Series Info...Engines of Creation #20:

The Rules

by Dave Rickey

This guy goes to the doctor, and tells him: "Doc, I think I have a serious allergy, I'm always wheezing and sometimes I break out in hives. You've got to find out what's wrong with me."
So the doctor draws blood, orders a bunch of tests, and tells the guy to come back after the results are in. A few days later, the guy comes back to the doctor's office to hear the results. The doctor tells him; "You're in great health, we only found one allergy, and it's so unusual it shouldn't be any problem: You're allergic to elephant dung."
"Doc, that's awful. I work for a circus, I scoop up the elephant dung, I'm around the stuff all the time."
"Well, you're extremely allergic to it, I think you should quit your job, do something else."
"What, and give up show business?"

This was my sixth trip to E3, my first was the last one held in Atlanta in '98 (I didn't go in 2000). The general rule is that your first E3 you're blown away, the second you have fun, the third you're a little bored and by the fourth you start to actively hate the experience. That was pretty much how it went for me. After working the 2001 E3 as the overflow media contact for Camelot, my knees felt like they were full of gravel, my throat felt like it was lined with sandpaper, and if I never went back to LA, that was fine with me. The next year I disliked the whole circus.

By much the same token, between 2000 and 2003, I didn't enjoy playing video games. I couldn't turn off the urge to analyze them, I was too deeply involved in judging the gameplay, art assets, and other attributes of the games to enjoy simply playing them.

Both of those have changed recently. As I found myself explaining repeatedly at E3, this last few months have been a "personal growth period", after six years in which my life was defined by "work, eat, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat", I took a few months off to attend to my personal life, and reflect on things. Other than these columns (the quality of which has suffered), I was basically out of contact since January. I've been taking the time to consider the industry as a whole, and what my next step in my career would be. Giving up "showbiz for geeks" was briefly considered, but rejected pretty quickly. For a variety of reasons, I am a "true believer" in the potential of these games, and I couldn't walk away from them any more then the infamous elephantine sanitation engineer.

More than that, however, I found that I could enjoy playing games again. Having turned off my analytical urge while I recovered a personal life, I found it wasn't so hard to turn it on and off on cue as I needed to in order to enjoy the process of playing the game, then analyze it later. And, for the first time since 1999, I enjoyed going to E3, seeing new and upcoming games, chatting with the developers, and schmoozing at parties. The only one I'll mention here is Auto Assault; everyone I spoke to either hated it or absolutely loved it, which will serve as my segue into the real focus of this column: The rules of MMOG development, as far as I have been able to figure them out:

Rule #1: Embrace Your Niche
There's been an ongoing debate in the industry over whether the "N" word was the kiss of death, or the One True Way. I think that City of Heroes finally tipped the scales on this question: the key to success for an online game is to carefully define the niche you wish to serve, embrace it openly, and serve it well. It is still a potential danger to over-refine your niche, but in general, unlike single-player games where you want to create a game that as many as possible will take off of the shelf and like just enough not to go through the hassles of returning, in online games you want to appeal to a solid base of long-term subscribers who will pay the monthly fees and buy the expansions; in other words it is not enough for them to like the game, they must love the game. With an overall market size approaching 3 million subscriptions, and viable investment returns requiring a game to only capture 3-4% of that, it's entirely reasonable to pursue a concept that will turn off 80% of the market, if the remaining 20% has a strong prospect of finding a game experience there they will like, and cannot find anywhere else. The key will be to really deliver on the promise implied by the choice of niche (which City of Heroes does, and Auto Assault appears to be poised to do).

Rule #2: The Market isthe Hardcore
This ties in with Rule #1, coming from the other direction. Once the market for single player games was driven by the "Hardcore Gamer", people who bought a dozen games a year and routinely upgraded their computers several times a year to play the latest and greatest. These players had ever rising expectations of quality in all areas, and these expectations drove the costs of developing games higher all through the 90's. In the late 90's, the economics of this broke down: The few tens to hundreds of thousands that would buy games of certain genres because they were deeper, more complex, and more realistic, were no longer sufficient for it to be profitable to make the games they demanded. These players are our core market, they will pay for monthly subscriptions to get what they want and they aren't going to get it from the single-player developers anymore. Our market will grow by converting casual players into hardcore gamers, not through reaching out to them by "dumbing down" our games.

Rule #3: No Honeymoons
Technically flawed systems and severe customer service inadequacies may be hallmarks of MMOG launches, but the market isn't willing to tolerate them anymore. Several games have started off with strong sales, but sufferred technical issues that have caused conversion rates to drop through the floor, and the games have never recovered. UO and EQ may have had problems as great or greater, but they had the advantage of a lack of alternatives, no game will ever have that luxury again.

Rule #4: Don't Forget the Game
It's easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer scale and complexities of the process of MMOG development, and forget to put enough attention on the fun parts. No matter what your ambitions, or the subtleties of your endgame, you still have only minutes, at most an hour or so, to lock in their interest in the game. The newbie experience must be smooth, polished, and compelling.

Rule #5: Mindshare, Mindshare, Mindshare
It is increasingly clear that games have only a few months to establish their subscriber base, which will then remain fairly stable for years to come. This means that "sleeper" hits are unlikely if not impossible in this business, and experience would indicate that the most effective tool in the battle for mindshare is an evangelical developer, and in the future we're going to have some close variant on a "Star" system, where the name and reputation of high-profile designers is at a premium. Major licenses might be adequate to the task of establishing initial mindshare, although it's doubtful they will do anything more for a title (it's questionable which did more for SWG, the Star Wars liscense or Raph Koster's recognition, but it's clear that the Star Wars name didn't pay off enough to be worth it).

Rule #6: Everything is Simple
Von Clausewitz observed that "In war, everything is very simple, but the simplest thing can be very difficult." This is also true in in MMOG's: each of the steps required to go from concept to launch is very easily understood and simple to perform, but the sheer number of steps and the inadequacy of our understanding of their relative importance makes it extremely easy to miss a step, or to approach it in the wrong manner. As with rule #2, the tolerance of the market for these mis-steps is steadily declining, and the importance of experience in and study of the process will grow.

Rule #7: You'll Get By With Help From Your Friends of Friends of Friends
No matter how much your invest in the quality of your graphics, the depth of your content, or the promotion of your game, in the end what keeps the players in the game is each other. In many cases, they have been playing with the same friends for years, having migrated together across several games. There is no acceptable reason to tell a player "No, you may not hang out with your friends." Anti-powergaming measures that stratify the players and pull apart groups of friends by not allowing them to group together are bad, and no justification for them stands up in the long term.

Rule #8: Players are Your Greatest Resource
The average player puts 20 hours a week into the game. This means that for every 10,000 players, the equivalent of 100 man-years of time is expended every week, quickly turning into man-millenia per week for the successful game. Even at extremely low efficiencies, converting this effort into entertainment value rapidly exceeds the input of your paid staff by orders of magnitude. Beyond the first few hours of play, it is this hidden resource that is really holding your players in your game. No matter how hard you worked to create the world, the fact is your efforts are just background and context for the real attraction. Get over yourself and figure out how to make this work for you.

Rule #9: Guard Your World
The power represented by Rule #8 can also work against you. You have an implicit duty to protect your players from harassment, cheating, and exploitation, and if you fail to fulfill this duty you will lose revenue at a higher rate than the costs of enforcement. Players will look for every advantage they can get, and some dozens to hundreds of them are going to be skilled programmers. They will look for every bug and logical error in your game, use those ruthlessly, and then step beyond those into messing around with your client and packet stream. Do not trust obfuscation techniques or encryption; assume that any data that reaches the client is going to be eventually discovered and exploited. Safeguarding the integrity of your game world is an ongoing process, from the initial design forward.

Rule #10: Perception is Reality
Whether it is the comparative balance of one character development, the integrity and quality of your customer service program, or anything else, the way your players perceive things is more important than how they actually are. In some cases it may be possible to educate the players...but only if they perceive your statements as coming from a truthful source.

It's a terrible commentary on the state of the games industry as whole that after 6 years I qualify as a "grizzled veteran", able to dispense such advice with a straight face. But that's the subject of a future column. For what it is worth, these are the most fundamental lessons and observatons of my career, offered freely and worth what you're paying for them.

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