MMORPGs, and their need for a live team, are dragging the game world kicking and screaming into a new publishing paradigm -- one that it doesn't really know what to do about. What's more, we are being dragged without preamble and without preparation. Before we had live MMORPG products, the entire game industry was set up top to bottom to deliver a boxed product to the stores. Once the game got to the consumers, publishers then sat back and watched the retail sales of that product. The way games' production cycle is geared, the way games' advertising money is spent, the way games' development mentality focuses its efforts -- it's all designed to support an "arrowhead" approach. That is, all team members aim towards one specific delivery point so as to gain the deepest penetration for the product in the marketplace. We do this because we all know that if a game isn't a hit in the first month or two, it isn't going to be a hit at all. Rarely does a game rebound or have its sales curve accelerate and have an extended life in the months following its release. It happens, but I can only think of a few games that have done so.
But MMORPGs have a new and different issue to contend with: they exist live online for long periods of time, and thus have an extended product "shelf life" by their very nature. There's the launch, then the public reaction to that launch, and how the stability of that launch affects the sales (recall Anarchy Online?) and then after the dust settles, the product begins to exist on its own in and the audience starts to grow (or not). I believe we have to re-think how we deliver these kinds of products to the public. Perhaps we need to learn some lessons from those people who live and die by delivering live product to their audience on a scheduled regular basis: mainstream entertainment like broadcast TV.
I have some experience in both areas: my original training was in the dramatic mediums (theater, film and TV). I have worked in theater and TV, and have many friends who make their living there. For the last 22 years, I have been a creative director / designer in both the pencil & paper and electronic game arenas. I have over two-dozen shipped titles to my credit, and have for the last 2 1/2 years worked on Earth & Beyond, EA Online's science fiction massive multiplayer online game. I can speak to the comparison in process and focus between the two publishing models.
If there is one thing the MMO space has proven so far it is that no product can survive once launched without giving the players more of what they want: some have delivered expansion packs that contain new lands to explore, some have updated the game's systems and content through patches, and some have started to try and tell stories on line that involve the players as active participants. But everyone realizes that only shipping the box isn't enough. At the very least, a team of developers has to be in place to fix the bugs that crop up as people play the game. My question is this: are the skills needed to get a game out the door in the first place the same set of skills that are needed to maintain the game once it goes live and also change the game experience in a way that helps to grow the audience?
These games are very expensive to build and publishers want, understandably, to begin recouping their investment as soon as possible. The economic model of these games is designed not so much around the sales of the box in stores but around the continuing income from monthly subscriptions. Frequent updates and expansions of the product support and drive up subscriptions, which in turn drives long-term revenue. So, it is no exaggeration to say that equal in importance to the eventual economic success of a game are BOTH the quality produced by the original development team as well as the quality produced by the ongoing live team. We all know what a development team does, and a little later in this article we'll discuss what the responsibilities of the live team are and how the priorities of live team development might dictate a different set of talents from the development team.
In the game business, because the retail sales are (historically) the only way to recoup investment, publishers have developed predictive methods to determine very quickly after a product hits the shelves whether they are going to recoup or not. But in TV, the profit comes from the long term, not the short term. Unless the show is sold into syndication, it is hard to call it a hit. This payday comes years after the successful (if it is successful) first season. TV series have to acquire a backlog of episodes they can sell as a package to these local channels, and it is also much easier to sell packages of half-hour sitcoms than hour-long dramas. Syndication is where the real money is really made. Any investment is truly a strategic one for the producers.
So, in TV land, the development mentality is geared towards trying to generate a series that is reasonably successful from the moment it launches, in order to build economic success over the long term. When you think about it, this economic model used by the TV industry is much more akin the MMORPG model than to the boxed game model. The television industry is used to that approach, and today it is the only profitable model for that industry.
In the game business, we're totally focused on success at launch. TV is focused on a successful "run" of a show. These economic forces affect everything about development in both mediums. Let's examine the differences in the two development environments.
Comparison Between Broadcast TV and MMORPGs
TV: TV delivers new episodes in a series, which everyone assumes have new content. In fact, TV has shown that recycled content (re-runs) don't get as high a rating as new content.
Games: Games deliver new patches. What is a "patch" except a fix to something that's broken? We're used to patches because we live in an environment where a games ships and then, because we never have enough time to really polish it before it shipped, we issue a "patch" over the internet which fixes some of the things that are broken. Part of our mental adjustment to the new paradigm needs to be to see these "updates" as opportunities to continuously deliver to the players new and interesting systems and content to make their experience fresh.
Earth & Beyond delivers an update each month, but going to a weekly, or even bi-weekly, update schedule would be impossible for the team right now.
Conclusion: The question we have to ask is, "How much does this lesson apply to MMORPG games?" Earth & Beyond tries to deliver one update a month. Is this enough? Is this too much? Does frequency matter in this space? It is hard to prove one way or the other at this point. I can say that on Earth & Beyond, the players look forward to content updates and some even take days off from work on days we've announced updates in order to play all day and see what we've added. One could extrapolate from that the idea of frequent updates is desirable to the audience. But how do we reach a goal of weekly or even bi-weekly updates? Right now that is impossible for us. I believe that marketing or design should determine the best timing to deliver these updates in order to increase or maintain the subscriber base. The evidence is there that when done with this in mind, we create excitement in the audience. Just like new episodes of a TV series do.
TV's Tight Schedule: Every minute in the development of a new episode is accounted and budgeted for. They cannot keep up with the production cycle otherwise. They have learned what it takes to create and produce a weekly show. Budgets are tight but the machine is well oiled.
Games' Flexible Schedule: Audience doesn't know when an update will come or on what day, so everything can be in flux. This is good for the development team, bad for the audience. Well, it is ultimately bad for the development team as well because it encourages the development team to be sloppy in its processes. "It's okay if we slip, because we'll just delay the content update, or we'll delay the system patch" or whatever. This implies that there is no sense of timeliness to the update, no sense of timeliness to the content, no sense of urgency resulting in no momentum building up in the audience. Think of the problems that Babylon 5 had with new shows, followed by reruns, followed by new shows again. This is very tough to fight against.
Conclusion: We should try to build a team and a technology base designed from the ground up to deliver regular updates on schedule.
TV staffing: Every job has a specific task. There are costume people, prop people, wardrobe people, and many other dedicated staff. While the unions regulate much of this, the production schedule dictates it even more. There isn't the time to be inefficient. There isn't the time to train people as you go. Unions also control the economics to some extent; producers cannot go overtime without serious financial repercussions. How many hours before we have to break for lunch, how many hours in a day? How many in a week? Working conditions are intense, but there is some protection for the workers.
Games' staffing: One of the dangers on any game development project is for the morale and health of the workers involved. There are no financial repercussions of going overtime. And since we don't know what in the heck we're doing to a large extent, sometimes it is very hard to correctly estimate timeframes. But because this isn't a sprint to a specific finish line (as is the case with a boxed product), the danger is greater.
On Earth & Beyond, when we were planning our monthly
updates, one of the writing staff asked me when during the year
we expected to give the writing staff a vacation. In TV, hiatus
comes and people can take time off then if they wish. The often-excruciating
hours are somewhat ameliorated by the knowledge the hiatus is coming
and everyone can collapse if they wish. Just as the rush to ship
crunch is somewhat eased by the knowledge that after the game ships,
people can take off and rest. MMORP staffing and development needs
to adjust to this.