Good, solid panel, this. I liked the nuggets from the MTV dude - who, by the way, has seven kids. His three reasons for getting MTV into virtual worlds: his kids, Snowcrash and looking at what the MTV audience is up to.
Anyway, without further ado, my notes:
Creating parallel entertainment between entertainment and MMOs:
- Corey Bridges – Multiverse (moderator)
- Nick Beliaeff, SOE
- Mike Lewis, Cryptic
- Rob Pardo, Blizzard
- Jeff Yapp, MTV
Why are we seeing media giants get into MMOs now? What is it specifically that’s interesting about MMOs now?
Cryptic: I think it’s inevitable and we’re behind the times. Look to overseas: places that have a lot better broadband are way ahead of us in terms of online communities and this sort of gaming/VW type stuff. A big driver in the US is the penetration of broadband communications.
SOE: when you look at MMOs, these are epic and last forever. So people are seeing the relationship with the consumer that these games have – 8 years with Everquest! – and people think, Omigosh, an 8 year paid relationship? It’s a cool way to develop brand recognition and to reach out to the target audience.
MTV: for us it starts with our audience. Technology allows us to deepen our relationship with our audience. 5 years ago we were TV. 2 years ago we were 2D. Now... we can take people from watching our show to living our show. That’s what makes it inevitable.
Look at a typical MMO profile – it’s typically male, slightly older. We went in with Virtual Laguna Beach, which is 80% female. The audience profile inworld is IDENTICAL to the TV show. When we told men it was 80% female, there was a huge influx of men into that world.
But users were after interaction with the PROPERTY not the TECHNOLOGY. The promise from us was, you love the show now live the show. We also draw a distinction between traditional MMOs and VWs: MMOs are scripted. VWs are undefined. How do you move from 3D chatroom to something that engages someone and gets them to stay? Our average user is online for 40mins. that’s significant for us. The show only lasts half an hour.
Blizzard: we’re coming from the opposite direction, because we develop our own IP. We’re very interested in exploring properties like Warcraft or Starcraft first, but now we’re looking at comics, Manga, action figures, and now movies.
Any entertainment company that has deep and interesting IP has an interest in exploring different ways to broaden that property. MMOs being 80% male is certainly true for WoW, but that’s the demo of the IP. My daughter plays an MMO called Club Penguin. That’s hugely successful and the demos are totally different. Demographics follow the IP more than anything else.
Human beings are interested in shared experiences. We all have access to DVDs or streaming movies, but we still go to the cinema, why? We like to share experiences. Deep bonds and community, and lots of other game types can’t develop these.
I’ve talked to a number of storytellers who say, well I did all this work to create this world for this teevee series, or this movie, and all the audience gets to see is 2 hours of it. What about all the other thought and backstory and content in there?
SOE: People will always be frustrated; it’s the curse of the creative type. We create these universes, we spend so much time developing lore and mythology and at any time, the player only experiences a portion of that. You have a lot more hours of gameplay in an MMO but you’re still going to have that frustration.
What about the notion of a bidirectional content feed? e.g. star wars galaxies – that was one way. What about the notion of a teevee show running in parallel with a virtual world?
MTV: that’s our ultimate goal. Our programming world follows the show. But how do we take experiences out of that and back to the linear screen? We have some things coming up that people will find pretty fascinating. These story arcs start in these worlds and they go crazy places, and taking it back to the screen would be very exciting.
The advantage of VWspace is the concentration of your most passionate fans. The audience is smaller but more concentrated.
Blizzard: I think it’s possible to do that if you have a very simplified VW or MMO, but if you have a triple-A game, the less possible it is. We’ve been talking about episodic content forever, and we’ve not delivered it yet. I think it's because we don’t have a stable technological platform…
Let’s talk about how you get into these spaces. How do you leverage the license property – if you bought a license – or how did you leverage the source material?
Cryptic: we’re working on Marvel Universe right now and obviously we have a half century of comicbook lore to bring to life, and it is a big challenge. We have the world’s foremost expert on superhero lore on the project, and this is his dream job, to make this come alive. But it’s an enormous undertaking. We have inconsistent storylines spanning dozens of years. .. Excuse me, I have to sneeze.
SOE: we’re really focused on original IP. Part of your question is the crossing of the genre, going from TV to game and back, right? We didn’t have that complication.
Not sure what he means by this, considering they did Star Wars Galaxies. Maybe it's because he's focusing on the word 'tv' there.
MTV: from our standpoint, we thought starting from an existing property was the easiest way in. Pimp My Ride is an experiment to take something deeper: car culture and guys .. Could we create an environment around that that would get people engaged? We think this is an interesting experiment. PMR is 80% male, 20% female.
In these worlds, you can build your dream car, away from the harsh reality of your Volkswagen with a crappy radio. You can get recognition. This is a step outside the scripted storylines. We have other projects coming up that are even more ambitious and less defined…
Rob, how would you like to see WoW translated to film?
Blizzard: interesting question. Any time you translate from one medium to another, you have to do what’s right for the medium, and not get hung up on the IP. Even though Warcraft is our own IP, it was being translated from a different genre of games – Warcraft used to be RTS. So even though it was our own IP, we still found ourselves oftentimes handcuffing ourselves to certain conventions from the strategy game that didn’t make sense in the role-playing game.
If you’re working with an external group, you have to have a strong partnership. With Legendary Pictures, we’re working very very closely with them. We had to make sure we found a group who really understood us, who will make something we can all be proud of. They had a certain amount of geek to them like we do, and we’re collaborating quite a bit on the story and script generation. We’re not trying to tell them how to make a movie, we’re just trying to make sure the spirit of our IP is there and the epic scale of the IP shows up in that movie. But they’re the experts in that medium.
Cryptic: yeah, you have to have that attitude if you’re taking your IP into a new medium. With Marvel ... well, there are a lot of fans that are going to pick apart everything we do in excruciating detail. We have to be flexible to allow interpretation of that.
So how do you measure success?
Blizzard: There are a lot of ways to measure success, so you have to decide how you want to at the beginning of your project. Some folks want a high critic’s score; some want a measurable stream of revenue. We want to deliver an epic entertainment experience to our fans; we’re the summer blockbuster group of the games industry I think.
We want a broad market of gamers. We measure success in how we do in box sales and subscriptions. We make sure that we fill our dev teams with people who are passionate about making games. I get asked a lot, how do you know if this game is going to be good and usually, there’s this point about a year before finishing, where I have to say to the dev team, stop taking long lunches playing the game, we actually have to finish it now!
Cryptic: we wanted the chance to make more games, so is the game going to be financially successful is important. How much you spend vs. how much you make. You can limit your expenses and have a smaller success, not quite the WoW scale, and still be very successful.
But as developers and players, one of the things that made us feel like this [City of Heroes] was successful was when we started seeing players create their own thematic groups, dressing up in Hallowe’en costumes as superheroes, and really going all out. That was really gratifying, seeing the community build up.
SOE: be profitable, obviously, but also the reception you have from the playerbase. In terms of reviews the press never has enough time to dedicate to an MMO, so really at that point you look at the people actually playing the game. How we reach out to them, and gauge that temperature... we have a dept whose job is community relations with our playing audience. We do festivals, outreach. That’s how we get feedback, outside of making money, on whether we’re doing a good job.
MTV: we do audience measures: registrations, visits per week, time spent per visit. Next step will be from our biz partners to make sure there’s a model that works from them also.
Jeff, how about failure? What are the risks to the source property or your corporate brand in making a VW?
MTV: you’re dealing with the most dedicated fans of that property. If it doesn’t work, people will stop showing up. This is an extension, not an implication back, to the property. We get a lot of credit for trying. So we take a pretty aggressive position because our audience expects us to try.
If you adapt the marvel game and something goes horribly wrong...
Cryptic: right! That’s why our address isn’t on our biz card
Ok, so it’s a risk, but if you have passion for the IP, no matter what you do you’re not going to please everyone. That’s the first thing you have to learn. The real question is, how do you deal with the unhappies: that’s the fine art of managing an online community. You have to pay attention, you have to be reactive. If you can demonstrate that you’re listening, even if you don’t do what they want. They appreciate that you’re listening, at least.
SOE and Blizzard: both of you have pulled products before that looked like they were going to fail. How far do you go?
Blizzard: hopefully before you announce it! We’ve cancelled a lot of projects. We don’t feel like our hit rate is higher than other companies, we’re just willing to cancel the projects that fail. We are willing to write off those expenses.
We’ve had projects cancel after 6 months, and others that we’ve cancelled after we’ve announced. Starcraft Ghost: with that game we were stubborn. I still believe in that game. But we were never able to execute at the level that we wanted to.
SOE: we prototype... create touchpoints... you prove your core game mechanics are fun and compelling. We show it to marketing. Is there any traction? If so, go to pre-prod, if not, bullet to its head. If you have problems during production, well – that becomes a very difficult decision, to kill one of your children. Are we being stubborn, or is this a solvable problem, or..If you dawdle or vacillate, all you’re doing is costing your company millions of dollars.
What lessons have you learned in the process of making MMOs?
Blizzard: I’m not sure we have enough time! We learned a lot. Our biggest lesson learned was previous to WoW we made boxed products, which I compare a lot to a feature film. You work hard, you release, and you’re done. There’s relief. You move on.
With WoW we told ourselves that it was going to be different, but it’s very different emotionally when you go through 9 months of crunch, to the we're-done point... and then our work's just started.
MMOs are like television. You put out a pilot for Lost... they’re not going to wait for 2 years for you to do episode number 2. After release, we took a long time to deliver the next episode of WoW, and that was not a smooth launch for us. We’ve got our head round it now.
Cryptic: yes, once you launch, that’s the beginning. You have to have a commitment to support it. They can be huge! Designers’ imaginations can go wild... all these ways for people to interact with each other… so you really have to have focus. That’s our big lesson. Picking a focus. What is this game really about. Even though it’s a giant world, what’s it unique character?
SOE: for me, was how impactful the games are to the people who play them? A couple met in the first MMO I made (meridian 59), and they wanted our CEO to marry them. That’s commitment. I don’t think there’s anything more immersive than an MMO.
MTV: make it easy to get into. Once it’s established it can take off, but if it’s too intimidating, they’ll leave pretty quickly.