Postcard from Austin: MMO Rant
After a full two days of earnest panels, lectures, and keynote speeches about massively multiplayer online games at this week's Austin Game Conference, after two days of alert and focused MMOG makers sharing what they know and have learned about their genre with the development community, and after a few days of game parties and the serious carousing that goes with them, after all this, the seams finally burst open. And the “MMO Rant” was the result.
A medium-sized room at the Austin Convention Center was brimming with standing attendees who awaited the rant, moderated by former Sony Online VP Gordon Walton. In the spirit of the rant, I’d like to note that although an entire wall was lined with standing attendees, about one-third of the room’s chairs were actually empty. The panelists were Jessica Mulligan, whose style never gets in the way of her brain or her crass language (Mulligan is currently a consultant working on Nevrax's Saga Of Ryzom, and also worked on Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call); Meridian 58's Brian Green from Near Death Studios, who proclaimed he’s also known as “Psychochild”; and the slightly more reserved Jeff Hickman (executive producer and vice president at Dark Age of Camelot developer Mythic).
Starting off, Hickman put his rant in a nutshell: "My rant is basically about, as game developers, the fact that we often make changes to our games, core pieces to our games, after we launch.” “As a player, it’s affecting me right now in the game that I’m playing,” Hickman said, but admitted his guilt at having done the same thing when in the developer role. Changes, he said, prevented his development team in the end from achieving the goals they had wanted to achieve. "Players come to our game because of what we put in there. We come out, we make a system change to our games--and what does it do? It alienates our players,” he said. “Instead of sticking to the thing we love, we start changing it. The 3.5 million people who are already playing our game, they’re happy! Why are we changing it?”
Unlike Hickman’s nutshell, Green’s rant snowballed into an unclear and, some believed, tedious metaphor; he read aloud a phony letter written to pop novelist Stephen King on the loose topic of user-created content. The audience roared with laughter at parts, but Green’s message was distinctly mixed. The fake letter, written from the point of view of a reader who belittles King’s latest book and offers inane suggestions for revision, seemed a metaphor in parody. It seemed as if Green’s point was that developers need not listen to the ridiculous criticisms of every single player, that players are not game design experts simply because they are voracious players (likewise, that readers of pop novels are not expert writers). But Green ended by saying that we need to take down the line between pros and amateurs. The audience, still laughing at Green’s antics, was not shaken by his rant’s notable shortcomings.
Mulligan’s rant boiled down to a repeated “you suck,” aimed at nearly everyone in the room: Carnegie Mellon students, developers of MMOGs, developers of the games’ content and themes, and even Gordon Walton. “I am so frustrated after the last 20 years of making the same mistakes over and over and over,” Mulligan said, citing examples such as coding before designing, changing a game after launch, ignoring the community of players, launching before the game and team is ready, and shoddily established billing systems. “Don’t start coding before the design is fleshed out,” she said. “Before the ship sails out from the dock, you’ve got to know where you destination is.” Mulligan, not concerned about naming names, added: “World of WarCraft has some of the worst community relations situations I’ve ever seen,” stressing the importance of not only supporting your community, but listening to them to find out what will satisfy them as players and as paying customers. To the World of WarCraft developers, Mulligan added, “Why dont you just tell [your players], ‘You’re all a bunch of f---ing nerds and we want your money.’” About launching before you’re ready, Mulligan turned momentarily serious. “I understand the considerations. Sometimes the money runs out. Sometimes you work for a public company. This can be helped by designing better, learning from history and also putting in customer services in place.”
And on bad billing programs: “I thought that we were over this as an industry. I actually worked on a game where the billing program was written three days before launch. It was tested exactly once with only one credit card.” And there were presales for that game. “That’s one of the first interactions your players have with you,” said Mulligan about billing. “Don’t keep making the same mistakes.” Walton, taking hold of the room then announced, “We’ve managed to put ourselves in the spiral of mediocrity.” Mulligan, with impeccable timing, called out the action of the audience: “And all the guys from Sony start clapping!” But Walton lulled the room into momentary submission with a PowerPoint slideshow of notable quotes about risk taking, to the effect of drilling into the audience’s head the importance of risks.
“Mostly I’m mad at myself because I’m in the same place. I’m a master of risk mitigiation. I’m not the risk-taker I once was,” he said. Walton contends that MMOG makers’ inability to be inventive stems from our biology. “We are herd animals. We are employing herd strategies in a creative business,” he said, adding that everyone jumps on a successful idea, and makes a copy, but makes it worse. “Why do we do this? We do this because we’re freaking mammals.” Risk-mitigation, he claims, is a cause of our being mammals and more importantly, primarily herbivores who stick to the inside of the herd, for protection. “We’re just a bunch of freaking mammals doing stupid stuff without thinking. And the thing that we’re up to here is creativity. ... We’re doing the same s--t over and over again. We’re not taking risk with gamplay. We’re not taking risks with genre. We’re not taking risks with audience,” he said, adding that these are “very dumb herd behaviors.” Walton touted negative player feedback as a tool for developers. Still, a bigger problem is a static audience of gamers. “Particuarly in MMOs, we’re blowing it because we’re not going after anyone new in our audience. You’re trying to risk-mitigate, but you’re not going to grow our industry. You are part of our problem. You are not part of the solution.” Harshly, Walton demanded that all the MMOG makers in the audience stop contributing to all the problems, including audience stagnancy, repeatedly rehashed game design, and risk-free game making. “Just don’t do it. We’re not going to get unconventional games if we do stuff that’s conventional,” Walton said. “We need to stop running down other people doing crazy s--t. We need to celebrate somebody who is nutty enough to try something new and fall flat on their face. If we can get a hundred people to do that, two of them won’t fall flat on their face. Our dev cycles are too long, which means we’re not interating fast enough,” he said. “Our strength is innovation and we’re blowing our strength in this particular market.”
After Walton finished his lecture-style rant, audience members contributed to the hate. Scott Jennings arose to say he’s “really sick of playing D&D online.” He asked, “If I want to make the game that’s not D&D online, how do I convince someone to give me $50M if I’m not Will Wright?” Walton’s reply was serious. “There’s bound to be someone crazy enough to give us tens of millions of dollars to do something really insane.” He suggested MMO game makers in particular try building their games at home on a very small scale to try them out first. Some ranting audience members criticized this approach until someone shouted, “How well did it work for Doom though?” “We’re all PC game nuts. We’re pretty much morons about this,” said Walton. “We’re self-reinforcing a hobby market.”
“You can trade sweat equity for money,” said Mulligan, taking the conversation in a positive direction again. “It only goes so far, but you can. Look at the great stuff that’s been done: Sim City, Doom. There are some huge examples of it. It can be done.” Walton, not quite rhetorically asked, “Why have we never made Deer Hunter Online? Because we’re freaking snobs.” Hickman agreed with Walton’s assessment that MMOG makers in particular are PC players who don’t branch outside their own areas of taste in games and playstyle, reciting the few themes that repeat themselves in nearly all MMOGs, such as space exploration. “As long as we learn from our mistakes and learn a little bit, there’s lot of opportunity out there.” “Everybody always thinks that bigger is better,” said Green, mentioning how game developers are becoming convinced that they need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of one game. “You know what you can do instead? Make a hundred games for a thousand players,” he said, calling the method boutique-ish. “You can go for niche content, and it’s viable.”
Some audience members chimed in that not only do developers need to find new genres, themes, styles of play, and customers, but new sources of funding too. Steve Jackson arose from his audience chair and began pacing in front of the panelists’ table. With the exception of Pong, he said, “Why is your documentation so bad? You push it off on the people who write 'Dummies' books. You push it off on the other players. You push it off on the poor guys in customer support. Those of you who have MMOs, you have the opportunity to update your documentation every day.” “Put in writing the way your game actually plays and not the way you wanted it to play three months before launch,” Jackson ranted.
On another tangent later in the session, Walton boldly announced, “This whole balance thing is a retarded idea. Balance is a theory. There’s fun in the imbalance quite often. There’s gameplay and fun in the inbalance.” Green, on balance and making changes in an online game to reach balance said, “Even if you do a good change, players hate it.” “I tell all my teams, if you take with one hand, you must give with the other,” added Mulligan. Meanwhile, audience rants continued to address topics such as poor documentation (again), entry level barriers, reuse of gameplay, and AI. “There’s no such thing as AI. We have varying levels of artificial stupidity, though,” said Mulligan. And on unoriginal gameplay, Mulligan took her shot at the biggest publisher in the industry, in a fittingly ranty end to the most frantic session at AGC: “This is what you get when you don’t take risks. You get Electronic Arts.”
[Gamasutra will reprint this news story with additional information in the near future as part of an Austin Games Conference feature wrap-up.]