The MMO is potentially the most lucrative genre in the world. There are over 11.5 million subscribers to Blizzard's World of Warcraft, while the Chinese MMO market is expected to reach $5.5bn by the end of the year (according to Pearl Research).
But for every Lord of the Rings Online, there is a Star Wars Galaxies, Tabula Rasa or The Sims Online that just can't get the subscribers they need.
In the first part of a roundtable with the industry's biggest MMO players, we discuss the challenges of succeeded in today's online market.
In this roundtable we speak to:
Erling Ellingsen, Director of Communications at Age of Conan developers Funcom.
Rob Smith, COO at Jagex, the company that publishes popular web-based MMO Runescape.
Jaeho Lee, CEO of MMO publisher and developer NCsoft West.
Nicolas Pajot, the COO of Gala Networks Europe, which hosts several big MMO games including Allods Online.
EJ Moreland, design lead on Realtime Worlds' upcoming MMO APB.
Dirk Weyel, COO of MMO developer Frogster Interactive
Stephan Ansari, Vice President European Operations for OGPlanet. OGPlanet are a publisher of free-to-play online games.
Why do you feel that so few MMO games managed to succeed in today's market?
Erling Ellingsen, Funcom: In terms of sales, MMOs are in fact doing better than ever. We shipped over 1.2 million copies of Age of Conan, which is an impressive number for any game. Of course, if you measure the success of MMO games in terms of subscriber numbers and retention then the picture is quite different.
MMO games require you to invest hundreds of hours into them, and on top of that you even have to pay a monthly subscription fee. Creating an MMO that convinces a player to spend hundreds of hours in that game and that game alone, is a monumental challenge to any developer. These are extremely complex productions, and creating gameplay that ties players to your game month-after-month is pretty much the holy grail of MMO development.
Luckily, developers such as Funcom and many others continues to pursue that holy grail. But you do not need to have over ten million subscribers to be successful. In the end, it's all about how you choose to define success in the MMO segment.
Nicolas Pajot, Gala Networks: It's true that in Western markets, no game has come close to the top MMO in the industry, but perhaps one shouldn't judge the success of a game purely by World of Warcraft standards.
One issue peculiar to MMOs, compared to traditional video games, is the commitment level of the players, who usually cannot play several MMOs at the same time. So it can be very difficult to attract a user who is already spending a lot of time and money on another MMO.
It seems many of the latest subscription-based games have a hard time meeting initial expectations: on one hand they struggle to move and keep existing MMO players to their game, and on the other they fail to bring enough new players to MMOs and thus grow the market overall.
EJ Moreland, Realtime Worlds: MMOs are about large numbers of people interacting in some sort of community that exists within that world. Being able to test game systems thoroughly enough and understand the impact of design changes at that scope is extremely difficult and costly, and takes significant time and effort.
With that in mind, the two largest barriers are successful execution –including polish and the time it takes to shake out the design and technology issues – and the conservatism of following the same formula as everyone else, rather than attempting to be significantly different.
Convincing whoever handles the purse string to take a significant fiscal risk on an unproven formula and be patient enough to see it through to polished execution is itself a rare and difficult undertaking.
Stephan Ansari, OGPlanet: Few MMO's seem to rise above the parapet, as many are not well thought out enough to deal with the hugely diverse community, which they try to support. The balance of story, gameplay and continual support, does not seem to have been thought out from the inception of the initial idea.
An MMO is a marathon that requires continual reinvention and a vigilant eye kept on the community and their perception of the product they consume.
Having said that, we need to clarify how we define success. There are a number of MMOs out there with more modest numbers of registered and concurrent users that turn a healthy profit. They may not be as big as World of Warcraft but they are by some measures successful.
Dirk Weyel, Frogster: First of all, it is still a pretty hard task for every developer to produce a good and well-balanced MMO, no matter what the budget.
Many new MMOs hit the market without being tested well enough. I am not talking about the game being finished, because this obviously never happens with an MMO, but the players nowadays have so many MMOs to choose from that they don't have to accept too many bugs, unbalanced gameplay, insufficient content, bad community support and so forth.
Also free-to-play MMOs are becoming better and better – there is no quality gap anymore between subscription-based games and ambitious free-to-play/item-selling games.
The third reason I see is marketing and community management. The more competitive a market is, the more important it gets to differentiate oneself with effective campaigns. You also need to provide an intensive community management in order to build up communities and keep them.
But still, I think there a quite a few successful MMOs out there. Not every MMO needs to have a userbase like World of Warcraft, Aion or Runes of Magic to be successful.
Jaeho Lee, NCsoft West: Success is an interesting metric because it means different things to different people. While subscriber numbers are often one metric, in our book creating a vibrant community that flocks to a fun gaming experience is a better measure of success.
One of the challenges here is that players tend to be loyal to the MMOs in which they are already invested, so in addition to new games needing to be more fun than the current titles, they really need to mobilise a community into action as well, which is not an easy task. If you look at non-MMO video games, although there are plenty of great titles out there, they are constantly supplanted by sequels every year or two. However, MMO games must be developed for the long haul to cater to their community and must foster a strong sense of loyalty.
Rob Smith, Jagex: I don't actually believe that it's difficult to succeed if you have a strong game and are willing to listen to your community and build content that they will find engaging and want to play. It is true that there are many MMOs who struggle to build up a viable user base, but there are also a substantial number of games such as RuneScape, World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings, which are extremely successful and are played by millions of people every day.
I think the real indicator of success in MMOs is the length of time people engage with the game. MMOs have gameplay longevity, which can outstrip most console games, even those with great multiplayer features, and therefore are more than capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional console games than many in the traditional console industry think.
To read Part Two, click here
To read Part Three, click here