Turbine's Vice President of product development, Craig Alexander, helmed a potentially contentious discussion on the last day of the Game Developer's Conference Austin 2009.
Beginning with an analysis of the MMO genre's past, Alexander was quick to make the point that the lackluster start for massive games on the consoles is actually to be expected. It took almost a decade for PC-based MMOs to reach mass-market appeal.
The rise of PC MMOs represents almost the same timeframe as the entire growth of the PC as a gaming platform, he contends. The low price-point of consoles, crucial for hardware manufacturers, has generally kept them weak as platforms for rigorous MMOs.
Migration of PC-native game genres, additionally, tend to lag in popularity by 3-4 years. The VP trotted out a few slides with quotes from older GDC presentations, offering chestnuts like "A console controller will never be successful, as it doesn't offer the pixel-perfect accuracy of a PC."
At one point pundits were also convinced that console gamers would never be interested in strategy or competitive online experiences. Things have changed so much in the last few years that Turbine is betting on a whole new console world.
For one, as HD television adoption rises, the problem of reading large amounts of text onscreen at one time is diminishing. The company expects more than 50% adoption in the next two years.
This doesn't open up the door for "banks of forty buttons or long text narratives", Alexander was quick to point out, but makes a TV experience much more suited to conveying RPG-levels of information.
A Superior Platform
Turbine believes that the migration of game genres from PC to console (and vice versa) is inevitable. Every migration in the past, Alexander offered, has redefined the core elements of the moving genre to better fit the new platform. In his opinion, then, the VP believes that the console could be a better platform for MMOs than PCs.
In many ways, consoles fit with the multiplayer mission of online gaming much better than the tried-and-true PC. Consoles are designed to be in social spaces, for one; the growth of the MMO on probably one of the most anti-social of platforms is ironic, he suggested. Moving the massive experience to the living room could have a huge impact on gameplay.
Consoles are also more accessible. They're cheaper than 'gaming' PCs, and hardware is consistent across every unit. Alexander focused in on the reality that console game sales can be four or even five times larger than PC game sales; budgeting an MMO for those increased sales figures makes a lot of business sense.
Planning for a console release takes an enormous amount of work, but for a company with existing experience in the MMO space the real changes are all on the client-side. Swapping out that one piece of the puzzle is a much more approachable undertaking if elements like billing and backend support are already in place.
Both first party console makers have billing systems in place, offering possible help to new online console offerings. Turbine itself is focusing on swapping out elements of its modular backend design, creating new UI elements, physics models, and animation upgrades to meet a console-player's tastes.
The company is looking to make a game that matches the graphical fidelity of a game like Fable II or Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. They're currently developing games aimed directly at the 360 and PS3, and hope to one day address the Wii platform as well. "That's a ways off," Alexander admitted, owing to that console's extremely limited memory footprint and other technical hangups.
Making the Leap
Stark pie-chart graphs for 2011, projections into the future of gaming, make it clear why a leap to the console space makes so much sense for an MMO developer. According to their research, MMOs will make up some 40% of PC gaming by that point, an almost 2 billion dollar industry. 37% of that industry, they expect, will be dominated by Blizzard's World of Warcraft.
On the console side only 15% of revenues will be netted by MMOs, but that slice represents an equal amount of money; some 2 billion dollars without the looming threat of an entrenched market leader. Turbine expects "everyone to jump into that blue ocean at the same time" within the next few years. They're hopeful by planning ahead, they'll be one of the first into the water.
That ocean will be vast, the company reckons. By 2012, online console gaming should represent a 7 billion dollar industry. There will be 58 million console gamers online, 17 million of them on the Xbox 360 alone. Those 17 million users are incredibly connected and engaged, according to their research, with almost half paying for a Gold account and many engaging in some kind of commerce via XBLA.
Moreover, those users want RPG-style experiences on their consoles. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion sold to better than 50% of the Xbox 360's installed platform base.
PC game makers face a number of challenges when they're considering consoles as a new platform. Business models, design, distribution, and patching can be significantly different than what developers have previously experienced. Patching and operational flexibility in particular require an eye for scalability.
Both Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online are now double the size they were when the games launched. Contrary to the media-reported problems facing other MMO developers, Alexander was quick to point out that both Microsoft and Sony have been working with the company to change their software licenses to accommodate their needs. While it's an ongoing process, the VP feels confident that any patching issues that might arise will be overcome.
Aiming for that Target
While hardware specifications aren't a concern when making a console game, building an MMO is much more challenging to develop than the average console game. Alexander recommends looking into Valve's presentation on moving to the console from GDC 2008.
The real financial challenge for a new MMO on a console isn't even the game itself, the VP went on. The challenge is to build an extensible platform on which your first game (and every console game thereafter) can float. They're expecting it to take a total of $20 million for Turbine's first title. As long as that initial investment is a separate, reusable architecture, every game after the first will cost less.
Their standard for developing an MMO is 3-5 years once the tech is in place. They've made a conscious effort to invest in robust tools to ensure they can do fast iteration. Those tools also help when it comes to the steep challenges of doing QA for an open world.
Their rule of thumb is to write code that could live for a decade. They aim to have discipline in their process, to plan for the possibility of success and code in an enormous amount of scalability. They estimate it takes almost 100x as much testing as a standard console game, and automated tools will significantly scale down the need for more employees.
One of other ways they're working to keep QA down and reduce edge cases is to reduce the amount of content they're planning for initial release. Console RPGs have a hundred or so hours of gameplay, and they're looking to meet those expectations. That's a reduction in scale from the multiple hundreds of hours in a PC MMO.
Alexander also cautioned against the temptation to make the Xbox 360 your lead sku. The Blu-ray drive actually has slower seek time than a standard DVD, lower memory specs, and far less friendly tool options. Migrating from the 360 to the PS3 is much harder than the other way around. Their solution, and their suggestion is to start with the PS3.
They're actually creating a dual-streaming system that pulls content from both the disc and the drive at the same time. Work to understand things like drive seek time, establish memory budgets ahead of time, and stay honest with the limitations of the platform.
Keeping the game's tools and pipeline in mind during the architecture phase of the game will ensure profitability after the game gets out the door. Alexander pointed out the importance of process on a massive game's live team.
His advice was actually to practice your processes even before the ship date. Create a flexible data architecture, be mindful of content update sizes, and above all else be sure your memory budgets have room to grow.
Business Model Considerations
Moving on to financial considerations for a console MMO, Alexander was happy to be able to talk about the initial landmark success they've had with Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited.
They steeled themselves for a loss in subscriptions when the game went free-to-play, and they've actually had a 20% bump in the number of paying subscribers.
His message was forceful: the nay-saying is totally untrue. Hybrid models can work in the US, the common assumption that models with a lot of choice are too confusing for consumers is completely false. They consider it just a bit too early to declare "victory", but they're extremely hopeful.
His takeway from DDO's success is to design your business model with flexibility in mind. Offering plenty of consumable, cosmetic, and convenience items will ensure your players don't feel compelled to pay in order to stay competitive.
Allow players to make the choice between their time and their money in a meaningful way. He's almost 100% confident that console gamers will appreciate this flexibility as well. They're unused to paying regular subscriptions for a single.
Ultimately he's convinced there really is no religious debate, hybrid business models work. Subscriptions cap the investment that the hardcore can make into the game and creates financial friction. Pull down the barriers by offering players choice, and it will create more sales and goodwill for your game.
Console business model considerations include a historical focus on retail sales over online monetization. Console manufacturers also require royalty payments that can significantly impact profitability on top of any IP payments.
The certification process can also be an operational constraint that can limit flexibility with monetization. Alexander again reiterated how much Microsoft and Sony are working to accommodate their needs, running contrary to media-reported difficulties in this space.
The underlying message that Turbine's VP wanted to convey: doing a straight port is not an option. Demographics are different, the display model is different, expectations are different, player input is different, and the context of where you're playing the game is completely different.
They're overcoming these differences by relying on new console elements like chat pads and voice chat. They're working to offer players a number of emotes and a more flexible grouping system. They actually expect that world stickiness will increase on the console, as the open social space will encourage players to play longer.
Try to leverage what you do best when you're considering what to offer the players. Take your favorite console game design, sprinkle in MMO features and innovation, let simmer for years, and then invite thousands of gamers to help with seasoning.
Stay as flexible as possible for as long as possible, and invest a lot of money. Let the players make their choice of how deeply down the rabbit hole they want to go with optional systems and a robust endgame. There's no need to eliminate grind (after all, several successful console RPGs are quite grind-y), but make sure that you don't make grind the sole focus of the game; console gamers just won't stand for it.
Alexander pointed out that design can also help to reduce technological concerns that a console prompts. The open world nature of an MMO can mean a lot of streaming. Reserving memory on the box and making smart asset and patching designs can help, but design choices can help even beyond that point.
Turbine is planning to make extensive use of instancing, to ensure that only 50 or so players are in a place at a given time. They're also looking to scope down the possible number of character appearances by making smart race/class combinations.
Conclusions and Takeways
Turbine's VP concluded his planned talk forcefully, with a series of do's and don'ts. First and foremost, don't assume that you'll succeed just by creating a great game. Ensure that digital distribution and patching are effortless, as both of these concepts are somewhat foreign to console gamers.
Do everything you can on top of that, to get discs for your game into the hands of players. Help the manufacturers to spread the word about the game, via demos or free discs at retail outlets. And perhaps most importantly, realize that marketing to a console audience is completely different than marketing to PC gamers. Plan accordingly, as budgets for console releases can dwarf most PC launches.
Don't plan to ramp up "later", assume success and plan accordingly. Automate testing and work to ensure that CS will work successfully for a group of players that have never had to submit a "ticket" before. You'll still have to provide that service even if console gamer expectations are far lower than the average MMO player.
With his formal talk completed, Alexander opened up the floor to what became a somewhat contentious Q&A session. Some of the talk's best takeaways came from the VP's blunt answers to audience questions.
Turbine believes trying to share a virtual currency cross platforms is a nightmare. Moreover, they see cross-platform play as a waste of time from a design standpoint. Every console game Turbine releases will offer distinct skus for each platform.
Demographically, Turbine is aiming first and foremost for offline RPG players and "arena combat" type gamers. The company is overall hopeful that the friendly atmosphere of console gaming will lower a lot of barriers that might have otherwise kept players away from the MMO genre.
There's a certain amount of risk in this, he admits, but Turbine is essentially staking the future of the company on this assumption. "Simply switching platforms may be the single easiest way to solve the issues facing acceptance of MMOs in the marketplace."
From a gameplay standpoint, the company is betting that Oblivion/Fable II style combat will appeal to console audiences. They plan to offer MMO style experiences with simpler UI, simpler crafting, and simpler inventory systems. They hope to remove barriers to access, but ultimately support games as rich as are currently found on the PC.
As a final note from the company's VP, Alexander once again reiterated that Microsoft and Sony have been very accommodating when it comes to changing licensing and patching requirements for them. "We haven't encountered any show-stopping problems yet," he said as the session concluded.