by Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor
style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic;">
by Scott Jennings, Lead System Designer for NCsoft Austin
The gaming industry is an incredibly fast growing money making machine.
Every year financial analysts take a look at upcoming games and every
year more money is funneled into the coffers of the industry leading
video game publishers. Companies like EA, Blizzard Activision, and 2K
Games are constantly announcing incredible profits, and business men
love seeing dollar signs. As massively multiplayer games become more
popular among the mainstream business world, more developers are
willing to jump into the fray and see if they can eke out another
Thankfully, veteran developers like Scott Jennings are also taking the
plunge, and the developer known as “Lum the Mad”
has been hard at work toiling away over at NCsoft Austin, trying to
bring that upcoming game into the light of day. Ten Ton
Hammer’s Cody “Micajah” Bye sat down with
the well-spoken developer to see how the upcoming NCsoft game is
progressing and where “Lum the Mad” thinks the
future of the MMOG industry is headed.
Ten Ton Hammer: Can you
talk about your upcoming game yet? Even the smallest hint?
can talk about lots of things; just not much about the game
I’m working on. We aren’t going to announce
anything until we’re nailed down and ready to talk about it.
We don’t want to get hopes up to high because we’re
doing some very ambitious things.
Ten Ton Hammer: And
it’s going to be a fantasy MMOG?
going to be a fantasy MMO. But it’s going to be a fantasy MMO
that is done by a lot of veterans that have a fairly good grasp on
making these types of games.
Ten Ton Hammer: Do you
think the industry is headed away from the standard post-EQ mold?
there’s always going to be the blockbuster mentality; people
are always going to try to reproduce WoW by throwing a bunch of money
at it and seeing what happens. And often, if you throw a lot of money
at a game, you probably will get a big hit – it’s
the Titanic of MMO design. You’ll have a big enough budget
and have enough time for polish and hire the best people in the field
and you’ll make a great game. That’s just going to
One of the things I discussed in my talk was this idea that games are
really embracing the movie model style of entertainment. WoW is really
the first bestselling blockbuster, and we’re going to see a
lot more of those. There are a lot of people who want to sink $100 or
$200 million dollars into game development.
Grand Theft Auto IV cost $100 million to make, and it had a dev team of
1,000 people. It made its money back in the first weekend.
It’s a very profitable scheme.
But you’re going to see lots of people who are simply
re-making WoW. Those people are going to succeed simply because
they’re going to sink enough money into the game to succeed.
And the money is there! You’re going to see games like Grand
Theft Auto Online and people are going to throw unbelievable amounts of
money and people at this development goal, and you’re going
to end up with a product that meets the bar that people have set for
that sort of product.
That bar is going to keep getting higher and higher and higher, and
it’s going to become a marketplace where three or four
companies are the only companies that can afford to make these
Ten Ton Hammer: You
don’t think individual investors are going to wager some
venture capital on an independent company?
individual investors won’t be able to afford a single MMO
budget, let alone a blockbuster. How many investors are willing to
throw $100 or $200 million at a project?
That said, you’re going to get some of what I call
“stupid money.” Those are the $20 to $50 millions
that are going to try and compete with WoW. And there are some people
who are going to try and do that. When I was working on Dark Age of
Camelot, we tried to do that with EverQuest. They had a big huge
headstart, a huge amount of content, and we had a much smaller
development team and a much much smaller budget. But we were able to
carve out a 250,000 customer niche, which wasn’t really a
niche at the time.
There are going to be a good group of people out there who are able to
compete with the big name games on a much smaller budget. And
they’re going to make an insane amount of money. That is
going to drive people to invest in just about anything because there
will be people out there that claim that they can drive WoW and GTA
size results with only a small fraction of the investment. A few of
those people are going to be right, but many of them won’t be
and they’ll fail.
Ten Ton Hammer: Do you
think that budgets and development team sizes continue to expand?
will expand beyond GTA IV’s numbers, but I think
we’re going to start running into some scaling issues and the
folks from Rockstar and Blizzard will be very much in demand because
they’ll know how to manage a 1,000 person team. That is very
different from managing a 20 person or even a 100 person dev team.
It’s going to require some very specific skills out there.
Then you’re going to run into what I call the
“trendy indies”. These are the Puzzle Pirates and
the EVE Online’s; they’re very successful games.
EVE Online is tremendously successful in a niche. They have the group
that they targeted, and they made the game that they wanted to play.
They wanted a core space MMO with punishing PvP, a one world game, and
the best MMO economy in the market. They nailed it, kept to it even
though it didn’t do well initially, but they kept with it and
now they’re successful. They did that with a smaller budget,
even though they’re not making WoW sized numbers.
But that’s the sort of game that drives innovation.
You’re not going to innovate with a $100 million dollar
budget; they’re not going to be allowed to. That’s
a lot of money to waste on somebody’s half-assed design idea.
You’re going to see iteration, not innovation off of these
huge blockbuster titles. You just can’t take those sort of
risks with these huge budgets. As budgets get larger and larger in this
ever increasing arms race, you’re going to see much less
It’s going to be the smaller titles that drive the risk and
the innovation. If you want to play a space MMO right now,
you’re playing EVE. EVE players love it; they’re
rabid. They fly out to Iceland for community gatherings for
God’s sake. I wouldn’t fly out to Iceland for
Ten Ton Hammer: Will
studios ever reach a breaking point where people are just spending too
going to be an online version of Ishtar? *laughs* Yes –
absolutely. And the first game that does that will be the generator of
thousands of stories and hundreds of reviews and it’s going
to be a complete crash-and-burn failure. And it’s not going
to be the last, because not everyone is going to succeed.
There is a point of diminishing returns where you can only throw so
many people and money at a problem. MMOs are actually less susceptible
to that problem than movies, because movies are linear. You
can’t make a twelve-hour movie, most of the time. There are
some very hard limits.
MMOs are inherently non-linear. The more content you throw into an MMO,
the richer the world becomes because you don’t have to
experience it all in one fell swoop. You can drop in, play something,
then drop in again. You’re not watching a movie for a year,
but you’re playing an MMO for a year.
World of Warcraft has
set the bar for every MMOG that comes after it.
Ten Ton Hammer: A year or
I’m still playing WoW. How long has it been out now?
Ten Ton Hammer: A lot of
people are still playing WoW, and it’s been a good number of
People played EQ for a long time simply because they had a huge amount
of content. The only way you can get that content, unfortunately, is by
Content creation costs money. The best sort of content creation is the
kind created by the players, but the problem with that is most
developers just talk about throwing out user content in the terms of
providing YouTube-esque type tools. I don’t know about you,
but I don’t watch 90% of what’s on YouTube.
It’s all just some camp girl going off about her boyfriend. I
don’t care about that.
At the other end of the scale, player created content is guild drama.
Everybody knows about guild drama and everyone loves guild drama. AFK
Gamer, the World of Warcraft blog, is almost nothing but guild drama.
However, that’s not really something you can budget.
Ten Ton Hammer: Speaking
of content, designers and developers spend hours and hours creating
these games. But when the game reaches maturity, the older content
– dungeons and raids – don’t get played
as much. How are you trying to fight that trend?
It’s classic MUDflation, and WoW has really embrace that
model and has said as much. They know that Wrath of the Lich King will
cause everything in Burning Crusade to become outdated, but they also
know that one of their most popular patches was 2.4 where they did the
Dustwallow Marsh revamp. It was really necessary, and it was one of the
few times that they’ve added a whole new level of polish onto
something from the original game and now the area works really well.
It’s something you can do besides Stranglethorn Veil at that
level range. I think every live MMO team would benefit from that level
of going through and taking what you’ve learned and using
that in a new way.
If you have an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of
resources, it’s always worthwhile to go through and redo
those areas. Not many studios have an infinite amount of resources, but
it’s a good activity to go to those areas where people never
seem to go and try to fix those areas.
Ten Ton Hammer: Do you
agree or disagree with the idea of embracing MUDflation?
disagree with it because I come from a PvP background, and
I’m very much a PvP focused player. That’s where I
tend to focus my design as well, and MUDflation is death to PvP. I was
working on Trials of Atlantis for Dark Age of Camelot and that was the
first expansion that really introduced MUDflation to the game.
It hurt us tremendously, and it’s been something that Mythic
has been very up front about. We raised the bar in what you had to do
to compete in PvP. You had to go out and get these artifacts and
what-not. It felt like a broken compact; we had told players that
that’s where they need to go to be competitive, and then we
moved that bar. It was not a good decision, and that’s really
why I tend to be against MUDflation and against moving that bar.
With WoW it’s not a problem because the core game is the
progression of levels and acquisition of items, but PvP players do mind
that and thankfully there are some “welfare” epics
that you can get. The gear is competitive enough that the players who
never do PvP actually want to go in and get these pieces of equipment
just to get those epics.
It’s a good solution – it’s not the best,
but it’s workable for them. However, I would definitely be
more for the idea of having a solid baseline and then making that
baseline wider rather than taller.
Ten Ton Hammer: If
MUDflation isn’t the answer, how do you keep players
interested in always headed to that next level of gameplay?
things to do. Players are always wanting to advance their characters,
and one of the best ways to do that is with an alternative advancement
system. EverQuest had the “Alternate Advancement”,
Dark Age of Camelot had “Realm Rank”, and World of
Warcraft has a “Talent Tree”. The principal idea
here is that you’re developing your character beyond their
normal abilities. There’s ways to advance your character that
are wider not taller. You give your character more flexibility and
abilities to handle various situations. If you’re a tanking
character, you might give him a bit of healing to off-heal.
There are ways to give players more tools in their toolbox that
don’t completely blow the ability spectrum out of wack.
It’s one of those things that’s very upward
focused, and that’s why you need tons and tons of testing
cause it’s the quickest way to kill your game.
Ten Ton Hammer: In some
games, you actually have developers that separate the PvE and PvP
portions of the game.
It’s not an original idea, but it’s a good one.
Ten Ton Hammer: Is that
the way things should be done?
That’s just one way to do things, but it’s a good
way. You don’t want players to grind through things in order
to get to an objective that they consider fun. If a player is just
playing a game for PvP, they want to be PvPing in the first week. You
want them to start having fun right away. The quicker they have fun;
the quicker they’re going to give you more money.
It’s all about making sure people have fun and forcing
players to do things that they don’t like to do to get to the
cool bits isn’t fun. MMOs traditionally get away with that
because there’s so little competition. One of the things I
hear the most about with WoW is that doing things like Reputation
grinding isn’t fun and that players hate it. But they do it
because there aren’t any other games on the market that are
Of course, as someone who doesn’t work at Blizzard it makes
me want to pull my hair out, but for them, WoW’s the only
blockbuster right now. That’s what they see as no competition
in the market. Once there is more competition in the market, people
won’t put up with that anymore.
Ultima Online is a perfect example of that. When you have cats and
dogs - PvEers and PvPers living together in the same space,
things don’t work out to well. They still got away with it
for a couple years because there simply wasn’t any
competition. Then EverQuest came out – a safe PvE space
– and all of a sudden everyone who hated getting PKed in UO
Ten Ton Hammer: Is open
world PvP viable?
It’s what makes a game truly massive. Battleground PvP is
fun, but you’re not going to see that truly electrifying
spectacle of crossing a hill and seeing a thousand enemies there.
Sure your framerate is going to hell and you’ll die a
horrible death, but you’ll never have another experience like
that in a different game. That’s what makes MMOs special.
Ten Ton Hammer: How
daunting is it to try and balance open world PvP?
It’s almost impossible. We’re just now starting to
get the metrics and things that are necessary for seeing how players
are doing. I think you’re going to see more openness on how
players spec out their characters and choose sides. That’s
because once we allow players to make those choices, we can see what
decisions players are making and how those decisions are affecting our
Ten Ton Hammer: Is there
anything else you’d like to tell the Ten Ton Hammer readers
and Lum the Mad fans?
demanding. Don’t accept mediocrity. Don’t accept
games that try to deliver less polish. WoW has set the standards that
we have to meet, and if games don’t meet it they will fail
and deserve to fail. That standard has now been set and we have to meet