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The truth about MMO's

Posted by Dan Mayor, 14 November 2011 · 1,074 views

Hello again everyone!
Hello everyone, this time around I didn't wait as long to post my next article. Now this one is going to hurt considering the high amount of MMO projects that are currently looking for members here on the forums but it's just something I have to talk about. In short an MMO is not an obtainable goal for a first time team, and in this article I am hoping to point out some of the reasons I say just that. As with all of my articles the contents here in are my personal opinions formed from my experiences, observations and research, and with that said lets get to it.

My MMO is different, it will be a hit!
That's great, the market needs some fresh new ideas. We are currently stuck in a bit of a rut with the same old thing over and over again in the MMO world. I personally have not seen much of anything different come out since the inception of World Of Warcraft. This statement may not be entirely true, but I have yet to be lead into anything different. It seems as if every other MMO that currently is on the market is nothing more then a clone of WOW. With this in mind I understand the urge that so many people have to create their ideas and publish their MMO but wait, there's a little research that everyone should do before jumping in.

Graphics:
Graphics are one of the largest things to note about an MMO. Quite simply you need thousands if not tens or even hundreds of thousands of graphical assets to build any kind of decent world for your players to interact with. This is because of the audience you are targeting, simply put casual gamer's don't play MMO's. It's worth taking that into consideration at the very onset of your idea. With that statement alone you have to immediately think about how you can cater to and spark the interest of the hardcore gamer. Graphics are one of the top most important things that a hardcore gamer is looking for. Yes game play is very important and all but you need to keep their eyes happy to get them to play long enough to even see what your game is about.

Continuing on this idea I've seen many teams that fall under the impression that you actually need less characters to make a successful MMO then you would to make a regular stand alone game. It's believed that simply skinning the characters, changing the color schemes and slapping some different clothes on them will go a long long way. In some cases this is true, and we have seen that done successfully in many of the traditional MMO's that are out there, however, there's only so far one goblin can go.

This concept by itself is already diminishing your uniqueness to the MMO community. They have seen clothable and skinnable models done over and over again, they are used to it. This is not making your MMO stand out and at this point you have an MMO, you have standard character practices, your targeting the hardcore gaming community and your competition is way better then you are. Your facing WOW, Rift and other games that where developed and backed by huge companies with seemingly endless wallets!

That's ok, I have a better story:
This point I won't argue much about. With the exception of WOW having a story that is 17+ years in the making (yes Warcraft one came out in 1994) we don't see very compelling or unique story ideas within the MMO market. So yes this may be an area where your game can dominate and where your idea holds great potential. The story line and plot progression you design may be gold, maybe even platinum BUT you must also have the goods to support it. The only real arguing point about the story being what is going to make your MMO the best ever is that you have to get the hardcore gamer to actually pay attention to it. (Hope you got some good graphics...)

Well my game play is better:
This will vary based on what your particular game play design is. But in many cases you are competing against possibly dozens of complex battle, professions and statistical systems that are modeled after WOW. We come back to the audience and what they are going to be expecting from you here, only the best! It's not quite as easy as you think it's going to be to provider better game play then these big boys that are already on the market. The best way to see what your up against here is to play as many MMO's as you can find, and play them in their entirety.

Well my PVP idea is totally different!
This is another one of those things that I see many people taking a bit to lightly. PVP is a great selling point and can attract millions of players to your game, but it comes at the cost of thousands of hours worth of statistical and skill balancing. Having even one over powered race or class of character can lead to disaster for you. PVP in most cases is pretty cut and dry to it's players. Either it's a fair competition or it's not, and when it's not (due to lack of balancing) they don't care to try. When they don't care to try they are going to look for what else there is to do, and if your game is built with it's entire focus on unbalanced PVP... Well you see where that's going.

So I've heard the argument "That's not going to matter I only have one race and theirs no classes, players can build their stats however they want!". This doesn't mean you don't have to balance those potential skill buildings, and also make reasons for players to spec themselves differently. If it's fairly easy to just max everything out you will have all of your players rushing to said max, playing a few battles, getting bored and going back to WOW where they can choose more options and build up their specs differently along side millions of other players.

Well my MMO has a much better PVE system!
This one I just have to be rude about, no you don't. You may have an idea or two that are not yet implemented by the big names just yet, but they have WAY more then you do. They have epic stories and long well written quest lines leading to instanced dungeons and raids that challenge the players and test their strategies and teamwork. All of this has been designed by teams of dozens if not hundreds of designers, developers and writers, something a small team of only a couple designers does not have the time and or money to mimic and or surpass.

Hosting the games servers:
Here's the real kick in the teeth. Say you do get enough graphics to get your game started, maybe you do have a well balanced and interesting PVP system, maybe you have a great story line and amazing PVE, now where are you going to host this game? The most common answers I get are "We'll just lease a small server to start and when the money starts coming in we'll upgrade as needed" and "We'll get investors!" Lets go ahead and break down the plausibility of both of those answers.

Small Server Now, upgrade as needed:
Many people are unaware of how expensive it truly is to power something with the magnitude of an MMO. Through my calculations that I wont go into here as they would take many pages to define out basically a package that provides you 10TB per month of transfer is breaking down to 92 hours of play per month per player (assuming 100 players). I say 100 players because the speed of the gigabit Ethernet your server is plugged into the network with is limited and the amount of traffic generated per connection is a lot higher then you would imagine. This may sound like it's a fairly high amount but we come back to the fact that your audience is hardcore, a lot of them will be playing say 4 hours a day, 7 days a week, (28 hours a week) and they will get cut off before the end of the month, or your going to be paying out the wazoo.

Next the processing and memory power, granted your not rendering graphics on the server and it won't require as much per connection but you need to be aware your still doing all your collision testing, positioning, rotations and many other calculations there. The cheap servers will not be able to keep up, you will need top of the line to support your 100 players. At this point I urge you to look into it your looking at around $375 per month to get a server that can handle some players. Keep in mind your going to have to offer your players free time to get hooked and it is going to take a LONG time before you actually get even 10 registered players. Now what are you charging them to play? Is it going to cover the $375 a month your paying and reimburse you for the past 12 months it took to get 10 people to register?

I'll get funding:
This is yet another common answer that is not well researched. Have you contacted any advertising, marketing, or other funding prospects yet? I have, and let me give you a taste of what your in for when you call these people and try to pitch your idea. "We're not interested in MMO's but we wish you the best of luck". This is what 9/10 of them will say to you the second you mention it's an MMO. This is if you even get that far, many people prior to even talking to you want your demo. Which means you have to have the game in a stable running alpha test and it needs to be live so they can log in and try it out. Granted you won't need the super machine to power just 5 - 10 connections to allow your team to test and leave room for the investor testing, but you will still be spending at least $100 - $150 per month for a cheap host.

Now you got your demo up, your lucky it only took 3 months worth of live testing to get it to a playable demo stage and you found a cheap server so your only out $300. Now you start contacting investors and looking for funding to proceed, your on a good track. Here comes the heart break, the response you get from the investors that you got to this point "You have potential but I don't see anything that can rival WOW or Rift or any of the other large scale games. How is this going to promise me a return on my investment?" No problem, you don't fall into any of the categories I have spoken about in this article, you have 20+ modelers, you have 3 dozen writers, you have 5 or 6 professional composers and a swarm of programmers. You can actually write better stories, you can provide more and better graphics, your PVP system is so well balanced that it's always a 50/50 chance for one on one, your PVE is epic! "Ok, well contact us again when you have all of that stuff built in". Hope your pockets are deep enough to keep paying for your server for the next 2 years while you get it all done.

Ok, I get it the world is against me!
Unfortunately this is the cold hard truth about MMO's, the entire world is against you and it's not only an uphill battle but you are working against the wind while standing on ice trying to climb straight up a 90 degree incline. So what do you do? Do you give up on it all, just scrap your idea and cry in the corner because your bound to fail? No not at all. I realize that this entire article speaks against you making an MMO and that is the intent of it, you should not jump into game development under the impression that you will grab up a couple volunteers and make an MMO, it's not going to happen and none of your arguments really hold any weight in the grand scheme of things. However that doesn't mean that you will never make it happen, it simply means you need to approach the entire concept logically and work your way up to it. WOW didn't start up over night and wasn't created in a month. It started with a VERY VERY popular series of games that built up the story, built a fan base and most importantly generated the income needed to pay people to build it, make commercials and other assorted advertisement and also gave them a cushion of money that could be used to launch the game and support the massive server costs required to get it all started.

At this point I'm sure many people want to argue and show me all of those free MMO's that are out there. Before doing such please research who made them, find out how much money went into making it and how much it costs to support that game. Find out how much money they are producing from in game ad space or premium purchased products and such. Research the actual team members, find out what other games they had worked on prior to building that MMO. Find out how many years of game development experience the team had as a whole before they even tried it. This is the point when I feel you will start to see things from my perspective. There is not a single MMO on the market today that was built as a first project by a group of volunteer developers with no experience. Also you will start to find some MMO's that where created by a small army of talented and experienced developers, you'll start to play it and you'll hate it. Poor graphics, horrible response, lag spikes from hell, not enough players and so on. So your going to build a rag tag team with no experience and do what these professionals couldn't even do?

Final Thoughts:
I'm sure this one is going to spark a lot of controversy and many people will try to point out contradictions to what I'm saying. I hope everyone does, I welcome it and I hope that someone does completely belittle this article. If nothing else simply reading through this article, doing some research and attempting to prove me wrong will get you to ask the questions you should ask before trying such a project. I'm sure this will not stop the countless projects that are going right now, nor will they pay any heed to what is being said here and that's not what I want to do. I don't want to crush your dreams I don't want to make you feel stupid or any of that. As with all of the articles I post I simply wish for everyone to do their research and make educated decisions that can lead to the betterment of themselves, their teams and their projects. What I truly want is I want you to succeed, I want you to finish your project and make a billion dollars. I want you to come show me that shiny new Ferrari or Rolls Royce some day and tell me I was wrong. However for that to truly happen you have to know what your doing, it all starts with asking questions of yourself and looking beyond the glitz and glamour. You need to know what really goes into making an MMO, the costs, the armies of developers, the hundreds of thousands of hours it takes just to get a simple beta test started. If and when you see the ugly truth that lies in the answers to these hurdles consider cutting back and starting a bit simpler, maybe even contact me and we can do something together, but when all is said and done make yourself and your game successful by doing it right.




Hi Dan,

In general I agree - an MMO project's scope is usually quite a bit more substantial than most indie teams are likely to be able to cope with.

A couple of points though.

First is your article's assertion that casual gamers don't play MMOs. I don't think this argument really holds water. While it may be true for many AAA MMO projects, indie development centers around the idea of doing things differently - which includes challenging the stereotypes of game genres. I'd go further and say that you can look at the evolution of WoW over the last 6-7 years and, ignoring the development costs, see that there has been a steady engineering of certain elements in that game towards a more casual demographic.

Second is the notion that you need 10TB of transfer a month for 9,200 hours of gameplay (92 hours, 100 players). (Maybe I read it wrong?) I'm not sure, but it seems your math is off with these numbers. Do we really think that an MMO is going to use 1GB per hour, per player? I think the reality is going to be closer to 100th to 1000th of this figure - or less - remembering further that an MMO's game mechanics should usually be designed to cater for slow connections.

As I said at the beginning though, in general the MMO model is not conducive to indie development. The real reason here, I feel, is not really any of the technical issues but one you've aluded to only briefly: Content consumption. If a developer expects customers to lay down $ every month, they have to deliver a service every month. Gamers want 'new' experiences, and they will consume content faster than it can be produced - so in traditional MMOs an army of artists is required just to generate the new art for them to consume, along with game mechanics like exponential progression curves making sure it takes long enough to get this latest content that the artists have time to deliver new stuff.

Indie developers continue to think outside the box though, and without 'RPG' tacked onto the end, an MMO can and will be anything.
I'd disagree with there not having been any real innovations in the MMO genre since World of Warcraft,

EvE online is definitly different, and WoW really wasn't inventive at all (it was essentially a straight copy of DaoC / Everquest / etc), it is however polished,accessible, uses a popular IP and has a steady stream of content updates. (These things are far more important than innovation when it comes to attracting a large playerbase, and competing with a large company like Blizzard in these areas are virtually impossible, especially given the momentum they allready have (Players invest time in MMOs and will not switch game that easily)).

There have been alot of innovations in the MMO sub-genre, the innovative games however hasn't appealed to the mass-market but that doesn't mean they don't exist or that they aren't successful. (Success doesn't require you to have millions of players, it just requires you to have enough to make a profit).
You're giving the standard MMO Idea Guy too much credit.
No-one of these characters will fully read, let alone understand and accept all this for themselves.

Still, it's great that you've written this article. I hope some people will at least scan it and see the light...
I always wondered if it a text based multi-player game (similar to the services available in the early to mid 90s) could develop enough of a niche market to be successful without requiring a huge back-end server. The idea would be to start out with something similar to Legends of Future Past or Trade Wars, and over time add a front end like Fief Quest or Kingdom of Drakkar. I think to have a chance at success, you would probably have to offer a few different types of games, similar to the offering of MPG Net. The big question is how do you reach the gamers interested in these types of games?
The problem is that your article makes a lot of assumptions in order to get your points across. It assumes that everyone is trying to recreate WoW... therefore all of your points reference this. Such as:

- having really great graphics (not necessary for a successful game... look at Minecraft)

- PvE (an MMO does not necessarily need PvE at all)

- powerful servers (again only if you are trying to make WoW. what if the game is turn based? it requires a whole lot less data transfer in that case)

You also make the assumption that the payment model will be subscription only. It could be free to play with a cash shop, it could be a hybrid. It's also not possible to just assume you'll only get 10 registered players in a month. You could get 100. You could get 1. The point is that it is hardly fair to argue you can't afford the server when you have no idea the amount of money the game would bring in the first month.

Your article works if the targeted developer is trying to make a WoW killer. It doesn't work if the targeted developer is actually making a unique MMO that doesn't fit the conventional WoW stereotypes. It's entirely possible to have a successful MMO that has no story, or has no PvE, or has no PvP, or isn't real time. You severely limit the possibilities and by doing that, you create a very narrow audience to direct this article to.

The problem is that your article makes a lot of assumptions in order to get your points across. It assumes that everyone is trying to recreate WoW... therefore all of your points reference this. Such as:

- having really great graphics (not necessary for a successful game... look at Minecraft)

- PvE (an MMO does not necessarily need PvE at all)

- powerful servers (again only if you are trying to make WoW. what if the game is turn based? it requires a whole lot less data transfer in that case)

You also make the assumption that the payment model will be subscription only. It could be free to play with a cash shop, it could be a hybrid. It's also not possible to just assume you'll only get 10 registered players in a month. You could get 100. You could get 1. The point is that it is hardly fair to argue you can't afford the server when you have no idea the amount of money the game would bring in the first month.


Lets leave gambling to the lottery and casinos, the fact is 99.9% of these first timers have done no research other than the fact that they have played other peoples mmo's and thought, "I can rip that idea off".

Your article works if the targeted developer is trying to make a WoW killer. It doesn't work if the targeted developer is actually making a unique MMO that doesn't fit the conventional WoW stereotypes. It's entirely possible to have a successful MMO that has no story, or has no PvE, or has no PvP, or isn't real time. You severely limit the possibilities and by doing that, you create a very narrow audience to direct this article to.


what are these unique mmo's that don't fit into the same exact category as WOW?
I'm getting tired of these posts... It's not controversial at all it's just uninformed...

So listen carefully. Building an MMO is easy. How would I know? Well in 2008 I released www.golemizer.com, soon after I released Dungeon of Loot (not online anymore) and recently I released www.starcorsairs.com. Creating an MMO is easy unless of course you think as a single person you can do the same as a team of 200 developers... Guess what! You don't need to deliver the same thing as 200 devs to be successful!

What is difficult is marketing. Making people aware of your game. And it just doesn't apply to MMOs. It's so easy today to create an MMO that your post should be called "The truth about game development" instead. All game developers are facing the marketing issue. MMOs today are just one of the many options you can chose as a dev.

My big problem with posts like these is that you make calls even before trying to release your own MMO. On your own. Sure I wasn't the successful example but there are others. May it be www.deadfrontier.com or www.realmofthemadgod.com. Heck even Runescape started as nothing! But even when comparing my revenue with other single-player games devs I must admit that I have been more successful than many of them. Again all game developers struggle with marketing. Even games from AAA studios can fail.

There are more people busy ranting about how difficult it is to create an MMO than people actually working on games (MMOs or not).

So again your post is not controversial. It's just yet another example that way many more people are busy writing than working on games.
Interesting article. The article seems to address more of the MMORPG category. I am deveoping a MMORTS that is text and icon based. So, a lot of the battle regarding graphics, servers, etc. don't apply quite as much. I believe my MMO is totally achievable.
I'm sorry... I really am. I thought this was a new post. I just realized it was posted before here: Why you shouldn't be making an MMO

So here's my past answer to that: Why you should be making an MMO
I think that the whole "MMO project" phenomenon you're referring to here isn't restricted to that genre. What you are really addressing is the naivety of a lot of people who want to enter game development with the mindset that they enjoyed a certain game and think they can do it better, but lack any real experience. The kind of people who think they could make a better GTA4 - but even BIGGER than that. All because they loved GTA4 but thought it would be better if you could shoot up heroin while drive monster trucks in the game, or some shit like that.


There's something rather arrogant about that, I think... it disregards the sheer amount of work that goes into making such large games, and it
takes some experience (however small) to tear your dreams apart (like a cat does to a dove) and take you down to earth. :) I joke, but well ,the MMO genre is generally fertile ground for this kind of thinking.


Now, it's not to shoot down anybody's dreams, but here's my 50c worth - the way I divide all "good" games is refinement vs. originality.

Most triple-A titles and almost all MMOs fall into the realm of refinement - these games don't really present any new ideas (even WOW wasn't really original - consider some of the MMORPGs that predate it), but what they do is rehash old ideas into sparking, highly playable and beautifully executed packages. What Call of Duty, WoW and Elder Scrolls do isn't new at all - it's just pulled off damn well. Conversely, there're original games which needn't be as refined, but offer something fresh and fun - minecraft being the perfect example.

In general, I would say that it's more difficult (in terms of sheer man hours) to make a refined game - to re-create something and make it better, you have to pull everything pretty much without fault. Expectations are raised acutely - FPS games have to "feel" perfect, competitive RTS games have to be perfectly balanced and MMOs... well I don't even know where to begin with those. Games that run off originality - or keep the scale down (usually a problem with MMOs) can match or exceed the experiences these refined games provide through sheer creativity and
imagination. And in that case, the finer details aren't scrutinized as much either.


Anyway - what I'm getting to is that a lot of hopeful developers want to create what are essentially highly-refined, large-scale games. And that's just not realistic - many of which seem to be MMOs. :)
One of the reasons there are always discussions is that people define MMO in different ways. Some call 100 players on a server MMO, and a success, some say the M only belongs in MMO if it has a very large group of users...There are also so many possible niches. For example, if you build a webgame with only light server interaction, then some call that a MMO as well.

I think most of us know that these posts are not targeted on simple webgames, or games with a user base under a thousand who like to call themselves MMO. They are targeted at the people who want to create a complete WoW experience from their basement, expecting to have millions of people playing their game.
real interesting article. i was also thinking of developing an mmo, but there isn´t only wow. the best idea, i think, is to use a system like minecraft. there aren´t only official servers, everyone can host a server and the game is intresting with 5 players or with 100.
There is no point discouraging indie teams or individual people to try to make an mmorpg. I coded a client server (simple) mmorpg prototype and I learned a HELL of a lot of game engineering skills, it is also now going into my portfolio. Nowadays mmorpgs are not as out of reach for indie developers as they were before. I know several small teams of under 10 people who currently have a fully functioning commercial level mmo.
Nice and easy to read trough, but something huge is missing in this article. It's extremely hard, if not impossible, to discuss this article because it doesn't define the term MMO.
If your objective was to prevent people from making their own MMOs then you are late...

I have been reading the same for years and I'm kinda feed from that, when you get started into a project like an MMO you must be realistic, yes, but you must be self confident in your skills.

If people is not going to start things "because it's hard" nobody will start a game and there is not going to be indie games at all.

Let people take their own decissions, let them start their projects, ok many may fail, but believe me everybody is going to LEARN a lot no matter if they fail / success, that is life and life is having courage to start things that can make you get into troubles but give big rewards..
The article appears somewhat pointed directly at the "big" MMO wannabes. Another commenter mentions this too. It isn't so much the concept of online/MMO that is far out of reach, rather the massive world with millions of players. That is not likely for indies. On the other hand, starting out with a much smaller world(built with expandability in mind) and fewer players to start with is the way to go. The players would be slow to come most likely anyway, hence the mention of how difficult the marketing is.
Building WoW as your first MMO is just as far out of reach as saying "I'm going to build the next Halo!"

However, the difference, is that the MMO space is a) poorly defined and b) as traditionally viewed, requires 'massive' investment (oh yes, I just went there). Hell, half the socially minded friends I know treat WoW as a giganormous graphically interactive IRC. Only a select few actually care about why they are doing "Quest for Uuul'thaard" and many of them move onto greener soil once they get bored of the tirade of abusive griefers -- whose only apparent goal in life is to make everyone else's life miserable.

Story, graphics... no. Ultimate goal of these kinds of games is achieving social entanglements that root deep into their infrastructure while maintaining the minimum amount of gameplay needed to sustain the above interaction. Rarely have I seen a game that cares about much else than being a) massive and b) profitable while still maintaining a. If a "c" gets added for the necessity of gamers behest, all the better!

What baffles me are the amount of people looking to 'revolutionize' this pseudo-genre. Is it really that fascinating? Or is it just for the money draw of making the megabucks? Maybe it's just a social experiment thing? I don't know. Nor do I really care. But by god, I wish people would stop harping on about MMO(s) -- they're not the end-all-be-all of gaming and there is a hell of a lot more interesting (and gratifying, for that matter) things to be working on!

Now, if we're talking profit wise...
Game programmers are usually given the advice don't start with Final Fantasy VII, start with pac-man. Maybe the same type of advice would be useful here, don't start with WoW, start with nethack.

I'm sorry... I really am. I thought this was a new post. I just realized it was posted before here: Why you shouldn't be making an MMO

So here's my past answer to that: Why you should be making an MMO


Just wanted to mention that was another article written on the same topic. It was a different author and it is just some more reading as to the cons of jumping into MMO design as an indie team. Please be sure to do your research before making such claims.

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