by Gene Turnbow
MMO’s are part of our culture, and can achieve a kind of legendary status.
This video, by ‘AJWillSing’ is of a guitar cover he did of the theme to
Meridian 59, the first 3D graphical MMO. And yes, you can hear this cut
on Krypton Radio.
In 1992, the computer game industry was in pretty serious trouble. Production costs had skyrocketed, thanks in part to motion picture companies that thought that game development was just like making movies because the creative development cycle was so similar. They all jumped in with piles of money to spend on games based on movie properties, and made a pile of really bad games. They learned the hard way that games are not a linear experience the way movies are, and they’re exponentially harder to make in terms of design and storyline – and then there was the problem that each game required its own unique engine that had to be developed from scratch.
They all lost their shirts and clambered out of the pool nearly as fast as they’d jumped in, but the damage was done. Hundreds of game studios went under, unable to complete their contracts either because the technical challenges were too great, or because all their projects were canceled at once. This was the great Thinning of the Herd, and few but the largest game companies survived. For us gamers, this was an unlucky thing indeed, because only the largest companies could muster the resources to solve the great problem the industry was facing: how to trade quality customers for quantity and keep enough money flowing into the business to keep it afloat. Expectations had been pushed so high because of the outrageous sums of money sunk into production values by the studios that the consumer public would never again accept anything less, forcing many game companies out of business entirely.
Enter the massively multiplayer online game. People were already playing them, but up to this point they hadn’t been commercial. They were called MUDs (multi-user dungeons), which were a cross between a classic text adventure game and a chat room. The advantage was that you didn’t need much of a computer to play them. In fact, if you had a 300 baud modem and a Hazeltine terminal, you could play without a computer at all (ask my how I know).
The first graphical MMO was Neverwinter Nights, which made its debut in 1991. It wasn’t 3D, but for the first time, players could actually see their environment and interact with it instead of merely reading about it in blocks of exposition.. Despite this, the developers (AOL, Stormfront Studio and TSR Hobbies, which would later become Wizards of the Coast) – had done something that set the gaming world on its ear. They had shown that massively multiplayer games were not only technically possible, but profitable. The first 3D MMO was Meridian 59 from 3DO which debuted in ’95. (You can still play Meridian 59, by the way, and like many MMO’s today, it’s free to play – more on this later.)
The first big MMO to really hit stride, though, had to have been Everquest. This game took three years to develop and bring to market, and went online on the 16th of March, 1999. Termed “Evercrack” by its adherents due to its addictive popularity, it and World of Warcraft from Blizzard Entertainment, released in 2004, still dominate the MMO landscape.
Fast fowarrd to 2012.
Ironically, one of the most massive things about MMO’s is the development cost. Everquest, for example, cost $20M. The new Star Wars: The Old Republic cost an eye-popping $100M. These things are expensive to make, so much so that an entire industry has sprung up around them that makes what’s called middleware, or tools that make development in general easier by providing substantial portions of the software being written as off-the-shelf components. In the case of the game industry, this middleware is the part on the server that makes the whole thing work – leaving the developers with the job of writing the user interactions and the graphical engine for the clients that connect to the servers (which often use more middleware). As a result, many of these MMO’s are now stitched together from prebuilt component parts, dramatically reducing the development costs.
Now that there’s middleware, MMO’s are now within reach of smaller developers who previously would have had no chance in the marketplace at all. This is why the landscape is still dominated by the big game companies who were swimming in enough cash in the early-to-mid nineties to do the initial development on the first big games. There are now so many MMO’s out there that nobody really has an idea of how many there are.
It’s a dangerous business to be in. Company-ending catastrophes happen all the time. For example, the Korean server for Lime Odyssey Online will be shutting down on March 30, at the end of this month, and they hadn’t even made it out of open beta testing. They claimed that the stability and critical server bugs could not be solved without completely rewriting it from the ground up. Lime Odyssey, being Sirius Entertainment’s maiden title, was touted to be the real Ragnarok Online II back when it was first announced. They’ve passed the torch to Aria Games, who’ve gotten the thing back on track and back online – but it shows how dangerous the MMO development game can be. With these kinds of production costs, a developer has to gather a large player base quickly. How does a developer attract and keep a big enough player base to survive?
They make it free to play – instead of selling the razor, they’re selling the blades. In most cases today you can play the game as much as you like, but you won’t get the peak experience playing the game unless you open your wallet and purchases virtual goods usable only inside that game. With Worlds of Warcraft, Star Trek Online and other games, you buy things from vendors to enhance your experience – bigger swords, bigger ships, better armor, enchanted items which improve your chances of survival in combat. Even in the MMO Second Life, the birthplace of Krypton Radio, you’re leasing land from the Linden Lab, or buying user-made items in their virtual marketplace (and Linden Lab has made sure they’ve cut themselves in for a piece of every transaction).
The big news this month is that game publisher BigPoint is debuting its Game of Thrones MMO at the GDC this year in 2012 – and that Sony is shutting down four of them: The games being killed off are ‘Cosmic Rift,’ ‘Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga,’ ‘Infantry’ and the PlayStation 2 title ‘EverQuest Online Adventures.’ Each MMO has a limited lifespan – so there’s a constant supply of new ones to fill the void, but there’s obviously more content than the market will support.
This touches on a pivotal issue for MMO developers: how many MMO’s can a person play? MMO’s don’t just stand on their own – they’re surrounded by huge, loyal player communities that have to be cultivated and managed and sustained. This means that an MMO isn’t just a game, it’s also a social experience. And that means that there’s a limiting factor that has nothing to do with the game itself: players can only invest so much of themselves in online games and the communities that surround them. Most players play one, or two, and the hours they put into the social experience sometimes equal or surpass the amount of time they spend in the actual game. The pool of potential customers has a governor built into it. What MMO’s compete for isn’t only money, it’s social energy, and there’s only so much of it.
Where is this all going? I doubt anybody has a clear vision, though the big names and the big guns are clearly going to be dominating the market – and the industry is still churning on the MMO concept while ignoring the next problem looming on the horizon, and that is the question of what happens next. What’s going to happen to all these little developers who have these tiny little MMO’s that don’t even make it past their first year? The success of the games depends a lot on the advertising budget, and how much media attention a company might already have from its previous work. A new game company has a steep uphill climb, even if everything else is going perfectly.
Moreover, now that we’ve all seen 3D graphical MMO’s, what’s the next level of player interaction? Nobody seems to know or have a clear idea of where to go next, and there has to be a “next”.
Let’s examine this together: What’s your favorite MMO and why, and what do you think would make the interactive gaming experience even more immersive?
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