Jeff Strain on how heâ??ll teach the MMO genre new tricks â?? with zombies and consoles

Braaaaainzz training

Jeff Strain knows why MMO studios are reluctant to shift their efforts to consoles. He knows, because he’s been working in and around the genre for over a decade, working on titles such as Guild Wars, StarCraft, Diablo and World of Warcraft.

In the second part of Develop’s interview, the MMO maestro discusses how his new startup outfit – Seattle based Undead Labs – is looking to inject some innovation into the swords and sorcery world of MMOs, and at the same time prove the console doubters wrong.

Part one can be found here

Undead Labs’ new project is based on zombies. Why?

Well the reason that zombies are popular is because they fulfil a need in society.

I almost feel like, as a society and in particular as a game culture, we need that unapologetic meat-puppet. We need the guilt-free meat puppets. And I think that’s the role zombies are filling right now.

One of the great things about the modern zombie genre is the environment of post-societal collapse allows you to play in these hollowed-out worlds where there are no rules any more.

That’s what you can explore with an MMO, and that’s what I’m keen to explore. It’s not just about going around with a baseball bat. It’s about plunging people into this world where there are no rules.

The Asian market is often seen as the key to success for MMOs, but basing a game on zombies suggests you’re focusing on Western tastes.
Yes but it’s not even so much a question of the zombie genre as it is the selection of console. Nobody in China is playing game consoles and it’s not particularly prevalent in Korea. Those right now are the two largest MMO markets, in terms of player density.

So yeah, I’m making a conscious decision to chart new territory, because I believe the market will coalesce around it.

I think that the Korean and Chinese gaming markets are very strong for MMOs traditionally, because that’s where the traditional fantasy MMORPGs have been most successful.

I don’t think that always means that we have to always target that market. I think Europe and the US can be very strong markets for MMOs and the game I’m working on.

And of course there’s the idea that starting with zombies already gives you enough to differentiate from World of Warcraft and the like.
Hell yeah. I don’t want to compete with Blizzard! When it comes to the fantasy PC-based MMORPG, man, that is not a market that I’d be willing to get into right now. It’s time to do something fresh and new. The fantasy genre is well-trodden and well-owned. The PC MMORPG is well-trodden and well-owned! The whole fun of working in the game industry is charting new paths. That’s what I want to do.

Will your zombie MMOs elect subscription-charges?
I’m going to tell you upfront. The normal answer to this is “oh well we’re early in development, the business model hasn’t been established”, but I don’t want to do that. This game will almost certainly be subscription-based.

There are a lot of free-to-play games on the market. That’s kind of the new trend, but nothing is really free.

No-one is doing it just for fun. In the case of an MMO, no-one is pumping 30, 40, 50, 60 million dollars into their product just so they can spend that money and people can laugh about it.

The revenue has to come from somewhere.

But what concerns me with that is that I see more and more of a focus on alternate revenue streams, like in-game advertising or microtransactions. Oh you want this in-game currency, well text this number and we’ll give you a code for it.

What bothers me is that, beyond the nickel-and-dime mentality, is that these games put designers in a position where they spend their time not thinking about what is fun. They’re not designing a game to be fun. They’re designing a game that can channel people into stores. They’re designing ways to tempt people to use in-game currency. They’re designing ways to channel people’s direction into advertising. Y’know, I don’t want to do that. I want to spend all of our time focusing on making the most fun post-apocalyptic zombie game we possibly can.

The simple way to do that is to say “yes this is subscription-based” and we earn your money and respect, or we don’t.

How do Sony and Microsoft feel about subscriptions on their consoles? It’s long been thought that they’re not too keen on the idea.
I don’t know if I agree with that. But that’s not the sticking point, there are lots of sticking points to get through. The questions will be how billing works, how the revenue is recognized and who gets what. There’s a lot of negotiation to do with Sony and Microsoft.

They’re still feeling their way through the whole MMO business model, and part of the issue here is that all of the discussions have largely been driven by existing MMO developers who are trying to maintain their PC business as well as venture into the console business.

So there are still hurdles to jump with both Sony and Microsoft. But people will make it much easier to jump the hurdle if people can come to the table and say, y’know, we’re making a console-only MMO from the ground-up.

So you’d say discussions with the platform holders have been positive so far?
Yes. I’ve been talking to them for years and I think they very much want to see this.

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