The Daily Grind: How do we solve the broken MMO dev cycle?

Massively OP reader Yuri has posed us an interesting chicken-or-the-egg question for this morning’s Daily Grind. “People got burned on paying for unfinished games and are waiting until proper release, but developers shut down projects saying they didn’t see enough support,” he writes. “How can that circle be broken?”

I suspect anyone who’s ever backed a Kickstarter, contemplated buying a game in early access, or followed an indie MMO from inception has struggled with this issue. With rare exceptions, I do my best not to buy anything in early access to protect myself from both heartbreak and frustrating financial loss, but I still want to support great indie games. Then when we see games crumble in alpha or beta because they couldn’t get that critical mass of players, testers, backers, or attention, I always wonder whether people like me are making things worse. I get wanting to let the market sort it out, but the market keeps sorting out the stuff I wanted to play. I’m not sure that’s winning.

How do we solve the problem? Or is it an issue that we players should consider not our problem to begin with?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!
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77 Comments on "The Daily Grind: How do we solve the broken MMO dev cycle?"

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steve

You don’t break that circle. It’s not broken.

This isn’t a mature industry. Even the most polished of MMO games are little more than R&D. In such an environment it can be considered healthy to have lots of people trying and failing to solve the big problems.

You can lament the expense or feel sorry for whomever you choose, but until we’re standing next to each other on a holodeck this is all new ground. The more tinkers, the better. I give not a care for the pocketbooks of failed developers.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

I would like to see a development team that cannot fund its project to try “open sourcing” part of its development or content creation. In other software fields, this has worked quite well: core parts of the overall codebase-content are closed so that the project can be used commercially for profit, and other parts, or forked versions (possibly with closed-source binary stubs) are open source, and anyone can contribute to them. And open-sourcing part of your codebase does not mean it is no longer available for commercial use and profit, or still your IP. Sure, it is easier to control something that you manipulate yourself 100%, but that is the price you pay for not backing up 100% financially your product as well, and you might as well get that fancy idea out of the door instead of letting it die.

At a much smaller scale, Worlds Adrift recently let players create some islands that will end up in the game. I found this a great idea and I would like to see that in a larger scale.

Or, let the professionals do the job, and let the buyers beware once when they buy the finished product.

taradyne
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taradyne

Trove also did this well and it has been very popular with players. No profit but credit in game on the item.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

open source license agreements often allow for for profit usage.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

Indeed, that’s my point:

core parts of the overall codebase-content are closed so that the project can be used commercially for profit, and other parts, or forked versions (possibly with closed-source binary stubs) are open source, and anyone can contribute to them. And open-sourcing part of your codebase does not mean it is no longer available for commercial use and profit, or still your IP.

There are licenses that are not flexible enough for commercial use (GPL) but not all of them are like that.

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Schmidt.Capela

There are licenses that are not flexible enough for commercial use (GPL) but not all of them are like that.

GPL doesn’t prevent commercial distribution. It’s limitation is that whoever uses it can’t prevent others from also distributing the software commercially.

And it can work quite nicely for a business, though the business model is different from that of closed software. Red Hat, for example, had almost US$ 3 billion in revenues last year by dealing exclusively with open source (mainly GPL-licensed) software.

Large parts of Android are also licensed under the GPL, though of course Google’s business model for Android isn’t about merely selling it.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

you don’t have to be closed source to use it for profit. that’s my point.

for example if i want to rent out mumble servers for profit i can do so. the gnu license agreement allows that.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

possibly with closed-source binary stubs

Got ya covered there :) This is what I meant with “possibly”. There are all sorts of variants already deployed in other fields: any combination of open/closed/mixed source projects and forks with or without further service licensing etc. There are many live and successful examples already.

EDIT: Mumble is under the BSD license which is less restrictive than GPL. Not sure how GPL works for licensing services, I think it is a bit restrictive.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

EDIT 2: Schmidt Capella answered my edit in his comment above.

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Toy Clown

The only game I got burned on, and learned my lesson from, was Landmark. In the real world, I live comfortably, but I have bills and budgets. Once upon a time 50$ a month covered me to play a couple of sub MMOs and some cash shop purchases. It’s getting harder and harder to keep this budget. I could extend it, but I question myself on this.

Fact is, MMOs are getting more expensive to play. Sure the argument is there you don’t have to pay for anything. It’s obvious Devs are employing psychology to get us to part with our money. Sometimes I sit before the release of a new shiny, and highly desired item in a cash shop, squeezing my eyes shut and gripping the computer desk as I work to keep from grabbing my credit card! (Okay… maybe not that bad, but the writing practice kicked in!) Seriously, I’ve implemented a 24-hour wait on purchasing cash shop items in games now. If I still want it after a day, I’ll go ahead and buy it, but I usually talk myself out of it most times. This method saves me lots of money right now.

I think the issue goes deeper and I question exactly WHY MMOs are so expensive to make. Who is making the costs extraordinary? What things are they buying, paying for that require such a high cost? Why are those things so expensive? Is there no regulation on why the costs continue to skyrocket? If it was me and I had the power, I’d be looking into this part of MMO development and look around at seeing what could be done to put some brakes on the continuous rising costs.

I do have to wonder why Korean game developers are different. I haven’t done much research, but they put out amazing graphical games and most of them create their own engines. Many of the companies are on the stock exchange and do well. I haven’t heard of Asian game companies holding kickstarters.

Sadly I don’t know enough about the industry to comment further than the unhappiness I feel, which is on the decline, for the state of MMO creation. I’m like a consumer who’s getting unhappy and is tightening their wallet and probably will step away from MMOs fully if this decline continues.

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Robert Basler

MMO’s are expensive to make because they have way more game features than single or smaller multiplayer games. Consider a theme park game like Guild Wars 2.

In addition to standard game features like rendering, asset management, sound, art pipline and tools, front end, model and texture loading, AI, database, debug, entity management, locale, memory, networking, patcher, serialization, external libraries, stats, threading & tasks, tests, utilities etc which is a huge development load, they have many major features like WvW, PvP, Fractals, Dungeons, auction house, store, map completion, jumping puzzles, seasonal activities, dailies etc.

Add to that the art load for gigantic worlds, thousands of weapons and character skins and effects.

Consider the sheer number of activities you can do in a themepark MMO vs a single player game and you should start to understand why they are so expensive.

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A Dad Supreme

I do have to wonder why Korean game developers are different. I haven’t done much research, but they put out amazing graphical games and most of them create their own engines. Many of the companies are on the stock exchange and do well. I haven’t heard of Asian game companies holding kickstarters.

I remember reading a few years ago that the Korean government aids a lot of the videogame development in the country through loans and grants because gaming is such a huge part of the culture and helps keep people employed in current technology rather than the US which has a emphasis on subsidizing dumb things like “clean coal” and outdated manufacturing positions.

With easy money and lower employee costs vs the West and aid from the US each year, it’s far easier for companies to push out game after game even if they aren’t successful over there. China uses prisoners to farm for gold and also has a stake in videogames there.

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Alex Malone

The cost is basically graphics.

Consumers are partially to blame here, but essentially developers are unable to sell games based on mechanics alone, so this has resulted in a situation where a game needs to have amazing visuals in order to sell well. The increased visuals mean a lot of extra time to create the models and the artwork, as well as the animations, and this all costs a hell of a lot of money.

Raph Koster did a great article about the increasing price of games development that goes into much greater depth than I ever could.

What was interesting about his research into the issue is that the cost, per byte, has gone down over time, it is just that modern games are much larger in size.

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Kevin McCaughey

Alex Malone is right on the money. It is the cost of graphics and other content that is why MMO’s are so expensive to create.

taradyne
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taradyne

MMOs are expensive to make because of salaries and benefits. Typical staff is between 20 and 40 for pre-alpha dev, including art, lore, engineers, animators, etc. At $65k each if you’re in the boonies, you can do the math. And that’s just for a pre-alpha something to show a publisher. It ramps up to over 100 for a AAA project when you get into launch development.

taradyne
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taradyne

Good subject for a debate.

The advantages of the old way include not having to deal with thousands of opinions from players and Kickstarter backers who feel like they have an ownership position in your project. You work on your vision and keep it clear. The downside of this is the funding hurdle; you’ve got to have significant savings stashed away or have a publisher in your pocket to be able to afford game dev of any size/scope. The one off on this is Stardew Valley, where one guy built his game in his spare time and it was a raving success on launch day.

The advantages of the newish way (crowdfunding) is that you get some funding up front (if it’s successful) to be able to eventually show your game to a publisher and you have a built-in community to help energize and market your game. But it sure seems like the game devs who do this have a hard time staying clear with their vision, and are perhaps distracted by the demands and ideas of the community.

According to my game dev friends, publishers won’t take a chance on new ideas, preferring instead to work with the known – even if it’s old and stale to gamers. And I don’t really see another way through this unless someday a wealthy gamer decides to create a publishing house for gambling on new ideas. I’m reminded of Sundance Film Studio, which was created in 1981 for the purpose of supporting new ideas and new stories. Today it’s just part of the film landscape, but back then it was a risky venture.

If I ever win the lottery, I could be that wealthy gamer who starts a publishing house. Meantime though, I don’t have any answers. =/

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rafael12104

Ah, Yuri. I appreciate the question, and I fear that you might be right in thinking that their might be some good projects out there that don’t see the light of day.

But, as one who has: been burned by kickstarter, witnessed mismanagement of resources first hand, seen the death of great games on the whims of devs, and walked the early access path with seemingly no end only to find the final release was unchanged.

I say to you Yuri and MOP, it is not callous not to care, but in fact an obligation. Lol. I know, that’s cold, but it’s what keeps guys like Mark Kern at bay.

So… Put me down as a “not my problem, but I will watch, listen, and reserve the right to yell from the cheap seats.”

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Arktouros

I’ve never understood why people blindly throw their money away on Early Access titles and Kickstarters then bemoan the predictable results.

taradyne
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taradyne

I want to support game dev. But I’ve loved a lot of EA and pre-alpha/alpha games and been disappointed at what eventually launched.

Dantos
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Dantos

Because they are desperate for a particular feature or genre game that they feel will never get made under current market trends. Star Citizen is the perfect example of this. People are just desperate for a space game that is more like a Universe Sim MMO, EvE with actual piloting and FPS combat.

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Kevin McCaughey

What about Elite?

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A Dad Supreme

“People got burned on paying for unfinished games and are waiting until proper release, but developers shut down projects saying they didn’t see enough support,” he writes. “How can that circle be broken?”

Don’t give money.

If they don’t have enough money to fund and make their game, don’t make it… not some half-assed vocational school project.

Circle broken.

kjempff
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kjempff

For the early access problem, I have been pondering a possible solution.
So, instead of letting players roam very unfinished crude bugged content, make small parts of the game accessible but in higher quality and a more finished state. This might make the general view on the game more positive including better early reviews, which in my opinion is one of the main killers of upcomming games.. because players can not abstract from flaws the same as a developer can; for a developer, low quality and bugs are just a part of the process of creating a game and know it will be fixed and adjusted along the way.

Also it creates direction for the game so the developer can get a clearer view on what works earlier in the process – This is because the player can relate to the actual problems, instead of having abstract scenarios and promises to consider at the same time.

Of course if you regard the early access players as a mean to cheap testing, this idea would be working against that. I am interested in hearing what you guys think about this, maybe it is unrealistic nonsense or maybe it is not so much :)

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Serrenity

This idea is good … In principle. But there’s this concept of the architectural runway that has to be in place for the rest of the game to run on top of. A system like combat for example isn’t really something that lends itself to being narrowly flushed out as there’s a crapton of moving pieces that all need to be in place before combat is functional at all.

A system like movement is a little simpler – but still complex. Economy could be narrowly scoped to deliver sooner and then iterate on.

Really, I think you referring to content creation – like really working on a zone to make it awesome. But in the grand continuum of Dev work, the content is the “easy” part (note: quotes). The underlying systems that drive all of that content are where things are hard to do and take a while. This is why the initial ramp up of the game is measured in years, while new content is delivered on a much more rapid schedule.

Its a good idea but I don’t think it would play out the way you think it would and wouldn’t be as valuable to the early adopters as it seems at first blush.

kjempff
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kjempff

Yeah that is very focused on content alone. The equivalent to a combat system would be to focus on releasing only few basic skills and simple ideas at a time.
I guess the problem comes when something has to be discarded because it didn’t work or the back-systems changed. And at a glance it would require more work to do these smaller but higher quality beta releases, and there would definitely be a higher amount of “wasted” work, and increased difficulty in managing the game.

But I am still wondering if all that wouldn’t pay out in the long run. For the developer, a more finished product should create earlier realizations and the team seeing clear results is also a plus.. for the early access tester, it creates realistic expectations and a more positive atmosphere. Also, working in these chunk releases makes managing the scope of the game easier, being able to cut and add stuff as the game project progresses. I mean, game projects needs to be very flexible and dynamic to kill bad decisions early and go with new unexpected (smaller scale) ideas and problem solving.

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Space Captain Zor

What you’re describing is exactly what some have done and some are attempting. Problems they run into are scope creep, bad project management, and it’s simply easier said than done to create those really high quality small parts as well as maintaining the “new stuff” momentum to drive interest in the overall project.

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Space Captain Zor

As much as I appreciate the Old Way when games were developed for untold years behind a curtain and then suddenly came into existence a year before they were actually finished, it’s now the reality that publishers and investors can no longer be relied on. Developers need an alternative.

But, crowdfunding needs to get some strict regulation implemented and maybe even personal donation caps. If developers are given a more predictable and realistic idea of their total budget for their game before they even start accepting money, they should be better enabled to plan out a polished minimum viable product, which is what this industry so desperately needs more of these days. An MVP shouldn’t be considered bad thing if it’s polished, fun, playable, and worthy of its asking price.

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Alex Malone

There is a reason that most of these MMOs are not getting the traction / critical mass they need to take off: they’re not very good!

It’s unreasonable to expect players to turn up and stick with bad / unfinished games for months or years in order to fund the remaining development. It just won’t happen. If the development plan requires this to happen, it’s a bad development plan too.

I do realise that there is a massive problem in attracting proper investment into MMOs, hence the reason why crowdfunding has become a possible solution. But, it’s a poor solution for virtually everyone involved. I think MMO designers/developers need to go back to the drawing board and have a full rethink about how these games are designed. If I were an investor, there’s no way I’d invest in the current ideas because they’re all flawed right from the start!

New ideas, based on solid research and psychological understanding, may well be able to generate proper investment and thus allow games to be properly built before being exposed to the public.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

as i said mmo industry has utterly failed to deliver on the promise adn potential of the virtual world game.

it’s something masses of people really want, there is real legitimate market demand that is only becoming more clear with the anticipation for the ready player one movie and will be demonstrated clearly in it’s box office sales one way or the other.

and yet mmo developers be over here “naw fuck virtual world shit, we’ll just give them a heavily monetized skinner box grind shit show again”

the biggest game to sell on the virtual world mmo game is star citizen and yet 3,.0 is exactly more of the skinnerbox cashshop grind your brains out shit.

the virtual world game has been written about in novels and shown on tv shows adn movies countless times in teh past 30+ years and yet mmo developers refuse to even entertain it more than to use it as some kind of marketting bullshit PR thing.

taradyne
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taradyne

Legitimate market demand doesn’t mean much to the publishers investing in a project. They want results and look to the successes of the past rather than the potential of the future.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

business entreneurship is all about identifying a problem even problems consumers don’t realize exist yet and finding and developing a solution to that problem that is profitable for them.

it’s the very basis of business.

there’s all sorts of products and services that are being created along those lines every day with less demonstrated demand than for the virtual world game.

that the mmo genre was once sold as meeting that demand says something about investors being willing to invest in it at one point. but instead of getting that we got shitty skinner boxes that have progressively removed any virtual world elements.

investors spent billions on virtual reality headsets and software despite an abysmal track record for all things vr and 3d based on potential of the future.

CMDR Crow
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CMDR Crow

We were so close during the pre-2010 days, too.

If you want to trace it back, the moment corporations realized they could make a lot of money that became the focus. It isn’t nostalgia nor rose-colored glasses: When MMORPGs weren’t expecting to make $$$Texas they actually focused on non-monetary bits like “worldbuilding” and “atmosphere.”

And then you also can’t ignore that the glut of “mainstream” appeal means that you have a majority of players who don’t give two shits about worldbuilding or RP and just want to have the best of the best as fast as possible. The only way we get actual worlds and not lobbies with kiddos making stupid memes and jokes is if we accept that MMORPGs need to have vastly smaller playerbases consisting more of quality of players rather than sheer quantity.

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

see i think grind is what got us into this mess in the first place. the mentality that you should be working in the game towards some pixel slot numbers that is “the best of the best”

this is what the mmo genre could be.

instead we have skinner box online ad nauseum.

CMDR Crow
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CMDR Crow

If that were the case then EQ1 would have been a very different game from the start. It was an outsized emphasis on “raiding” which was aided and abetted by SOE themselves that focused people to think, “The game doesn’t really start until endgame.”

If you actually listen to the stories that the majority of old EQ players tell, and not the big raiders who were a tiny part of the population, it is about socializing in parties and corpse runs where people actually wanted to help each other. Where there was the dreaded “forced downtime” people interacted and held whole conversations.

People love to proclaim that grind is the problem, but it isn’t. Demographics are the issue on this particular subject. You simply are not going to get someone interested in RP and immersive experiences when they don’t want to be. Earlier MMORPGs were magical for a lot of reasons that were temporary, but one of them was that they were a self-selected bunch of players. The investment partially made up for this, as you rarely played a lot of other games when you played a MMO seriously. They also had the subscriptions, which was uncommon and a barrier for many. There were very few to really choose between, as well. RP was seen as a means to engage with the limits and make the game even more real.

I don’t think anything will ever change here unless we start seeing this kind of self-selection. But MMORPGs are now like the external clients in our social circles online. They’re an app. Things like slack and discord and mumble, etc., are where the communities exist. They aren’t often tied to games directly, and they encourage a kind of inherent siloing of players into little, discrete groups.

There are just inherent pushes and pulls. The more accessible and QoL you make a game, the less investment is needed and subsequently your pool of players opens up. Quantity over quality.

All of which is why I tend toward games with communities that support RP-like behaviors. Elite, LotRO and ESO all do this to varying degrees. If there’s a game that gets close to having all of these bits “right” it is probably ESO.

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Alex Malone

I don’t agree with your comment about what the mainstream wants.

I believe it is completely possible to create an MMORPG that offers great action and accessibility to the masses, but also contains the depth to bring the world alive and make it meaningful, offering RP opportunity and true world building.

I also believe this is how we change opinions.

You attract them into game using top notch graphics and engaging combat, but over the course of the game you ramp things up, introduce them to progressively more complex mechanics and ideas and give them a proper taste of living in a virtual world. You’ll lose the shallow gamers along the way, but I bet you’d retain a lot more than expected, converting them to the virtual world way of thinking!

CMDR Crow
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CMDR Crow

I bet you’d retain a lot more than expected, converting them to the virtual world way of thinking!

I’d take that bet in a heartbeat and walk away a bit richer.

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Melissa McDonald

I agree. Too many “sandbox PvP” games where PvP is the only real content. That’s done to death… pun intended.

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Alex Malone

I’m referring to the totality of the MMORPG market, not just crowdfunded PvP games.

Sandbox, as a design philosophy, has never had the research and development it deserves. We’ve never had a AAA sandbox MMORPG for example, literally never had one (well, from western devs anyway, not sure if asia ever got one).

With themeparks, the overwhelming majority are based on single player mechanics that just aren’t appropriate for a massively multiplayer environment. I mean, if you create a linear game with an end, is it any surprise that players quit when they reach the end?!

So yeh, back to the drawing board. Whether it’s sandbox or themepark, pvp or pve, developers really need to take a good hard look at how they create a game that will actually thrive in a massively multiplayer environment, that actually offers something unique that cannot be found in other genres, that will keep players in game and having fun for months/years on end, instead of days.

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Space Captain Zor

Enter: CIG and one of their biggest challenges with SC. You can see how polarizing it is that a company is doing all that R&D on the consumer’s dime & time (ie, patience)

Veldan
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Veldan

The problem is that investors want something profitable, so 99% of that “psychological understanding” is applied to ways of emptying people’s bank accounts and not to gameplay…