Let’s move along now, shall we?

June 10, 2010

Over the past few years, how many AAA MMO titles have we seen get hyped up, release, and shed 50%+ of its population within the first few months? 3? 5? I’m sure there is more to come as well.

I think first it started off as everyone trying to tackle Blizzard, or at least get a chunk of their cake. Games like LotRO, and WAR that were marketed by the eagerly waiting players as “the next WoW killer.”

After that I think companies started backing down to the almighty Blizzard, and decided to not shoot for 10 million subscriptions and would be happy to settle with 1 million. But even that didn’t seem to help, with games like Aion, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online.. all of which have pretty much bombed almost into the “life support” category. (In Aion’s case.. in the US/EU)

So what does a company who wants to design a AAA MMO title have to do to have a successful launch and retain it’s players after the initial flood?

There is a few things I can think of. I’m not too familiar with the development process on the inside of a studio, things like Publisher pressure and deadlines can really screw up an MMO. But that’s about all I really know about what goes on internally. To possibly gain a bit more insight I’ve emailed Brian “Psychochild” Green, online game designer and blogger and asked him to chime in on this post if he has anything to add.

Back to what I think Dev studios could do in order to make the Dev process, testing, launch and post-launch go smoother.

Shrink it!

Most AAA MMO titles feature a large world. Multiple continents, large zones and etcetera. But why does it have to start out large? Maybe the bigger companies can learn a lesson from the indie F2P developers and make your world smaller at first, but have speedy development rotations on adding new content. We all want a bigger world sure, but.. would you rather have a huge world with all sorts of problems in it, or a smaller world with drastically less problems, evolving into a bigger world with time. Vanguard is a great example of what not to do here. The world was beautiful, and enormous. And empty. Not just void of players, but even the wilderness didn’t feel very wild.

Along with shrinking your world, I never quite understood why these MMO’s ship with 15+ servers. Big worlds and tons of servers are great if you’re Blizzard. But not if you’re anybody else. The dreaded server merge announcements that we see doesn’t mean that the game is dying exactly, but anytime one is announced the doomsayers come out of their holes. Usually server merging is a sign of a slowly dying MMO, or at least one that isn’t going to be picking up steam.

So, how about trying something different for once. Start with the minimum amount of servers, and if your game grows, add more. The problem with that idea is usually launch is when you have the highest populations, thus needing the extra servers. My take on server merging is that it’s better done sooner rather than later. If you launch your game and see 500k subs the first month, but at the 3rd month mark you’re down to 400k, it might be time to start thinking about server merging. There is nothing worse than the post-launch exodus that is bound to happen, and then feeling like your left with an empty server. That’s just going to push more players away.

As your game gets older I think watching your servers is important, and knowing when to time server merges before the problem gets too bad. Take EQ2 for example. It does have a healthy population, though the majority of the community are at the top end of the game. EQ2 has had 2 rounds(or maybe just 1, I can’t recall) of server merges in the past, and in this guys opinion.. is well overdue for another. I’d go as far as to say EQ2 needs to drop down to about 8 servers total. 3 normal servers, 1 bazaar server, 1 pvp server, 2 EU servers (I don’t know what the EU population of EQ2 is like), and a RP server. If you’re starting fresh in EQ2 with no friends, it is a very, very silent and quiet game. Very lonely. Not good if you’re trying to attract new customers.

But if EVE online can have 1 server with its healthy subscriber base, why can’t other games? Yeah.. EVE is a special case because it fills a specific niche, but it’s still something to be thought about.

Target Audience?

I think it may be safe to say now that trying to market your MMO to every player type doesn’t work that well. Blizzard was able to pull it off I think because of their timing. Every MMO to come out since that’s tried this has not reached the goals they originally set for themselves and their game. I think if you build your game towards a certain niche of players and stay there, maybe adding on other features later on, you would end up with a smaller population, but a much more stable one. EVE Online does this pretty well as do a few other niche titles.

Are you trying to attract new-to-the-genre players? Harcores? Casuals? PvP, PvE? Social aspects?


I never understood why the bigger MMO companies are drawn to making a game capable of supporting millions of people, only to have it flop after release for x reason. Instead of doing that why not set a lower target for your populations. How about 500k instead of 1 million?

I would think that once you set a goal for your customer base, it would make it must easier to design the rest of the game’s size, how many servers you’ll need, and what features you can or can’t use. Also, it would give your publisher a better idea. (Or maybe the publisher is the one who dictates what the target customer pool size will be *shrug*)


Now.. I’m fairly certain that deadlines are set by whoever is funding the project, which is usually the publisher. If publishers used their heads a little bit, and gave the Developer the time that they actually need, we would probably see less MMO’s fall into the sub-200k club.

Then you have the option of “self-publishing.” Which is what Cryptic studio’s original intent was. Looking back over the course of the development of Champions Online, things seemed to be going very well until Atari showed up. You would also have to have the money to back yourself. Not an easy thing to come up with hehe.

What’s worse is when something like that happens, it’s usually the Dev house that gets all the negative press, not so much the publisher. When I first played Champions Online, I was sorely disappointed. Nay. I was pissed. At Cryptic. Even though I knew the game shipped the way it did because Atari shoved it out their doors. Ok.. I don’t know that for a fact, but that’s what the speculation is.

The same thing happened to Vanguard. All was going well (so we think) up until Sony was announced to be the new publisher. Which was right around open beta if I remember right. Then all of a sudden, the game was on store shelves. Oh the cries of the fanboi’s (myself included)

What else could a AAA MMO company could do for itself to ensure the game’s success? Aside from the obvious answer of “make a good game”



  1. An interesting article. A few comments from my development background.

    One problem with limiting servers at launch is that new games have a HUGE influx of people. Everyone has bought the box and wants to play RIGHT NOW.

    So, you have three options:

    1. Start with less servers, but with login queues and overpopulated (and probably laggy) newbies areas.

    2. Start with more servers to handle the initial rush, but then they feel empty after the initial rush wears off and you possibly have to merge servers.

    3. Limit the number of people who can log on. That means limiting who can create an account (even if they bought a box) or only selling a limited number of accounts online. Darkfall did this, but how many other games have rabid enough fans to maintain interest?

    The main problem with trying to limit your target audience is business-related. It’s easier to sell the idea of “We’ll get 10 million players all paying $15/month just like WoW did!” than the idea of “We’ll get 500,000 players paying $15/month.” Given that the startup costs of an MMO game are pretty high to start with, someone writing a big check to fund your idea is going to want a big return on investment. Guess which one sounds more appealing, even if it’s nearly unrealistic (and not even accurate)? And, to attract that many people you need wide appeal.

    Keep in mind that EVE is an aberration here. It started out as a traditional box-sale + subscription game and failed. The publisher at the time stopped selling boxes. For any other game, this would have
    been death. As far as I understand it, CCP was able to get government investment to keep going. This special circumstance allowed them to take a longer view of things, whereas we wouldn’t be talking about EVE as a success if it hadn’t had this lucky break. I agree, it’d be nice to replicate the success of slowly building up over time, but that’s not how most games work.

    Deadlines are, once again, a business issue. Bill Roper of Flagship explained this the best. He was used to working at Blizzard, where Blizzard would tell the publisher they needed more time and money and they got it. When he was working on Hellgate: London, he said he expected it work the same way; he went to the publisher and said they needed some more time, and the publisher asked, “How are you going to pay for it?” The answer is that he couldn’t, so he had to ship what people now understand was an incomplete game.

    In addition, it takes a lot of work to market and distribute a triple-A game. You have to buy magazine ads months in advance, and the publisher has to pre-sell boxes to retail stores to reserve shelf space. Missing a deadline means a LOT of money is wasted, and that’s not something most companies can afford. This is probably the issue with Cryptic and Champion’s Online, it just had to ship then or all the money spent on marketing and putting boxes into stores would have been wasted; it would then have taken more money to do more marketing and set up distribution again later; money that neither Cryptic nor Atari wanted to spend. (Plus it would have taken a lot of convincing to get the stores to accept the product again later since they already flaked on them once.)

    I’m pretty sure Vanguard‘s problems was a case of Sigil running out of money. Sony basically acquired the game and the studio shut down. That
    doesn’t happen if there aren’t money problems. If the game hadn’t shipped then, it’s likely that it would never have shipped at all. Yes, the ideal situation would have been to either work on a subset of the game that would have fit into the allowed schedule, or somehow work on the game longer to finish it. When you’re facing down the deadline and running out of cash, you can’t do the ideal situation.

    Even if you make a good game, there are so many other aspects that affects the game. Money is a big one: you need to get initial investment, so you have to promise a big return. You sometimes have to just ship the game even though it’s not ideal because you don’t have enough money to keep going. Sometimes you get lucky like CCP did and get some outside infusion to allow slow growth, but that’s rare.

    I definitely think there needs to be some changes to make the game industry, especially the MMO side, run smoother. But, for the most part, game companies make the best of the situation they find themselves in. I don’t think anyone really wants to ship an unfinished product, but when the choice between shipping something unfinished and shipping nothing (thus wasting the last 2-3 years of your life), sometimes shipping something incomplete is the more appealing option.

    Have fun.

    • Thank you sir! It amazes me how publisher’s work sometimes. I understand that everything is about money to them and they could usually care less about anything but that. The Bill Roper example was great, though it is unfortunate what happened to that game.

      As far as limiting servers at launch.. I think 2 is obviously the best (and most used) one. I think people need to calm down about server merges and not look at them like the game is dying. I’ve never been one to mind merges. All it does is increase the size of my server community : D But still, too many people view them as a bad thing.

      Thanks for your time!

  2. If they made it clear that the idea was to launch with multiple servers, then fold them together some time later, there would be less of the “Chicken Little Effect” you see when MMO companies start merging servers. I would even go so far as to name them something like, “Server1-A, Server1-B” etc.

    I think the biggest and most obvious problem is money vs. ambition. Most companies are big on ambition and low on money. Publishers are maybe ignoring the staying power of the MMO crowd and focusing on box sales – which doesn’t rely on player retention.

    I’m hoping that SWOTOR/Bioware and WoW/Blizzard can set a new standard for MMOs. I realize that as developers, it is a scary proposition to think that you’ll have to be able to swing $100 million+ just to get your game in the same league that players are used to; but as a player its a relief to think that completeness and polish may now become the new MMO standard. I’m tired of investing time and more importantly, money, into a game that shits the bed a month after launch.

    Maybe this will be a good thing for both players and developers. If SWOTOR is successful, it may give publishers the wake up call they need.

    Another related topic that needs further exploring is the creation of some kind of MMO engine that is scalable, has strong netcode and is priced in such a way to cut development costs dramatically enough that all these ambitious ideas can actually be fleshed out. The ones that are available currently (icarus, multiverse, etc) are a bit of a joke as far as I can tell.

    • Blizzard already has and continues to set the standard for MMO’s as we’ve seen. What they need is some real competition to kick them in the butt and get them thinking about more innovation. I agree with you that a solid MMO engine would be really nice for the MMO side of the industry. Sony is doing something like this with Free Realms, iirc. The kiddy style clone wars game is being built on it.

      I’m unsure at this point whether or not Bioware will set a new standard for MMO’s. It’s very possible, but I’m very iffy about what type of staying power it will have. But I am sure they will set the standard (as always) with storytelling. That’s going into a whole other discussion though hehe.

      Also, doesn’t Blizzard self-publish? I always thought that’s why they could control holding off on release of all their games until it is polished and ready. Furthermore, is Bioware using EA as a publisher. The company that probably has one of the most notorious track records for shoving MMO’s out the door before they are ready. Also, one of the only companies to actually have an MMO completely fail and get shut down. (Earth and Beyond)

      I really wonder if maybe Bioware has finally convinced EA to “trust” in the developer that they will gain more from waiting. Or.. if it’s the other way around.

      • I don’t know where that extra O in SWTOR came from…

        Anyway, it seems like Bioware has a massive budget and the talent to use it. I think its the first time in a long time that I can say that there might be another complete, polished MMO on the market besides WoW (and EVE). Plus, its Star Wars. If any IP can pull down some numbers, its this one.

      • Blizzard is a wholly-owned part of Activision. I’m not sure how much they have to ask for budgets, but I have to assume that even for Bobby Kotick, if Blizzard says they need a bit of extra money you write the damned check.

        Likewise, Bioware is wholly owned by EA. As I’ve told people, don’t forget that SWTOR is now a 100% EA product. Hopefully EA knows enough not to strangle the golden goose, but history doesn’t show that as being a foregone conclusion, as you say.

        In the end, I’m not sure WoW’s success is really such a good thing for MMOs. I’m hoping that some independent, niche titles will help us break out of a the rut we’ve found ourselves in. But, we’ll see, I guess.

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