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.
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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