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.

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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.
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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