[In this extensive interview conducted at GDC China, Bill Roper, former design director of Cryptic Studios, discusses what he sees as the broken model of MMO development in the West, and explores the negative reaction gamers had to Cryptic's Star Trek Online and Champions Online. You can also read the first part of this interview, which dives deep into Roper's experiences developing Hellgate: London.]
After the debacle that was Hellgate: London and the closure of Flagship Studios, company founder and former Blizzard developer Bill Roper joined established MMO developer Cryptic Studios as design director in 2008.
Less than two years later, Roper would resign from the company after the launches of Champions Online and Star Trek Online, each of which was criticized by gamers and reviewers.
Roper discusses gamer reaction to the MMOs, and also delves deep into the problems he sees with MMO development, particularly with the structure of publisher / developer funding deals.
He also addresses the attachment that developers have to their products and how they should approach things in new ways to make them more economically feasible.
You've talked about having some issues with how publisher funding goes on games, particularly MMOs.
Bill Roper: I think it's a broken model, the way that funding works on a pub-dev deal. It just kind of is, right? Because the publisher wants to get the game out, so they want to figure out how to fund the game right until the game comes out. Then there's no more funding.
We always want as much time as we can. So, we start doing stuff, and invariably, when the game ships, whenever that is -- whether it's early or the right amount of time -- you have used the last amount of funding to get it out. There's never a cushion, right? And now, you have no money. So, if you don’t have another project lined up, you're screwed.
And let's say the game comes out and does well. You still could fail in the time before you get your first check, because you're typically earning out at your royalty rate, right? So, if I have a 20 percent royalty rate as a developer, and there's $5 million spent on the game, well, the game has got to make $25 million before I start seeing anything.
And if there's an online back end -- if it's a subscription game, an MMO -- that doesn't happen until... The first month is free, so there's a first month after the game is shipped where no revenues are coming in because you're still earning out with all that. There's no online revenue yet. And even if your online revenue model is different, you've got to pull out all the operations on top.
And typically, you get paid quarterly. So, it might be four, five months before you start seeing any money. And also in those deals, they almost never put anything on the back end, that back end support. They always say, "Hey, we're going to take a portion of how much money was made and use that for continuing development." But traditionally, that doesn't get front-loaded.
So, as the developer, you know that you have to keep making content and keep providing service for players, but there's no funding set aside to do it, right? It's the transition that a lot of big Western publishers have made from boxed to online, and they're still making it. Like, "Hey, you finish the game and you ship it, and then you make money."
But it's an online game. It doesn't finish there. I think logically they know it doesn't finish there. They all talk that. They all say, "We know that when the game really, you know, when work really starts," but they haven't attached the marketing model to that. They haven't attached the funding model to that.
And you find out that you're damned based on a bad first impression.
BR: But you're absolutely right. You can work your ass off after the game is out and do tons of fixes and do tons of changes and show that your team is dedicated, but how it ships is how people think of it. That definitely happened with Hellgate, with Champions, and to a degree with Star Trek, all those games. Like, yes, it wasn't perfect when it came out, but we're like, "Look at the first two or three patches we did. We get it!" But [players are] like, "Oh, well, no. I tried it."
I think the worst, almost the worst part is when someone plays the game, and they say, "Wow. That was really cool. I really liked that. There's a lot of potential there. I think I'll come back in six months or a year, and see how it is." They're not going to be there in six months or a year, right? That's the whole thing.
It's why the subscription is so difficult, because it's reliant upon the fact that you're going to have a certain number of people there from the beginning giving you money, and you've built your game that way,
If you're looking for continuing business models to tie into it, microtransactions are great because I know a certain percentage of people are going to buy something as they play it and as they like it, but I'm not dependent on the fact that "Oh, if I don't have 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 players -- whatever it is -- if I don't have whatever it is, if I don't have whatever my baseline number is playing, I can't operate the game." Because, you know, you're building all your costs off that, your server costs, everything, how to operate the game.