An Industry Interview with Richard Bartle and Jessica Mulligan
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
November 27, 2007 - We caught up with industry luminaries Richard Bartle and Jessica Mulligan at EVE Online Fan Fest 2007 in Reykjavik, Iceland earlier this month to ask them about EVE Online, independent MMORPG development in general, and the state of the games development industry as a whole. What followed was exactly the kind of interesting exchange you'd expect from a discussion of hot topics by Bartle, the co-founder of the MUD (multi-user dungeon, the text-based predecessor to the graphical MMORPG) and Mulligan, a true industry veteran and leading MMORPG consultant.
Ten Ton Hammer: Richard, one of your talking points at IMGDC 2007 was how improbable a successful (or at least what many consider successful) independent MMO can be to develop, due to the immense amount of money and time the development of a virtual world soaks up. Do you see EVE Online as kind of the pinnacle of what an indie developer can hope to achieve?
Richard: I was really saying that independent MMOs are just becoming possible. If you're super-dedicated and mortgage your house then yes. In the future, costs are going to come down so that anyone and their dog can create a virtual world.
EVE Online might be at the current height of what you can achieve, but it isn't the height of what you can achieve. There's so much creativity out there. The main problems you get when you get a world the size of EVE Online is, you've got to service the playerbase, you've got to run the servers, and a whole bunch of other things. That's the hard part, but to get to that stage, you've got to create the world. There are lots of creative people out there just now getting the tools. If they can team up with someone that can run a company, I don't see any reason why they couldn't beat EVE. On the other hand, I don't see why CCP's next game couldn't beat EVE; they've got a lot of experience now.
Ten Ton Hammer: The business aspect of game development actually leads to my next question. Would you say there's still a lot of easy money to be had for MMO development, or are investors starting to rein in their investment capital?
Jessica: In the market right now, they're throwing money around. A lot of foolish money; that's what I'm seeing. The last three years I've done a lot of due diligence on projects for venture capitalists (VCs) and lawyers. And usually what they do, they come to me with a lot of enthusiasm, these VCs: 'Oh, a great project was presented to me. They're going to build a WoW killer in 18 months with 3 million dollars. Oh, and a guy that used to work at Blizzard is on the team, so it'll be a success, right?' And you go through it, you read the plan, and it's all the usual bulls***. You tell them, aw, don't put your money in there.
A lot of foolish money right now. That'll go away, okay? (laughter) It's happened before; this is like the third time I've seen this cycle. But yea, anyone with an idea right now can get in front of someone with money.
Ten Ton Hammer: Will anything good come of this? With this third iteration, will these games be launched and be poor, except for maybe one diamond in the dust?
Jessica: Let me give you an example from the last wave. Between 1994 and 1997, over 130 online games were funded and started. Of those, 8 launches and about $350 million was thrown down a rathole. So that's what happened last time. This time it's even worse.
Richard: Already, more than that is being spent on individual, this-is-never-going-to-work projects.
Jessica: The price is higher because the skillset needed is higher. You can't even start these days unless you have an independent effort to build something like a WoW or an EverQuest 2. You have to go in knowing you need something like $15 to $20 million just to get to launch. That doesn't take in customer service, marketing, publishing, and all that.
Richard: But if you're going for a smaller market, an indie game that gets 50,000 players – everybody out in the mainstream would be saying 50,000, who cares? - but for an indie developer, that's actually quite good.
Jessica: The problem is that all of these investors want to hit a home run. They see 9 million subscribers, a billion and a half a year, I can have a little piece of that...
Richard: If only we could get just 10% of WoW's population...
Jessica: Exactly, but what they don't see is companies like CCP that come out and hit a double every time. But what does that mean? There are people crossing the plate constantly, they're winning the game. They're not making a billion and a half in a year, but they're making great money. They just bought White Wolf, they hired a hundred people, they're doing their next game... If you can hit doubles consistently, who needs a home run?
Richard: Just launching the game is usually enough, that's how you build up the reputation so that someone gives you a truckload of money to build, say, Tabula Rasa. But the writing is on the wall before it gets to the stage.
Ten Ton Hammer: So the most important moment in an indie development company's lifespan is the launch of their first title?
Jessica: Exactly. Most of the people that have failed at this have failed on their first launch.
Richard: Even something that doesn't look like a big seller can create a nice income. And, who knows, it can expand. I don't know how many players CCP expected to get with EVE Online – if they were optimistic, maybe 100,000. Now they've got something that, prior to World of Warcraft, it would have been one of the top virtual worlds.
Jessica: Just to boil this down, the future of this industry isn't the Blizzards and the World of Warcrafts. It's the CCPs, its the EVE Onlines- it's the mid-range hits, it's breaking the niche down and saying 'those are the players I want... I'm happy to have one hundred thousand or two hundred thousand of those players so I can go on and make another great game.'
Ten Ton Hammer: Returning to money and massive budgets a moment, do you think it's possible that a developer would have too much money for a game they want to make, and actually make a worse game perhaps because being flush with cash motivates them to take on some problems that they would have done better to avoid?
Jessica: It all depends on the business sense. Let me put it this way, you can't have too much money if you have the right skillset. You have the business people onboard, the creative people, all the tools people you need, community management – just all the right people and that's the key.
Richard: In the movie industry, sometimes you hear directors say that when they've got the constraints of not having a large budget, they make tighter movies as a result- movies more true to their artistic vision. I remember seeing one, and I can't remember the name, but he said, 'if I had been given the extra money, I would've been asking for the anti-gravity machines. Where are the anti-gravity machines?' But, as it is, since he didn't have the anti-gravity machines, he had to have some reason in the script for why the guy couldn't fly when you thought he could, or something like that. So, an extra constraint can help you better understand what you're creating rather than taking the easy solution.
But that said, once you do understand what you're creating, then give them the extra money. If you spend it in the right places- polishing, publicity – then you can do an awful lot. The small independent developers don't have that yet, and they all think that 'if I just get half a million players'... you won't get half a million players. You'd be lucky to get 50,000. If you get 20,000 players you'll break even and anything above that's good.
Jessica: There's very few independents in America now. Cheyenne now, doing Stargate Worlds, but they've got a crapload of money. They've got over a hundred investors and over $30 million and they're raising more – they're independent but they've got a lot of money, and they're hiring good people.