Posted Wed, Apr 18, 2007 by Cody Bye
As one of the first round tables the Ten Ton Hammer team participated in at IMGDC, it was a pleasure to sit in on Jay Moore’s moderated discussion of the fundamentals of the MMO market. Starting off the discussion, Jay had everyone introduce themselves and it was certainly enlightening to hear what sort of experience everyone had in the development of MMOs.
Eschewing the members of the press that were participating on the table, the amount of experience at the table varied greatly. Several of the discussion group participants had successfully launched their first indie MMO title, while others were simply looking into the MMO space in an effort to begin exploring their dream game. Actual game design experience ranged from releasing several games over the years to not one attempt. Thankfully, the experienced members were more than willing to divulge their copious amounts of knowledge to those of us who had never heard of SCUM or any of the other fundamentals of design.
Jay Moore of The Strategery Group led a discussion on the basic foundations of an MMO.
Despite being listed as one of the basic components of MMO design, Jay wanted to make clear that tech wasn’t simply about the rendering engine in the game. Like Kelly Heckman, the former community manager for Artifact Entertainment, stated in a later session, Jay wanted the panel to realize that developing a solid back-end for community involvement is incredibly crucial to achieving success. “The CRM – the customer relationship management – component of the back-end software is incredibly important,” he stated. “That’s where your customer satisfaction happens or not. It needs to be included in the tech side of the game along with everything else.”
With that point clearly established, Jay explained that he saw tech as the weakest link for many indie MMO development teams. “I’ve seen some things emerging recently, but it’s been a real problem,” Jay said. “You need to have ways to not only make your games look and run nice, but also tools to help you track item inventories to insure customer satisfaction.”
The focus of the discussion didn’t remain on tech for long – at least not exclusively on tech. For the majority of the discussion, a lot of the attention was put on the bringing in of talent, especially talent that is familiar with the development schedule and cooperated with the rest of the team.
One of the members of the panel made an exquisite point, stating that the talent pool for indie MMOs to draw from is inherently small because they could not pull in the game name engines – Unreal and the id engines for example – so they had to develop their own tech that others had to learn to use. Even with the emerging market for smaller platforms – Multiverse and Torque to name two – there is still a limitation to just how many users are familiar with that technology.
In reality, however, it seemed that the majority of the developers at the round table discussion had used some sort of licensed technology to make their game, whether that was Multiverse or Torque. One of the designers from the Dusktreaders team was at the discussion, and he was more than willing to offer his opinion. “We made our own tech at Dusktreaders, and it’s taken a long, long time to get it right,” he said. “Finding talent is difficult, but it’s especially hard if that individual doesn’t know or won’t learn your technology. Be really careful who you hire, because they can waste more of your time than you anticipate.”
It was also recommended that developers should find a technology first before really fleshing out their game, because it’s much harder to fit tech around a game than the other way around. Once tech has been established, then the game can begin to shape itself around what the developers can do with the technology.
Jay expressing his opinion on a particular point.
The major problem – on the tech side of things – is the lack of major platform that is wide-scale use that was developed for the MMO marketplace. Despite this, however, the developers at the round table assured the lay people at the discussion that if the developers, programmer, or artist has been trained correctly, they shouldn’t have a problem picking up a new technology. A spokesman from Brown College was attending the conference, and he was eager to give a blow-by-blow about how his students, once learned in Unreal and Torque, easily pick up most techs.
While the lack of a major platform still remains a slight issue, Jay quickly stated the fact that the MMO marketplace is still very young compared to other games on the market. He wanted to assuage the fears that some had, stating that as the MMO market ages, there will be more engines popping up around the marketplace and perhaps one will find wide-spread use.
Once the tech has been established and the search for talent has begun, Jay noted that it’s essential for the developer to establish processes and hire quality people to get the game done. “It’s really one of the weaknesses of indie developers,” he said. “We’re really able to look and explore different avenues, so it’s easy for us to lose sight of our goals. And that’s where finding quality talent comes in – people who can sit down and get things done.”
Narrowing the scope of the product really keys in with the establishment of the processes and hiring of quality people. The panel noted that if an indie game – and even a AAA title – has a focus that is too broad, nothing will ever be accomplished. It’s getting the small stuff right that’s really key in making the product work.
Jay also suggested looking out into the world and even viewing the pop culture space for ideas for a new MMO. “It’s been mentioned that a lot of television and communication companies are starting to look at MMOs,” he stated. “We’re starting to see other sorts of entertainment crossing over into our interactive realm. I think there’s many more play experiences than what we’re currently holding with our Fantasy RPG/Sci-Fi approach. I think there’s a convergence happening where almost any game being distributed using next generation technology online is going to have a certain level of persistence to it. There won’t be a ship and forget type mentality, but a more diverse game experience will start to become the norm.”
With this in mind, Jay also wanted to focus on the niche titles. “I mean, I’ve seen horse-racing MMOs. We’re appealing to the sort of people who are looking for an experience that they just haven’t found yet. Try to find an area that hasn’t been exploited and go after it,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to make a bass fishing game that tracks fishing tournament statistics online. Those are the sort of titles you can make and succeed with.”
It takes a lot to make a game, in this generation of consoles and PCs, but with the right selection of tech, talent, and market, even an indie developer can make a game that a select group of people will enjoy. Again, don’t be afraid to look for an indie game to satisfy your niche needs!
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