GDC '08: MMOG execs spar over genre's future

Emmert, Miller, Muzyka, Kim, and Pardo discuss microtransactions, console migration, development costs, and just how unhealthy massively multiplayer gaming is.

SAN FRANCISCO--Last year, a whole spate of new massively multiplayer online games hit the market, with some of the biggest including Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Fury, Lord of the Rings Online, and Tabula Rasa. No easy feat, considering the tens of millions of dollars and the multiyear commitments necessary to pull off such projects. However, despite the variety of new entrants, none have come close in terms of popularity to even the shadow cast by Blizzard's World of Warcraft, which itself received an expansion at the beginning of 2007.

Not-so-massive massively multiplayer panel.

So is the MMOG market healthy? That and other questions played front and center in a roundtable discussion titled "Future of MMOs" held on the fourth day of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. While MMOGs have had a polarizing effect on many in the gaming industry, the session nonetheless drew a massive audience due to its pedigree of participants.

Squaring off in the sometimes-contentious debate were Jack Emmert, founder of Cryptic Studios, which is currently at work on the recently announced Champions Online; Matt Miller, lead designer of NCsoft City of Heroes/Villains; Ray Muzyka, GM of BioWare, which is currently developing an unnamed MMOG that may or may not involve LucasArts' Star Wars license; Min Kim, director of game operations at microtransaction-oriented Nexon; and Rob Pardo, VP of game design at WOW proprietor Blizzard Entertainment.

The first question posed to the panel involved the recent trend in MMOG development to begin with an established intellectual property, rather than an original concept. Emmert noted that the reason for this is because publishers and investors favor established IP because they come with a build-in market. This was a common consensus among panel participants, with Muzyka noting that an established IP can be both bane and boon because there is a generally a substantial amount of reference material, but the developer needs to completely embrace the backstory. Pardo chimed in, saying that WOW took about five years to make, but it would have required at least a couple more years had Blizzard started from scratch.

Shifting the discussion to MMOGs on consoles, the panel was split over whether it is a surefire trend that will continue. Emmert and Miller felt that it was an inevitability that MMOGs will continue to see console releases, primarily due to the fact that Sony and Microsoft want their consoles to be the all-in-one single box that does everything. Muzyka, Kim, and Pardo, however, all took up the stance that the console is a viable platform for MMOGs, but it is often inappropriate. Muzyka noted that it is important to first understand the type of game that is being made, and then judge where the audience is. Agreeing, Kim said that for Nexon, a console market wouldn't make sense because they target mass-market appeal and therefore need to give the game client away for free, something console manufacturers may not be overly keen on.

The most heated discussion of the debate centered upon the subscription-based business model versus microtransactions. Taking an almost ravenous stance, Emmert railed on investors and publishers keen on the microtransaction model, calling it a buzz word and saying that every time he hears it, "It just makes me want to die." Unsurprisingly, the opposite view was held by Kim, whose company pioneered the business in the late '90s. According to Kim, who noted that Nexon's revenues have surpassed those of Emmert's former publisher NCsoft, the subscription model works best for the hardcore crowd, but mass-market audiences are far more receptive to buying just what they want. This balances out in the end for the game maker at least, though, because some players get overcharged, while others get undercharged.

Muzyka and Pardo both took a more cautious approach on the matter. For Muzyka, it all depends on the design of the game; as long as microtransactions are planned from the beginning and integrated properly, they could work. Pardo then noted that the business models were an East-versus-West issue, and noted that microtransactions have their place, but they aren't a "magic bullet" for guaranteed success.

The combative Emmert took heavy exception to this statement, however, noting that WOW is one of the top games throughout Asia, where it follows a pay-to-play model. He also noted that Kim's mass-market argument is weak, again citing WOW's popularity and subscription-based model. Kim countered this by noting that the average age of a Maple Story player is 17, and this age group typically isn't able to shell out $15 a month for a subscription.

Mediating the discussion, Muzyka said that it could be brilliant to concoct a hybrid model that employs both microtransactions and a subscription; again, though, as long as the core game design isn't compromised. Miller agreed that the models don't necessarily need to be mutually exclusive, saying that City of Heroes/Villains has a flat subscription, but players are also able to buy content packs to enhance their experience.

The panel then shifted its attention to the rising cost in MMOG development and whether huge budgets remain necessary to achieve success. Emmert said that a company can't expect a huge breakout hit and that a developer needs to look at what it can reasonably expect for a user base, given WOW, when making a call on the budget for the game. Miller agrees, noting that for a low-budget MMOG, 50,000 subscriptions could be a huge win.

Pardo's WOW being the elephant in the room, the lead designer said it was interesting to hear from publishers, "WOW has set the bar too high, so we don't even want to try." From a marketing perspective, he feels this is great. However, as a player, he wants to see competition. He also notes that if a developer is going to do a big-budget MMOG, it can't merely look to compete with the amount of content WOW launched with. Rather, a player sees the original WOW, as well as the Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and "whatever expansion we do next."

As for whether the industry is healthy? "Absolutely not," says Emmert, noting that Lord of the Rings Online is the only game to his knowledge that has launched post WOW and broken 100,000 users. Kim agrees, noting that if a developer is purely targeting WOW, "the future is bleak." Agreeing, Muzyka said that BioWare is approaching its first MMOG with both ambition and humility. He says his company doesn't assume it knows what it is doing in the online space, but as long as they learn from their mistakes, as well as make something brilliant, then they will find success.

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65 comments
Cobra5
Cobra5

The trick is to make an MMO thats not an RPG. If you keep copying WoW, you're going to fail, simple. You won't beat it. It sucks, its a sucky game, but its SO big, and there's so many people, it simply won't be beat. You need to draw another crowd, because you certainly won't be drawing the crowd from WoW. Huxley, for example, is an MMOFPS. I don't think it'll do very well here, since its focused almost entirely in the East (korea). but that's the idea- breach other markets, other genres. Personally, i am waiting for someone to figure out a *real* way to do an MMORTS. And I am talking real, budgeted MMOs, not free online pseudo-mmo stuff. Sure there's all kinds of stuff, action "MMO"s and "MMO"FPS, but being free, you get what you pay for.

NB666
NB666

Lolz. Jacky boy is so freaking stubborn and resentful. I already guessed he'd be the stand-out character from the opening blurb. Now I don't claim to know much, but word on the wire is the other developers on City of Heroes were glad to see the back of the Self-Righteous Jack "Statesman" Emmert, when he left to do a new project. From this performance I can see why... What an ass. I mean, when he left, we got a whole heap of new content and adjustments to CoH in only a patch. It wasn't even an Issue (Official Update) and they fixed the Grindfest XP Curve so you didn't have to sacrifice your soul for level 50's. Long story short, I reckon his style is a drain on fun and he needs to loosen up just a little freakin' bit. Someone get that man some tranquillizers. Oh and as much as I hate to admit it. You really can't beat WoW... Srsly. Try something else ya bunch of game developing hooligans.

norabbitnofun
norabbitnofun

My take on why MMOG's are started on existing IP is that these games are pushed by finance people (because of the many promises of fixed long-term revenue) and thus the rest has to fit their "lower risk" investment attitude. The conclusion of the article also supports this statement.

smashhero
smashhero

Both micro transactions and a subscription model ? That would be Hellgate: London. A free to play game with a optional subscription for extra "micro" contents update.

DeViLzzz
DeViLzzz

mmorpgs are a waste of time when we have a majority of players only interested in the kiddy pvp in arena and battlegrounds and so you have players in guilds not wanting to help finish endgame instead pvping while the guild is short people to run something .... uhmm also when a new expansion comes out 99.9 % of guilds are barely going to touch old content as that is what happened when Burning Crusade came out and that to me is just ridiculous ... what about killing Illidan ? what about Mt Hyjal and BT ? Yes guilds are currently doing that content but for the people that don't get it done by the time the next expansion comes out how do they just up and forget about the big parts of the story ? I am not asking for emo rpgers but sheesh it is a roleplaying game and not some pure fighting game like Battlefield (I luv that but) ... anyway I wish a future mmorpg or even Blizzard would kill the instanced pvp that is in place .... it ruins the game

linkluigi5
linkluigi5

Im a WoW player and i think it's a great idea to charge for play, because it gives you the chance and excuse to stop playing for a while, and it makes it so younger audiences can't become addicts, with the exception of the kids who's parents buy them anything.

Absolutezerr
Absolutezerr

I hated WoW and loved City of Heroes... go figure. I wish someone would make an MMOFPS or stealth action game or something... whatever happened to Huxley?

ItsRichie
ItsRichie

micro transactions are better, LIVE WITH IT!!!!!

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

I'm surprised that Jack Emmert was so hateful towards microtransactions. The $15 a month subscription-based "traditional" mmo's aren't the only way of doing things that are legitimate. I always thought that microtransactions would work if the base game was fun enough, but didn't think that they'd allow a company like Nexon to exceed the profits of a company like NCSoft. Anyhow, I hope new MMOG's (or just MOG's) focus more on providing inherently fun, less grind-y and more innovative experiences with more player customization involved, and more focus on story and gameplay, with a wide variety of experiences available, and with rewards that come at a reasonable pace. People already have real jobs, we don't need to -pay- $15 a month for what basically amounts to another real job. I've quit WOW frequently because it became a real job, and I haven't played it in... probably over a year! I never had problems quitting MMORPG's though. I guess it's just because I play a lot of singleplayer and multiplayer games that give you all fun all the time, and watch movies and TV shows and read books and comic books that give you all fun all the time... ...instead of making you -work- for 30 minutes to 1 hour just to have a couple minutes of fun getting some new toy (a level, a piece of equipment, skill, a new area to explore) to play with, and a few more minutes of fun playing with it before you have to go back to a boring, -ARBITRARY- grind that lazy designers put in the game to make you play for months and months to make you keep paying $15 a month for a long time. Heh, I guess I just think that compared to other kinds of entertainment, I just find MMORPG's to be just too much of a scam.

Hairy-Alpaca
Hairy-Alpaca

I play wow, awesome game. Only play for the PvP now but anyway, for all those that liked the idea of an MMO Oblivion it has been rumored that Bethesda have registered the web address "elderscrollsonline.com" and in the mean time you should go check out darkfall looks like its gonna be insane if they ever finish it.

snowyjoe
snowyjoe

I'm a WoW player, but i thinkk Blizzard got to big, just like Microsoft and EA. What we are all waiting for is a no name developer team to come out and kick all their asses and shows them whos boss. After that we would hate the new people and call for another new person and the cycle of destroying other companies continue :)

Crystall3d
Crystall3d

making another mmorpg after wow is just like attempting to slice a very beautifully cut cake and spoil it...so stay away from wow types , create some co-op fps' , car combats or assassin creed like realism based massives

ghost867
ghost867

Honestly, I hate micro transactions, unless they can keep an MMO free to play online or a game itself be free. In the rest of gaming, I hate having to buy things piece by piece. I wish developers would just put out one or two, what I like to call, "mini-expansions". For $5 or $10, maybe one of them being free if they're nice about it. I hate having to buy tracks and cars and weapons and maps and characters separately on my games on consoles. It's SO stupid.

Doddie
Doddie

No way I like MMOGs. I like the single player CD on PS3. I would in no way pay for a subscription. Simple as that.

taurian0205
taurian0205

to xavier_draven GTA MMORPG is the best, lol, u can be a criminal, by passer, pimp, jack thompsons, just like a life-like virtual world, hell u could be president bush if u like~~ nuke the whole city then wait for it to respawn after 3 mins

Xavier_Draven
Xavier_Draven

There are many games that could become great MMOGs. But with all of them it has to be done right. Oblivion would make a great MMO. But so would Dead Rising, GTA, Resident Evil, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and many others. But most of the time it looks like MMOs have to be a 'Fantasy' or 'Sci Fi' type game. I'd love a Survival Horror MMO.

Pete5506
Pete5506

I dont play much MMO's any more, and I am sorta happy about that

Nikalai_88
Nikalai_88

Are publishers actually hoping to reach WoW like revenue? I would think that reaching something like 1/10th of that would be good. But I think the problem for many major publishers is that MMO's require long term commitement and support that many of them never provided or care for. As for MMO's on console, I think that with something like XboxLive with a built in community it could work, but for those of you who have even seen the interface these things use then you would know how hard it would be to get it to work with a controller. Some MMO's seek to do away with that and levelling, but really building a great character, levelling up and getting a great weapon is one of the addictive components of an MMO. The only new one that looks like it has a chance to compete with WoW seems to be Warhammer, since its RvR based, that is depending on how well they manage to pull it off.

waza000
waza000

in all that text .... did those guys discuss something useful ?

wolvklaw
wolvklaw

Unless it is something differen't, it's unlikely it will reach the success of WoW. WoW is going nowhere anytime soon. The only shot anyone has is by going after markets that aren't controlled by WoW, that would be something that kicks ass on the 360/PS3. Unless of course there comes a MMOG that is superb enough to dethrone WoW. I don't play anymore (WoW that is), game sucks too much of my life away. But if I were to return, I wouldn't even look at another one. Just my 2 cents. Another idea here would be a good RPG with decent multiplayer aspects followed with additional content that costs to get. You don't have the monthly subscription, but if you keep up with decent content and it doesn't feel "wasted" you can keep the money train rolling. Again another console based idea.

hmaxpain
hmaxpain

APB all the way.everyone should be looking at that game right now I use to play WoW but im tired of mmos having to be rpg thats why theres APB the cops and gangsters free roam mmo action game. this one is going to be good check the videos at 1up.com character customization looks really great.

DredWulf
DredWulf

warhammer online may have a shot but it looks doubtful..they designed that game so wrong if you play table top.

Dysantic
Dysantic

I played WoW and thought it wasnt anything special. I used to play Ultima ONline and was completely hooked on that game. I quit a few year ago, and tried out a free trial of WoW and wasnt as hooked as I was for UO. I guess I got sick of MMO's alltogether...

topgun53
topgun53

jeffcenate you are exactly right.

chancellor28
chancellor28

I played wow from the start but i quit early last year. Wow will never die trust me, EQ 1 still has 1/4 of it die hard fans playing and pay a monthy fee. Wow has too many ppl and it will always have over a million (and i'm shooting low) playing it i'll bet . All ya gotta do is look at EQ 1 and it was no where near as popular as wow, even in wow's first year.

Sith_Man_2005
Sith_Man_2005

OK I've played WoW and I also love it, but it really needs competition. I played Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and I thought that or something along those lines would be a great MMO.

SimonCharles
SimonCharles

I agree with a previous quote from Bill Roper : WoW is an abberation.

D3j1k0
D3j1k0

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

D3j1k0
D3j1k0

@jeffcenate & yoyoman10 try planetside. its leveling system works really well imo, once you get to level 4, you can basically use any equipment the game has...if you have the skill points to learn to use it. as you level up you can make your charicter more rounded and able to assume many different roles in combat. during your character's first week you can drop and pick up skills an unlimited number of times. after that, you can only drop or learn a skill once in 24 hours. (oh yea, I almost forgot to mention, this is a sci-fi mmofps)

efrench9
efrench9

Tiger Woods looks at WoW and says, damn I wonder what it feels like for all those other poor MMO's.

morgonstjarnan
morgonstjarnan

Hokkie Yeah, Conan sounds like fun. I'm definitely going to try that!

Hokkie
Hokkie

morgonstjarnan "It'd be neat if there was a mmorpg for people above 18 and that focused on something more fun than just double-clicking billions of gnolls to death." How about the upcoming Conan MMO, pc in March adn consoles later in teh year...I know its 18+ but as far as clicking things 100 times to kill it....i couldnt tell ya. ------ IMO, yes WOW is the bigeest MMO at the moment....but the game cant hold teh same formula for too long before it just stops being what it is. I think WoW's time will come in a couple years, and by then, it may just be when MMORPGs go "out of style" and the next best thing takes its place. MMOs can be very enjoyable, but I'm taken off by them becuase im spending $X a month to rely on others so I can play.

Demetri_OS
Demetri_OS

To all the WoW Haters; Eat It. You've preached WoW's doom and death and its no where near finishing. Just shut up and go away, no one cares for your hate.

Lum_Yatsura
Lum_Yatsura

I don't care for MMORPGs, or D&D-esque fantasy. Some of my favorite genres are basically dead for new ideas. Wrestling in particular.

KamuiFei
KamuiFei

WoW is a juggernaut in the MMO world. No one can deny this...It's just unfortunate that so many people lose their lives over it.

woolysockofdoom
woolysockofdoom

I'm pretty sure RuneScape was released about half a year before WoW; he was saying no game released AFTER WoW has broken the 100k barrier.

morgonstjarnan
morgonstjarnan

It'd be neat if there was a mmorpg for people above 18 and that focused on something more fun than just double-clicking billions of gnolls to death.

yoyoman10
yoyoman10

WOW is boring. i really cant see why its so popular. if this is the best the MMORPG genre has then its a stale genre indeed.

jeffcenate
jeffcenate

i played EQ 1 for years and my opinion twords MMOs is this, having put in alot of time in EQ1 im just not interested in starting over again in another MMO. they are all basicaly time sinks that can take years of your life just to 'keep up with' everyone else playing, changing to another MMO would be like restarting your real life from birth. it would take a very special game to make me even look twice at it if the phrase MMO is connected to it. hell my favorite games of all time for the PC are the KotOR series and i have no interest in BioWares game even if it IS based or otherwise connceted to that series. me EQ 1 experiance was like an average relation ship that ended in divorce, i have no interest in repeating that experiance with another woman. unless shes really REALLY hot, and smart , and nice, and rich, and likes cats, and ....... you get my point

Netherscourge
Netherscourge

WOW has completely engulfed the genre and until they sliip up, it will continue to dominate - possibly for the next 5 years or more. It has a major casual AND hardcore appeal to it and it's going to be difficult to topple. I honestly belive only Blizzard themselves can ADVANCE the genre by releasing a NEW MMO, that's set in another universe and using a different game style. A Starcraft MMORPG would simply leave the genre stuck where it's at.

Abakus
Abakus

If MMOs are having trouble, it is because the developers are all doing the same game. EQ2 failed, the world looked good, but the players all looked alike in their drab armor. However, the very first series of quests had you running through the same camps you had just attacked....what kind of STORY line is that? You call them MMORPGs, then design a Role Playing Game. WoW is NOT a hit because it has 8 hour repetitive raids for people with no lives.

CamisadoBlue
CamisadoBlue

I've played WoW and enjoyed it... I have however moved on. I feel a little disapointed that the rest of the players of WoW don't feel the same way, by not moving on we could be stopping ourselves from seeing the next huge MMO. *Imagine if everybody just stuck to playing GTA3 because it "did the job well and everyone else was playing it" would they even bother to make Vice city and so on?

Casualness
Casualness

"says Emmert, noting that Lord of the Rings Online is the only game to his knowledge that has launched post WOW and broken 100,000 users." uhhh he must not know many other mmo's then cause runescape has over 220,000 people paying at once at times

Durhamster
Durhamster

I hope bioware's MMO is a Star Wars one, not like Star Wars Galaxies. In my opinion a well made, polished Star Wars MMO that gets a lot of attention early on, will help the industry the most. Many MMOs are just cheap Anime style games (maple story). MMO developers needs to learn that the general public hates that kind of crap.

AcidRainO
AcidRainO

This was a very interesting read. I love MMOs, but have been a bit disheartend the past little while due to the just how unhealthy the MMO industry is. I love WoW, but it needs some competition. I don't think this can be accomplished by making a WoW clone. Developers need to starting making some unique games that have their own draw. They need to make games that offer something WoW doesn't. Direct competition won't work.

stuwilldo
stuwilldo

I'm actually agreeing with all that is below me. I'm giving WoW a whirl atm, and yes, your right, It's no-where near as good as everybody's trying to say. It's pretty crap if u ask me. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm just to grind a few lvl's...........

Sandro909
Sandro909

Unhealthy eh? *Looks at WoW* Looks pretty healthy to me.

Anofalye
Anofalye

Again, the solution lies with specific server. Microtransaction servers should not mix with monthly sub. WoW pretty much has split servers, micro-transactions players play on Asian servers, while monthly fees play in NA/Europe. There would be room for a microtransaction server in NA maybe for WoW, but again, it is better when you keep these population apart. What happen on another server doesn't bother me.