How to run a massively multiplayer game

GDC Online 2010: Reps from BioWare, Turbine, EA Mythic, Sony Online Entertainment, CCP, and Nexon explain how they keep online worlds alive years after launch.

Who was there: BioWare's Rich Vogel, Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel, EA Mythic's Jeff Hickman, Sony Online Entertainment's Lorin Jameson, CCP's Nathan Richardson, and Nexon's Min Kim.

What they talked about: As fans of Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, and Fury can attest to, massively multiplayer online games sometimes don't have large-scale life spans to match. Each panelist has experience running MMOGs that are at least five years old, and they agreed to share some of their strategies for acquiring new players and keeping old ones.

EVE Online continues to grow after seven years.

Vogel said acquisition and retention are the two levers producers try to move to keep games viable after launch. Jameson said that just as games evolve after launch, so too does the audience. Instead of looking for the audience the developer wants, he said it becomes a transition to understanding the players it has. Getting to that core audience that identifies with the game is key, and while Jameson said it's still possible to grow the game after launch, that growth needs to stem from the core player base.

"At that point, you need to stop guessing about what your players are doing in your game, and start knowing," Jameson said.

Richardson said EVE Online has been through a number of changes in its seven years. He said CCP tries to target the audience that "fits" into EVE, and they rely on buddy programs to have existing players broaden the audience by finding new players. The approach has worked well, as Richardson said that the EVE Online development team has never been bigger than it is today.

Steefel likened it to creating a TV show. At first the developer might think it understands its audience, but that changes as the game grows. The audience also splinters, and the developer finds itself trying to cater to the wants of many different segments. Steefel said that's a mistake, as the game tends to lose focus as developers chase after every faction of players. The key is to narrow the view to the players who are the most important to the business and meet their needs first.

Hickman said that's one of the biggest struggles for an online game after five years. With the core audience secured, developers tend to start chasing the popularity of other games like World of Warcraft. That's absolutely a mistake, Hickman said, as it winds up turning off the core users.

"At the same time," Richardson said, "World of Warcraft created a metric ****ton of users for us."

Gamers who tried World of Warcraft and were interested in MMOGs but wanted something different were able to clearly see EVE Online as an alternative, Richardson said, which helped grow his user base.

Vogel said whatever resources are devoted to drawing in new audiences are taking away from creating new and different raids for the core base. It's a delicate balance developers need to strike to keep their games viable.

Hickman talked about Ultima Online and mused about the difficulties of attracting new players for a game that has been around for 14 years. The team put out a new client that changes up the way the game looks and plays, which didn't leave the core base terribly impressed, but did bring in plenty of new users. Another thing Hickman looked at with Ultima Online was how difficult it was for players to start playing the game, not just in terms of a tutorial, but at every step from downloading the software to signing up for an account. Newer games have actually made plenty of strides to streamline that process, he said, and it's one existing MMOGs should revisit to lower the hurdles facing new users.

Steefel talked about transforming Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online into a hybrid of free-to-play and subscription-based business models. The experiment has actually yielded more subscribers for both games, Steefel said, and the subscribers are some of the biggest spenders when it comes to the microtransactions. By making the game free-to-play, it brought back many older players and showed them how much better the game had become since its original launch.

Vogel said one trick MMOGs use as they age is to make leveling go by quicker. It doesn't encourage new users when there's a massive gap between them and all of the max-level-cap old-timers, so the developers try to level the playing field by accelerating the pace of growth gradually over time.

Kim said the key is to get people passionate about their games. With Maple Story, he said people play for an average of 40 hours a month in the summer. And when they're that engaged with the game, it's not difficult to find ways to get them to spend some money while they play. He said engagement is just as important for subscription-based MMOGs, as players who aren't invested in a steady stream of new content will cancel their subscriptions as soon as they remember it's being charged to their credit card each month.

Richardson agreed, saying people might think CCP is throwing money away with its free expansions. However, around the times when those expansions are launched, Richardson said churn in the game's player base is virtually nonexistent. Another trick that has worked for EVE Online is that when players go through the cancellation process, they are asked why they're quitting. There are a few simple options and an "Other:" box where players can fill in their own answer.

"You'd be amazed how many people fill in that 'Other' box," Richardson said, adding that knowing exactly why players are dropping out helps address problems quickly.

For Ultima Online, Hickman said the people managing the community and the community itself are the most important tools the developers have to keep the game alive. Hickman said the community teams need to be treated as a revenue generator, and not as a cost center. He also said developers need to get over the instinct to hold stuff back from the community, especially when the game has been out for a while.

Vogel said the key to retention is making players feel invested in the game. For Ultima Online, that was accomplished with introducing housing and crafting to the world. But something changed when World of Warcraft came out. Now players will drop out and stay on the sidelines, waiting for something new to bring them back into the game.

Jameson said there was a cadence to EverQuest's expansions early on, with the development team's focus put on a new add-on every six months. As the game aged, he said it became more important to show the subscriber base added value every month.

Richardson said EVE Online is on a six-month schedule now, but it didn't start there. As the team improves its processes and grows, Richardson said those releases will come more frequently. Since MMOG developers are in the business of providing a service, they need to be constantly reminding customers why they're paying money for the title.

In conclusion, Vogel emphasized how important it was that developers don't cut staff once the game has launched. Since they're running a service, that's the point at which they need to be ramping up the staff to keep things running smoothly and building a constant stream of new content.

Quote: "My number one [rule]: Don't **** with the core of your game."--Hickman

"Subscription is not a guarantee of payment. It's actually a cap on how much money they can pay you."--Hickman

Takeaway: MMOG developers need to be constantly attracting new players to stay alive, but they can't do it at the expense of the core fan base. On top of that, having a constant stream of new content not only gives existing players reasons to stick around, but also gives former players incentive to come back.

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31 comments
ThiefX
ThiefX

What? No comment about SOE's Star Wars Galaxies mega fail? I'm talking about the post upgrade, of course. Nobody remembers? :(

Sunnidal
Sunnidal

I'll just give some advice. Decide what kind of game you want to make, and make that game. Don’t make a PvE game and 6 months after release say oops you know what this is missing? PvP. Let’s try to incorporate PvP into the gameplay. Now you have a game like Warcraft that was never intended to have large player vs player battles and has suffered for it ever since with constant balancing and re-balancing. You have class abilities that while making sense in PvE have absolutely no reason to be in PvP such as fear, or stun locking. If it’s going to be PvE, then make it PvE. If pvp, you should make it pvp, and if it’s both then for the love of God have them both fleshed out. I don’t want to look at a seesaw with a safe on one side and a paperweight on the other. Don’t change the core gameplay. Champions Online could have been great. But at the last minute before release they decided to change the core gameplay. Instead of being a super hero that could beat up 10 guys at once you end up feeling like an extra in a super hero movie that struggles to take out two inept guards. Keep in mind that this was just an attempt to fill a content gap by nerfing the rate at which you could kill enemies… This brings me to my next point. Don’t release an unfinished product. But hey, what do I know? I'm just the customer that's been playing these games for over 14 years.

morganja
morganja

I just tried EVE for a week. Wow does it suck. I can't see how they are going to survive. Their rookie chat which is suppose to help you is filled with complete jerks that are there just to be jerks. With 3000 people on a chat channel with a font size of maybe 4 flying by at a million miles an hour its impossible to have a conversation with anyone helpful. Over 90% of the comments are spam or just people being offensively immature. This is a game for gankers which will end up starving because they fail so completely at getting new people into the game. I wouldn't take any advice from this organization on how to run a MMO.

Electrokah
Electrokah

Lord of the Rings Online is awesome! I have not even read the books, just seen the 3 movies once.

kdawg88
kdawg88

The idea of catering for the audience's wants is definitely the wrong way to go. Sure, it's a risk, but new ideas offer far more potential than old ones that the audience thinks it wants.

Bepedos
Bepedos

Meh, these guise seem to do their jobs well, but that's exactly why I don't like MMOs. Quoting from the article : "Since they're running a service, that's the point at which they need to be ramping up the staff to keep things running smoothly and building a constant stream of new content." I don't like people seeing a video game as a service. And MMO's cannot be separated from this service dimension. The problem with that is, the game isn't a cultural object anymore. It's like trash TV and good movies : movies are here to last, trash TV is enjoyable but bears its own death in its principle. I hope I'll be able to replay games I loved when I get older and older, like one can read a book over and over again. The problem with MMOs is, they're not here to stay. As soon as the infrastructure goes down, they go down with it. And even if you could run an independent server years after the game ended, it wouldn't be the same since a MMO greatly depends of its community and is ever changing while running. Also, developing something directly targeting your audience, instead of doing content that the player may dislike but that would at least surprise him, is whoring. Don't get me wrong, player feedback is very important for gameplay and balance issues, but selling über-items ? Making games that require practically no skill (because yes, lots of MMOs are a cakewalk, and grind is not skill-related) so anybody will be willing to pay for it ? It disgusts me.

Crush_Project
Crush_Project

@evenios ya eves actual gameplay itself was super limited and unrealistic for how complicated its physics are. What a great economics and building system tho, and i do like the sense of lose for the game personally, but the skill system being based purely by time, and the overly simplistic actual gameplay has driven off myself and about a dozen of my rl buddies finally. Dont even get me started on the stagnant political 0.0 situation thats run by people who dont even play the game any more or factions that havent done anything in years. So much potential, such terrible execution.

BornGamer
BornGamer

For a second I thought it said "How to RUIN a massively multiplayer game". For that one fleeting moment, it made sense that Mythic Entertainment were there.

Dr_Thunder
Dr_Thunder

Aside from Bioware, it should be on how NOT to run an mmorpg.

CarlitosWay
CarlitosWay

SOE developers there, and nobody mentions SWG? How ironic. Cant talk about it because they messed up their very own rule: "My number one [rule]: Don't **** with the core of your game."--Hickman

Evenios
Evenios

Meh all MMOs today are the same old song and dance. Even Eve Online which promises "innovation" really only has a HUGER hurdle for newcomers. First of all it can litterly take YEARS to train all the skills you need to be a top player. Second of all the cost (and the time) of losing ships in pvsp can be really high. sure there is insurance for ships but not for fittings. and if you live in 0.0 space and lose all your fitting sometimes you have to travel halfway across the galaxy to get what you need back. All the locations look basically the same...there is no [non tier 3 exterior] ship customization... you can get "scammed" in game and the developers do nothing about it.. yes its nice "realism" but it can also be frustrating too. Its really not very "newcomer" friendly and with the other MMOs? Yawn....every new one comes out hoping to be the next best thing but lately the new ones have fallen short...you want something diffrent? how about bring some aspects from social online games like second life to MMOs? in a more stable.lag/crash free enviroment. now THAT would be something to take notice of....but other then that most MMOs right now bore me to death... cept i think the new catacyslm add on will be cool....

thunder_knight
thunder_knight

@NeverMore0 lmao, so true, the question is why is no one from Blizzard there?

EchoEcho
EchoEcho

@SDSkarface "yet on lineage 2 people have killed each other in real life on many occasions (google it) because the gameplay was that awesome and people were that passionate about it" I don't think that says something about how "awesome" Lineage 2 is, but rather about how psychotic some people are. ;) But Lineage 2 isn't the only game out there with open PVP and a cut-throat player base. No game in existence comes close to EVE Online in that area. Personally, as fun as I consider PVP, I don't LIKE losing time when I die. I have precious few hours in my week to spend having fun; I don't want to spend half of it retreading the same ground to make up for what I've lost. A good carrot on the stick is rewarding you for doing well, more than punishing you because some other jackass spends 80 hours a week playing the game and is therefore way more practiced than you'll ever be. It's really all a matter of opinion, though. Some people like a brutal grind/challenge in their MMO; some just want a way to relax. It's probably why I spent my time in EVE primarily running missions, rather than going out into low-sec space and getting myself podded by pirates with nothing better to do. To each their own, really.

xNinjaKingx
xNinjaKingx

@DrKill09 its not that is was RUN bad it was just the game sucked ass i heard lolz to much time on customization less on gameplay =I

DrKill09
DrKill09

How to properly run a Massively Multiplayer Game? Do the exact opposite of APB. :P

SDSkarface
SDSkarface

Lineage 2 was the best model for an MMO, open pvp, regardless of level,no factions and the players basically controlled the server. I hate how MMO's have factions and both of them cant understand each other WTF.. you mean i just killed a guy in pvp and i gotta close my game and go to a forum in order to talk trash? with lineage 2 it was right then and there! and the fact you lost 4% exp during a death meant hours of lost time of your life that you grinded for. this bred a very competitive community and very vicious clan rivalrys and forums, because the deaths meant something.. you die in WoW or warhammer and it dosent mean anything you arent even penalized its meaningless and the community was tame because of it, yet on lineage 2 people have killed each other in real life on many occasions (google it) because the gameplay was that awesome and people were that passionate about it. at level 75 and above in Lineage 2 a 4% exp loss meant hours of lost time so you were forced to be a better player in pvp not some casual e-sports capture the flag pvp like WoW and warhammer in l2 pvp happened anywhere at anytime. even if you were lvl 1 and your opponent was lvl 70 there was no one to complain to. im hoping Tera will follow in lineage 2's footsteps.

shooters125
shooters125

@solidbond1 dude EA is definately better than Activision. EA gives freebies (and the freebies aren't crap either) while Activision makes rushed DLC and charges you $15 for 3 maps. Say what you want but EA definately does not suck.

Freezezzy
Freezezzy

I've been playing MMORPG's for years, and I've come to one conclusion based on my experience. Most MMOG/MMORPG's are a lot like a candy without its filling: Shiny and sweet on the outside, hollow and empty on the inside. Sure, sometimes you get lucky and find a diamond inside, but that's about as rare as the gem itself.

green_dominator
green_dominator

The thing I've noticed with most MMO games is that the worlds often look bland and stale, there is usually this humungo world to explore but the whole place looks lifeless. Aside from other players running around slaying beasts and doing whatever else they do I rarely ever see the kind of vibrancy that single player RPG's have. Even the act of gaining levels takes all the fun out of those kinds of games, when I hear about people who spend whole days just to gain a level I'm like okay this obviously isn't for me.....

Crush_Project
Crush_Project

lol Wow sony, ccp, mythic and nexon and turbine all in one farked up place. Some decent ideas for the games, but everyone of these has a totally broken and insane execution. Sony alone up there hasnt had a successful mmo since ultima despite attempt after attempt after attempt of total crap. CCP's eve only favors people who have been with the game the longest and everyone else will always be a peasant/peon, warhammer online should have had the level cap reduced by 10-15 levels because everything became one big aoe stun stupidity fest. All of these guys should be flogged severely for dumb crap they keep pulling. They all could be leaps and bounds from where they are. Id say these folks are a monument to the failures of the industry.

Animatronic64
Animatronic64

We firmly believe that human beings are perfect subjects for exploitation; they succumb to mental addiction quite easily. We induce our trance by using cycles of repetition, followed by very small rewards. Eventually, they become so obsessed with these small rewards, that they begin to dedicate their whole lives on our products. More so, they become so addicted that they will continue to buy into our product, even if we raise the price. We are on the way to brainwashing all of society, and then... WE WILL TAKE OVER THE WORLD! HAHAHAHAHAH!!!!

NeverMore0
NeverMore0

I'd ask why nobody from Square Enix was there, but it's pretty obvious that those guys have no idea how to make an MMO.

l777l
l777l

"Vogel said whatever resources are devoted to drawing in new audiences are taking away from creating new and different raids for the core base. It's a delicate balance developers need to strike to keep their games viable." That's true for single player games as well. Aiming for the "wider audience" (as, for example, P. Molyneux does with Fable 2 and 3) is problematic. ""Subscription is not a guarantee of payment. It's actually a cap on how much money they can pay you."--Hickman" ... uh, ... good. People love DLC. Just let them pay (lots) for that. Personally, I'd rather go back to full game plus (where appropriate) expansion (both on physical media) - P.S.: Nice summaries, Gamespot.

Shardz7
Shardz7

I'd have a chat with ArenaNet about this subject. They are still making new free content for Guild Wars and this is like 38 years after the game was first released. The public relations and mission statement of that company just can't be beat.

Barighm
Barighm

Meh...the main reasons for why a lot of people I know play any given MMO is because their friends are playing it, they don't want to start anew somewhere else, and it's way too difficult to play more than one MMORPG at a time.

solidbond1
solidbond1

Weeman1985 is right! and EA sucks!

01-cannon-mpc
01-cannon-mpc

@weedman1985 Lmao thats so true! I whould give you + more but can only give you + 1.

weedman1985
weedman1985

So their ultimate secret strategy is to *gasp* listen to the fans and give them what they want? Wow, I would have never guessed. Gee, I wonder how long it took you to come up with this obvious fact. Because it seems like everyone else in the industry still hasn't figured this **** out.

ZippyLemon
ZippyLemon

Jagex could learn a lot from this.