The trouble with MMOGs; Austin rant gets heated

Game conference panelists reveal their pet peeves to a packed house of peers, press, and players.

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AUSTIN, TX--While many of the panels, presentations, and discussions taking place during the first day of the Austin Game Conference were dry, serious, straight-faced affairs, the afternoon "MMOG Rant" session was anything but.

With an array of outspoken developers representing many of the biggest companies in the industry, the panel was an opportunity to air out serious grievances with the massively multiplayer online gaming scene in a somewhat relaxed atmosphere. The meeting room where the rant session was held filled up early, with a standing-room crowd packed in and expecting fireworks to fly.

Obliging the attendees were NCsoft designer Scott Jennings, BioWare Austin costudio director Richard Vogel, Sony Online Entertainment studio technical director Lorin Jameson, and a pair of consultants with lengthy histories developing MMOG games: former Turbine Entertainment executive producer and creative director Jessica Mulligan and Ultra Mega Games founder Matt Firor, formerly of Mythic Entertainment. Firor was a last-minute replacement for EA Mythic general manger Mark Jacobs, who missed the conference with an illness. Each panelist was given five minutes to rant, with an audience question-and-answer session filling up the rest of the hour.

If there were any doubts about the willingness of the panelists to cut loose with their true feelings, Jennings put them to rest with the opening rant, discussing the topic of service after the sale. He noted that most developers treat continued service as an afterthought, odd for an industry built on subscriptions.

"Many of my examples will use World of Warcraft, because honestly, it's the game most of you are playing, and I have to marshal my limited energy for reminding clueless mass media reporters that other games actually exist."

While Jennings admitted that Blizzard had done a good job with providing enough in-game customer service representatives to serve World of Warcraft's massive player base, he was less then enthused with the company's patching policies. Seeing that World of Warcraft lead designer Rob Pardo was in the audience for the session, Jennings warned that he might want to flee the room before he got going. Pardo laughed and nodded, bravely holding his ground.

"WOW just had a patch a few weeks ago," Jennings noted. "As usual, their patch distribution completely failed. That may be because their patch distribution system is best described as 'Let's make something so frustrating people will just host the damn patches for us.' [laughter, hollers from the audience] It's unacceptable. It amazes me that WOW's peer-to-peer distribution has become accepted practice. Why are you people putting up with it? Part of our core business as an MMO provider is providing the damn MMO."

Jennings also emphasized the necessity of keeping servers up and running and respecting the customers. That means having community relations people set the proper tone when putting out fires on message boards, customer service reps that aren't just regurgitating form letter responses to player problems, and management that won't juice the customer base for every last dollar.

As an example of that last bit, Jennings brought up a new project by Dave Perry and Acclaim that will include in-game classified ads on the screen. They can be turned off, but players won't level up as quickly if they choose to play without them, a point that drew a chorus of boos from the assembled audience. He also suggested facetiously embracing a "wonderland of consumerism," with Coca-Cola-sponsored magic swords, Kobalds corpses that hold Skittles, and a Jet Blue dragon to fly players around.

"When you totally disrespect your consumers like that, I can assure you of one thing: Your project will fail," Jennings said. "And deservedly so."

Jennings ended his rant to a hearty round of applause, leaving Vogel with the task of following his act. Vogel's comments were noticeably less pointed, but no less passionate. His target: World of Warcraft, or more specifically, its many imitators.

"Why are so many companies risk averse," Vogel asked. "Why does everyone want to look at what WOW's doing, say 'Let's just slap on a user interface like WOW and make it look and run just like WOW'?"

Vogel reminisced about the Electronic Entertainment Expo, but not for the reasons one might expect.

"When I went on the E3 floor, I looked at all the new games and said, 'I know how to play that. I know how to play that, I know how to play that. It's just like WOW'...Looking out at E3 this year, there is nothing innovative coming out in the next three years, and that's pretty sad."

What Vogel said he'll miss about E3 are the out-of-the-way corners of Kentia Hall, where no-name foreign developers often showcased their off-the-wall creations.

"There are many, many good ideas out there. Look at Asia for an example. And it's a shame that we can't follow them."

Like Jennings before him, Vogel acknowledged Pardo, referring to one of the main points of the day's keynote address.

"I saw Rob Pardo's speech, and I looked at how many times I said that in five years," Vogel said. "There are so many pressures to releasing, but it's so true: Don't release the game before it's ready. Quality, quality, quality."

Vogel then yielded the floor to Jameson, who also weighed in on the abundance of World of Warcraft-esque games heading to the market.

"I feel like in many ways, people are copying WOW, but they're learning the wrong lessons," Jameson said. "The problem is, from a feature-set perspective, WOW is not an innovative game. It didn't do anything particularly new. The major innovation they did was they executed in a high-quality fashion and released with a depth of quality content that was not broken."

Jameson said there was no other company that would have conceived of spending as much money making the game (he estimated it cost more than $50 million to produce), spending as much time in beta, or making the sort of substantial changes to the game Blizzard made during that extended testing.

"But that is the feature you need to copy," Jameson said. "I don't care about innovation. I would like us to execute well on our noninnovative games. We can copy games and many people are. But if we're going to copy games, we should copy them really well and make sure the product is of a really high quality."

This prompted a roll of laughter from the crowd, followed by Mulligan's comment that "We're not only thieves; we're bad thieves."

For her rant, Mulligan made a single request: "[Venture capitalists] and angel investors, stop funding really crappy games."

While Mulligan admits she spent much of her 20-year career "laboring in poverty and obscurity just wishing somebody would devote significant money" to her projects, she said there are too many people throwing funds after doomed games. She compared it to a quick boom-and-bust cycle in the mid-'90s that saw millions in funding wasted on scores of games that never made it to market.

"We're seeing the same thing happening today," Mulligan said, adding, "Rob Pardo, stand up. Thank you Blizzard for making it possible for really s***** game designs to get some money!"

Mulligan than broke out a two-minute pitch session for a fictitious game that fits that mold, "DarkAge of the WarcraftStrike," touting incredible innovation in features and high-concept ideas that will yield a game exactly like existing successful MMO games. Key to the pitch was an unqualified team of unknowns with little or no experience, a daily milestone schedule, a six-month development span (plus or minus four years).

Firor was up next and quickly apologized for being unprepared, saying he only found out two minutes before the session began that he would be participating instead of watching from the audience. Unlike his fellow panelists, he came not to bury the MMOG industry, but to praise it.

"I was telling my wife that I was flying out to this conference, and I actually talked about this panel...It's basically a panel where six people sit around and tell everyone how stupid they are for being in this industry. And she said 'Wait a minute. Isn't there a game out there making hundreds of millions of dollars a year and other games that are making 10s of millions of dollars a year? Why is that stupid?"

Firor acknowledged that many of the popular MMO games may use the same concepts over and over again, but chalked it up to the medium's relative infancy.

"We've had three or so generations of games right now," Firor said. "Every iteration, they get a little better. There are design features that aren't in the other ones, no matter what they say. The game gets more refined, more fun, less like work. You can see a slow, steady progress."

He compared it to the works of William Shakespeare, which reused themes, settings, and conflicts but also offered a new story each time, a new experience for the audience.

"Everyone talks about how we're making the same game over and over again, yet people are having fun doing this," Firor said. "Players out there actually like this. They actually like going out and getting a +2 sword, knowing if they adventure for two-point-five hours more they'll get another sword and a fancy hat. That's cool to them."

Firor stressed that it's the experience that counts, not a game's similarity to World of Warcraft or its use of a fantasy license. "The important thing here is that the fact that people play the games, have fun playing the games, and spend a hell of a lot of money playing the games--that's something to be proud of, not ashamed of."

After a round of applause for Firor's rant, Mulligan merely muttered "traitor," and quickly moved on to the question-and-answer session amid more laughter. The relaxed atmosphere of the panel discussion followed through to the audience questions, with the developers being asked questions by both their peers and their players, with no feelings spared (one audience member asked Jameson when Sony Online was going to start releasing the "quality products" he talked about).

The question-and-answer session returned to issues surrounding the funding and shipping of MMO games multiple times, with Vogel saying that rushed games are an industry-wide problem, with an emphasis on quality needing to come from the top levels of company management and go all the way down. Firor also touched on the topic, saying that Mythic's decision to ship Dark Age of Camelot was made because the company had run out of money.

"It was an easy decision to make," Firor said. "We weren't thinking about some grand overarching scheme hoping we were sitting around a game-development conference in five years and people love us. It was more like, 'We've got wives and kids to [feed], so we're going to ship the game and make some money."

The question-and-answer session also hosted some brief rants from the audience, including one from BioWare Austin's Gordon Walton.

"That's an extremely common scenario," Walton said of Firor's story. "The fact of the matter is almost everyone's in the exact same place: 'Oh s***, we don't have any more money.' But you're all a bunch of whiny little b******. [laughter] 'We're all victims of the guys with the money!' No. Guess who signs up to make the game. Guess who along the way decides to change things...Somewhere along the way we caved and promised something we couldn't deliver. So you can't say it's the other guy, it's some other motherf*****. Everybody in this thing is responsible for what happens. Every single person on the team had a chance to do better. And I'd like to see more people think about how they're going to make it happen rather than sit up and rant and b**** about it."

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