The Icelandic Model of MMO Development

By Alexander Gianturco

[While most MMOs concentrate on developing linear content, EVE Online follows a systems-based design which allows for sandbox gameplay and player agency -- and this article, from EVE expert player/spymaster 'The Mittani', outlines why he believes its subscriber base continues to rise.]

The MMO industry has changed dramatically from its infancy in the Ultima Online era. With the accelerating proliferation of MMO gaming into the mainstream of the global entertainment industry, the revenue expectations from these exceedingly complex titles has spiraled out of control. It is no longer enough to pitch a MMO with the end goal of merely turning a profit; comparisons with titles that have the GDPs of small nation-states are inevitable.

After I gave my talk at GDC discussing EVE Online's metagame, I encountered a number of developers who were disheartened by the dominance of the blockbuster business model -- its incredible cost, its astonishing risk and rate of failure, and the linear content-based gameplay it has engendered.

Yet there is another model of MMO development, and one that's already proven successful in the industry. Both less risky and less glamorous, the "Icelandic Model" of MMO development offers salvation to aspiring developers who don't have $75 million in startup capital at hand.

Blockbusters and "Big Content"

Launching a MMO isn't an easy business. The vast majority of subscription-model MMOs fail, with the signature "death spike" of a surge of players at launch and reciprocal mass exodus once the first free month of playtime ends, followed by a humiliating and slowly declining subscriber plateau.

Corporate resources are re-allocated away from the ailing title, and eventually the plug is pulled on the servers. As the market has become increasingly competitive, the life cycle of MMOs has grown ever shorter.

The ultimate question of survival for a MMO is exceedingly simple: what makes the gameplay a continuous experience for the player, rather than a linear path with an endpoint? A vast oversimplification, some might say, yet it is precisely this question which is too often put off or ignored in the preparation of a title for launch.

A game with a certain amount of content and a linear path leaves a player with nothing else to do once the end of the path is reached except re-treading it with a new character. By contrast, a game which has planned for and emphasized the endgame from the outset ensures that its players have a motive to stick around after the first free month.

As more companies attempt to emulate the success of World of Warcraft, "big content" as a design model has come to reign supreme. The idea here is essentially that other MMO launches have failed because they didn't provide enough content for the players. BioWare's upcoming The Old Republic project is an excellent example of this; they have boasted of having created thousands of hours of fully voice-acted plot.

This is certainly one way around the problem of players "running out of game" inside of the first month; however, it requires a tremendous amount of capital and pre-launch investment. I intend to play TOR and expect to enjoy the hell out of it, but most aspiring developers simply do not have the money to follow BioWare's lead.

MMO launches have often skimped on content at launch to their detriment. It isn't a shock that this happens because content (be it in the form of quests, raids, dungeons, or whatever) is extraordinarily expensive in both man-hours and creative spark. Boring content is often just as expensive as engaging content, which requires the kind of narrative genius that can't be easily recreated.

Stopgap methods for plugging content holes, such as randomly generated quests, have been attempted but these have proven a failure; the most common complaint of players in such games is that the random content ends up being repetitive and stale.

If you are attempting to create a blockbuster MMO, your greatest difficulty is creating enough engaging content, and your worst nightmare is the endgame when that content runs out.


The Icelandic Model

The content-based blockbuster MMO model excludes the vast majority of aspiring developers both due to its extraordinary capital requirements and the near-suicidal business risk. Yet there is an alternative model of MMO design, one which doesn't require the budget of a Hollywood film or the risk-taking of a lemming on meth.

I call it the Icelandic Model, following the path of CCP, creators of EVE Online. This model didn't actually originate in Iceland or with CCP themselves, but they are the most prominent developer to have pulled off this kind of success -- against the grain of the market.

CCP began as a tiny group of former Ultima Online buddies who decided that they wanted to create their own game. They didn't have a tremendous amount of startup capital; by modern standards, the game was developed on a shoestring budget.

When it was released, EVE could barely be called a game at all. It was a pure sandbox design, with only a smattering of content. The learning curve was vertical, the tutorials a disaster, and sales and the subscriber curve abysmal.

If EVE was released today by a AAA publisher, the plug would have been pulled on the servers inside of a month and the developers themselves summarily executed.

Yet with a bare-bones game, CCP managed to eventually grow and prosper. Why? It wasn't a matter of pure random luck. EVE as it was released was a mostly-empty sandbox, where the focus of the endgame was on player conflicts not presided over by the devs.

Not only does a sandbox-based endgame revolving around player agency cost a hell of a lot less to launch than a traditional content-based setup, it offers a type of gameplay almost entirely unrepresented in the market today. CCP had created a tiny sandbox, but that sandbox had a devoted niche following.

Having started small and aimed for the reachable goal of a small niche audience, CCP took their very modest revenues and began reinvesting them into the game itself. This led to a process of iterative organic growth within the game; incrementally, more subscribers would fund the addition of new toys to the sandbox, which would result in yet more subscribers.

It's important to note that the features CCP implemented in EVE's early days were not traditional MMO content launches in the sense of new areas or dungeons, but rather additional features for players to mess around with.

While a new feature -- such as a production chain or a new class of ship -- is less flashy than a hot new raid or zone, such features aren't born with an expiration date after which the players will lose interest. Over time they create much more value for the game, and are a better investment on the part of the developer.

The goal of EVE was never to create a mega-MMO such as WoW (which, of course, did not exist at the time) but rather to find a niche and expand it slowly. The subscriber curve in EVE is almost unique in the industry because it is such a predictable linear progression upward -- an amusing irony considering how CCP has almost completely eschewed linear content.


The Model In Practice

In design terms, how would this model be spelled out? There are two core assumptions:

- We assume that you are looking to develop a MMO on a budget, lacking the tremendous startup capital needed to produce a game revolving around linear content.

- We also assume that you are comfortable with a "slow" definition of success, willing to accept a small yet ever-increasing subscriber base rather than demanding hundreds of thousands of subscribers right out of the gates.

Given these ground rules, the four key attributes of the Icelandic Model emerge:

Sandbox-Based Endgame. The endgame is the difference between a game which crashes and burns shortly after launch, and a game which attracts a loyal following. Since linear content isn't an option for a studio without a mega-budget, you'll need to base your title's endgame around a sandbox.

This doesn't necessarily have to be a PvP sandbox such as EVE's; the sandbox can be cooperative, as seen in A Tale in the Desert. The sandbox is critical because it gives the players something to do to amuse themselves immediately after a minimalistic launch while revenue and new features are being developed.

Unique, Engaging Environment. There needs to be a draw to your title to attract your players to your sandbox. When EVE was released, it was essentially the only hardcore PvP MMO on the market, as well as the only hard sci-fi title. Earth and Beyond was contemporaneous, but soft in terms of science fiction, linear in content, and lacked consequential PvP. For players with an interest in any of those things, EVE was the only place to go.

Similarly, titles lacking a unique environment or draw are not likely to succeed, even if they follow the other aspects of the Icelandic development model. A generic fantasy sandbox might attract enough revenue to sustain itself on a shoestring budget, but a title in a steampunk, cyberpunk, or post-apocalyptic setting could do much better as they offer something relatively unique to the player in the current environment.

Reinvestment and Organic Growth. A small core of players will be willing to stick with an minimalist sandbox MMO at launch if there is an engaging environment to play in. However, you must develop the game further with the revenues generated by this core, or your game will stagnate and perish.

While it's true that a sandbox environment is far more forgiving than a linear content model when it comes to burnout, players want to see that there is hope for a better game in the future. Communication is key here; not only must you develop new features, but engage with your core subscribers to demonstrate that their money is going towards improvements in the game, rather than corporate profits.

Features Over Linear Content. "Content" in the traditional MMO sense means a linear activity for players which expires once the content is completed -- the most obvious examples being raids, dungeons, and quests. There's some replay value, but it diminishes rapidly, and players demand more content.

While some traditional content is inevitable in almost every game, in a sandbox it is important to focus new development on features of the game which expand the range of player agency within the sandbox, in the form of tools or new types of gameplay for players to engage in.

It's important to not suddenly lose focus once you generate some initial revenue post-launch and begin attempting to follow a traditional content-based model; your player base is there for the sandbox and expanding features, and if you switch focus in development away from creating new features, you may both fail to attract new players and lose the current niche you've carved out.

Make It Happen

Too many developers with great ideas are intimidated away from creating intriguing MMO titles by the daunting startup costs of following the dominant blockbuster model. It doesn't have to be this way; just use a different business model! CCP began with a bare $2.6 million in funding. eGenesis, creators of A Tale In the Desert, have followed a similar model with a focus on an organically-grown sandbox.

There are many unexplored niches in the MMO market in which excellent games could thrive, and the capital barrier to entry is lower than you might think.

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