The Hollywood Cycle: Comparing the MMO Industry with the Silver Screen
For the past century, the most popular forms of entertainment in the
United States have been spawned on the sun-parched hills of Hollywood.
Whether you enjoy movies, television, or music, almost everything that
counts as a real life diversion has emerged from that geographic
desert. A hundred years of blood, sweat, and glitter has created an
oligarchy of the mega-rich and the uber-famous.
However, merely pointing out similarities doesn’t really get us anywhere, nor does it make for a gripping article. Due to its relative longevity compared to MMO gaming, it’s entirely possible to make some predictions – based upon the Hollywood model – of where the MMO industry will head in the next several years.
To throw even more gasoline onto the fire, I put the histories and potential predictions in front of five expert panelists – one from Hollywood and three from the MMO industry – and had them debate whether any conclusions could be drawn from Tinsel Town’s history or not. Specifically, you’ll hear from Jumpgate Evolution’s executive producer Hermann Peterscheck, EverQuest II’s senior creative director Rich Waters, and Turbine’s vice president of product development Craig Alexander for the MMO side of things; and Digital Domain’s Oscar-winning Steve Preeg will be representing Hollywood.
Their answers may surprise you. Although several of our past premium articles have held a strong amount of division within them, few articles have seen such a divergent set of viewpoints as what I found with these particular panelists. Even the premium members all seemed to be of different minds, so strap in folks… it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
When I first set out to write an article comparing Hollywood to the MMO industry, I knew that there were going to be some obvious similarities due to the fact that both industries focus on entertainment. But with only a decade or two to work with, the MMO industry is – in many ways – much more akin to the early throes of Hollywood than the enormous conglomeration that it’s become today. While the larger video game publisher have eagerly gobbled up any small independent studio that has proven their ability to make money, the early days of MMOing were full of these small time players that worked on low budget to produce that games that set the standard for the industry.
“When movies first started there were a lot of independent companies making low budget, short films,” Turbine's Craig Alexander began. “They ran out of little nickelodeon arcades and that sort of thing. Over time, they consolidated until there were only a handful of major players. There were consistently fewer – and bigger – bets, and that continues today.”
“I think the MMO space is very similar,” he continued. “There are fewer and fewer titles, and they’re bigger and bigger bets for the respective publishers that hope to have these franchises out on the market for continually growing periods of time. I expect that to continue.”
The conglomeration of the studios is certainly apparent to special effects master and long-time gamer, Preeg. From his point-of-view, there’s a lot of correlation between the newly forming mega game studios and the long running movie publishers with well-known names…like Disney.
“Ten years ago when you were looking for a game to play, you would pick up the latest game magazine and see what the reviews were. It wasn't so much about knowing who the publisher was, it was about the word of mouth and game reviews and whether or not you liked a particular style of game,” he explains. Now it almost seems like the smaller publishers don't have any sort of a chance anymore. You're pretty much playing "this" Blizzard game until the "next" Blizzard game comes out. I have some friends that work at Blizzard and smaller companies, and every time I talk to someone that works at one of the smaller companies, their game may be good, but it just gets overpowered by the bigger publishers. It's like Disney - no one could release anything done in animation to compete with them - at least in the beginning.”
But for movies and games alike, it seems that those early, small independent studios were the companies that laid the groundwork and techniques for all the products that came after. It was that “breakout hit” that drives people – and money – towards the medium, making it more popular and more diverse in the process. Yet the core techniques behind the product often remain the same. NetDevil’s Hermann Peterscheck explains this concept in detail:
I think MMOs are kind of between the growth and leveling out phase; though it's impossible to predict such things. The one thing that is different with games, at least so far, is that movie companies don't tend to do things like invent their own cameras and lights for every movie they make. The tech to make movies is much slower than games - same with music recording, radio and television. Games are unique in that we make the tools as well as the product. While there is a strong movement in the industry to make a kind of "super development tool" no one has been able to do that, and I'm skeptical that it can be done. As for setting standards, there are many that seem to be very sticky and those will persist. I expect as time goes on more will be discovered and still more will be improved.
The standards many of the early MMOs set include sharding, multiple methods of progression outside of a standard experience point generation, instancing, user interface layouts, and a focus on service-based entertainment. For Sony Online Entertainment, many of today’s current standards were set by their ten-year-old classic, EverQuest. SOE’s Senior Creative Director on EQII, Rich Waters, shared some of his thoughts on some of the longtime influences seen in MMO gaming.
“MUDs, MOOs and “pen and paper” RPGs set a lot of standards we still see in MMO gaming today,” he explained. “From stat-based combat, characters that gain levels and chase their +5 Helmet of Doom, to the very basic interaction with the game world that still prevails today.”
“Tools and technologies have advanced tremendously since MMORPGs hit the scene, but what players can do in today’s games, and how they do it is still pretty traditional,” he continued. “There are a ton of innovations in online gaming as a whole, but MMORPGs as a category are refining the details but staying bizarrely true to their old-school predecessors.”
Though many examples of rules and gameplay sets were available in older text-based online games and pen-and-paper products, the earliest crops of MMOs – Ultima Online, EverQuest, Jumpgate, Asheron’s Call, and others – certainly had to create systems that far surpassed what was built before them. In many ways, this again was like early Hollywood, where individuals with intelligence and ambition could basically “make up the rules” as they went along.
Quake or something and when we described hundreds or thousands of people in a persistent world, they didn't really understand what that meant. It wasn't until UO and EQ hit it big that suddenly there was a term and a business model and the interest started to grow.”
“We used to have these dinners at GDC (San Jose at the time) where all the MMO people would go - it was maybe like two or three dozen people,” he continued. “That's where the first ideas were kind of kicked around and some of the early groundwork was laid. A lot of those guys are now institutions in the MMO world so it was really a kind of crazy path from there to here. Also keep in mind that this took place over maybe the last 10 or 15 years. Before that most of us were doing MUDs and MOOs and stuff but once it became mainstream it grew really quickly.”
Over at SOE, Waters had a similar experience when EverQuest first broke onto the scene. “EverQuest was our first big MMO, and there was a huge amount of learning, experimentation, and crunch time involved in getting it right,” he said. “From hardware and tech issues like scrambling to get enough internet bandwidth to support the unprecedented demand at launch, to being amazed at the amount of time and energy players were willing to spend online every day… there was a lot that came up that no one predicted or planned on, and we learned a ton those first few years.”
Dating even further back than the original Jumpgate or EverQuest, Craig Alexander actually helped forge the path for those two games with Sierra’s The Realm, a game that still runs to this day.
The Realm with Sierra, and it’s been running for twelve or thirteen years now. There’s really no end in sight for these games, and I look forward to when DDO and LOTRO pass their own decade marks as well.”
“You really need that sort of longevity mindset going into it, and back in the day, we had no idea,” he continued. “We were still using that film and/or packaged good mentality. You launch it, you have a big marketing event, and then you have a nice tail at the end of it where you’d get six or seven months out of the product. We never guessed that we’d be talking about the lifespan of these products in terms of decades. Be proud of the design and the artwork that you do, because it will be there for years!”
But have MMOs really exploded? Throughout its history, Hollywood has seen several eras of significant growth, during which the industry would expand either the number of films produced, the theaters in operation, or the sizes of the audience they captured. In Hollywood, there were several veritable explosions of movie making, where hundreds (if not thousands) of films would be spat out for audiences to consume in mass quantities. Yet I wasn’t sure that sort of event had occurred in the MMO space, or if it was still coming.
“Well, the fact that so many MMOs are being made means that it's not actually cost prohibitive,” Peterscheck said with a smile. “I think that we are in the middle of that explosion. When you look at China and Korea you can see where the full potential may lie, and WoW certainly shows how large the MMO market can be. That being said there has been and will continue to be lots of consolidation and failure. We're not actually that good at making these games yet because it takes a long time to make them and people burn out and go away at an alarming rate.”
“If you think that movies take a few months to a year to shoot, in a 10 year period you can have 10-15 iterations,” he continued. “If you consider that MMOs take 3-5 years to make we're really only on the third or maybe fourth generation of MMOs and the risks are very high now. The other problem is that it is hard to respond to market changes. If I discover today that players want a certain type of game and I start making that, but it's done 3-5 years from now, the whole market has shifted. We can see this happening now. There's tons of WoW clones coming out now based on market demand set by WoW 4 years ago. So the question is, do players want something else now? If so, what? Do the players themselves even know? If you asked people in 1976 if they want an epic sci-fi movie I'm not convinced they would have said yes, and yet....”
Alexander, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced and hedged his bets, just a little. “It depends on how you define MMOs. If you mean LOTRO, WoW, or EQ2 type games, than I think the answer is no. There are huge barriers of entry: cost, technology, design experience, etc,” he stated. “That said, the persistence and gameplay aspects that were pioneered in MMOs are appearing in all types of different games. With that in mind, I think there will be – and there is – a great deal of proliferation going on. Are they true MMOs? Again it depends on your definition of an MMO.”
When I asked Steve Preeg a similar question, one oriented towards small companies ever being able to have a “smash hit” despite the flooding of the market with other small titles, his answer was...hopeful. The Oscar-winning special effects guru has been a longtime World of Warcraft player, especially when he isn't deep into movie projects like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the remake of Tron. This is what he had to say:
Eventually you're going to have to make assets and models and everything that are at least television - if not film - quality. That takes time; you can't make a character anymore with a fifty polygon head. Unless, of course, you're playing Grand Theft Auto and all you want to do is beatdown gangsters and hookers. And even *that* is going to change to some extent, because as we continue to push our technological limitations, people are going to want to beat each other up in more realistic ways.
It's going to be really hard for the smaller game companies to continue to achieve any sort of competitive edge when the hardware continues to push the envelope. In Hollywood, there was a long, long stretch of time where there wasn't a big new studio before Dreamworks finally entered the scene.
With Hollywood operating a fully-functioning, movie-making machine throughout the two World Wars, it wasn’t until Asian cinema blasted onto movie screens in the 1950s that we saw really poignant non-English cinema. Akira Kurosawa was perhaps the most influential of these Asian film makers, and his films Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress went on to influence a large number of film makers. However, Asian cinema still hasn’t caught up to Hollywood in terms of overall, international popularity, and may never surpass the Los Angeles juggernaut.
The question still remains: Will Asian MMOs ever succeed where their film brethren have failed? I went to our experts to find out. Again, the answers were mixed and divisive along several lines of thought. Rather than preface their thoughts in any way, I’ll just give you the ideas of the men, straight from their mouths.
There’s lots of innovation in Asia, with hundreds of smaller games trying all sorts of wacky ideas. Western and Asian players are not tied to the same type of gaming, features, or even cultural stories much of the time, so taking the same game to both markets can be tricky. We localized EverQuest to Asia, for instance, and found that a lot of things we took for granted weren’t valued by the Asian player – extensive character customization, for instance, just wasn’t a priority for them. There were enough differences between Asian and Western games that we ended up opening a local office in Taiwan, so we could rely on local talent to help us make games that have a higher appeal in Asia.
Who knows? I mean on both sides of the pacific you have these giant entities that are desperate to find success in the opposite market. The giant Chinese and Korean publishers are just as excited to capture the US and European market as the US publishers are to capture Asia. With very few exceptions, they have been unable to do that and there are millions of dollars and thousands of man hours dedicated to figuring out why that might be which goes to show you how hard it is to know why.
I think people really get hung up on things like billing models and cultural specifics. The one major Asian/US/European success - World of Warcraft - I don't find particularly culturally sensitive, nor did they massage their billing model; so it's hard to see those two things. One thing I will say about WoW is that it is conspicuously culturally neutral. For example, if you look at their herbalism tree, they made up all new herbs. Herbs are one area where West and East have very particular expectations and if you have things like Garlic and Mandrake you could, perhaps, alienate your Asian audience, whereas no one knows what Peacebloom is. That's all just guesswork though. The truth is no one knows why WoW was so successful in all kinds of markets and anyone who does know should just go ahead and duplicate that success.
First of all, Turbine is paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in Asia, especially in terms of business models. The free-to-play model was pioneered to great success in the Asian marketplace, and some of that was simply because of necessity over there. For a variety of reasons, retail gaming for the PC never took off, and so necessity turned into a business model implementation that worked.
We’re trying to match that success over here, and we believe that consumer behavior is generally the same across the world. I think we’ll be successful with it.
As far as content goes, you’re correct. The Asian films have had a limited amount of success in North America, and the challenge of bringing Asian content to North America has been difficult. There are very few examples of Chinese and Korean games coming successfully to the United States, but there have been a few. Most of the success in video games obviously has come from Japan.
I’m not convinced it won’t happen, but it just hasn’t happened in a big way yet. There are definitely big segments of the population that are huge anime fans and that sort of thing. It’s just when those games go up against entertainment that is a little more familiar, they tend to choose that over the international content.
The same problem definitely occurs in the reverse, and it’s getting tougher and tougher to get Western content into the Asian markets. The companies in that area of the world are just getting better and better at developing the content in their home countries.
That’s a tough question. I think it’s a little bit easier to transcend that boundary in games because film has so much more real world culture behind it. The game is more about the experience of the play versus cultural information that’s being shown in a movie.
At the same time, a lot of the foreign games that I have played are just really odd. The Asian culture is definitely there in some games, and I’m not sure if the American culture slips into it quite as much. That said, if they made something and it was marketed well, I certainly think it can succeed. I mean, I don’t doubt their design or creativity.
In the scheme of Hollywood, the summer blockbuster has become a trend that won’t go away. Every year, the big studios erupt thousands of dollars into the marketing stratosphere, hoping that the audiences will fall out of the starry sky and into theaters to enjoy their films. These blockbusters continually draw in $100,000,000+ every year, and sometimes (like in 2008) multiple movies can break this mark in a single season.
Looking at movies, I can’t help but ask myself, “Why not?” Besides a host of companies releasing shoddy games, there isn’t a single reason why more MMOs aren’t holding up million subscriber numbers. Both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online were primed for millions of subscribers, yet lackluster releases soured the experience – and stickiness – for many users.
Or maybe I’m just full of wishful thinking. Will the MMO industry ever have multiple blockbusters?
“I think so,” Peterscheck answered. “I don't really see why you won't see 50,000,000 actually. But then, that assumes that the way we measure subscribers and our billing models don't change. Consider the impact that TV had on movies, for example, or VCRs and later DVD players. Because you can't know which new technology is coming that will fundamentally change things, you can't predict how consumers will utilize and drive entertainment.”
“That's why it's important that as developers we keep looking ahead to see what kind of interesting experiences we can create instead of trying to try and guess and anticipate based on information we have today,” he continued. “Could you predict in 1994 that in 1998 the internet would revolutionize communication, business, commerce and just about everything else? Probably not. And just so, you can't really predict what will happen in 2014 that will revolutionize some other part of the world and the impact it will have.”
Our Hollywood informant, Steve Preeg, was a bit more hesitant in his answer. “It seems like it *should* be able to happen,” he said. “It’s a little bit harder because of the longevity of the game, where movies can have three blockbusters in three weeks. You just can’t do that with an MMO. However, the fact that World of Warcraft has been sitting at the top for four years seems like there’s now enough room for another good one to come up and split up the subscribers. That’d be like 6 million people that could go play another MMO.”
But perhaps everyone is asking the wrong questions when it comes to MMOs being blockbusters. Craig Alexander brought up a truly pivotal point concerning MMO success, saying “Yes [there can be more MMO blockbusters], and the key is to make the console transition with our MMOs. Turbine’s working actively in this area. WoW has certainly been successful in the PC space, and I think you’ll see successes equally as large in the console side as well. Hopefully that will be us.”
One of the more intriguing little factoids to come out of my research concerning Hollywood is that until the 1970s, most Hollywood films were… tame. The era of “New Hollywood” hadn’t really begun. Yet the 70s were a time of change, and we saw an increased amount of violence and sexuality in films during that time period. MMOs certainly haven’t reached any sort of “New Industry” threshold yet, and I asked the panelists if that would ever occur. If violence and sexuality might make a more prominent position in our MMOs?
Look at Manhunt, for instance. Manhunt was incredibly violent, and the marketshare they wanted to get was that group that wanted to see what it was like to strangle someone with a plastic bag. That was their marketshare. Whether it was a fun game or not was beside the point at that juncture. It was just too extreme, and the same thing happens in film. When you start pushing the envelope, you start losing people. A good example is Tarantino films; a lot of people have a hard time watching his movies.
Titanic made a bunch of money because teenage girls wanted to see it over and over again.
Both Peterscheck and Alexander were a bit more on the fence with this topic
Here’s how Alexander answered:
Ultimately, I feel like fantasy is a “Teen” sort of experience. Horror or urban based settings should certainly have a higher degree of violence and sexuality than fantasy or science fiction. It just depends on what genre you’re shooting for. In some cases it’s appropriate. In others, it’s not.
What I do see in our future is a move away from the dominance of fantasy. Clearly fantasy is a great genre, but I think if you added up all the dollars in the MMO space, ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of it is based in fantasy. That percentage *has* to go down. It just has to!
As I moved onto the last few of my questions, I found myself wondering whether the MMO industry history would work like what we’ve seen from Hollywood. It seems like – if you quantify Hollywood into its basest aspects – that the history of Tinsel Town operates on a cycle. You’ll have technological advancement, growth, regression, conglomeration, and a whole list of other aspects always occurring in these ten year spurts.
EverQuest as an example, we might contend that the lifecycle of an MMO is really five years before it hits a peak and begins to decline.
I asked Hermann what his thoughts were on the topic, whether he thought World of Warcraft might have hit its peak or if we still had longer to wait before the game peaked out.
“I don't think [it’s peaked],” he said. “I think that MMOs worlds are more like brands than products, though they sit somewhere in between. For example, Coca Cola has been successful for 100 years or so, whereas movies have a life of a few years at most (with some exceptions). We haven't seen a successful MMO be turned off yet, so it's hard to know what the actual lifecycle is. For example, could you give WoW a massive graphics overhaul and give it 10 more years of life? Will my kids get hooked on it in a few years and then play for 4 more and so on. If the games are continuously updated and they are generational, this kind of thing may happen. Then again we may discover that MMOs have a 10-15 year life span and that's about it.”
Finally, I asked the gathered panelists whether we would ever see a merging of Hollywood and the MMO industry. Both Blizzard and EA are skirting Hollywood’s borders, but a true integration of the two mediums hasn’t happened yet. Again, the interviewees didn’t agree with each other, but that’s to be expected in topic like this one. To end this article, I’ll let the panelists involved speak for themselves:
I'm not sure what that kind of experience would look like to the players, so I suppose the answer is no. I'm sure we'll see even more movie licenses for MMOs and, possibly, the other way around; but the entertainment experience is completely different. I guess I also don't see the book and movie industry merging either, for precisely this reason. I suspect they will happily co-exist and just feed off each other where it makes sense.
I think they can and they will. It will particularly happen in the film franchises. The Lord of the Rings is a *great* example of this; they’re just announcing the next two films. While entertainment franchises have typically been focused on the film, what greater opportunity than to build this sort of experience around an MMO? That community is so much more loyal and diehard than what you find with films…
The opportunity to blend the biggest franchises in the space around both MMOs and movies is an extremely exciting prospect. I’ve spent a good deal of my career trying to sort this out, and it goes far beyond the traditional “movie game.” This is a blending of communities in a desire to make an “ultimate destination” for these particular high profile properties.
There’s already a ton of effort in that area. There are all of these assets in games that are coming up to the point of film where you can start sharing assets. I think people will still run into the problem of having an hour and a half long movie compared to a game you’ll play for months. It just doesn’t work out that well.
On top of that, historically gamers don’t really have good attitudes concerning “movie games,” because the studios had to spit them out so fast to release at the same time as the movie. Movies have such shorter cycles compared to games, especially MMO games, that you’d be compressing development time to an almost unbearable degree.
I think there’s a lot of desire for Hollywood and video games to merge, but I’m not sure it’s the best thing for either party. The models just don’t support each other very well. They’re two conflicting ideas that they’re trying to shove into the same box. There’d have to be some major changes in thinking between the two sides if that was ever to get done.
There you have it folks! We've certainly answered some questions and come up with a whole lot more in our discussion here. While we may not see a true merging of Hollywood and the MMO industry for awhile, it certainly sounds like the potential is there and a number of parties are actively working towards that goal. What does that mean for gamers?
Only time will tell. Until then, keep on gaming Ten Ton Hammer readers!