MMORPG Business: How to Compete Online

MMORPG Business: How to Compete Online

One of the tougher video game genres to break into if you’re a developer is the massively multiplayer online and massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMOG/MMORPG) genre. World of Warcraft rules over paying subscribers with an orc’s fist, and elsewhere across the Internet, the free to play model competes for the time and money of a very over-stimulated user base. Regardless, ambitious publishers seek to contribute to the genre, as they may as well: It’s a risk, but one that can offer up huge rewards if things pan out.

Trion Worlds is one studio that well knows the mile-high roadblocks that come with competing against both World of Warcraft and the free to play model of gaming. Trion Worlds’ MMORPG Heroes of Telera, since renamed Rift, only launched worldwide in March after four years of alpha and beta testing, so it hasn’t had time to nibble on World of Warcraft‘s user base. Regardless, the company is confident – confident enough to take on three more MMORPG projects, including an unnamed MMOG for SyFy. And earlier in April, IndustryGamers published an exclusive interview with Trion Worlds’ Chief Creative Officer and Rift‘s Executive Producer, Scott Hartsman. Hartsman offered some interesting insight about how to succeed in the MMO business market, and compete against heavyweights like World of Warcraft:

Adopt A Stand-Out Slogan: Rule #1 for MMORPG success: Get noticed. Hartsman admitted that the tagline for Rift, “We’re not in Azeroth anymore,” raised some eyebrows. More importantly, though, it turned heads. “When I first saw the campaign pitch I laughed my ass off,” Hartsman told IndustryGamers. “We saw it and went, ‘Wow there’s no way we can do that. That means we have to do that.’ For any company that’s starting out, trying to get attention in a very crowded marketplace, you have to do something to get attention and I think that campaign really helped us stand out. I think the polite way to phrase it is it inspired many conversations around the Internet. And that’s really what we needed.”

Weigh Free to Play vs. Subscription-Based: At first glance, building a free-to-play MMO or online game is the way to go. EA has been particularly gung-ho about producing free to play games, including converting former subscriber-based games to the free games model. But Hartsman thinks a quality core experience is vital for enticing users, and that can’t be done on the cheap, making a subscriber-based pay model the way for larger projects like Rift to go. “You can’t go trying to make a core gamer MMO on a low budget,” he said. “Because I think that enough attempts over the last few years have proven that your game will tend to not succeed or just kind of limp along.”

Focus on Constant Stability: Another key necessity for an MMORPG’s success: Stability. If your servers are constantly dropping players, it doesn’t matter how cheap or how expensive your game is: Those players are going to move on. Hartsman concurs. “I would say [our] biggest success was the stability of the [Rift] beta, more specifically stability in scope of the beta,” he told IndustryGamers. “The fact is that we started running it like a live service for practice even through our internal testing, beginning about a year ago. So every day between then and now was really a rehearsal for getting the kinks out, getting the process together for how to run a live service.”

Give the Live Game Priority: Hartsman says constant updates will keep interest in Rift high, but he’s also aware that the live game has to be fun to play, otherwise all the new content in the world won’t save it. “From the CEO on down, the directive is ‘work on the live game, make the live game the best, absolute most awesome game we can,'” he said. “So we’re going to keep doing that, and there will continue to be new places to go. New things to fight, new things to discover, new things to make. And then later on we will very likely get into the larger content, like an entire new area to explore.”

Employ Quick Iteration and Rapid Updates: With MMORPGs, downtime for updates is inevitable. But Hartsman believes that said downtime can be quick and painless. “We just did our first semi-large update, and total downtime was about 40 minutes,” he told IndustryGamers. “And everything was back up and playing. We run two data centers, U.S. and Europe. So we’re able to update them at the right time for the given audience. Everything just kind of works.”

Consider the Competition: When you launch a subscription-based MMORPG, you don’t do it without sparing a thought for your biggest competitor. But Hartsman believes Rift, and other MMO rivals, have what it takes to be successful against WOW; after all, a smaller size can be beneficial: [I]f I had to pick a couple of things that make us special, it’s the speed at which we’ve proven that we’re able to adapt and innovate,” he said. “We’re able to develop new cool stuff and interact with our players. The way we steer what we’re doing based on what’s going to resonate best with them.”

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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