Posted Fri, Apr 20, 2007 by Ethec
by Jeff “Ethec” Woleslagle
April 15th, 2007 - Though the Indie MMO Game Developers Conference is in its inaugural year, Dr. Richard Bartle claims he's been to this event before.
No, Dr. Bartle hasn't realized the theme of Tempus, one of the countless games his work facilitated, and achieved time travel. Instead, he related the events of the Adventure ’89 / MUGS Megameet held in England in 1989. It was indeed Ma Britain that brought forth the first games of this type and, (by the way, according to Bartle), an Englishman (Clem Chambers) who first coined the term "Massively Multiplayer" in describing Online PLC, a pioneering MUD (or Multi-User Dungeon, the precursor to the graphical Massively Multiplayer Online game or MMOs of today).
The Adventure Megameet and IMGDC 2007 were held in similar market settings, according to Bartle. Back in 1989, several large MUDs (MUD1, Shades, Gods, Mirrorworld, Federation II – Bartle: “There was no Federation I, that's marketing for you!”) held sway, and the money and, more importantly, design questions they caused gamers to ask. Questions resulting from the multifarious design challenges those large MUDs had refused to undertake. But then, as it is now, those big games made up for their dearth of creativity and innovation by simply showing what was (and is) commercially possible.
It's (Not) All About the Benjamins
Bartle Speaks at IMGDC
One thing that did differ radically was the “subscription” model in those pre-Internet days. The next time you CMs listen to forum poster gripe about paying $15 a month, point out that back at the dawn of the MMO, players bought credits to play these games. One credit equaled 12 minutes (like some coin-op arcade games of yore) and, after a pounds to dollars conversion and adjusting for inflation, it cost about $4 an hour in present day $US to play these games. Figuring that the average avid MMO player nowadays games about 15-20 hours a week, that works out to roughly $240-$320 a month for a single game.
The comparision isn't entirely valid – MUDs don't necessarily have the built-in time sinks in, for example, character travel that a built-to-scale graphical world does. In MMOs you must walk, ride, or otherwise cross spatial distance from point A to point B; in a MUD, it's as simple as giving the commands to cross a plain, ford a river, climb a hill, etc. and you're wherever you wanted to go in a matter of moments. Time spent playing a MUD is typically more decisional and interactive than that same amount of time playing a graphical MMO, in other words, but that doesn't change the fact that most folks prefer interacting with a world they can see.
Nevertheless, even at $4 an hour, most MUDs broke even, and a few made lots of money. Bartle noted that then, as it is now, to make lots of money you must 1) spend lots of money, or 2) be lucky. Since money isn’t exactly a bellwether of independent development, Bartle exhorted indie devs to position themselves for luck to strike, presumably by having a fun playable online world ready for a shift in the market or an emergent cultural meme (like the classical / mythological motif in current films (300, Troy, Alexander), TV series (Rome), or games (God of War I / II, Gods & Heroes)). Even so, Dr. Bartle exhorted indie designers to keep their expectations small. “You’re not going to get half a million players,” Bartle stated, noting that 40,000 subscribers is a colossal achievement for a necessarily small indie team of devs, thus invoking one of the conference’s ongoing themes: WoW’s commercial dominance shouldn’t be the benchmark. MMO gaming needs the vibrancy and innovation of small developers who aren’t necessarily going to play it safe to make the deep-pockets happy. Regarding those big-money games, Bartle aptly surmised that “you can’t compete with them, and they can’t compete with you” – pointing to the much less risk averse, experimental nature of small market development. “The ‘Big N’ games offer evolution, these games offer revolution.”
Indie devs, in short, can take the risks because they have comparatively little to lose. “I know your secret,” Bartle intimated, and that secret was that money is not, in fact, the be all and end all of indie development. Money is simply a nice “excuse” to put in the long hours and exact the personal sacrifices needed to design a complex game like an MMO.