Online Games 2000 Hat

It Doesn't Have to be Good

So long as it isn't bad...


This talk concerns massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron's Call. There are around 40 of these currently in development, and even more if you relax your definition of the term "massively multiplayer online role-playing game" ( lists over 100).

In particular, I'll be looking at: why you should want one (this being an online games conference, that shouldn't be hard); why you should want one now, rather than ten years from now; what you can do to make yours a winner (or at least not a loser).

Basically, though, you do want one of these games, and you want it as soon as possible...

Important: there's a difference in emphasis between these and regular games. If you come at online games like they were just the same as boxed ones, you'll be in for a hard time. Some things that would be insane to do for regular games, you can get away with for online games. Similarly, some things you wouldn't dream of doing for regular games can be major issues for online games. The corners you can cut to get a game quickly are therefore not the ones you'd cut for a standard ship-it-and-forget-it game.


Why you should want a massively multiplayer online game?

Because they make pots of money.

100,000 paying players is regarded as making a game a success. EverQuest has 300,000+; Ultima Online 225,000+; Asheron's Call has about 85,000 (they don't make their figures public).

The players pay around $10 a month each.

This is why there are currently 40 such games in development...

OK, so you want one of these, but why you should want it now? Why not wait a few years until the market has settled down, when investment seems less of a risk? The Internet is only just discovering them, so there are plenty of people out there who are the kind likely to play such games, they just haven't yet tried them. Net use is still growing, so therefore people are still coming along who haven't been on the Internet before, let alone tried an online game. It's as if someone has left the newbie tap on and new players are arriving faster than the game mops can clear them up.

The answer, as we shall see shortly, is that getting a game later will be much, much harder than getting one now when there's a surplus of newbies. For the moment, the key is that the sooner you get your game out there, the more chance you have of its becoming a money factory.

Writing the game is the easy part - and yes, that does mean it's easy. Ideally, you should make it perfect before you release it, but that adds months - years? - to the development time. If you want your game to be a success in the future, you have to release it in the present. So what can you do to speed things up without compromising on the things that really matter?

The Big Secret

Most massively multiplayer online games aren't actually all that great.

They're not great as pieces of software, as games, as places you'd want to visit, in their visual appeal, or in the way they treat their players.

Example: Everquest is a basic DikuMUD with an out-of-date graphics engine bolted onto it. The tops of the mountains looks so sharp you could cut yourself on them. Time after time, the operations staff have shown stunning disregard for their players and continue to exhibit fundamental misunderstandings about how to deal with them. Customer service is gradually improving, but they still haven't figured out that this is not the same as running the returns booth in a department store.

Yet they clear $3,000,000 a month.

The important thing is getting your game played. Everquest succeeded where others didn't because it got good worth of mouth. People played the game, liked it, and told their friends. It was inexpensive, it was easy to learn, it was easy to play, you didn't need flashy kit to get it to handle. It was in the right place at the right time.

Success is little to do with how good your game is, but lots to do with keeping the players you get. Fortunately, the players themselves help here.

The Attraction

People play these games because of the other players. Note: they also stop playing because of the other players.

People are always impressed by their first virtual world game, whether it be a state-of-the-art massively multiplayer graphical extravaganza or an off-the-shelf text MUD. The games imbue a sense of wonder that endears players to them; the fact that any similar game would also do it is irrelevant. Even substandard persistent world games have this effect, but no single-player games do. You can't look on a single-player game as your "home town".

Furthermore, when you learn to play the first game you've encountered of a particular class, you come to regard all other games as modified versions of it. Its look and feel is basically the way to do it, and you're irritated if you have to learn one radically different. Even if there are minor variations, you'll tend to see the later one as an annoyance rather than an improvement (unless it's exceptionally good). In the same way that people shop at the same supermarket because they know the layout and get cross if suddenly the sugar has been moved 3 aisles along, so players of games prefer the interfaces with which they are familiar. Even if someone stops playing their first game, for whatever reason, they will almost always remember it fondly. Experienced players who have outgrown it will look back on it as their innocent youth, and occasionally drop in for old time's sake.

The greatest pull, however, comes from the other players. If you have lots of friends in a game, you'll be very reluctant to leave it. Even if you are driven away by cliques of unpleasant people, you'll still keep in touch with the good guys who stay. Most people stay with a persistent world game not because of the playing skills they've acquired in it, and not because of the level of the characters they've built up in it, and not because it was the first one they came across (although all these are factors). The primary reason for staying is because of the people they've met there.

Because of this, it's very hard to get players away from one massively multiplayer game and onto another. They are incredibly loyal and forgiving. They will stay with their chosen game even if clearly better ones come along. If they do leave, the chances are they'll feel disenchanted with the whole class of games, rather than just the one they were playing, and therefore still not come to your super-duper new game even then. You have to snatch whole communities at once.

The Land Grab

So let's see. There's currently a vast plain of untapped resources out there (newbies). If you can stake your claim to some, then so long as you don't blow it you get to keep them (because these games have such high retention rates). There's no limit to how many you can claim at the moment - there's plenty for all, and more are becoming available all the time. The more you have, the easier it is to get even more (because players gravitate towards other players).

However, this situation can't last, which leads to a classic land grab situation: get as much as you can while you can, because later you won't be able to get any at all.

Time spent writing the game is time not spent getting players. If you're in a motor race, it's no use designing a car faster than everyone else's if by the time you've done so the people in the slower vehicles have already arrived.

The Biggest Problem

The biggest problem is getting a critical mass of players. Note it's the mass that's critical, not the players.

What constitutes a critical mass depends on the game. Good games need a smaller critical mass than not-so-good games, because the game itself has an effect on the core group of players as to whether they stay or not. For most massively multiplayer games, getting a critical mass shouldn't be a problem: the open beta will usually provide an abundance of keen people.

However, this is the mass needed for the game not to wither and die. Depending on the product, it could be anything from a few dozen to a few thousand. The Realm ticks over with around 10,000 subscribers, but it isn't growing. Continuing the nuclear physics analogy, the critical mass you need for a controlled chain reaction in a power station is one thing, but the amount you need for a bomb is another thing entirely. If you want to reach 100,000 players you have to aim for explosive growth, not a sustained level of use where the players lost to churn balance exactly the ones gained from herding newbies.

To get explosive growth, the strategies are limited:

  1. be the first mover, or luckiest of the first movers;
  2. acquire a big licence, although the big three - Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings - have already gone (twice in LOTR's case);
  3. have a big advertising budget and spend it effectively;
  4. make it onto daytime TV (you're a celebrity! Celebrity endorsement counts!)
  5. write an utterly brilliant game.

Of all these, the last is the one least likely to make a difference.

The Easy Hard Sell

You can sell the box. The concept sells the box; the publicity sells the box. Selling the box isn't where you get the money, though (but yes, OK, it can be a significant amount).

You get the money from the game. People pay to play. If someone doesn't like a single-player game, who cares? They already paid for it. They won't remember the publisher, they won't remember the developer. The worst that will happen is that they don't buy <lousy game> II. In a massively multiplayer game, you get money from them each month. If they don't like it, you lose a drop from your income stream. You need to sell the game, not the box.

The players sell the game.

Your players are your best marketing tool. They love your game! They think everyone they know will love it too, and they tell them. Not just the gamers, but real live people, too. Everquest's initial marketing budget was pretty well zero; they had one ad in one magazine (that they wangled special rates for) and that got them their first few players. Word of mouth got them the next 100,000.

Obviously, the community is paramount.

Well no, that's not strictly true. The maintenance of the community is paramount, but the community itself is anything but. Don't take slogans too literally. You must remember that you are the boss, not your players. Players know NOTHING about game design. NOTHING! They know NOTHING about customer care. NOTHING! They will complain and moan about everything, and sometimes, yes, they do have a real grievance or a superb idea. However, they are incapable of knowing what's valid and what's invalid, what's worth pursuing and what should be let go. They have the wrong critical faculties. The designers and the administrators do know what's sound. They can sort out the wheat from the chaff, the genuine from the fake. They should be trusted. This doesn't mean all players' complaints should be ignored, just that you shouldn't mistake volume for validity.

Knee jerk reactions are just jerk reactions. Even if every player complains at once, you don't have to buckle in to what they're asking for if you know better. Just because 2,000 children sign a petition asking for free chocolate in their school, it doesn't mean they should get it.

Here's a major, if somewhat amazing, piece of advice for you to take away. If the rest of this talk leaves you cold, at least remember this: complaints are good.

Disgruntled players who care about your game complain. Disgruntled players who don't care leave. People don't storm out in a blaze of anger because you didn't fix what they told you to fix. They don't flounce off because you wouldn't change procedure the way they said it should be changed. By complaining, they're showing they have a real interest in what's going on. They are committed to the game to the extent that they want to "heal" it of its "ailments".

Even if people do quit with much ill-feeling after deleting off all their characters, it doesn't matter. They'll be back within two weeks. The people who drift away without saying a word are the ones you've lost forever. Honest complaints are a sign of good health (although I wouldn't recommend engineering something for people to complain about just to test their loyalty...).

You can get away with...

Here are some of the amazing things you can get away with for massively multiplayer games that you may have thought were actually the kiss of death. Note that these are corners you can cut, but I wouldn't recommend doing any of them if you have the time to act properly.
  • Second-rate game play. Mindlessly predictable spawns, mindlessly predictable fights, mindlessly puzzle-free worlds... It doesn't matter, so long as the game play isn't bad enough to put anyone off.
  • Second-rate graphics. Beautiful faces on eerily blocky bodies wandering around a feebly texture-mapped landscape featuring disturbingly straight lines.
  • Annoying server crashes/hangs. If the server goes down, you will lose players. However, more frequent crashes don't necessarily mean you'll lose many more of them.. Up to a point of perhaps crashing randomly once a week, the loss is barely noticeable. Beyond that, sure, you'll lose them in droves, but so long as you can make noises to the effect that you're trying to fix it then once a week or so is OK.
  • Clueless customer liaison representatives. Ones who write incomprehensibly in either over-wordy, under-wordy, erratic or just plain illiterate styles can annoy players, but at least they replied. They can also get away with a fair degree of heavy-handedness in dealing with minor complaints, laxness in dealing with serious ones, and even inconsistency in handling identical cases. The key is that the players must know what to expect: if they know you're incompetent, they won't be surprised when you act it.
  • Inaccurate and out of date support materials. Players get kudos for putting the right data on their web sites...
  • Producing patches with more bugs than what they patched. Hey, you're trying your best!
  • Breathtaking arrogance. If you have so much going on that you can't spare the resources to treat your players as human beings, you don't have to. They'll band together as a community using you as their unifying force. Warning: if you really do think that your game is so good that the players should be honoured to play it, well yes, you can probably get away with that for quite a while, but you're almost certainly wrong and will suffer for it in the long term.

You can't get away with...

Here are some of the unamazing things you can't get away with for massively multiplayer games that you may have thought were actually not the kiss of death..
  • Low bandwidth/high lag. If they can't access the game, they won't, no matter how much they want to play it.
  • Poor graphics style. Pretty Animé characters look great in screen shots, but are hard to "believe". If you don't believe, you don't immerse.
  • Annoying client crashes/hangs. If the server crashes, 5,000 people groan. If the client crashes, one person groans. However, if they have to reboot their machine or even re-install Windows then it had better not be something they're going to have to do more than once...
  • An unusable interface. You can play massively multiplayer games on WAP phones, in theory...
  • Not responding to complaints. People hate being ignored. Even if you just say "no way" when they ask for something, that's better than being ignored. Try not to use form letters too often, though: getting the same reply whatever you ask counts as being ignored.
  • Hidden charges. As soon as you try to sneak another halfpenny from your players than they were expecting, they will revolt. Even the possibility that you could do it, e.g. by adjusting your terms of service to allow for future price increases, could be enough. If you really have to increase the price, do it without consultation and take the flak: embroiling yourself in discussion is pointless as you'll never persuade anyone to accept your point of view anyway.
  • Openly rubbishing the opposition. Players are players first, your players second. If you rubbish another game, it's a gross insult to the players of that other game, and your own players will feel very ill at ease. It's just not professional. Note that it's fine for your players to rubbish other games, just not for you to do it.
  • Never updating/patching your game. No matter what you may believe, your game is not perfect. Even if you've fixed all the bugs, unless you make regular changes to ensure freshness and to show you still care, people will feel that you are abandoning the game and (worse) them. Regular updates are a must to keep your players feeling wanted.
  • Not blocking ways to cheat. People don't play games with cheats, full stop. Cheating completely undermines any ranking system you have and any pretence that the better players have the higher scores, higher abilities, cooler weapons or whatever. Cheats won't stop cheating naturally, you have to stop them. If you don't, then the cheats will be the only players you have.


Massively multiplayer online games are unlike other games. I say this every year, but people are still surprised when they don't believe me and find out later that they should have...

These games are a product, like normal games, but they're also a service. If you neglect the service side, you go the way of Meridian 59. From the players' point of view, they're also places that you can visit. In the same way that you can be fond of a city even if it's a bit run down from how you remember it used to be, players will put up with a lot so long as their friends still live there. Players are loyal, forgiving and quite willing to splash out $10/month each indefinitely.

However, they are not a limited resource. Eventually, the market will saturate. Taking them from someone else is very difficult. If you come to the market late, they'll all be gone.

Get yours now while stocks last!

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
9th April :\webdes~1\ og00.htm