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Doomed to fail?

Most subscription-based massively multiplayer online games are doomed out the gate, predestined to be failures that attract little in the way of audience. I'm sure you are shocked to hear such a pronouncement out of the eternally optimistic me.

Of course, as with experiencing time, the concept of failure can be relative to the observer. Take VR-1's Fighter Ace, for example. Even mondo exposure on Microsoft's Gaming Zone for the past couple years hasn't produced what you'd call a wildly popular product. At the best of times, you'd be lucky to see a few hundred simultaneous players partaking of the WWII air combat there, even at peak play hours.

Compare this to around 14,000 players at peak for Asheron's Call on that same Zone, or some 30,000 to 50,000 (depending on who you believe) for Verant's EverQuest over on The Station. By such a comparison, Fighter Ace is punky--a stone-cold loser, financially; it seems unlikely that the game has made back anywhere near whatever royalty advances Microsoft paid to VR-1, or whatever development funds and resources VR-1 devoted to the game.

On the other hand, Fighter Ace was a winner for VR-1 in the sense that the company got some cash to develop technology it'll use in other online games. If there was a technology-sharing arrangement in the deal, Microsoft might also get some of that code, which would help alleviate the financial failure of the game.

See what I mean about failure being relative? There's generally a silver lining for someone in any bad situation. Thus, while Fighter Ace certainly hasn't developed an audience and is a failure for the online gaming industry as a whole, development of the game probably provided some tools that may be used in other VR-1 games, and in that sense, is a success of sorts for the company. Me, I'm a player and an evangelist for online games. In the sense that it didn't develop an audience and push forward online gaming as a whole, that makes Fighter Ace a failure to me.

So, Jessica, what about the upcoming crop of subscription-based online games, you ask? Ah, you seek opinion. You came to the right place, my friend; I have a fresh batch right here, free for the asking and worth double the cost. In the next column, we'll discuss some specific games and their chances according to Le Jessica the Mystic. For this column, let's just set three ground rules for discussing what could make a subscription-based MMOG a financial success or failure, in today's terms of reaching the current "magic number" of 100,000 or more monthly subscribers.

1. Your game is pretty much irrelevant.

If you think people are playing your MMOG for the game, you get an F on your term paper.

Your game, per se, is almost an afterthought to the players. At best, some part of it is a hook to get them in the door, be it the genre, style, interface, game system, whatever. Some people are more attracted to science fiction, some like medieval fantasy role-playing, some will only play a 3D first-person interface, etc.

These are just the teasers, not the raison d'etre. No, the reason people are really there is...other people. This has always been the main attraction of MMOGs. No amount of cool design elements or whiz-bang graphics will allow your MMOG to succeed in the long run if players can't find other players they want to hang out with on a consistent basis. It is the shared experience that is primary to them. MMOGs that don't provide plenty of reason to go out and have a shared experience will eventually fade away.

2. Your development folks are not the most important members of the organization.

I mention this because development folks are generally the ruling authority at MMOG companies. And this is a huge mistake. Yes, they are important; they're coding the damn game, aren't they? In terms of what they implement and how they implement it, they are crucially important.

However, at the risk of ticking off some friends in the industry: anyone can make a MMOG. Technically, it isn't all that hard, and there are plenty of code and design examples to peruse to help out. Heck, today's most popular MMOG is pretty much a copy of a popular style of MUD with great eye candy thrown on top.

But what happens when the game is launched? If the dev team isn't the most important group, who is? Here are some more questions, the answers to which should make it all clear: how do you solve player problems? For that matter, who solves player problems? Do those people have the proper tools and training and the authority to use them? What actually represents a "problem" and who sets policy for dealing with them when they are recognized? Who decides what gets changed and what gets fixed, and in what order? Who relays that information to the players?

These are critical questions for any "live" MMOG, and the answer to all of them is "customer service." Whether you call it that or "player relations," "customer relations," whatever, these are people in the trenches with the players on a daily basis. They understand the needs of the players (or should) better than the dev team ever could, because those needs change on a damn-near daily basis.

3. Your development team should not be in charge of the live game.

Once the game is launched, customer-service people should be dictating fixes and changes to the dev team, or at the very least controlling the process. Unfortunately, it usually works out to be the reverse; the head of the dev team ends up being in charge of the "live" game.

This is a mistake; most dev teams should be gagged, muzzled, and forbidden direct contact with the players on the pain of a horrifying death to loved ones and idols. Dev teams are less concerned with the actual players' game experience, than with players experiencing the game in the way the team intended them to. After two to three years of development, they have a ton of emotional baggage concerning their "baby," and they tend to get downright hostile when someone plays it in a way the team did not intend. This leads to the nerfing--the willy-nilly changing of the design to stop unintended play patterns--and similar reactionary silliness we see in some of today's current MMOGs.

Such cowboy programming has caused more PR problems and player anger than any other single factor. To torture General Von Moltke's famous quote about war, no game design survives contact with the enemy. Players are inventive and curious; they will examine your game from all sides and play it in ways you never anticipated or imagined possible. To then punish them for finding new and interesting things about your game is unforgivable. I'm not talking about exploiting bugs to duplicate items or using cracks in the design to cause grief for other players; I'm talking about finding new strategies and tactics to get ahead. This is art, and should be rewarded as such.

The people making the decisions about these things shouldn't have a vested emotional interest; it makes it near impossible for them to be able to stand back and make rational decisions based on a combination of what is good for the players right now and what is good for the long-term health of the game.

That's enough for this column. Next week...bring on the losers!

(And the winners, of course. If any.)

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