Are MMOs Limited By Their Scale?

I had a blast writing about my idea for a Zombie MMORPG the other day and the response from readers was fantastic (thanks to everyone for their comments). A few of the replies even urged me to start an indie studio and make it! That would certainly be a dream no doubt, but maybe not one that’s going to happen any time soon :) There was also a couple of concerns about whether the audience of the game would be too limited to make such a concept “successful”. This got me wondering: is the MMO genre limited by the scale of the games?

Much like the movie business and those big summer blockbusters, video games are becoming ever larger in scale and requiring more and more time and money to develop. There is no better example of this than MMORPGs and how now players have vast expectations for new releases, thus requiring years of development and millions of dollars in funding. Yet, if we look back at the history of video games as a whole, some of the most successful and popular were made by small studies. Doom, by id Software, springs to mind here.

Are MMOs just too big to survive? We’ve now got companies like Mythic who declare their games unsuccessful if they don’t hit 500k subscribers. Is there no way for small studios to produce polished games and can compete in the market?

Although studios can buy the Unreal Engine and certainly use it as a base to produce their MMORPGs (Vanguard used it), there’s still a vast amount of work that needs to be done to modify it to create the MMO element of the game. This made me wonder something. What would the impact be on the MMORPG industry if, say, Blizzard released their World of Warcraft engine as a purchasable product for a reasonable fee?

I think the impact of smaller studios using something like the WoW engine to create their MMOs would be an amazing leap for the industry as a whole. No longer would we be limited to one or two AAA MMORPG releases a year. No longer would MMOs required hundred of thousands of subscribers over several years to be considered a success. No longer would developers err on the side of caution and stick with ’safe’ design concepts.

If MMOs could be produced in a more efficient (time and cost) manner and yet still keep their tremendously appealing scale, we’d then truly see the industry evolve. Evolution requires innovation and risk and right now the MMO genre is lacking in those simply because the requirements to produce these games is too high. However, if we could reduce the requirements and allow MMOs to be produced by smaller studies, then we might see some great things happen. Maybe then one day we’d see my survival Zombie MMORPG come to fruition.

What do you think? Are MMOs, by definition of their requirements and scale, always going to be limited? Would making a cost-effective, re-useable MMO games engine available change the industry for the better?

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  1. Longasc says:

    I predict that there will be a segmentation of the market.

    There could be people playing SciFi MMOs (EVE), Hero MMOs (CO, CoH), High Fantasy MMOs (LOTRO, EQ2, many more), (westernized) Asian style MMOs (Aion+every asia grinder out there), PvP MMOs that usually fail (WAR, Darkfall) and themepark MMOs (WoW, what else).

    I can also imagine that some F2P MMOs establish themselves.

    I think WoW has as time-consuming triple-AAA MMO the general fantasy segment firm in its grip. So either go with a strong IP or your very own flavor. Copying and fighting WoW, where they apparently decide to re-design the whole world, revamping more old content than other MMOs have all in all for a mere expansion, cannot work out.

    I think it is not the price of the engine that is prohibitive. I think it is what designers their game expect to achieve. If they want to compete with WoW, they can forget it if they cannot churn out as much content, polish and pure mass of quests, little innovations and all that.

    MMOs need a better concept, an idea what they want to be that hopefully appeals to a target audience. There are already engines out there for sale and DX10 effects like dynamic shadows and speed tree are not too expensive anymore. Check Mortal Online, many more MMOs could look like this. 3D object and wallpaper world generation on a semi-high standard is no problem anymore at all. Employees cost probably more than the license for an engine in the long run. Just my speculation, I never bought an engine before, of course. ;)

    Good ideas that succeed are priceless and cannot be bought.

  2. I think it’d be nice to have the technology to build your own MMO. Sure, it’d cost a lot to license it, but people out there with vision might be able to pull off something amazing, whilst we deal with the potential saturation that comes with having a general MMO toolkit.

  3. Jason says:

    Obviously it is not WoW quality, but take a look at as they are attempting to do what you suggest: build a semi-generic client-server for MMOs that can be licensed.

    • Gordon says:

      Awesome. I think this sort of thing has huge potential. If a generic MMO engine was customisable enough and very stable, then I could imagine it being very appealing for games companies to use. I get the impression that reworking existing engines (such as the Unreal one) to make them MMO compatible is a heck of a lot of work.

  4. Great article. I think the kind of productions you expect will arise with the new technologies running 3d from a browser and more players with different tastes becoming intetested and able to play this kind of games. Medium-Budget MMOs for example is what we do at Splitscreen Studios a the first example Pirate Galaxy. Scaling down the production cost and scope of mmo games is key to serve a more diverse audience.

  5. Originally “massively” was intended to separate these games from (mostly FPS) games that could only serve 16 people at a time. So a game that ‘only’ serves 100 people still qualifies under the original intent of the label.

    I think that smaller games do get overlooked, though. In Meridian 59, the smaller servers meant you were part of a much tighter community, in general. A new name on the server was easily identified. (Unfortunately, this usually meant the person was suspected of being an alt looking to spy on enemies….)

    One thing I’d love to see more of is games with different rules sets. You see a bit of this with different PvP server rule sets in some games. Different PvE rule sets would be interesting. Perhaps a server where killing monsters gives more xp than quests, for example. This is impossible in a “shardless” system like EVE Online.

    • Gordon says:

      I like the idea of having different rulesets for different servers. This is something that EQ has actually leveraged quite well as they’ve tried lots of different types of servers to help keep the game refreshing.

      Of course, there’s something quite amazing about the single EVE-type server. It’s very cool knowing that everyone exists in the same universe and any action one person has may effect everyone else.

  6. I think the best way for small publishers to get into the market is with F2P games that work off of systems like Wizard 101 or the upcoming DDO. Being free will undoubtedly draw in players, who are then more likely to throw “pennies” at a game rather than be confined by a subscription fee. If the subscription fee, like in Wizard 101, is low enough, it will feel like pennies, but actually substantially help the game stay afloat.

    • Gordon says:

      I guess it’s all boils down to the finances and what sort of return companies are looking for on their investment. I don’t know how much Wizard 101 cost to make but it if was a smaller, more reasonable amount then they could be more innovative with their cost model. However, look at SW:TOR – with it being fully voiced, you can just imagine the amount of cash they are pouring into it and how much they will expect it to make to be a success. Little chance of it ever going F2P :(

  7. Tesh says:

    Two things:

    One, middleware would be great. The “Hero Engine” that Studio 38’s Copernicus is being built on looks pretty decent, but WoW releasing their engine (not unlike the Unreal engine) would be a very interesting development for the genre. It could arguably be the planned endgame of WoW itself, actually, once Blizzard has bled the population dry as much as possible with the game itself and released their “next-gen” game.

    Two, devs need to start small and grow organically, rather than plan on starting big and getting bigger. Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates), CCP (EVE) and King’s Isle (Wizard 101) all started modestly, and have built their games up to reasonable success. It’s smarter to do that than swing for the fences trying to kill WoW, only to whiff and wind up in bankruptcy. To be fair, high risk, high reward has its fans, but we’ve seen that WoW is a freak success, not a solid indicator of what to expect from the genre at large. It’s one thing to think big, it’s another thing entirely to gamble at the high stakes table. Some people like that rush, but the house always wins in the end. It’s no way to build a game like an MMO that really needs long term planning to succeed.

  8. Dblade says:

    I’m not to sure. Even with the ability to license an engine, it hasn’t helped sports games or even FPS to generate smaller, niche titles that are as equally compelling as larger ones. And I don’t think criware or adx had much impact in terms of the success of a niche based title.

    I think what might work is for someone to make some form of backend engine-that instead of graphics, they automate or provide tools to maintain servers, support, billing, and troubleshooting. If they could automate the day to day aspects better and let the developers focus mostly on creating content, you could see more niche titles arise.

  9. Duane says:

    I actually do have something in response to this. If you’re really going all the way and making a game, Make the gameplay awesome and the graphics average, or even bad, by today’s standards.

    Game Creators need to realize that graphics don’t make the game, they simply limit the players. Sure, if you think it looks like life, you’re more likely to believe it, but as you’re running through some random dungeon at 4 FPS, you realize it’s not worth it to sacrifice gameplay for graphics.

    I guess my point is to make whatever game you find necessary, don’t overhaul the graphics to make it special, but make it your own.

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