Series Info...Odd Bits and Pieces

by Jessica Mulligan
July 3, 2001

Time to reinstitute Odd Bits and Pieces, a BTH tradition. Welcome back, old friend.

OB&P is something I used to do every so often, a kind of potpourri used to mention three or four news items that merited some comment, just not a lot of it. I started doing it before Happy Puppy picked up the column in 1999 and continued to do it even then, until my editor rejected one such column and told me he wanted me to focus on just one issue every week. This was quite a change of style and I didn't particularly like the idea; HP had me on a one week prior deadline and who knows what you might miss out on in a whole week? The editor was paying for it, however, so I gave it a shot.

Naturally, a month later he told me the column just wasn't the same and, instead of going back to the old format, he wanted to reduce the publication to once every two weeks or a month, to give me more time to reflect on the issues. At the same time, the editor moved up in the organization and I inherited a brand new editor. Grrrrrrr.

Just to ice that cake, the column the editor rejected included a scoop concerning use of the Xbox for non-gaming products, something Microsoft was saying at the time wasn't going to happen. No other columnist or news report picked up on it for a month after I submitted the column. I even rewrote that specific news bit into a full column and submitted it two weeks before it became common knowledge. Nada; the new editor was still finding his legs and no BTH column was published for nearly a month. After that, the bit was being written about by nationally-known columnists and reporters, to much hoo-rah.

This is known as "outsmarting yourself." On the other hand, during the two-plus years I wrote the column for HP, this was the only instance I was truly annoyed by something they did; the rest of the time they were great.

Meanwhile, on with the show!

You're a Bonehead!

Every once in a while, generally when I tackle a controversial subject, I receive a Chinese junk-load of responses that fall into the "You're a bonehead!" category. The recent Potlatching Your Way to Riches column, concerning the game press and it's intimate association with game publishers via advertising dollars, excited some of that comment from the pros in the field.

This was in contrast to the reaction from the consumers willing to post on message boards, which was pretty much one of "Yeah? So what else is new?" I don't know what reaction I expected from that normally vocal minority, but it certainly wasn't one of blasé acknowledgment. The email that came in was a bit more mixed, with some correspondents reacting with "I knew it! Why else would Game X get such glowing previews and reviews, when the game was the biggest stinker since Outpost?"

Professional game reviewers, industry commentators and magazine/web site publishers, however, had a somewhat different view, bordering between a simple "You're wrong." to stronger language. Understandable; I was pretty bold with my assertions. Next column, I'm going to print some of their comments and observations about the Potlatching screed, so the alternate views are presented for your edification and opinion-forming pleasure.

Small Developers To Get a Shot?

Sure, not every MMOG being developed in a garage is worthy of publication; some of the smaller, self-funded or marginally-funded efforts do merit some attention, however. One of my big fears about massively-multiplayer games is that these smaller, more marginal developers with much lower budgets than the Big Guys won't get a shot at launching their games.

The problem here is two-fold. In addition to development money, it takes a lot of other money (and common sense) to correctly launch an MMOG, as both World War Two Online and Anarchy Online recently discovered to their chagrin and embarrassment. The problems those two games experienced had more to do with leftover development problems, but we're already started to see the stress fractures in areas such as login servers, failed registration attempts and lack of bandwidth and server resources causing mondo lag.

This is causing some highly amusing damage control, as evinced by this hopelessly silly interview quote from Morten Byom, an AO gameworld designer: "We didn't have anywhere to look for ideas and possible pitfalls. We had to invent everything and try to foresee any problems that might occur when the game goes live." Unless you've been busy raising emus in the Australian outback, the sheer mindlessness of this statement is obvious. I mean, come on; weren't the highly-publicized launch problems of Ultima Online in 1997, EverQuest in 1999 and World War II Online a month ago example enough? Didn't that teach you to have a lot of bandwidth and high-end servers ready and waiting (granted, AO's problems seem to stem mainly from a botched client)?

The plain fact of the matter is, if you expect to get 50,000 or more subscribers, it will (or should) cost several hundred thousand dollars to be properly prepared for launch of an MMOG, and it can easily cost $2 or $3 million if you expect your game to be a popular one, such as if you're expecting several hundred thousand subscribers during the first year. This is money the smaller shops just don't have; they have to lean on publishers to provide the resources. Most of these developers just won't be able to attract publisher interest. Of those who do get tossed a lifeline, some will lose it later on when the publisher realizes the true extent of the launch cost and ongoing maintenance. I suspect this is what happened between developer Wolfpack and publisher Take Two, regarding the MMRPG Shadowbane.

With analysts again predicting untold billions of riches to be found in online gaming by 2004, however, everyone wants to get a piece of the action. In just the last year, here's how those revenue forecasts stack up:

Datamonitor $5.0 billion
IDC $1.7 billion
Wedbush Morgan Securities $1.5 billion
DFC Intelligence $1.2 billion
Source: Los Angeles Times News Service

I don't know how Datamonitor arrived at the $5 billion number; it seems incredibly, uh, enthusiastic. And this is a market well-known for not meeting inflated revenue expectations, as analysts at Jupiter and Forrester, who put out many high-number forecasts in the 1990s that didn't even come close to the eventual reality, will tell you. I don't see how the industry can reach that $5 billion number by 2004 unless we send armed thugs to 10 million homes and forcibly coerce them to become our monthly fee-paying butt monkeys.

(Conflict of Interest Alert! I was one of three authors of the report published by DFC Intelligence. David Cole makes far more sane revenue predictions than most analysts, but doesn't get near the press that analysts like Datamonitor do. The press - and company executives - like to see BIG numbers, regardless of their provenance.)

I believe the lower end forecasts are achievable and it is all to the good if these reports keep companies interested in developing or publishing MMOGs. Recently, two of the smaller development shops have landed publishing help from these sources. In May, Artifact Entertainment's game Horizons was picked up by Korean conglomerate NCSoft, the same company that is funding Richard Garriott's new development company and was also recently slammed for software piracy. Horizons looks like your basic 3D RPG and doesn't appear to be anything particularly special, but the development team is pretty passionate about it and that has excited a core group of fans. With NCSoft's support, they have a shot at making some money in the Asian market… if the game launches well.

Also, I was somewhat happy to read last week that JumpGate, a semi-blatant Privateer-cum-Elite knock-off being developed by NetDevil, was picked up for publication by The 3DO Company. This is the type of game I really like to play, but I was only somewhat happy about the announcement because 3DO in 1996 managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by taking a huge first-mover advantage in Internet MMOGs and throwing it down a rat hole.

I refer, of course, to Meridian59, a massively-multiplayer fantasy RPG published by 3DO in October 1996 and closed down in August of 2000. M59 was the first true game publisher effort to capitalize on the Internet. If the game had been managed correctly, EverQuest would today be just another competitor. I urge you to click the link above and read developer Damion Schubert's post-mortem of the M59 experience. It is a rare inside glimpse of the beginning, middle and end of a ground-breaking product.

Damion doesn't touch on that one major aspect of why I believe M59 failed. Over three years ago, I discussed some of the reasons in a Gamasutra article, which concentrated on the industry in general, not 3DO in specific. What that article boils down to, and where 3DO made its errors, is that if you don't understand the customer and how he/she wants and needs to be serviced, the probabilities of failure are much greater. There can be no doubt that 3DO was unprepared to face the MMOG customer base or had any real idea of how to go about customer service online. They had no idea of the motivations, needs and desires of the hard core MMOG niche and it bit them on the butt, hard.

Maybe they learned from the experience; who knows? At least they are willing to step to the plate and take another swing. We can only hope more publishers like 3DO and NCSoft take the plunge, so that more of the smaller efforts get a shot.

Microsoft Unleashed?

Bill Gates finally has something to smile about since the stock market dropped his net worth from a gazillionaire to a mere multi-billionaire. While the Appeals Court Thursday upheld the ruling that Microsoft had illegally maintained it's monopoly, it did erase the browser tying charge and vacated the break-up ruling, remanding it to a lower court for another look-see.

Since the decision was announced, more than one person has asked me what this means for Microsoft, the Xbox and gaming. Will they steamroller over gaming the way they did operating systems and browsers?

It may surprise you to know that I do, indeed, have an opinion on this. For Microsoft and gaming, the decision means, well, actually… nothing. It won't change Microsoft's gaming strategy one whit, because Microsoft is doing what it has often done when it wants to enter a market new to them in a big way: Use some of the billions of dollars of cash the company garnered through their Windows operating system monopoly to buy some companies that are actually shipping product, back them up with more monopoly money for marketing and expansion and be done with it. In the last couple years, they've bought Bungie (Halo, Myth), FASA Interactive (Mechwarrior and MechCommander), Digital Anvil (Freelancer, Starlancer) and Ensemble (Age of Empires series). They also quietly absorbed Links developer Access some time back and, in fact, got into the game business seriously by buying the company that developed the original Flight Simulator. A tried and true method; most of the other large publishers got that way by doing the same thing (buying companies, not having a monopoly. Not that any of them wouldn't want a monopoly).

As far as the Xbox is concerned, most game publishers are developing product for it and it has been reported that MS plans to spend $500 million just marketing the game console when it is released later this year. Does anything more really need to be said? I didn't think so.

All that money doesn't guarantee that Xbox will be a success; let us not forget the poor Dreamcast. However, having half a billion frogskins to spend sure makes the chances of success better. And if half a billion seems like a lot, just remember that the console game business brings in over ten times that amount annually. If you spend $500 million to capture just 10% of that market, you amortize your investment quickly.

your opinion...