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Why You Shouldn't Be Making an MMO

Posted by ApochPiQ, 07 June 2011 · 23,795 views

MMO MMORPG ArenaNet Guild Wars 2 career
Get some unsolicited advice from a guy working on a real MMORPG.


It's nothing new, this trend, but it also doesn't seem to be going away as quickly as most fads; perhaps we can accuse World of Warcraft for making this such a huge deal, or maybe it all goes back to Ultima Online and Everquest. We may never know for sure.

One thing is definitely clear, though, and that's that a significant contingent of people show up here at GDNet wanting to make their own MMO games. There have been many words bandied about in the past over this subject, and plenty of advice warning newbies not to get their hopes up when it comes to shipping a true MMO.

Sure, not everyone is committed to the RPG genre; some people want to make an FPS, or maybe even an RTS. Others might have even more creative and unique ideas for how their game should play. But the real issue here is not the gameplay itself: it's the MMO part. More than that, it isn't even the "multiplayer" or "online" that is really an issue - it's the "massive."

MMOs are expected to host dozens of servers running thousands of players apiece. Successful games may be played by over a million people; some notable ones are played by far more than that. Even a low-grade MMO serves a few hundred thousand players.

The Real Issue
This is the root of the problem, here, this "massively" multiplayer business. Because going from just "online" and "multiplayer" all the way up to "massive" is a huge deal. Serving a pair of co-op players is fairly easy; most off-the-shelf engines these days include at least rudimentary networking support, and it doesn't take a huge amount of network kung fu to get a co-op experience running smoothly for most game designs. Half a dozen players isn't a big deal, either, using existing networking solutions.

But it's a far cry from 16 people playing Halo on a home-rigged LAN to the kind of stuff a real MMO must cope with. Even throwing in something like Xbox Live Matchmaking is incredibly resource-intensive. Companies like Bungie have people whose full time jobs involve doing very little but making sure the matchmaking experience runs smoothly. When a major company has to employ people to do nothing but run their multiplayer system, you can bet it's a good sign that Little Old Joe in his garage or basement isn't going to be up to doing something similar.

But wait! Even running a matchmaking system for a few hundred thousand players pales in comparison to what an MMO must do. After all, a matchmaker simply needs to join up different players and get them running on a separate system (usually hosted by one of the players themselves, or maybe a dedicated server for PC games). If dedicated servers are involved, the matchmaker is often really just a catalog of what severs are running. This is the kind of thing that a lone wolf coder could easily accomplish on his own; something like Xbox Live matchmaking, however, is getting past the realm of stuff that one guy (or gal) could ever do alone.

So if a solo developer can't really hope to build, deploy, and run a large-scale matchmaking service, what about an MMO?

Well, let's take the demands of the matchmaking service and chuck in some complications:
  • Persistent worlds. You're no longer hosting a game for a few rounds tops; you're storing data on players and their every action in the game. This introduces all manner of data warehousing issues which don't affect non-persistent games. Even semi-persistent shard/instancing systems (say, like that used in Guild Wars) are pretty complex.
  • Active role in simulation. A matchmaker can often get away with having a player host the game, which is the typical approach used in console games these days. Matchmaking servers don't have to have any code besides the stuff that links people together, making the actual multiplayer portion fairly straightforward by comparison. Again, remember that for up to about a dozen players, off-the-shelf network code is often sufficient to get a decent game experience. It does require some skill to make it happen, but it's at least plausible that a single person (or a small team of people) could get away with building a good low-scale multiplayer game.
  • Massiveness. We're not talking about sorting through a few thousand people to create a 10-man match; we're talking about having thousands of people connected to a single server, all constantly doing things. Combine this with persistence and active simulation, and stuff just got a lot more painful.


Some Magic Tricks, For Your Amusement
Here's an educational homework exercise for you. Even better, it has a magic trick twist to it. Pick your favorite MMO, and go look up the game credits, either in-game or on the web or wherever. Count the number of people involved.

Now, don't tell me your number. Keep it secret.

Without talking to you in any way - hell, before you even do this exercise - I will know more about your number than you might be comfortable admitting.

In fact, I'm so sure about this number, that I'll even make you a bet.

I will bet you a beer (or suitable beverage of your choice) that you can't find an MMO with over a million players with a development team of less than 100 people.

Here's another magic trick. Go find the lead developers and senior-level programmers, artists, producers, musicians, and other high-ranking folks from your MMO's team. Now go find out what other games those people worked on before the MMO. Do the same thing for the less-senior guys as well; average up how many titles everyone has worked on in their past.

I will bet you a second tasty beverage that the average developer working on an MMO has shipped at least 2 games prior to shipping a successful MMO. Many successful MMO titles are even the results of collaborative efforts from dozens of people with prior MMO experience.




The Uncomfortable Questions That Must Be Asked
If a typical heavy-hitter MMO needs more than 100 people to make it, how is it in any way feasible for one person to do it alone? What about 5 people? 20? At what point do we "break even" and hit a level of team size that might possibly tackle one of these suckers?

In a similar vein, if the average developer is already experienced with at least a game or two, and maybe even a prior MMO, what makes you think that a total newcomer to game development has any shot at accomplishing such a gargantuan task?

And these are just the obvious, logical questions. I haven't gotten to the heavy stuff yet.


A Case Study in Real MMOs
Let's look at my current employer, ArenaNet, producer of Guild Wars and the upcoming Guild Wars 2.

The GW2 juggernaut employs over 250 people. The GW2 codebase is several million lines of code (I don't have an exact count yet; I might get around to running a full scan of the code and put together a snapshot of how big the codebase is later on). There are hundreds of gigabytes of assets, ranging from artwork to music to design documents to configuration files.

If that scale alone isn't enough to convince you that MMOs are out of reach for the Five Amigos, then let's talk business.

MMOs are fiercely competitive, and a cutthroat business. People are doing all manner of wildly innovative and devious things to make money in the MMO space, and most of them are failing. There are some fascinating studies of how people move between MMOs, and they tend to suggest that many people are constantly on the hunt for the next great big thing - meaning that they'll bail on a mediocre MMO in a heartbeat to go play something cooler.

Running an MMO is immensely expensive. Internet hosting and server costs alone can be in the tens of thousands of dollars a month range. Buying all the hardware you need to run the game up-front can be well into the millions. You need a dedicated datacenter for the endeavor, with redundant power, fire safety systems, industrial cooling, and hundreds of miles of both copper cabling and fiber optics. A single network switch capable of running an MMO backbone can cost ten grand by itself. And if you want a global reach, you'd better roll out a datacenter on every major continent, at the very least. Three or four per continent is more like it.

What about technology?

Graphics are amazingly critical. If you don't have a great looking game, don't expect to attract too many players. The MMO space more than any other genre is dominated by players who are into aesthetics and first impressions. A great game with bad graphics might still get some hardcore fans, but it'll never compete with a great game with great graphics.

If you're just a mediocre game, though, the prettiest pictures in the world won't save you, so don't skimp on other stuff. Physics is becoming increasingly relevant. Audio must be immersive and high-quality. UI must be seamless, well-polished, and intuitive.

And we haven't gotten to the networking side of things yet.

The client side is pretty easy; it just has to connect to a server and spam some packets back and forth. But the server itself is a place of truly dark voodoo.

I've spent a grand total of two days with my head buried in the guts of the Guild Wars 2 server code, and I can say this much: there's more going on here than any one brain can keep track of. The GW legacy includes some truly brilliant, genius-level programmers, and even they didn't pretend to know all about the entire system. Sure, most of the veterans on the team have a good high-level picture of how it all fits together, but the details? Forget it.

At this level, everything becomes important.

The difference between allocating space for a buffer on the stack versus the heap is a crucial design decision. Calling conventions must be selected with great care. Exception handling is nearly verboten, because it has too much runtime overhead and can create unpredictable execution flows in code that must run continuously for years at a time. One-byte memory leaks are show-stopper, can't-ship-the-game-like-this bugs - because that one byte will kill you when it leaks constantly for eight months. Microseconds of sloppily implemented code turn into milliseconds of delay when scaled across thousands of players, which adds up to lag - the number one evil of an MMO.

You'd better be a sheer wizard at lock-based concurrency, because the order in which you lock things might spell the difference between a happy server and a worldwide outage. For that matter, you'd better be a wizard at lockless concurrency too, because locks are often too expensive and too exclusive to scale to thousands of active connections. Memorize those atomic operations, folks, and if you still think "volatile" means anything useful, go back to Go and do not collect $200.

You'd better understand how operating system kernels work, because you'll be taxing the living hell out of yours. Your job will bank on you knowing things like pre-emptive multitasking architectures, monolithic versus micro-kernels, how kernel-versus-user-mode code works, and how schedulers are implemented.

Better brush up on your compiler theory, too, because you'll need to know exactly how your code gets converted to machine language. For that matter, you'd better know your assembly language and your computer architecture, too. Two or three clock cycles here and there will add up in a damned impressive hurry. Don't know what a superscalar CPU architecture is? Pipelining? L1, L2, and L3 caching? Don't know how a memory bus is implemented? Don't know the difference between a northbridge and a southbridge? Don't know the role of device drivers and how they work? Don't know where the network stack of your OS of choice lives and under what context it runs? Pack your bags and don't sell the bike shop, 'cuz you aren't cut out to be writing an MMO server.

It takes half a dozen dedicated programmers just to write the servers for Guild Wars 2 - and that doesn't include the people who wrote some of the legacy code we inherited and modified from GW1, or the people working on auxiliary support features like web sites, forums, wikis, and so on. It doesn't even include the network admins who build the hardware and maintain it, or the community managers who take care of ensuring that the experience is enjoyable for all the players.

The guys I work with are, to a man, incredibly good programmers. I'm still not entirely convinced that I'm cut out to be working with them, or on a project of this magnitude. It's without question an extreme challenge - but one that I'm tackling with gusto, because I love a good challenge. There's more brilliance packed into the room I sit in every day than I've seen in years in the industry, and I've worked with some damn good people in the past.


The Last Straw
I haven't even started to touch on content production, or quality assurance, or game design in general, or balancing, or audio, or art creation, or anything relating to administration and running a business. Those things are all major tasks, outside the already-mammoth enterprise of programming. I've focused on code because that's what I do, but it's by no means the largest, most difficult, or most important aspect of making an MMO.

So, hopefully, that gives you some idea of what you're up against when you waltz into For Beginners and say, "hey, me and my three friends from high school want to make the next World of Warcraft."

Sure, with enough time, dedication, and discipline, you might wind up on a team that does produce the next smash-hit MMO. But you'll probably make up around one percent of the workforce on that team. And you'd better be fucking good - and I mean that.

Please, in all seriousness, start with Pong. Make a good Pong game. Make a killer Pong game. But scheming to produce an MMO from your basement is a surefire recipe for harsh lessons in reality, and for failure. It would be a damnable shame to waste your enthusiasm and talent on a doomed foregone conclusion of a project.

Instead, go make something small. Make something cool. Make something fun. Then, perhaps, you'll see that the important thing isn't massive numbers of players, or huge server farms, or millions of dollars. The important thing is that you do something you really enjoy with your life and your time.


And if you're sick in the head enough to enjoy something like working on an MMO, come apply to ArenaNet. I hear we're still looking for a few good senior programmers.


POSTSCRIPT
Check out my responses to the comments.




Great read. I actually want to work on an MMO, I don't want to make the next WoW or anything. I just want to make the game I see in my head. You certainly have given me a bit to think about. Thank you ^^
I agree with the overall message of the blog, but have to offer this supplement to the parts I disagree with:

I don't think *many* indie developers are looking to really gain the second "M" in the "MMO" namesake. I mean, massive is also a relative term, so if an indie/solo project can garner 1,000+\- players, that's a pretty "massive" success IMO. It really depends on what scale you use. Some solo teams might think a user base of 100 players is a victory. It's all about ROI, and when you're investing nothing but time (in a solo setting), the ROI is pretty easy to get. Even in an indie/group setting, you're not collectively investing the *millions* of dollars the big guys spend. It's all about perspective and attitude personally.

People also try way too hard to either emulate or directly compete with successful AAA MMO titles. It's just ludicrous. Our company, MMO Interactive, is developing an "mMO"(little 'm' used respectively) with the hopes that we get enough players to keep the servers on, and to continue to provide our dedicated players with content-rich updates and expansions. We're confident that our product is unique and genuine, and that our content/mechanics/features have lasting appeal and charm. Of course time will tell; It always does.

Nobody in our team is setting out to "take out WoW" or anything. Our goal is to have fun making a game that WE would play. A game that we feel others would enjoy playing. Do we expect to make millions in this endeavor? Nope. What *do* we aim for? We aim to revolutionize the way people feel about games, subsequently, how they are made, and what they're made with. I'm also compelled to say that if we *do* manage to hit 1 millions subs, nobody would be complaining! ;-)

The gaming industry is changing, as is the recording industry. Just as in the recording industry, big business is losing its foothold in the market. People can now telecommute to the servers, and update/compile/edit scripts remotely. Engines offer hosting packages for back-end royalty compensation, limiting the upfront financial cost that used to be associated with launching a title. The internet can be a HUGE promotional tool, limiting costs associated with marketing/branding/promo/press/etc. Big business hates this, and does everything in its power to discourage people from changing the consumer mentality. Fact of the matter: Business make games to make money, and they certainly don't like sharing that money.

Making an MMO, even a single-player offline game, is hard. Degrees and certs don't make games: Talent does. I think the real problem is games, as an "art form", are very easy to misinterpret in terms of complexity. People love the game (the art) and try to emulate it. They don't have the business savvy to assemble a team that can maintain forward momentum and hit deadlines, and they don't have the technical prowess to know when they've exceeded their physical/monetary/time/size limits. The mark of a truly "professional" indie company, is in its ability to acknowledge when to let things go; to focus on a scope that can actually be completed and self-sustain.

As in all things business, endeavors are a calculated risk, and never a guaranteed success. One must evaluate the market, find a niche, acquire talent, work hard, and release a finished product, all *before* it can even be decided a "success" or not. That's a HUGE investment, and one most people probably wouldn't make. We, on the other hand, welcome it. We embrace it. I eagerly await the day we release more details about our project on the GameDev boards. We will certainly love to hear what you guys think!

Regards,

-Joel Hager
MMO Interactive
Hey, is it ok if I set a goal to make an MMO when that's what I have done for a living, making MMO's?

People have paid me a lot of money in the past as a professional game developer to help them create games. So, it seems reasonable that I can just make a game myself. Why not? I've done it before. I developed three games as an independent artist for Electronic Arts, most of the time holding down a full time 'day' job.

What people need to remember is that when we say 'massively multiplayer game', what we are talking about is a large server population.

While most of the time MMO means that the game has a massive amount of content, and a massive amount of character development, that is not, in fact a hard cold requirement.

A gaming experience where hundreds or thousands of people are in a shared environment can be the core aspect of your MMO. They could be playing that game on two triangles, so long as the game is fun enough.

Having high production values and an enormous amount of content is not absolutely required to create an MMO.

If you read my development blog you will see that my game is not targeting the mass market. I'm looking for a couple of thousand players only who like a particular type of game play.

My game could probably be best described, in thumbnail fashion, as 'First Person Tower Defense'.

I'm simply remaking a game I did for Electronic Arts fifteen years ago. It's a proven game design and I am truly remaking the same game. The twist is simply that instead of a few players simultaneous, the server will support 1,000. The other twist is that it will have extremely advanced artificial intelligence and the *minimum* server population will be 500. So, at all times, there will always be an opportunity for large scale combat.

As the lead developer for 'Planetside' (the first massively multiplayer first person shooter) I would like to think I know what I'm talking about.

If someone can make an indie game that supports 10 players, they can make an indie game that supports a 1,000. Simply writing the server architecture to support a 1,000 players, while difficult, is still something that can be done by a sharp programmer. I certainly have no doubts that I can do it.

What your article assumes is that an MMO *must* have so much content that it takes 100 people years to create; that it must have so much deep game design and character development it takes a massive investment.

While that may be true for most large scale commercial MMO's if you define an MMO as simply a game which can support a large server population, then no, I do not believe it is out scope for the indie game developer.

John
Oh yeah, on the point about server costs and monetization.&nbsp; <br><br>Nobody should get to play a game for free.&nbsp; We are in this to make a living.&nbsp; If you are one of the millions of cheap-skates who won't pay money to play a game, I'm not interested in you.&nbsp; I'm not interested in making money from people unwilling to pay money to play a game.<br><br>What the Iphone App store has shown is that people are willing to pay a modest amount of money for a game which entertains them.&nbsp; They will pay 99 cents to play a game without a great deal of thought.<br><br>I have a friend who have made over a million dollars on an Iphone game and another friend who has made hundreds of thousands off an Android game.&nbsp; But, I don't want to write an Iphone game.&nbsp; I want to write an MMO.&nbsp; My same friend who made all the money with his Iphone game also has an MMO game company,&nbsp; He is running two MMO's that have been in continuous operation for over a decade.&nbsp; Does he have 100,000+ subscribers?&nbsp; No, he does not.&nbsp; He has thousands; and with that he is able to run a successful business.&nbsp; Successful enough that he just spent the last month traveling the world with his girlfriend.<br><br>For hosting your MMO inexpensively, Amazon.com already provides that service.&nbsp; Of course, you don't let people play for free.&nbsp; You charge them money to play your game.&nbsp; I plan to charge them twenty five cents to play for 30 minutes.&nbsp; It's just like dropping a quarter into an arcade machine.&nbsp; If you don't think it's worth it, that's fine with me.<br><br>I'm not looking for subscriptions, or microtransactions, or funneling millions of people through who I can skim a tiny bit off the top.&nbsp; I'm looking for a few thousands people who enjoy a certain kind of addictive game play.<br><br>While I find that population?&nbsp; Maybe I will, maybe I won't.&nbsp; But my business model requires that I only find 500 regular players to pay back the investment of time put into the project to begin with.&nbsp; <br><br>Time will tell.<br><br>John<br><br>
I'm not trying to cast aspersions on your project in particular, John; this article is mostly for Bob Random Newbie who ventures along and thinks he can out-Warcraft Warcraft.

There certainly do exist people who are capable of building massive-scale (in terms of population) games, by themselves or otherwise with very limited resources. I have no reason to doubt that you'd be among them.

What I'm saying here is that, by sheer statistics, the people who want to make MMOs do not overlap much with the subset of the human population who is capable of making an MMO.

Where that overlap does occur, I tend to suspect that the vast majority of those capable are also capable of realizing that I wasn't addressing them in this post. Moreover, I'd like to think that those individuals have the self-confidence in their abilities to avoid having to defend their ideas and plans to little ol' me.
@ApochPiQ<br><br>Yes, on this point we agree.&nbsp; I say the same thing on my blog all of the time.&nbsp; However, one thing your original post might have missed is this.<br><br>There is a market opportunity for targeted MMO's which are designed to capture a small but dedicated following. <br><br>There is a market opportunity for MMO's which focus more on unique game play and less on overwhelming you with content.<br><br>This is the route I'm taking.&nbsp; Of course you absolutely cannot do a 'World of Warcraft' as an Indie project; unless you know 250 professional level developers willing to work on it for free and, like you said, I wouldn't consider a team of 250 people very 'indie'.<br><br>Back when I started in the game industry Electronic Arts considered a game that sold 50,000 copies a success.&nbsp; Today, a game that 'only' sells 1.5million copies will probably be considered a flop and result in you getting laid off from the company (as many ex-EA employees can attest to.)<br><br>However, there is still a market for a game that is designed to capture a small audience.&nbsp; Just because EA stopped making those kinds of games, doesn't mean the market isn't still there.&nbsp; And, if the development costs are minimal, this can still be a very viable business opportunity.<br><br>How many first person tower defense games am I competing against?&nbsp; Roughly zero, because there are no other first person tower defense games.&nbsp; <br><br>Will the average First Person Shooter fan like my game?&nbsp; Absolutely not.&nbsp; Most of them will hate it.&nbsp; In my game it can take as long as two minutes to kill an opponent (that's because you have to dismember them a piece at a time and, only then, after destroying their shield).<br><br>However, there will be a core group of game players who like playing this kind of game so much, that it will sustain a viable business model.<br><br>John<br>
I'm sorry but I disagree completely with the notion that you need a beeelion developers - all with abnormally huge brains - and a pot of gold to make an MMO game.

That notion is patently ridiculous and has absolutely no merit whatsoever.

I don't even know where to begin to qualify my statements without this whole thing heading South in five posts or less, so I'll just memorialize some thoughts and facts.

1. Back in the day - long before any of us actually started doing this for a living - there were those who were uttering these very same words about "game development" as a whole. FastForward to where we are today. 'nuff said. Today, there are mods created by part-time coders that rival even the games they were based on. Many an "inexperienced" team has gone on to do great things and continue to do so.

2. The indie game movement has shown - time and time again - that a bunch of hard working, dedicated, focused - and committed - guys, can yield results that match the best of them. The majority of the games (at least in the PC side of things) that made money in the past ten years or so, were from small teams and companies. The indie movement - as a whole - continues to march onwards, completely undeterred by the fact that those "other guys" are busing trying to recoup the costs of their latest $20m disaster. MMO or not.

There is a reason why almost 90% of games - mostly from the big guys - fail to make any money. Talent has nothing to do with it either.

3. The majority of failed MMO games were developed by extremely talented people and with a lot of money (usually someone else's) to burn. Yes, they failed. I could start from (even before) Earth & Beyond, Sims Online, Tabula Rasa all the way down to SWG, but I won't.

4. MMO games are no different from any other type of game. The main difference is in a) the premise b) the backend handling of things like billing etc c) user experience. If a good team has server and client devs who actually know how to develop a session based multiplayer with a client/server architecture, then they are well on their way to giving it a shot. After all those who are "in the know" started somewhere in order to get where they are today.

5. As someone mentioned earlier, the issue is not purely about talent, but more about committment. Most of these fly-by-night dudes who want to do high end games - let alone an MMO - have no clue where they're doing; have no structure, have no sense of responsibility, have no commitment etc I could go on and on. So, in hindsight this blog isn't even about them. They don't count because nobody is expecting them to amount to anything.

6. For any team that can blow through 4 years and $20m on a game, I can show you a team that can blow through 2 years and under $1m. It is all about priorities, management and planning. Just because you have $20m to blow on a game doesn't mean a) that you should do it b) that the amount of money you throw at it is in direct relation to the end product. This is actually historical fact.

If you want to make an MMO (actually a misnomer, but that's for another topic) and you have a team that is confident that they know what they are doing and you have the resources to actually do it, then go for it. Nobody said it is going to be easy, but then again how much of game development is?

I currently own part of a company that developed an MMO game (Alganon) on a shoe-string budget (when compared to what MMOs typically cost to make). From scratch. With less than 20 people. And not a single one of them had any actual meaningful experience building an MMO; let alone the money and/or expertise to actually pull it off. The result is that the project had many false starts, large team turnover, was delayed, ran out of money etc. and eventually rush shipped in late 2009 when the investor money ran out. And when I took over that company in early 2010, I spent several months getting the team to streamline ops, finish it etc. Then I gave the go ahead to expand it. All without having to hire a single "MMO expert" who walks on water and breathes fire to do anything. In fact, ALL the leads were off the project when I took it over. With that team of less than 20 people, all it took was structure, guidance, focus, direction - and additional funding - to actually finish the game and extend it. The only MMO game credit that anyone on that team can claim to date, is that one game.

Did I mention that it wasn't even F2P to begin with, but that we got that in and completely upended the original business model? How about PvP? Nope, it was a purely PvE game. Now is has an extensive PvP component that rivals even the PvE game. I could go on and on, but you can read up on it yourself at http://www.myalganon.com

And we're still running it, the install base is growing, European servers (no, we didn't buy any hardware) are going up in a couple of weeks etc.

The MMO game that I am currently working on (Line Of Defense) for release in 2012, comprises of less than 10 people, will end up costing less than $5M to make when it is done - and not a single person on that team (myself included) has any MMO game development experience.

And server costs are so cheap that it's not even worth mentioning. Who needs to create a server farm or a datacenter just so they can host/run their MMO? I mean, seriously? Most - if not all - of the hosting (even the colo ones) ISPs all know exactly what hardware and software setups are required to host high performance games on a network. If you plan correctly you can host your MMO on every corner of the world - and never have to spend a single dime on rolling out your own hardware.

Billing? Please. There are so many billing companies willing to give their stuff for free, that the hardest decision you're going to have to make is who (hint: UltimatePay) to go with. Need someone to implement it that you don't have on staff? As I type this, you can find no less than 11,345 qualified people across eLance, oDesk and Rent A Coder; just to name a few. Who says you need someone on staff when you can find contractors around the globe to get the job done?

Want IT people 24-7? See above.

In conclusion, by the premise of this blog, I might as well quit now. That's hilarious. Especially when you consider the fact that I'm working on not one, but two (Galactic Command Online) MMO games; the second looking to be released in late 2013 or thereabouts.

Game development is just like another other profession, hobby or past time. It is all about what you put into it. Sure a team of entry level jnr programmers - let alone n00bs - aren't going to get anywhere developing any game, let alone an MMO; but that all comes down to one thing: bite off only what you can chew and whether or not you can afford it. One team's $50M heartbreak is another team's $2M windfall.
I really liked reading this, you're a good writer. And I like reading about the technical details involved in an MMO.
But I think you're kinda wrong in your overall point, at least from a programming perspective;

Several teams have formed over the years to create server emulators, many of which are as good (if not better) than their original counterparts. Unless you want it to take forever, being more than 1 person is certainly a good idea. In fact, six (half a dozen) programmers sounds like a reasonable number - but it isn't impossible.

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