This session was good, but full full FULL up, so I missed the very beginning. The questions were bad: long, rambling opinions rather than short sharps, so I ignored 'em. Here's the lineup, I think I got the two Marks the right way round, but again, missed the intros:
MMOs, Past, Present and Future
Speaker: Gordon Walton (co-Studio Director, BioWare), Daniel James (CEO, Three Rings), Raph Koster (President, Areae, Inc.), Mark Jacobs (VP EA, Studio GM EA Mythic, EA Mythic), Mark Kern (President & CEO, Red 5 Studios), Rob Pardo (VP, Game Design, Blizzard Entertainment)
Here's the gist:
What have we learned from MMOs?
Raph: the two that have worked and keep coming back are MUD and lambdaMOO.
Moderator: for me it was the sim first, then the avatar. But for me sitting around... players are the content. World of Warcraft dominates our current landscape: what are the two biggest lessons learned from the post-wow world?
Daniel: y'know, we're at an interesting point. There’s clearly a lot of... tremendous success and kudos to wow, but there continues to be a lot of games made where you whack monsters with big swords. You’re seeing this in Asia, us in on the cusp: many different kinds of games that are massively multiplayer but that aren't in the traditional mud model. Habbo Hotel and so on. There are two camps: the camp that believes it needs to spend a hell of a lot of money on content, but then there's Runescape. It caught fire. The production values are terribly low. There are signs that the earth is shifting beneath us, with that.
Mark K: even after spending 4 years as team lead, I still don’t' know what happened with WoW. It said, if you want to play in this space, you have to spend. The featureset has to be competitive but with both other folks' launch games but also their patches. I'd say don't go head to head with these big games. Blizzard’s really opened the door. Also with WoW you have to succeed globally. They’re too big and expensive not to. That’s really challenging. There is one fundamental: never forget you're trying to entertain.
Mark J: the first thing that we can learn from wow is: never ask me again ever if the market is saturated and it can't grow any more. We’ve heard this for ten years. Every journalist asked me, so is that it, 10,000 is that it? With UO. With Everquest... same thing. Camelot. City of Heroes. All I kept hearing still from journos is 'is the market saturated'. There will be another World of Warcraft. I don't think it'll be Warhammer. But there will be one, and it will expand the market. Here’s another thing: you don't have to outcontent them. But you do have to polish. If you don't, even if you have a really interesting game, the people who play wow won't be impressed. This is really really crucial. Polish it until you can see yourself from miles away.
Raph: polish like crazy. Iterate. Focus on the fun. Number two lesson is what Daniel is saying: it's really really easy not to see a forest just because there happens to be a [something] in front of it. There are many million user MMOs running today in NA and Europe. The big lesson of wow is to not look at World of Warcraft. I did tell my investors, no I can't beat World of Warcraft. They like that. We're seeing dumb money trying to beat World of Warcraft, and smart money trying to figure out how we can plant a tree that's not in the shade. Think smart, not big. The way wow got big was to think smart.
Rob: I think what we improved with wow is: MMOs can be games first. FPS like half-life, Oblivion these are wonderful games. The content can be a goal. Why is there a diff approach with MMOs? If you don't have 500 hrs to quest, that shouldn't be how long it takes the player to get to max level. Focus on the fun, learn from other genres. The other lesson from wow is: it's really really important with an MMO that your developers have fun playing the game, and actually play the game. UO is STILL GOING! That’s over ten years. If your developers lose contact, or play it because they have to, you won't be able to maintain it. Box products are like feature films, you launch them and it's done. An MMO is much more like a TV show. Look at Lost. You can see when the writers are starting to leave, over seasons and seasons... that's when a TV show dies. Like Seinfeld. Same with MMOs.
Mod: I’d add that the market doesn’t notice if you're 20% better than what came before, but it does notice if something's 100% better. Wow did that. So - the future - three predictions. Biggest changes coming in the future.
Raph: I would say we are about to see a truly massive explosion in the quantity of online worlds, like Korea saw. The vast majority will not be retail box products. We’re starting to see... you saw darkstar just open sourced a perfectly viable MMO engine. You can pick it up for free. We’re going to start to see a helluva lot more... stuff. Number 2: no offense to megapublishers: I think the most important and significant pubs are going to come from the film and television industries. The most active virtual worlds publisher in the last six months is VIACOM. I really really think that anybody in this room who is not watching the way big media is moving into this space is missing a major, major story. This is a short term prediction. My third one... these are all things happening now that no-one's noticing, so I’m cheating. 3 is the non-game: the poster child to this is Second Life. That stuff is not going to decline. It's drawing in insane amounts of investment and attention, all this writing on SL. You saw PS Home? Would that exist without SL? No. Recently on the web you see people checking out all these SL clones... Kaneva, HidiHi...no-one here is paying the slightest bit of attention, and their bragging about the three fundamental concepts: user generated upload, the ability to cash out and make money (whoa ! World of Warcraft it AIN'T!)... And entertainment isn't going to slip from the number one spot. But they won't necessarily look like what we think is an MMO.
Mark J: we’re going to see a lot more types of games. We’ll see rps, fps,.. explosion in different types of games. After that... lots of corpses. So many failures its' going to be unbelievable. There’s so much dumb money chasing around this space it's shocking. Here come the mass media, and they’re shouting, omg we wanna be just like World of Warcraft. Here's a lot of money, make a great game, but there's only a handful of people who know how to make it really well. I'm predicting disaster. Number 3 prediction: you'll see someone beat wow. It wont' be us. But World of Warcraft, like every other game, will have its day.
Rob: I disagree with raph. I don't think the most important MMOs will come from big media. I think the games are important, because big media is interested in them...
Daniel: wait, aren't you big media?
Rob: [laughing] er.. Anyway. The next prediction is... because of wow, and all the dumb money and all the publisher pressure, there'll be lots of games that shouldn't have been MMOs but would have been great boxed products. Lots of publishers are pushing for that subscription pie, but they'll fail. Last prediction: from here on out everyone's going to be thinking globally about their MMOs. Previous to us everyone thought Europe didn't have a market for MMOs, but we have more than a million and a half in Europe.
Mark K: our definition of MMO is going to change. The line will blur. Xbox Live Achievements. Lots of box games will take on persistent attributes. The way we pay for our games is completely going to change. No box product gets sold in Asia. Once those channels open up, it'll be hard to tell what's an MMO and what's not. It’s also going to get really cheap to start an MMO. It used to cost 10m dollars to launch a website, once upon a time. It was an arcane art. But nowadays there are solutions out of the box to allow people to build persistent communities. Content is still expensive, but getting in on the ground floor? Much easier to do. Last prediction: lots of experiments in convergence of social networking and MMO virtual space. MySpace... and MMOs. There's all sorts of crossover opportunity. If you're running a socnet without a virtual bit of some sort in 5 years you'll look like a dinosaur.
Daniel: I don't think big media companies will be able to execute their way out of a paper bag. A lot of people will lose their shirt in this space. Yes. This medium’s going to destroy television. This is great! The advertising business will migrate to this medium. Big media are throwing money away because they realise this is happening. The wrinkle on the social networking... [...] ... ok going in to wacky land now because everyone's said all the sensible stuff, I think there'll be lots of regulatory things arising between what players want and what the government wants.. I'm wondering whether I should offshore myself now in case they think I’m gambling or porn or whatever because of what my players like doing in my virtual space. It's a television-eater.
[Alice note: I'm not entirely sure I caught that right, but that's what it sounded like :o)]
Mod: I predict an MMO that'll eat MySpace.
Raph: There are way more MMOs out there doing very well than box products. Webkins! This is a plush toy with 2.5m uniques. There are so so many niches out there and a lot of them are doing really really well. We have blinkers on because we go to game developer conferences. Club Penguin has 4.5m uniques, and any kid in elementary knows all about it - while we don't.
Q: are we seeing a convergence between east and west markets?
Rob: You just need to know your market. Look at Korea’s top three, and you'll get a sense of what they like. They’re in pc game rooms. Different business model. There are few single player games that succeed at all, whereas here most of our games succeed in single player.