What self-respecting virtual worlds blogger could pass up the opportunity to attend an all-star GDC panel on "The Future of MMOs"? Not me, certainly. So at noon on Thursday I found myself in the first row of a crowded room, listening to John Wood (managing editor of MMORPG.com) pose a series of interesting questions to:
* Jack Emmert (Cryptic)
* Matt Miller (NCSOFT)
* Ray Muzyka (BioWare)
* Min Kim (Nexon America)
* Rob Pardo (Blizzard)
What follows are my notes on the session; in many cases the responses are not verbatim, but instead are condensed versions of the key points. I was very impressed with how articulate and thoughtful these questions and answers were; it was an hour well-spent.
First Question: There has been a trend towards outside IP-based games. Can an MMO be successful today without an outside content IP?
Jack: Investors/publishers love outside IP because of the guaranteed fan base. Developers/designers, on the other hand, prefer the creative flexibility of original content. Because the cost of MMOs has exploded, the pressure for outside IP will increase.
Matt: Yes, of course, there will be a trend towards outside IP because people want to play what they know. But smaller publishers will be able to take advantage of the flexibility of original creation.
Ray: All IP is original to begin with, no? The tradeoff between outside IP and original is the licensing vs original cost. To take advantage of licensed content properly you need to really understand the fan base and their needs, so you're simply trading one set of work for another.
Min Kim: We don't typically go towards outside IP, because it's too much of a headache to comply with the various restrictions. Depending on the genre, you may or may not need the name recognition of an outside IP.
Rob: WoW had the advantage of existing IP that the company owned (Warcraft world). It would have taken years longer to make if they'd started from ground zero on content/concept.
Second Question: Are MMOs headed towards consoles? Will companies in the future have to develop for cross-platform?
Yes, of course. Champions Online (Cryptic's just-announced MMORPG) will be developed for consoles as well as PCs, and MMOs will almost definitely migrate. (But, he says pointedly, Blizzard shouldn't bother, it's much too hard, not worth it, etc. More laughter.)
Matt: The console base is larger than the PC base, it only makes sense to target it. [ed. Huh? That doesn't seem right...]
Ray: Not necessarily. There's a huge market on PCs, it's possible to be successful without targeting consoles. There are economic benefits to PCs because it's the largest "open market." Play patterns are different in the two contexts. It's a challenge that can be overcome, but you need to pick and choose your battles.
Min: I agree completely with Ray. Nexon is experimenting a bit with consoles. But for mass market, PC is still the way to go. It's our core market. For example, will consoles allow you to distribute the game for free? If not, the consoles won't work for our business model.
Rob: Of course there are going to be MMOs on consoles. We approach it as "what game do we want to make" and then "where should we put it"? RTS games don't do well on consoles due to user interface constraints. But web-based MMOs have demonstrated they can be huge as well. You just have to pick the system on which your game will be most fun.
Third Question: Will microtransactions be the future of MMO business?
Jack: It's ridiculous to think this is "the" future. Many people like paying one fee and not worrying about details. "Free to pay; buy the items" is fine for some contexts, but it's not the future. This is a 'buzz term' and I hate it. Monthly subscriptions are a much better business model (and even better when people forget about their monthly subscription...bonus free money, he says!) Depending on microtransactions is likely to be about as successful as spamming a million people with "send me a dollar" emails.
Matt: Bizdev folks want subscription income, it's much more reliable from a bookkeeping standpoint. Micropayments are much less predictable.
Ray: "Jack, how do you _really_ feel?" (laughter) It comes down to the game design. What drives your game? What will they be passionate about? If micropayments facilitate that, and fans are actively seeking it, it makes sense. It's the dominant and successful form in Asia, but not so much in the US. It really just depends on the game.
Min: Obviously I'm on the other end of the spectrum, since we only do the model Jack ridicules. We're bigger than NCSoft in Asia and Korea, because our market goes beyond the core market. We can expand to casual players because people can get in easily. Kids can't afford a subscription game; they need microtransactions. It all depends on who you're targeting.
Rob: This is very much an "east vs west" question. In Asia that's the dominant model, which presented a challenge for Blizzard. They didn't want to change the game design. Agrees with Ray--make the great game first, then decide what's the best model for it. Blizzard charges for name changes and server changes--they do that more as a deterrent than a profit motive, but they do make a nice profit from those transactions. Hybrid models would be interesting.
Jack: (Jumps in again, making sparks fly a bit...) Claims that microtransactions are bullshit, that the "pay for play" model that Blizzard uses in Asia doesn't constitute microtransactions. It's not a "magic bullet". It's not "east vs west" and Blizzard is proof of that.
Min: Points out that Maple Story is a great example of micropayments being successful.
Jack: I haven't really heard of Maple Story [ed. Ouch! His credibility just took a huge hit in my book.)
Min: Target has a huge virtual cards market that's evidence of how strong the micropayment model is.
Ray: This is about the people who play the game, and what are you making for them that they love? If you're not giving people who want microtransactions what they want, you're losing potential customers. The models don't need to be mutually exclusive; why not offer both modes of play? If you can do that without compromising your design, fabulous. If not, pick the model that works best for your audience.
Min: What we are selling is excellent user experience; you can make money by selling what users need to enhance that experience. The story they're hearing a lot from teenagers is "I've never played an MMO before, Maple Story is my first one".
Last moderator question: As time goes on, it's more and more expensive to build a topnotch MMO. Can you be successful now without multimillion dollar MMOs?
Jack: There are going to be two tiers of MMOs...the high-end like WoW, which everyone's afraid of, and the low-end. There will be no middle ground.
Matt: There will be small, low-budget MMOs that can be successful with 50K subscribers. There are people in this room making those kind of MMOs. If they get 100K they'll be successful beyond their dreams.
Ray: There are huge barriers to entry for the "WoW competitors". But there are new markets emerging--mobile, web-based, etc. We're making one (won't tell us what, though). Who would have imagined, five years ago, something like "Portal" being the game of the year? It's a small team with a brilliant idea executed perfectly. You can succeed with games like that if you know what you're doing. There is no one business model; you need to tune it to your game and to the audience. You have to know who you are.
Min: The uber-blockbuster won't be a realistic sustainable model for many companies. Nexon typically doesn't do that. None of our teams are over 100 people, and 85% of our revenue comes from item transactions. It's all about the social experience.
Rob: I'm delighted as a business person that nobody wants to make an MMO because Blizzard set the bar too high. But as a game player, I'm disappointed. I wants to see more stuff out there. But you're not just competing against WoW anymore, you're competing with WoW + expansions. Direct contrast is hard, because you're always playing catchup.
Ray: What *is* an MMO? Are multiple sessions of the same game, with strong community around them, MMOs? Lots of players sharing the same experience, if not the same exact sharded space...
First audience question: Can scifi as an MMO genre be as successful from the mainstream point of view? Can it succeed in a fantasy-driven market?
Jack: Yes, scifi can succeed (particularly IP based scifi). Fantasy has the advantage of a known conceptual model--what you do and how you do it is clear to the player. With scifi, players are immediately alienated (haha) because they have less of a strong conceptual model.
Matt: You can build off well-known single-player IP like Mass Effect.
Ray: MMOs at the core is role-playing, and it's an issue of what aspirational fantasy you're enabling. Different games fulfill different fantasies.
Min: It's harder to identify with scifi unless you have the existing well-known IP. I'd love to play "World of Starcraft"... (everyone looks at Rob, who's less than responsive).
Rob: All it takes is the right product. All worlds have their own challenges, but scifi or even contemporary (e.g. GTA) could be successful given the right approach.
Second audience question: What is your vision for user-generated content and addons in MMO?
Jack: Obviously those will have to be there in MMOs. Players want to be able to do this.
Ray: One of their pillars of game play in Neverwinter Nights was a pyramid of user types, based on Bartle's archetypes, that included creators. If you launch with it, and it's part of your campaign, you have great potential for it. Tack it on later, and you run more of a risk. You're most likely to be successful if you bring in great creators early on in the process.
Third audience question: What does the future of MMOs have to do with the future of everything else? (?!)
Ray: The answer is 42. (HA!)
Rob: I see an expansion almost as like another season of your favorite TV show, while a new console game might be more like a feature movie. [ed. fascinating comparison]
Fourth audience question: Is this a healthy industry, or is it really just a few super successful companies and lots of wannabes?
Jack: No, it's not a healthy industry at all. Investors are terrified of going up against WoW. It's scary if you're a fan.
Ray: At Bioware, we approach all of our development with both ambition and humility. We're at a nexus point, and it's an exciting time to be in this field as a developer.
Min: If you're purely targeting the WoW user, the future is bleak. But Maple Story is an example of targeting a different user base. Can you offer a successful and meaningful product to a broader user base?
Last audience question: In microtransactions are unofficial vendors problematic?
Rob: We take a very aggressive stance against outside sellers in WoW, in order to keep people from bringing RL advantages into the game. (That's not true, really, because those with more leisure time end up with an advantage.) For us, it's not a revenue problem but a gameplay problem.
Matt: It's an annoyance problem for players who are inundated with spam in the game. It's a customer service issue more than anything else.