly, every publisher out there is doing exactly the opposite. They build MMO games that are exactly like Warcraft. Why? Because that’s how they were always doing things – and it works for every single other game genre. I mean look at FPS games. The whole industry was spawned around the idea of making a better Doom type game with more features. And Doom was merely a better Wolfenstein 3D. Copying and improving upon a successful formula is almost a guaranteed return on investment in just about every field. And it tends to work even in over-saturated markets but… Most execs out there are sitting around scratching their heads trying to figure out what is Blizzard’s secret. They want a piece of that subscriber base, but since MMO development is exuberantly expensive they don’t want to take any risks. So they go for the safe thing: carbon copy ever feature and mechanic from Blizzard’s flagship product and release a “WoW with better graphics”, which is the worst thing you could possibly do.

That core demographic a fledgling MMO developer should pander to – the WoW haters – is not going to like this game? Why? Because it is just like WoW. Why would a WoW hater play a WoW clone? They won’t. So right off the bat you are competing with Blizzard on their own terms and you have neither the subscriber base nor innovation that you could dangle in front of their customers to entice them to join. No mass and no thrust.

The best way to compete with Blizzard seems to be not to compete with them at all. Build a game that is a deconstruction of WoW.

I once saw an interview with Jackie Chan in which he explained the inspiration he used to develop his off-beat martial arts style in his early movies. He mentioned that he watched a lot of Bruce Lee movies, observed his fighting style and then tried to do everything opposite. When Bruce would strike a pose theatrically wiping blood from the corner of his mouth, Jackie would fall over in pain, rubbing his ear or massaging his knee. When Bruce would use clean and precise blows, Jackie would botch a lot of his punches for comedic effect. Where Bruce fought cleanly, Jakie would fight dirty and so on. That’s exactly what you have to do when building a new MMO. Study your competitor and then do the opposite.

What does this mean? It means no more combat based on cool-down timers. It means changing the way players level up their characters. Perhaps get rid of the levels altogether and use a skill based system. It means changing the way group play works. Throwing away the standard tank, healer, damage dealer division of labor and replace it with something new and unusual. If you make a game that is interesting, addictive and at the same time nothing like WoW you can really make a dent in Blizzard’s subscriber base. How? It’s simple: via the network effect I mentioned before. Just how WoW siphons away subscribers from competing games, you could possibly steal theirs, but only if your user base is large enough.

Even if you won’t steal Blizzard’s customers you will be better off than your average WoW clone. Why? Because unlike most of other MMO games on the market your user base will be loyal one. Your subscribers won’t cancel after a month or two. They won’t feel guilty about neglecting “the other game” and they won’t feel the financial strain of paying two subscriptions.

Let me give you an example: EVE Online. It actually predates WoW, and while it does not have it’s subscription numbers it is still profitable, still growing and adding expansions. The same can’t be said for more recent games out there. Even those based on very strong licenses (Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings) couldn’t manage the competition and switched over to free play model. And you know that when an MMO stops charging for subscriptions they are desperate. EVE however never had this problem, largely due to the fact that it has almost no overlap with other games. There is just nothing else like it out there.

The next big thing in the MMO market is not going to be a WoW-clone. It can’t be. It will be something that is different, original and unexpected. At least that’s my prediction.

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12 Responses to How not to make an MMO

  1. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I read exactly the same thing somewhere else :)
    But it’s still very true. You can’t compete with WOW by creating WOW clone.
    On the other hand I’m playing Guild Wars and since there’s no monthly fee I don’t feel bad if I neglect it.
    There are only two options:
    1. Create something very different from the giants.
    2. Make it free to play, making money from retail sales and micro transactions. But you’d still need to be somewhat original to compete for the market, blizzard got shitload of money to make WOW better, while you’d be having lower income even if you had the same amount of players.

    I feel really hyped about Guild Wars 2, if we’re lucky that game might bring something new to the genre.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    GW was kinda fun. It actually had a story thread running throughout the game as you advanced. What killed it for me in the end were these things:

    1. That “pick 8 skills you gonna be stuck with until you visit a town again” thing. That game play choice did not resonate with me at all. Especially later in the game I found that no matter what I did, I have always missed a skill. Oh, and if you grouped up, you needed to waste one slot for the rez-skill. To do otherwise was inconsiderate.

    2. Labyrinthine level setups. I felt that a lot of the locations were just mazes you had to run through in a certain way and you could never avoid certain mob filled choke-points.

    3. Character customization was minimal. I remember that everyone your level would usually wear exactly the same armor and there were maybe 10-15 sets of armor for each class, and the only way to get them was to complete a long quest chain that became available at an appropriate level. This might have changed since I played it.

    Still, GW had some interesting ideas. The instanced world was intriguing though notably not as fun as traditional shared world. I did like however that the mobs did not just respawn behind you but stayed dead until you went back to town. It made sense.

    I saw a trailer for GW2 and it really does look interesting. And I’m usually never excited about MMO’s. I wonder if it will be subscription based of free to play like the first one.

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  3. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    It will be free to play like the first one.

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  4. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    agreed completly, i’d like to also point out (altho you sort of do it yourself) that you can tap the “i hate mmo games” market with single player games that have been sadly thrown aside by the mmo craze recently

    im starting to sigh every time i read “supports online multiplayer!!!” in games features because 9 times out of 10 means the sp component will be just an afterthought or a tech demo

    im hoping that when the current “most-expensive-and-hyped-reskined-wow-of-the-year” The Old Republic fails theyll go back to sp games but so far they ve been ignoring epic mmo fails like APB, Hellgate, Warhammer and so many others for not being epic enough or for being related to crazy business management flaws

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  5. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I disagree that new MMOs need to be aimed at WoW haters. WoW itself didn’t invent anything : it copied Everquest’s gameplay and polished it up, while using Blizzard’s well-known and established Warcraft setting. I was among the first batch of subscribers, and most of these were people playing similar games before, who decided to migrate to the new game because it did everything the old one did, but better.

    The problem with most WoW-clones I’ve seen over the years is that they either make a carbon-copy of it in a different setting, or “improve” on it by adding unimportant or purely cosmetic features. More often that not, they also include their own “awesome idea” that isn’t awesome at all and is more detrimental to the experience. They’re sometimes similar, but never better than the original, that’s why they fail and early subscribers hoping for an improvement over WoW just go back.

    Let’s not forget that Blizzard has shown over the years that WoW can, has been and probably will still be improved upon, as more patches and expansions get released. They’re milking the cash cow but also taking very good care of it. While having a lot of updates isn’t uncommon, Blizzard takes the time and resources to test each of them thoroughly and avoid any major screw-up. These frequent quality updates are part of the WoW package, and history has shown few games, if any, can keep the same promise.

    The Old Republic might succeed if they manage to get everything WoW has right, and improve over its few remaining flaws. That’s what BioWare is doing by adding a story to the game, but as far as I can tell the only thing that makes a multiplayer game succeed in the long run is gameplay. Then again, if they have a truly good idea, they’d do well to keep it hidden until release so they don’t get copied in the meantime.

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  6. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    no way, WOW might have copied everquest but EQ was never as massive plus WOW created its customers it didnt steal them, you cant compare that with what is happening today

    right now the mmo market is tapped, there will no more tsunamis of new players (at least not without some MAJOR change), if they want millions of players they need to steal from other mmos

    and then no clone with a “good idea” is going to steal players who have spent hundreds of hours on an mmo, have all their friends there, spent hours getting to know their way around the world and game rules to just drop all that for something that tastes the same

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  7. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I was there at launch, and most newcomers weren’t MMO newbies, but people who already played one (mostly EQ, Lineage or DaoC). It took time for the game to reach its critical mass and start creating its customers, though I concede it was pretty damn fast (couple of months).

    You say the MMO market is tapped, and I certainly agree. The only sensible design decision for a MMO trying to emulate WoW’s success is to copy it, because most of its required 1 or 2 millions subscribers are going to come from WoW players, not haters. Making it somewhat similar actually eases the transition. It needs to roughly be the same, but better in very concrete terms. It’s not like WoW is perfect, as Blizzard proves times and again when they release patches and expansions adding new features that would now be sorely missed, like the random dungeon grouping.

    Ditching high level characters to start anew is difficult, but most high level players I know are pretty bored with the game and would be ready to do it for a WoW v2. They tried alternatives, usually with a good part of their guild to bring friends along, but always found WoW to be better, which is why they came back.

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  8. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    i agree with that familiarity eases new players into the world (a good idea with today’s ADD crowd, ive read a lot of comments against EVE because they stubbornly refuse to feel like newbies in a new game) but its a double edged sword because that very thing is what prevents the game from feeling fresh and unique lowering its grasp over the stolen wow players, they might leave wow because they are bored but they will go back when they get new content

    new companies just do not have the resources to keep adding more stuff to the game from day 1 to keep the players from getting bored, many even make the huge mistake of trying to slow the content consumption down (/me looks at the FXIV stupidity although there is a lot more wrong with that game), i doubt even EA is prepared to burn the house down to keep supporting TOR for months while it builds up its player base

    if Blizzard ever felt threatened by another mmo all they have to do is announce a new expansion/release new content, wow clones would get smited unless they have a big chunk of their players not willing to go back to wow

    hell, i imagine Cataclysm’s release will weed out most of the wow clones that managed to survive so far

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  9. Blanko2 NEW ZEALAND Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    hmm i agree with most points there, but i dont think that the goign free was an act of desperation, at least in respect to LOtRO. i believe it was just that turbine works better that way. i mean D&DOnline turns in a tidy profit and apparently, so did LOTRO and even more so now.

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/104176-Free-to-Play-LOTRO-Do ubles-Revenues
    as evidenced by that article

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  10. Jeremy Keat UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    My name is Jeremy Keat and I approve this^ message ^.

    Exactly my thoughts and What I have been saying for at least the past 2years, bravo I always wanted to make a wall of text article like you on my concerns. I will patronize this message to the fullest.

    I am a long time WoW player I spent more time than most and have 10 lvl 80s in full epics. I know hate the game to an extent, I am burnt, endgame sucks, relying on tanks and healers not being able to play the fun roles or getting stuck waiting sucks. I only owe the reason to ever being a fan of blizzard to Warcraft mainly Warcraft 3, epic story with epic play. WoW leeched off its previous successful game, that is all.

    I can’t wait a for a new skill based game and finally game developers are catching on. I am also one of those people working right now at a pre-production level of an MMO at my college witha group of guys motivated into getting our game out there, we are also seeking to grab a totally different style of play than any other game I have yet to hear, all this ranting gets me exited. Legend of Pandora, I hope you guys hear of again in the future.

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  11. Ken Lydell Safari Windows says:

    I believe that the pie can be made larger by designing MMOs that appeal to console action game players. At present, TERA Online is the only AAA subscription title that offers some promise of doing so. Some other titles we will see in North America before long are RaiderZ, Kingdom Under Fire 2, Continent of the Ninth and Monster Hunter Frontier. One that I would very much like to see is Berkanix but it will be years before it is available in the West.

    I agree that you can’t woo the WoW player base away with games that use exactly the same basic mechanics. That is why I believe Rift will go the way of Age of Conan.

    I lost interest in WoW several months ago after years of addicted play. For now, I putter around with Vindictus and a couple of other F2P games until something better comes along. I’m hoping that it will be TERA Online.

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  12. Durandal UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!!!! I want an MMO that’s like the Elder Scrolls series, not like stupid WoW with its button-mashing simplicity, boring grinding, lack of physics and so on. I want to get away from levels and “gear” and more towards Elder Scrolls-style skill. If Bethesda won’t do this, and it sounds like they won’t, then someone else should take up the task and build such an MMO. Oh, and make the game world at least as large as the massive one in Daggerfall (possibly the largest game world EVER), and place ALL of the MMO’s players in that world, unless perhaps you want to have separate PvE and PvP type servers. That’s one WoW-ism I’d consider leaving in, as different players do feel very differently about it. But the rest… go opposite, go Elder Scrolls-like. I’d be all over a game like that, and I’m sure it could even be the long-awaited WoW-killer.

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