Thursday, May 28, 2009

Massives are all the same, sorta

I will be discussing “A” list Massives aimed at the American and European market, such as EverQuest®, Dark Age of Camelot®, World of Warcraft® (WoW), Lord of the Rings Online®, Eve Online®, Warhammer Online®, etc. Today I will be focusing on the similarities between these games.

By understanding the current market and truly understand the similarities among these games, we can more easily define a niche market.

The following charts are very useful in understanding the market. Just take a quick look at this one and move on. It shows WoW dominating the marketplace, no news there:

Now take a quick look at this “B” list there are some lessons to be learned here, but that can wait for another day. For today I would like to point out the sharp initial subscription spikes on many games such as Anarchy Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea and Vanguard. This shows the willingness of the Massive market to try new games, which is very encouraging.

Finally the “A” list (minus WoW) mostly of games that that have gotten 100,000+ subscribers and maintained them for three years or more

Eighteen Games

There are 18 games listed on the chart. Of these I am only interested in games aimed at the American and European market. Why? Massives are by their nature social games. There are very real differences in game fundamentals between say EverQuest (an American game) and Final Fantasy XI (a Japanese game). As I am only familiar with American and European culture I will restrict my comments to them.

Today I am only interested in games that at any point had over 100,000 or more subscribers. That indicates the market was ready to embrace that game.

There are important lessons to be learned from games that crashed and burned, such as Tabula Rasa, which got initial subscription numbers of about 120,000 yet shut the servers less than a year later. Such as, don’t overhype your game, have a long open beta, provide a compelling reason for gamers to leave their current game and/or new gamers to play yours. More on games that didn’t make it in “Case Studies.”

Foreign Games

Final Fantasy XI is primarily aimed at the Japanese market. Tibia is primarily aimed at the German market, with a low monthly subscription price. Dofus, a French game, shows significant subscriber growth over time, produced using Flash and played in a browser. It is free to play, paid subscription to upgrade. Dofus charges one-third the monthly costs of other “A” list games. If we “normalize” the subscriber numbers by monthly fee, it still has interesting numbers but doesn’t jump out of the chart.

Social Games / Kids Games

A game may be a social space for some subscribers, but a social space cannot be a game. Second Life and The Sims Online are social spaces, not games.
Toontown Online is primarily aimed at kids. It has kept 100,000 subscribers for over three years. However as with foreign games, kid’s culture is different from adult.

The Final Twelve (plus two)

So we started with 18 games and have set aside Foreign Games and Social/Kids Games. That leaves us with the following Twelve Games:
· Ultima Online
· EverQuest
· Asheron’s Call
· Dark Age of Camelot
· Eve Online
· Star Wars Galaxies
· City of Heroes / Villains
· EverQuest II
· Dungeons & Dragons Online
· Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
· The Lord of the Rings Online
· Tabula Rasa

And from Chart 1 we add:
· RuneScape
· World of Warcraft

In this list we have Games with SuperHeroes, Orcs, Jeddi, etc. How can they be the same? Although interesting, all that is just Artwork or “skins”. The underlying game systems or rules, of these games are what makes them similar. Whether you play Monopoly® with the top hat to represent you or the car to represent you, you are still playing Monopoly.

Two of the games from this list are different from the others, sorta: Eve Online and RuneScape, I will discuss them below.

Game Feature vs. Game System

In Monopoly a player rolls two six-sided dice, then moves his counter around the board based on the number rolled. The Game System here is a die-based movement system. Other games may use a single six-sided die, a single twenty sided die, or two four-sided dice. The type of die or combination of dice used is a feature. Risk® uses dice as well, but it uses dice for a different game system, a die-based combat system, not a die-based movement system.

Another way to say this is that a Game System is like Cake, and a Game Feature is like Frosting. If you don’t like chocolate cake, it really doesn’t matter what frosting is on it.

Why do we care about the difference between game features and game systems? Because putting a lactate-free, low calorie, mocha-chocolate swirl frosting on a chocolate cake may be sexy, but it is still a chocolate cake. And there are potential subscribers who would like a different type of cake.

Three Common Game Systems

The Massives on our list are all basically the same because they all have the following three major game systems:
· Grind Game
· Restricted Items
· Static Story Telling

Grind Game. In this game system a character gains experience (or levels) and items to become more powerful, which enables him to take on harder monsters to gain even more experience and items which enables him to take on yet harder monsters to gain yet more experience and items… well I think you see where this is going. How a character grinds up varies from game to game, but the grinding system is the same.

A character goes from killing rats to killing epic dragons as he progresses through the game. A higher-level character is more powerful than a lower level character. The game system for gaining experience can be stated as:

A character gains power through playing the game, wherein length of time played is roughly equivalent to a character’s power.

This is the most defining characteristic of the current crop of “A” list Massives. Gamers call this game system a “Grind” game. Let me repeat, ALL games on our list use this system, all of them.

Restricted Items. In this game system items are not only used to make a character more powerful, they are also a visual representation of a character’s accomplishments in the game. Various games restrict items by character class, character level, and character accomplishments. Items may be acquired through crafting, questing, random drops, player versus player combat, etc. At the heart of this system is that items are increasingly more difficult to get, with the best items in the game available only to a small percentage of subscribers.

Static Story Telling. Let’s ignore expansions and rare one-time events such as “Awakening the Sleeper” in EverQuest for this discussion. In a static story telling game system the Story is written and scattered throughout the game for the player to find through exploration, questing, etc. WarHammer Online has taken this to a new level with their “Tome of Knowledge” which is a virtual representation of a book with the Story of the virtual world revealed as the character explores the world. A Static Story Telling system requires the game world to be unchanging, so every character, new or veteran has a chance to experience the complete Story. A further consequence is that a character has no lasting change on the game.

To Sum Up

I could fill up chart after chart showing that all the games on our list have these three game systems in common. But if you have read to this point a little reflection on your part will save me the writing. These three systems are at the heart of all the games on our chart, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

A mistake, in my opinion, is to try to make a game by starting with these three game systems. The best advice I can give is to visualize gameplay that you would want to play, then work backwards to figure out what systems you need to implement to get that gameplay. That is, don’t try to make a game similar but better to WoW. Start with a new concept.

What I would like you to take away from the discussion to date, is that:
· Current Massives are very similar
· Common sense tells us not everyone wants similar products
· There are 100,000 potential subscribers who are willing to try a new game
· 100,000 subscribers is enough for a successful game

A niche-market game is safer to bring to market than yet another WoW-clone.

1. Game Design Day One
2. Niche Games & Subscription Price
3. Massives Are All the Same, Sorta
4. Defining a Niche


Eve Online and Dofus aren’t exactly like the other Massives I have discussed. Dofus is marketed primarily at French-speaking people. That said, it is the very definition of niche marketing to choose a specialized market to aim at. After seeing Dofus’ numbers I would be very confident to market a Massive at a very specific group. The other interesting thing about Dofus is that is charges a monthly fee of about one-third of the other Massives. It would be interesting to examine what trade offs gamers are will to make for a lower subscription cost game.

Eve Online. Well Eve is definitely a Grind game in that the longer a character plays the more powerful he gets. Furthermore items are restricted based on how long a character has played. Where Eve differs is in its story telling. Eve has a fairly weak story compared to other “A” list Massives. Eve makes up for this by having different social groups of players (corporations) in effect creating a story and having some effect on the persistent game world. I think this is the key to Eve’s success and a lesson for all of us. Even though Eve’s player story telling system is fairly crude, I believe that is what attracts players and shows that with just a little bit of difference in game systems a Massive can build a niche market and profitability.

A niche-market game is safer to bring to market than yet another WoW-clone.

1. Game Design Day One
2. Niche Games & Subscription Price
3. Massives Are All the Same, Sorta
4. Defining a Niche

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