Building a Strong Foundation for MMORPGs
When building a new MMORPG, it is essential to focus on a strong foundation for future growth. Verbatim duplication of successful MMORPGs does not guarantee the success of your own game, nor is it in most cases feasible without massive capital expenditure and time investment. Building a flexible core game engine with potential for expansion and cultivating a strong contributing fan community should be the ultimate goal for any MMORPG company.
Iteration and Innovation
We've had generations of games that have come out and established what it means to be an MMORPG: massive worlds, large multiplayer base, extensive reward systems, continuing content updates, etc. These have set a basis for what the MMORPG player expects from any new game that comes to market. The most successful MMORPGs to date have primarily iterated on features proven in previous generations, making new games that are simply more accessible, polished, and stable.
Innovation in MMORPG game design tends to come slowly in an industry where the up-front cost of development is so high. There have been MMORPGs that have never seen the light of day because the concepts were not deemed profitable by marketers or investors. Others have been released but never reached the necessary critical mass of users to support an ongoing game and have since been discontinued. So how does an MMORPG company compete in this kind of marketplace?
Building Smarter, Not Harder
While initial investment in technology can be expensive, building a strong yet flexible core game engine is an invaluable first step. At Cryptic Studios, a lot of time was spent re-building the Cryptic Engine to make it more robust and easily extensible. While the earlier version of the engine served us well when creating City of Heroes, it had a number of inherent limitations which prevented us from taking the game to the next level. Our new game engine used for Champions Online, Star Trek Online, and all our other upcoming titles gives us incredible versatility, allowing us to build new functionality and share core game programming between projects with relative ease. This allows the Cryptic development team to quickly iterate on new ideas with relatively low cost and incorporate them into our games as needed.
Listening to Your Players
The fan community is the lifeblood of any MMORPG. While developers can come up with any number of cool game design concepts, it really comes down whether it is engaging to your expected player base. Even with trends towards casual play MMORPGs tend to be a large personal investment for players, so why not listen to what they have to say? Cryptic Studios prides itself on having a good rapport with its fan base and guiding game development based on player feedback. The core game development is still firmly in the hands of the dev team but we always seriously consider the community's concerns as we continue to develop our games and adjust course when necessary. While you're never going to please everyone, a smart developer knows how invaluable it is to listen to what the fan community is saying, to figure out if and how it fits in the overall game plan, and to see what they can do to incorporate it within available time and budget.
Planning for the Future
It's hard for new MMORPGs to compete with well-established ones on all levels from the start. For example, attempting to launch a game with as much content as an MMORPG that has been pushing out content for five years before you is unrealistic at best. It's far better to establish a strong core base of content that illustrates well the potential of what is to come and working with the community to bring that potential to life.
As a case in point, one of the goals of Cryptic Studios is to build towards solid player-created contented. In Champions Online, we're doing this by allowing players to craft their own Nemesis, a recurring enemy character with a distinct name, costume, personality, motivation, and minions. You can see the potential in this: if you can create your own Nemesis, what's next? "Supporting cast" non-player characters? Personal background storylines? The technology is there - it's just a matter of the Cryptic developers and players working together to come up with the best way to make this into something fun we can build into the evolution of our game!
Randy Mosiondz, Lead Designer, Champions Online