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Bill Roper: Making MMOs Work Again

February 14, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[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.

Champions Online

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.

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Weston Wedding
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It's hard to sit and read through a 5 page interview with a producer whose name recognition is based on strings failures or just mediocre projects. The videogames industry is just about as bad as the finance sector when it comes to rewarding incompetence with jobs and attention.

Adam Moore
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Roper has been in the industry for about 16 years and most of the titles he's worked on have been recognized successes as both games and Warcraft, Starcraft, & Diablo.

MMORPGs are a difficult market to penetrate and the current predominant business models screw over the developers.

Check out this episode of Extra Credits:

Sting Newman
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Roper is one guy, roper is not a team of people. A game succeeds or fails based on who's keeping the vision for the game away from retarded ideas and the strength of the team.

Hellgate failed because it was badly conceived from the get go. When roper left everyone was expecting Isometric Action RPG, instead it was a third person pseudo MMO, it was just awful.

James Wiggs
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At least Bill had the guts to spell out how the industry operates. The brutal truth of the developer-publisher funding dance is ugly period. MMO's have been saturated since WOW kicked Everquest to the curb years ago, so it's not surprising that most MMO's fail. What is surprising, is why MMO's keep getting funding.

Kudos Bill...Best of luck on your next venture!

mikael svensson
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Even though I cannot bear with the appauling mainstream products Cryptic has created while this guy worked there you cannot close your eyes to the growth the company had and also the financial success of each and every game they released. Somehow - people are stupid enough to buy them.

I really hope Cryptic can make something a little bit more for grownups with the Neverwinter title.

About the negatice criticism you will always get that...whatever you do. You never get good criticism...always bad. Doesn't matter if you're selling cookies, driving a bus or checking parking meters. (Ok...maybe the cookies was a bad

The thing is that kids today have very bad or no upbringing at all and they are very competitive in everything they do. They will instantly...even before a game has been released make a list of why your game sucks and why game B is so much better.

Flavio Creasso
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Well regardless Flagship work, to me Mr. Roper will always be one of the guys that created Diablo.

Maybe this could be the trouble, people waited too much from him and let's admit that he is capable of lots more, just give him a break to get used to work outside AB.

David Fried
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But he didn't create Diablo... :P

mikael svensson
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Just the thought that he MIGHT have made Diablo repels me. I consider myself a more "harcore" RPG gamer here and we have always been talking about the "Diablo-style" of RPG:ing...which is...well....pure hack'n slash....without any attempt at actual roleplaying. That is what Diablo brought us...and that is also what RPG games nowdays brings us unfortunately...

Duong Nguyen
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MMOs are behind the tech curve in terms of graphical and networking technology. MMOs don't draw the younger crowd who are use to seeing photo-realistic games.. The current crop of MMOs are living off the 30's something who got into it 10 years ago.. There is massive interest in cooperative multiplayer experiences, but they are drawn to the much more frenetic and graphically appealing FPS genres.. Why did Champions not do as well as say DCUO? I think the art style and less than visceral / realtime combat dynamics had a major part to play.. Black Ops rakes in just as many player online hours as WOW now and it won't be the only FPS to bring in those numbers in the coming years i suspect..

Robert K
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I haven't read the whole article yet, but wanted to comment on part of it while the thought was fresh in my mind.

Comparing making a video game to a movie is kind of unfair. Making a movie and a game are totally different things (besides the script for the most part). I would think writing a script for a movie might be harder than a video game, you need much more dialog. Other than that I think making a game would be harder. The time to program the engine (Unless you use a pre-made one), the time it takes to code it.

Its harder to just throw away a game because it takes so long to make. NCsoft has a thing about throwing away games and it must kill the people who work on them. They could easily do what was done with Champions, D&D and other games, just sell the game to another publisher and let the game have a chance as F2P. If a movie is done and doesn't do well in the theater, or if the producer thinks it won't do well they can just send it to video and/or Netflix or other on demand service and people can and will watch it no matter how bad it is. Sure they shelve movies before or int he middle of being made, not sure how often that happens.

Sting Newman
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" I would think writing a script for a movie might be harder than a video game, you need much more dialog."

Did you not play mass effect 2 Robert? Or GTA4, or Red dead redemption? Games have a tonne of dialog now-a-days. Not all of them to be sure but games with lots of NPC's who the team wants to give voices to adds up really quickly.

Fox English
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To backup Sting's point: just my indie RPG alone has a minimum of 350 pages of dialog script written so far, and that's just the primary characters along the main story. A movie only has about 120-200 (generally 1 page = 1 minute). I can't imagine what a title like RDR or the BioWare RPGs.

Jonathan Lawn
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I blogged (from a position of ignorance) on why I though MMORPGs should be funded like TV series:
ities_between_games_genres_and_other_media_formats.php. Perhaps Roper should try to get a publishing deal from HBO?

Duong Nguyen
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Unlike TV shows, making a MMO requires a huge investment of technology in the backend.. unless you just buy it pre-packaged then your limiting yourself to what they built.. A TV show if u get the funding u can have a pilot in 6 months.. A MMO even if u get funding it will take 2-3 years to build.

Until competent MMO middle ware comes about, i don't think that model will work well for MMOs, but its only a matter of time until someone releases a WOW level middleware solution..

Owain abArawn
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As I said in a different thread regarding the MMO grind, MMOs have to get beyond the lazy game development technique of "send the player out to kill 10 rats/boars/wolves/etc, and call the design good" for MMOs to 'work' again. Speaking of Star Trek Online, they did the exact same damn thing. Destroy 10 orions/klingons/romulans/borgs, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Bleh. If you want to know why MMOs don't work any more, you don't have to look any farther than that.

Benjamin Marchand
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I totally agree about the grinding part (didn't play STO to judge).

From an hardcore gamer standpoint, it really seems like 90% of MMOs since WoW (2005) wanted to follow WoW footsteps, either financially or with game mechanics.

Benjamin Marchand
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Videogames are definitely too much attached to already existing models,

nowadays. This is what kills videogame in general.

And this is why 8-bit era was so glorious : it was new, free from any

model re-use.

There should be a number 1 rule in every game studio :

"Any time you start a new game development, just burn all your game

mechanism models".

To a broader approach, I would say that this "model discount syndrome", as mister Roper mentionned it, is the cynical, logical result of our actual society : driven by investors and shareholders.

Nobody wants to take risks. Nobody wants to lose that precious penny in some kind of "that could work, but we're not 100% sure". This is pitifully rotting creations, and we all know it.

Nobody wants to "just try and let instinct guide ourselves" anymore. We're all robots, production machines.

This is even what killed a lot of games these recent years : we could feel that the studio wanted to put an original feature in it, like I don't know, a new quest system, a new interaction ... and when you look at the bigger picture, you see those features overwhelmed by mainstream déjà-vus.

Game Industry has become profoundly shy. Gamemaking actors do not have this inner craziness anymore. This furious, innocent desire to plant new flags.

To all developers, game studios, gamedesigners : Just put your guts on the table. Take risks, follow your instinct. Put all those obvious rehashes into trashcan.

Every good gamedesigner is also supposed to be a good gamer. And a good gamer knows what's original, what's saturated, and what's addictive.

P.S : thank you very much for this article, very instructive.

Mark Buzby
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Yeah, and nobody wants to tell 30 or 50 or 100 people that they just lost their job on an innovative gamble that failed.

Iain Howe
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The reason why the innovation at all costs model has failed is because our game designers have grown up along with their audiences. Iteration pays better than innovation - the mainstream prefer something new but familiar and they vote with their pocket books. The development team that wants to stay in business, make their mortgage payments and keep their children clothed and fed bows to the pressures of the marketplace.

Smaller indie studios are where innovation at all costs still works - but nobody is going to trust them with a hundred million dollar budget.

Philip Allwright
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MMO's fail when they get released too early, full of bugs due to the bean counters wanting to see some money. Players get a bad 1st impression and leave after the free month leaving a few fanboys to carry on the "but this game has so much potential..." hype until A. They see the light and quit or B. The game goes bust.