GDCO 2010: Running MMOs for the long haul

In a year that seems overshadowed by the premature demise of big-budget titles, the question on everyone's mind is just what does it take to not only successfully launch an MMO, but keep it going for the long haul?

At GDC Online this past week, several devs who find themselves struggling with this very issue got together for an informative panel entitled "Strategies for Successfully Running an MMO from Launch and Beyond." At the panel, Lorin Jameson (SOE), Nathan Richardsson (CCP), Jeff Hickman (EA Mythic), Jeffrey Steefel (Turbine), Rich Vogel (EA-Bioware) and Min Kim (Nexon) stepped up to the plate take a swing at the common pitfalls, the unseen consequences and the harsh realities of the industry.

So if you're curious about why some titles thrive while others fall apart or why a particular MMO makes it to launch and beyond while another fades into obscurity, hit the jump and see what these industry experts have to say about the enormous and complex task of getting an MMO to lift off -- and then keeping it soaring for as long as possible.
Old dogs can teach you new tricks

Instead of spending time looking at recently released MMOs, the panel began by focusing on games that have been in service for five or more years. If an MMO does not launch well and succeed within the first six months then it is doomed -- there are no (or, at least, precious few) second chances in the MMO field. By looking back at titles that did weather the initial bumps of release and remained strong a half-year into their lifespans, the panel hopes to show some of the survival strategies that enabled these games to thrive while others crashed and burned. How were companies able to sustain these MMOs and retain subscribers at the same time?

The first thing the panel suggested was to look at your playerbase over the course of its life and how it changes during that period. Essentially, the initial year following launch is an extension of the development process, but from then on there's a transition from looking for the audience you want to examining the players you have. Once "launch fever" has abated, the players a team is left with are -- for better or worse -- the customers the team will be looking to appease and retain. These are the players who have adopted the game and have come to associate themselves with it.

The grass seems greener on the other side of World of Warcraft

Because of this, it's imperative that developers stop guessing what players might be wanting and start gathering solid feedback as to what they're demanding. The devs at EVE Online consider their approach successful, as 20% of players who joined the game over the past seven years are still playing it. Because CCP has such a dedicated core, it caters its game to the long-haul players and encourage these players to bring in additional like-minded friends. In fact, identifying that core of long-timers is crucial for any MMO, the panel agreed. After a year or two, subscription and player numbers settle into a pattern of smaller growth and shrinkage, and it's far easier to see what players constitute this core.

However, that core is never unanimous in its needs, and the broader a game's audience, the more needs, wants and wishes a team has to strive to meet. Even so, it is imperative that a studio not start to lust over another potential audience of players to the point that it changes the game to meet that hypothetical audience's desires, because in doing so it is sure to alienate the current, loyal playerbase.

"Don't [screw] with the core of your game," one panelist warned, citing the impact that World of Warcraft had on the industry and how it caused some dev teams to heavily retool their titles to chase the WoW audience.

Not only will the studio most likely fail to draw in this new audience, but the regular players will see the game as they knew it collapsing under their feet. This can cause a mass exodus, and that will sink a game far more quickly today (due to the number of alternative MMOs available) than it would a half-decade or so ago.

Another pitfall that studios occasionally fall into is adopting knee-jerk reactions to perceived problems instead of thoughtfully examining the potential causes and looking out for the long-term health of their games.

Look before you launch, but he who hesitates is lost

Maintaining the balance between acquisition of new players and retention of established fans is key in providing for an MMO's continuation. The panel moved on to the choices studios have when creating an expansion pack: Is the expansion designed to acquire new players or to retain current ones? Ideally, a studio does both, but sometimes it benefits the title to cater to one over the other.

Ultima Online is an example of an MMO that's tried to grab the best of both worlds. Right now, the game sports two clients -- the original one for die-hard fans, and a more modern client that was designed to ease a new player into UO. By doing this, the studio kept its core audience while substantially widening the influx of new faces.

Older MMOs have historically tweaked their leveling curves to be more accommodating to first-time players, as the bulk of the established playerbase is already at higher levels and studios want to connect new players with this crowd as soon as possible.

While one of the greatest assets of older MMOs is the wealth of content that has been added over the years, sometimes that can be overwhelming to new players. MapleStory, which last summer boasted a concurrency record of 405,000 players at a time in South Korea, started suffering from too much content. The dev team's solution? To speed up the XP curve instead of adding more content and just let players get to the content they hadn't seen yet.

A subscriber saved is a subscriber earned

Sometimes the answer to long-term longevity is to remain flexible to subscribers' ever-changing needs -- and this includes finances. The panel moved on to examine how some titles have adopted new business models to overcome financial barriers that kept potential audiences from trying their MMOs.

One example brought up was Lord of the Rings Online's recent switch from a subscriber-only model to a "blended model" that features both a subscription option and a free-to-play-with-microtransactions option. As Massively reported recently, this has proven to be a huge success with drawing in players who had been staying away due to the barrier of a regular subscription fee.

Yet perhaps the bottom line is how the studio treats its community; look at any successful long-term MMO and you'll most likely find a dedicated CM team that's built up strong relationships with the playerbase. A holistic approach to MMO operation -- catering to your core, appealing to new players, adapting over time, and establishing strong relationships -- is the only way a game has a chance of seeing its 10th anniversary.

This article was originally published on Massively.