Independent States: The Future of Indie MMOGs

Ask any 10 gamers what constitutes an "indie MMO" and you'll probably get 10 different answers. But one definition that most can agree on is that an indie game lacks the financial support of a well-funded publisher. But do smaller budgets mean greater freedom? Ten Ton Hammer asked Nathan Richardsson, Executive Producer for CCP, developers of EVE Online, and Todd Harris, Executive Producer of Global Agenda, to share their thoughts on the bright future of independent MMOG development.

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.”

To Market, To Market

You might say that an MMO is only as good as its marketing strategy--even the most solid, entertaining game can’t become a success if no one has heard of it. How do indie studies bring their games to the forefront on a limited marketing budget?

Hi-Rez Studios relies on word spreading from gamer to gamer. “For Global Agenda our favorite form of

Global Agenda takes aim at their market via word of mouth and positive press.

marketing is word of mouth from people who have actually played the game,” says Harris. “We took the game to E3 and were thrilled by the reaction. The folks at Ten Ton Hammer were kind enough to award us ‘Best Gameplay of E3,’ and those complementary first hand accounts go a long way. So, after E3 we took the game to QuakeCon; now Dragon*Con and PAX, and we're planning additional shows to follow. Basically, we’re taking the game on tour so people can experience the gameplay for themselves alongside the development team.”

EVE Online, however, is an established game, so CCP’s current marketing employs a recruitment strategy that relies on existing players. “You pay your customers to sell the experience they chose,” says Richardsson. “Each of our customers is valuable to us, and if we can give a person free game time for finding a buddy to play with, or an affiliate partner or fansite some money for each person they refer to us who becomes a customer, it creates a very organic growth of friend networks. It’s a mutual partnership where we reward each other for mutual benefit. Later, you can supplement that kind of program with banner ads through CPA deals, AdWords, email re-activation campaigns, newsletters and other offers to let people come back and try out for free after an expansion is out.”

Shaping the Future

The future for independent developers seems poised to break wide open. Middleware platforms such as Multiverse and Big World Technology seek to enable developers to get into the meat of development without reinventing the wheel and starting from the ground up. But do these platforms represent the most direct route to success for indie developers at this time?

“I think it’s great that we’re seeing Multiverse, Metaplace and quite a few others going into this space, decreasing the barrier to entry to making games,” says Richardsson..”And we also have also things like Gaikai removing the barrier to entry of games created outside of extensive toolsets like Multiverse.”

“I’m currently on the Gaikai side of the fence as I fear that games created on platforms will have a certain homogenous feel to them,” he adds. “Later, their toolsets will evolve to address that, but the danger [right now] is always that you end up with complexity instead and then have that same barrier again. I think the concept is solid and there is something beautiful around standardizing a lot within game development, without eventually ending us up with the Nth iteration of the internet.”

“For Global Agenda,” Harris says, “given our goals of high-end graphics and fluid, fast-action combat, Unreal 3

Global Agenda employs the Unreal 3 engine.

was an excellent engine choice. However, I’m enthusiastic about the potential of new tools and platforms to make MMO development even easier in the future. I think we’ll see a viable MMO development platform emerge, but it will take some time. It’s challenging enough to build a robust, supportable platform for a single MMO game let alone a platform that anticipates the needs of future games by multiple developers. So, game developers are rightly cautious about using a platform until it has some history of shipped games. But, once a platform proves itself with a successful game, other titles will follow.”

And what about open source? We live in a world where many software developers of tools and applications from, image editors to word processors, are making their source codes more accessible ("open”) to outside developers and individual code monkeys. We asked if an open source MMO (there are already a few relatively unknown ones in existence) could prove viable in the future.

“Absolutely,” says Richardsson, “especially after we get a more mature gaming-centric middleware industry and more defined generalized components of tech which [developers] can utilize emerge. We use open source extensively ourselves--except of course we remain in creative control and don’t open up the game itself.

“But often when projects start from passion, and the strategy behind their development is to use open source, a

CCP makes use of open source for EVE Online.

certain mentality will end up in the games themselves, allowing the game to be open source end to end, including [outside contributions] to game design and features.

“We already have much more complex technological components in open source and creative arts open source that started a long time ago. These two can marry and I would not be surprised that the next disruption in the industry comes from there.”

Making it Big

Where will indie developers take the industry? In a world where we see independent film makers score hits with indie movies, and recording artists occasionally make it big on an indie label, the notion that the next success story in massively multiplayer online games could come from an indie studio doesn’t seem at all far fetched. In fact, it may just be a matter of time.

When Ten Ton Hammer asked whether the “next big thing” might come from an indie developer, the responses from both Richardsson and Harris were a resounding yes.

“It will most definitely come from an indie studio…however you want to define an indie,” predicts Richardsson. “The next disruption to the gaming industry is yet to come and it will be a total surprise to all players.

“What I personally fear the most is that it isn’t going to be [created by] CCP, of course, but the way to be prepared and able to react is to constantly push the envelope…to pursue excellence in whatever form you determine that applies to your game. Finally, be fearless about change…[an act] which in some cases can be thought of as stubborn and ignorant, but we prefer ‘fearless.’”

Harris is equally (and almost identically) enthusiastic when asked if an indie could hit it big. “Most definitely,” he

In the eyes of many gamers, Global Agenda's looking good.

says. “Since independent developers tend to take more risks one can already see innovative features, new genres, and entirely new hybrid game types emerging. Within our own title, Global Agenda, we are working to combine the action combat of a shooter... plus the character advancement of an RPG... plus the context of a massive persistent war over limited resources involving hundreds of territories and tens of thousands of player agents. The concept is different enough that some argue about whether or not it should even be called an MMO because it doesn't fit the standard mold. Others might call it niche, but we think of it as rather grand.”

The Definition of Success

We asked both our developers how they defined success as an indie studio. Richardsson had much to say about the success of CCP/White Wolf and EVE Online:

“[Success is] when you have launched your game, you are attracting the audience you were targeting, you keep on growing for long sustained periods of time and you have (good) food on your table to feed your family. This inherently means your company is profitable, and you certainly don’t need hundreds of thousands of people playing to achieve that.

“I would personally add to that benchmarks like having financial room to maneuver and grow effectively so you can withstand and react to unforeseen circumstances (Iceland economy anyone?) and, in the end, being respected by your players and peers.”

For Harris, whose game is still in development, the answer was simple: “Success is a thriving community of players with passion for the game.”

From a Gamer's Perspective

We asked our community to weigh in with their thoughts on indie developers, and they were as enthusiastic about the prospects of indie MMOs as the developers themselves.

"One thing I like about indie in general, not just MMOs, is that they can work on their own fresh ideas. They do not need to cater to what the big suit at EA, or Blizzard thinks would turn over the best dollar per man hour. They are more free to be creative and try out things others may not have not done, due to it not fitting the profit margin mold."

- Reavi

"Indies are more apt to pursue their dreams, rather than to focus mainly on profits. That's how innovation happens."

- Dobry

"I love indie developers; they have the freedom to make the game how they want it without others hanging over them and trying to shape the game in to something it's not meant to be."

- Metal

"I think indie MMO's are the next step for the industry. The potential for changes in design and the increase in competition in the market can only be good things in my mind. Engines such as Multiverse, BigWorld and others allow for a content developer to do a lot of the end product design and allow them to focus not on how the source code works but instead how their game plays."

- Seriphis

The Times They Are a-Changin'

Right now, it's fairly obvious where the masses gravitate in massively multiplayer worlds--giants like World of

EVE Online is a prime example of a game that successfully serves a very specific market.

Warcraft own the MMO gaming space. But in the wake of WoW's success we've seen mega-studios with vast financial and marketing resources fall flat. While developers generally play their subscriber numbers close to the vest, it doesn't take a trained eye to see that much-hyped supergames like Funcom's Age of Conan and Mythic's Warhammer Online probably fell short of their goals, if not in initial sales, then certainly in subscriber retention.

Has the age of the mega-funded triple-A MMOG passed? One need only look to EVE Online, an indie game which has grown its subscriber base exponentially to over 300,000, to get a sense of what the future may hold. The underdogs, with smaller budgets and smaller teams, have grander dreams, and a sensible approach, whether by design or necessity, to bringing those dreams to fruition.

About the Author

Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.
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