Here is a speech from jeff strain game dev his view on mmo's my friend s-mailed it to me. I was wondering what other people thought of it.
You can't develop an MMO in a traditional game-studio culture
Surprisingly, many of the more high-profile MMO failures were developed by the largest, most well established publishers in the industry. These projects had the benefit of solid financing, large teams, established IPs, and proven development methodologies that had been refined over decades of developing successful games in other genres. What happened? You can certainly make a list of everything that went wrong - the game industry is full of "armchair generals" who would love to do so for you - but ultimately the quality of a game is determined by the development culture that created it, and creating a successful MMO requires a radically different development culture than the culture optimized to produce traditional video games. While these large publishers have refined the process of creating traditional video games to an art, many of them have not yet realized that an MMO requires a completely different development process, and a studio culture to compliment that process.
The defining characteristic of top MMO development teams is their awareness that they are delivering a service, rather than creating a product, and that release day is the beginning of a long-term relationship with their customers, rather than the end of the project. Traditionally, release day is the time to go home, repair your relationship with your spouse or significant other, and sleep for a few days, but the weeks and months following the release of an MMO are the most critical point of your development cycle. It's the time to make it clear to your customers that you will stand by your game, and that their trust in you as the developer will be rewarded. Regardless of your business model, you are asking players to invest hundreds or thousands of hours playing your game, and you need to demonstrate that you are committed to protecting the economy, quickly fixing bugs and exploits, and adding live content. If the entire development team is recovering at the beach in those first critical weeks, you will be unable to demonstrate your willingness and ability to support your game, and your players will be hesitant to invest their time and money with you.
The message is clear: avoid the Big Crunch. I'm not saying that we should expect to work 8-hour days in the weeks leading up to release, but we certainly can't work 16-hour days for six months before release and then expect to sustain that pace over the several-year lifespan of a successful MMO. If you are planning for success, you have to build a sustainable work culture, and you need to establish that culture before release. The work load will not decrease after launch - if anything, it will increase, so build a sustainable work culture and stand by it. It's not just a morale issue - it will have a critical impact on the success or failure of your business.
An MMO must deliver content at three distinct stages: the early game, which is the first twenty hours, the mid game, which is the first few hundred hours, and the late game, which is at a thousand hours and beyond. Each of these stages represents a chance for your game to continue to grow, or to decline and ultimately fail. The traditional QA model is just not equipped to deal with this - there is simply no way to effectively test 1,000 hours of content in the final months of the project, particularly when you are not focused only on bugs, but instead on that hard-to-define feeling of satisfaction that a good MMO provides hour after hour. The only way to ship an MMO into the market and have confidence that it will survive at each of these thresholds is to ensure that your entire team is playing the game, every day, for at least two years before release. That sounds difficult, because you first have to ensure that everyone enjoys playing the game, then allocate time in the development schedule for them to play it, and finally ensure that you actually have something playable two years before release. Despite the difficulties of fully achieving this goal, at ArenaNet we believe that this philosophy was crucial to the success of Guild Wars.
It's crucial to get feedback from outside the development team at a very early stage. We started alpha testing over three years before Guild Wars was released. To say that the game was crude at that point is a bit of an understatement - I think we're still tracking down screenshots from that period and trying to get them burned. It was a very controversial decision at the time, and generated a lot of heated debate within the development team, because it flew in the face of the traditional wisdom that you should never show anyone outside the company what you are working on until it is perfect. I wish I could tell you that every tester we brought into the alpha test was honest, abided by the NDA, and gave the development team carefully-considered and high-quality feedback after each of the tri-weekly play sessions, but that would not be the truth. There were several times after we launched the program that we revisited the notion and discussed whether the good outweighed the bad. But we kept at it, and by the time Guild Wars shipped in April, 2005 it was clear that the game had benefited from the alpha test program, and today we consider it an essential component of the development process.
The primary value of the external alpha test program was that it gave the designers the opportunity to experiment with different ideas and get immediate feedback from the thousand or so external testers. During that time, and to this day, we published between ten and twenty builds a day, and our alpha testers had access to every build. If we introduced a new system or design change into the game, even in crude, first-iteration form, we got immediate feedback on it. This prevented us from spending weeks refining a design that was fundamentally flawed, which in turn freed the development team to be experimental and try new things. I've noticed a similar phenomenon at my son's skate park. The older kids who are too cool to wear helmets and protective pads skate carefully, while the younger kids whose mothers force them to wear protective gear go absolutely crazy hurling themselves down ramps, jumping on rails, and exceeding highway speed limits. Think of having a thousand external testers in the early stages of development as protective gear - it may make you look uncool, but it sure frees you to try some crazy stuff.
All RPGs live or die based on the quality and quantity of their content, and this is even more true for MMOs, since players are expecting thousands, not hundreds, of hours of content. In a state-of-the art, first-person shooter designed to provide fifty hours of play, it makes sense to allocate the programming budget to focus on the latest graphics technologies. In an MMO, your programming budget should skew heavily toward development tools for artists and designers. Some of your content will always require dedicated content programmers with good design sensibilities - and they are a valuable and rare breed indeed - but ultimately your ability to put content generation directly into the hands of your designers and artists is crucial to your ability to generate the amount and quality of content that today's MMO players expect. It has been my experience that traditional development studios tend to assign tools development to their junior-level programmers, while the more seasoned programmers work on graphics or other "sexy" technologies, and I think this is a mistake. The quality of your tools determines the quality of your game, and it also directly impacts the morale of your development team, because nobody wants to spend the next two years building dungeons in a text editor! Invest heavily in your development tools - they will be your most valuable asset.
Don't count on subscriptions
In the early years of the MMO industry, from roughly 1997 to 2001, there were a few big MMOs that had active player populations. By the time we started ArenaNet in the summer of 2000, we knew of at least eighty MMOs that were in development. Based on the success of UO and EQ, publishers were reviewing their portfolios and planning to migrate their existing game franchises to the online world, where they believed they could adopt a subscription model and "make bank". Clearly, it did not work out that way. As more MMOs came into the market, two things changed. First, players now had a choice about which game they would play, and as a result their expectations for polish, content quantity, and service increased substantially. Second, and perhaps more telling for the future of the industry, it became clear that the subscription model forced players to choose a single game, rather than playing many different games.
Gamers will no longer buy the argument that every MMO requires a subscription fee to offset server and bandwidth costs. It's not true - you know it, and they know it. Gamers may buy the argument that your MMO requires a subscription fee, if you can tell them what they are getting for their money. This is the legacy of games like Guild Wars, Maple Story, and Silkroad Online, all of which introduced new business models into the MMO genre and were quite successful. The subscription model is still perfectly viable, but the pain threshold is very low now. It's no secret that gamers don't want to pay a subscription fee. If you can convince them that your game offers enough value to justify it, more power to you! But be prepared to defend your decision, often and loudly, and back it up over the lifetime of your game.
Be very aware of the choice you are asking players to make, and the frequency of that choice. In a subscription model you are asking players to make a choice every month, and it is a fairly drastic choice: Stay married, or get divorced? It is certainly the case that if every player decides to stay married every month, you can make more money from each player in the subscription model. But that will rarely be the case, and not something that you should count on. Every month, some percentage of your player base will decide on divorce, and as with marriage in the real word, once you are divorced you rarely get married to the same person again. If you go the subscription route, you'll need to have the confidence that your marriage rate will exceed your divorce rate.
With Guild Wars we ask players to make a choice only one time, and that choice is whether to buy the game, or not to buy the game. While we don't enjoy a recurring revenue stream each month, we do benefit from the fact that most Guild Wars players come back to the game when we release new content, so we are less concerned about players putting the game down for a few months. Players don't have to decide whether to stay married or get divorced, they just have to decide whether they want to play today or not. Beyond the benefit of a lower pain threshold to get into the game, this is the core strength of the Guild Wars business model, and one of the reasons it continues to thrive when many other subscription-based MMOs are struggling.
Innovate with your game play, and innovate with your business model! The two go hand in hand, and are mutually dependent on each other. Decide on your business model first, and then build your game around it. Guild Wars can be successful with its business model because we decided that we would not charge a subscription fee before we wrote the first line of code, and every design and technology decision we made served that purpose. We could never turn Guild Wars into a subscription-based game, just as Turbine could not suddenly decide to eliminate the subscription model for Lord of the Rings Online. If you decide to require players to subscribe to your game, be prepared to build a game that thoroughly justifies it.
Don't believe you are making WoW 2.0 with a quarter of WoW's budget
Many recent MMOs failed because they were rushed to market, had less content, or were not as polished as established games. It's no secret that WoW has been a big success, and there is a reason for that success. While it may not be the most innovative product on the market, WoW offers a tremendous amount of content and is an exceptionally polished game. Everyone wants to duplicate that success, but I'm not sure that everyone is realistic about what that means. WoW was in development for five years, was built on an established and very popular game universe, and probably cost more than $40 million to create. Don't believe that there is some magic design element that you will add to your MMO that will allow you to steal all of WoW's subscription customers. If you find yourself saying, "It's like WoW, but...," you're in trouble. To reiterate an earlier point - go do your own thing, and let them do theirs.
Developing a new MMO requires a lot of money and a lot of time. If you are starting today and don't have at least three years and $30 million dollars, consider developing in another genre. Also be prepared to attract and manage a large development team. We have 140 full-time developers working on Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 at ArenaNet, and that number will probably have to grow throughout the Guild Wars 2 development cycle. It is much easier and less risky to make exciting, innovative games in other genres. Unfortunately, some of us just can't make that decision - we're intoxicated by the thought of building the ultimate MMO, and we feel compelled to dedicate our lives to that pursuit. If that describes you, then by all means jump in and let's keep pushing the boundaries of possibility together. But bring cash - lot's of it - and make sure that you are working with people on the business side who are willing to let you make the best game you can make, because there are no successful B-titles in the MMO industry.
I'll end by paraphrasing the famous Japanese game designer, Masaya Matsuura: Go forth, and do weird and difficult things! Thank you.