Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Maximizing MMO content

So you have a game where people play 4+ hours a day, and you want to give them enough to keep them busy--and subscribed-- indefinitely (or for 1.32 years, or whatever your business model says).

You crunch some numbers and figure out that it takes you about $15,000 to add one quality hour's worth of content to your game. It would cost a lot more if you didn't have your game systems and tools already in place, or if you were making a game where every minute has to be engaging and polished, like Half-Life 2. But it's an online RPG, and consumer expectations and quality standards are lower.

Alright, so let's say that you're aiming to release (game or expansion, doesn't matter) with content that will keep players busy for 1 year. Your average player spends about 23 hours a week in the game, so:

23 hrs/wk * 52 weeks *$15,000/hr. = $17,940,000.

Remember, that approximation is for content alone, not interface, network, graphics, or other quite expensive pieces of the game.

Obviously, you'll never make a profit spending that kind of money on creating content. The problem gets even worse when you factor in the need to create different game experiences for different people/characters. Joe and Jerry both play a character from level 1 to level 50, and it takes them exactly a year to do so. Joe plays an evil rogue, and Jerry plays a paladin. I hate Jerry so much. And pretty much all of you who always play paladins, too. Loud-mouthed, sanctimonious, arrogant bastards in real life, the lot of you. Um, yes...so Joe needs rogue-specific quests, items, spells, trainers, guild halls, etc., and so does Jerry, that prick. Let's say that 10% (moneywise) of the content for each of them is unique: you'd push the price tag up to $19,500,000. Add in the rest of your classes, jobs, professions, races, alignments, etc., and your cost goes up far higher.

This was the problem that plagued Star Wars Galaxies: lots of breadth but not enough depth. You could take on one of a large number of professions, but most of them were not fun or useful because the content-creation money was spread too thin. Everquest ran into the same problem with its large number of starting cities and inadequate number of high-level hunting grounds.

So how do you create enough content for everyone without going broke?

Here are the possibilities:
- Get people to play less (or get people who play less)
- Get people to pay more
- Hire cheap foreign labor
- Limit variety that necessitates "duplicated" content
- Cheat

Obviously, forcing people to play less isn't going to work these days. Back when I was a young whipper-snapper, I played BBS door games. Look them up if you want to know what they are. Anyway, these games often had turn or time limits, forcing you to quit playing for the day at a certain point. I can't see the EQ2 forum-goers being too pleased with that idea, although it might be interesting to open a special-rules server that does something similar. Alternatively, you can design a game that's not meant to be played so much. Diminishing marginal returns on character advancement. No 6 hour raids. A gameplay experience so intense that you can't handle too much of it at a time (and can't play when half-asleep). You know, for the casual gamer.

People already are paying more. Monthly fees have gone up from $9.89 a month for EQ to around $15 for EQ2 and others. EQ Legends lifts some more from a few players' wallets, as do EQ2 Adventure Packs. Still, it's not nearly enough to fill the gap. I like the idea of paying more to get more, although I personally will be declining to get more for the time being.

Cheap foreign labor is rising in popularity among game publishers...pretty much linearly with foreign labor's competence and domestic labor's cost. I've heard that production of some of EQ2 art assets was outsourced to China, but I'm not certain. It wouldn't be surprising if true.

Limiting variety or scope can a great move if done wisely. If the variety doesn't give you much bang for the buck--that is, if adding 25 different starting locations and 99 different character classes costs a lot and doesn't significantly enhance an individual player's game experience--don't do it. This is a basic tenet of game design, but it is one often forgotten in RPG and MMORPG designs. Too often, these games are designed by some MUD/CRPG/stat geek who says, "Hmm...6 character attributes is good; 54 character attributes would be 9 times better!"

Yawn. This is all pretty standard stuff. It's the "cheating" methods that are the most interesting, at least in my opinion. What kind of tricks and shortcuts do developers have at their disposal? That topic is going to need its own entry.

What about stat chasers ?

Get players who want to have the most kills in the game. Or have the most quests, or highest Kills Vs Deaths, or the most status points. By itself, this is limited to too few people obviously.

Then introduce stats by server. Now you can have, what is it, 25 different permutations of that first group.

Next you introduce stats by guild. Now each guild can compete both within itself - does Legolas or Gimli have the most kills ? - and with each other.

The trick being to track things which have multiple purposes and don't cost a lot to track. Find the plat-sellers with statistics, and judge how much new quest content, spring to mind as additional useful info.

They could expand this by tracking kills by con; add more creature types; add harvested "rares". Give everybody a chance to be first, while making it feel like its earned and not just inevitable.

I think this is what's keeping me in the game at least - chasing stats. My blog is sure proving that - eqjournal.blogspot.com
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