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Independent States: The Future of Indie MMOGs

Updated Tue, Sep 08, 2009 by Shayalyn

Ask 10 MMO gamers what an “indie MMO” is, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers, but the answer that most can agree upon is that an indie game is one developed by a studio not funded by a major publisher. Indie game developers seem to be quickly gaining ground in the MMO marketplace. Events like the Independent MMO Game Developers Conference attract longstanding industry leaders like Richard Bartle, co-author of MUD, the first multi-user dungeon, and Brian “Psychochild” Green of Meridian 59 fame. And while we often hear gamers comment that AAA titles seem to be regurgitating a lot of the same old same, we just as often hear them talk about the creativity, passion and freedom engendered by indie developers.

Could indie development studios represent the future of MMO gaming?

CCP/White Wolf, developers of the thriving space-themed EVE Online, and Hi-Rez Studios, at work on the spy-fi Global Agenda, which is currently undergoing various phases of closed beta, are two prime examples of indie dev studios making waves in the MMO gaming space. CCP has managed to grow a player base of over 300,000 devoted subscribers for EVE Online--a respectable feat for any gaming studio. Hi-Rez has won pre-release accolades from the press (including Ten Ton Hammer) and fans for its stunning performance at recent events.

We talked with Todd Harris, executive producer of Global Agenda, and Nathan Richardsson, Executive Producer for CCP Games, about the freedom and the challenges inherent in developing an indie MMO. And although we talked to these two gentlemen separately, they often echoed one another’s sentiments.

Indies Find Their Niche

There seems to be a trend among industry insiders and gamers alike linking indie MMOs to niche markets--smaller segments of the gaming populace that aren’t catered to by MMO behemoths like World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, and Aion. Are niche markets essential to the success of indie MMOs? Does a smaller budget and design team always relegate a game to the "niche" corner? And is that problematic, or is it advantageous?

In terms of a niche marketplace, EVE Online may not be the household name World of Warcraft has become,

Nathan Richardsson, Executive Producer, CCP Games

but it certainly stands tall as an indie success story. CCP’s Nathan Richardsson approached the topic of niche markets from the viewpoint of an established MMO.

“We think this is more down to what meaning people draw from the word niche,” says Richardsson. “EVE [Online] is frequently called a niche game, yet we have 300,000 paying subscribers. In terms of the world as the marketplace for EVE, 300,000 is nothing and could easily be referred to as a niche. [But] we simply cater to a very specific audience and this usually defines the game and its direction. MMOs are traditionally a very long-term time investment and you tend to be more selective in your decision on what you might end up spending years on. So no, niche markets are not essential [to an indie MMO’s success] but there is nothing wrong with starting out with a smaller team, targeting a very specific audience and growing the game organically with your playerbase.”

“By definition a niche market is a segment that is currently underserved by the mainstream providers. So, to serve that audience a developer typically needs to deliver something really different and innovative vs. just more of the same thing available elsewhere,” says Hi-Rez Studios’ Todd Harris. “With a big budget there could be a temptation to cover up stale gameplay by shoveling out more content or simply pumping up the marketing hype. However, for an indie developer such as Hi-Rez Studios, the game must stand on its own merits and we find that liberating.”

Richardsson would seem to agree. “This only becomes problematic if you try to reach a massive audience from the get-go and that’s usually [the case with] the failures we’ve seen lately, which are different flavors of a proven model. Except it’s a proven model which requires much larger initial investments, has higher risk and you’ll often see that people migrate back to their previous MMO where they have a lot of time already invested. Why invest more time somewhere else if the game is relatively similar and your friends aren’t necessarily playing with you anymore? Figure out that solution and you’re on to something.”

Limiting or Liberating?

Indie games face a number of challenges, but “challenge” is in the eye of the beholder. What one person might see as difficult--smaller budget, smaller staff, smaller target audience--another might see as advantageous.

Todd Harris says that two distinct advantages characterize Hi-Rez Studios in its development of Global Agenda: gameplay focus and release mentality.

“Given that Hi-Rez Studios is self-funded,” he says, “we were able to spend the necessary time and resources up

Todd Harris, Executive Producer, Global Agenda

front toward developing fun and addicting core gameplay. We were able to playtest throughout the process and iterate the game based upon feedback from players, rather than having to appeal to or convince external investors who in all likelihood would not be gamers. For us, fun gameplay is the top priority.”

Release mentality is something else altogether. We’ve all heard stories of developers rushed to release unfinished games due to pressure from their publishers--Vanguard, which was initially developed by Sigil Games Online and funded by Microsoft, went indie for a brief time, and was eventually sold to Sony Online Entertainment, stands out as one of a few notorious examples.

“In any public company there is incredible pressure around quarterly earnings and invariably that does affect when products get released,” says Harris. “Since Hi-Rez Studios is private and independent we have the luxury of releasing Global Agenda when we feel it is ready.“

Tales of shaky relationships between developers and publishers are not uncommon in the MMO gaming space. A recent lawsuit filed by Turbine, developers of Dungeons & Dragons Online, is bringing developer/publisher relations to the forefront by calling DDO publisher Atari onto the carpet for, among several things, weak efforts in the European distribution of the game. Independent developers may face challenges, but building a mutually beneficial relationship with a publisher isn’t one of them.

“The negative stories you always hear of publisher pressure, battle for creative control, last minute changes, death marches and so on…I think you only hear the bad stories and the good stories don’t percolate as much,” says Nathan Richardsson. “Today, I think independent funding is preferable so that interaction with a publisher is not started off by begging for money. [For an indie MMO developer] … how you monetize does not affect your potential to make a great game, regardless of team size. What’s important is that you live within your means and make sure you have time to finish.”

To MMOG developers, Richardsson says, “If your concept is valid, the scope of your game is solid, you have a strong business case and you have common sense about how you are going to run your company, then you will get investor interest. Then you can start negotiations with a potential publisher after that from a more even standpoint.

“Better development processes, best practices and an even playing ground, where you are partners and it’s not a one-sided relationship will allow you the creative freedom you need to take calculated risks in creating your concept.”

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