Thursday, May 28, 2009

Defining a Niche

Welcome to my blog. 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 Defining a Niche.

Talking about Niches and Massives seems like a contradiction. To be commercially successful a Massive must have lots of subscribers. According to Wikipedia: “A niche market is the subset of the market on which a specific product is focusing on; Therefore the market niche defines the specific product features aimed at satisfying specific market needs, as well as the price range, production quality and the demographics that is intending to impact.”

Previously I have discussed how historically the Massive market has subscribed in numbers of 100,000 plus to niche games, and that 100,000 subscribers can be commercially successful. Now I’m going to try to bring this discussion home and talk about defining a Niche.

How Big a Niche

Here is our basic contradiction again. The broader we make our niche, the more potential subscribers we get and the more commercially successful we are. However a broad niche may not differentiate a game enough from the competition, thus not attracting the 100,000 subscribers we need. Warhammer Online® (War) defined their niche as like WoW with more player-vs.-player goodness, a broad niche. It has been reported that War has 300,000+ subscribers six-month after launch, which is very nice. Vanguard: Sage of Heroes defined itself as like EverQuest with improved graphics, a narrow niche. Vanguard got initial subscribers of 120,000.

I’m convinced that 100,000 subscribers can be commercially successful, so that the safest way to go is to make a very narrow niche.


In broad terms Massives are composed of:
· Historical
· Mythological
· Fictional
· Branded
Artwork (or skins)
· Quality
· Customization of Player Character
· Extent (how much artwork)
Game Play
· Player vs. Environment
· Player vs. Player
· Dungeons
· Raids
· End Game
· Crafting
· Social
· Role Playing

Game Play is further modified by our Entertainment vs. Challenge discussion and further modified by our Fairness discussion. Note: current Massives have similar game play to this list, that does not mean they are necessary.

Defining a Niche

Defining a Niche is more art than science. I’m going to discuss my thought processes in coming up with a niche massive. As I go through this process I am keeping in mind that I want a game that is different from WoW in a way that I can describe easily. Such as: Vanguard® is like WoW, but for hard-core players. Or Warhammer Online® is like WoW but for dedicated player-vs.-player enthusiasts.

I want our new game to be unlike WoW, aimed at more experienced gamers. I want to be able to say “[insert name here] is for the thinking gamer. When you have outgrown, Candyland®, Risk® and World of Warcraft® move up to our new game.” The Niche I want to fill is a Massive for non-beginner players.

Designing a Non-Beginner Massive

Knowing we want to design a non-beginner Massive is a good start, but it tells us what we are not doing, not what we are doing. Not only are we designing a non-beginner game, we also want a game that is very easy to distinguish from existing games. So given two equally good choices, we are going to pick the choice that will differentiate our new game from WoW.

A player new to Massives will probably start with World of Warcraft®. WoW is a beginner friendly game. We don’t want to go head-to-head with WoW so let’s start with a non-beginner game. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would be real happy to not see any more Orcs until the movie “The Hobbit” comes out. So, no Orcs in our game. Note: WoW is very Orcish. Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that as players get older and more experienced they no longer have the desire or time to play grind games such as WoW, so let’s make a game that requires less time to play. We have now defined what our game will not be:
· Not a beginner game
· No Orcs
· No Grinding

Target Subscriber. Since we are not making a beginners game it would follow that our target subscribers will skew older than a beginner game such as WoW. This in turn allows us to potentially charge a premium subscription amount. As we are aiming for 100,000+ subscribers even charging a premium subscription price we still have to keep an eye on our pre-launch spending. We will keep that in mind. Also our older target subscribers probably will have less time to play in a session, so we will design our game play around this. So we can add to our list:
· Premium Subscription
· Limited Play Time

Social Target. Different content in Massives require different social sizes. In general one can play solo, run a dungeon with a small group of 5-6 and do raids with 20-40 people. Each game is targeted at a different social size. On the low end is Warhammer Online® (War), which uses a very innovative system, called Public Quests, to cater to solo players. WoW caters to small groups of 5 to 6. Guild Wars® caters to larger groups. As we are targeting slightly older, experienced subscribers it follows that they will have made friends in previous games and will be favorable to a game requiring a larger social group.
· Large Social Groups

Story. I spent a lot of time working on a single-player Viking game. I’d love to do a Viking Massive. There is so much material to work with; the historical Vikings were explorers and traders as well as the warriors we all know. Most people know a bit of Viking mythology, Odin, Thor, and Loki among others. Then there are fictional Vikings such as the book Space Viking by H. Beam Piper or the Northworld Triology by David Drake. I have tried to come up with a game for all this material, but nothing came to me.

A while ago my brother Steve, Mark Jacobs and I where discussing games we would like to do. At that time I was real hot to do a Wild West game, a wild west as seen by Hollywood. My problem at that time is that you can’t have a Northfield Minnesota Raid (a real event also depicted in movies) without a bunch of players willing to run shopkeeper player-characters. I solved that problem recently, but other problems cropped up such as how to portray Native Americans responsibly in a European-centric game. I need to do more research and talk to some Native Americans before I can come back to a Wild West game.

I’m a big Discovery® channel fan, and endlessly fascinated by anything about Ancient Egyptian. The mythology is vibrant. As a bonus our target subscribers have a little knowledge of it and may want to know more. Historically Ancient Egypt is equally fascinating. We know ancient Egypt had many external enemies. So we could have an Egyptian vs. Barbarians game.

In my discussion about Fairness, I talked about how fairly balancing a Massive can be a real money sink in the long run. In order to avoid that our game will take place in an Ancient Egypt, which is divided between north and south, with player-characters from either side having basically the same options. As a bonus, at one time Egypt historically was divided between north and south.

Why just two sides? Dark Age of Camelot has three sides. Historically we could make a case for up to five sides. I have some thoughts on game play that work for two sides. Going for more means more money on artwork and more money on balancing later on.

For now let’s call this game Ra. Why Ra? Ra is the name of one of the ancient Egyptian gods. And well it just sounds better than some of our other choices, such as Atum, Geb, Isis, Osiris, Nephtys, Seth, Shu, etc.
· Historical and Mythological Ancient Egypt
· Two Factions North and South
· Working Title Ra

Artwork Quality. In general, the higher the quality of graphics, the more expensive the computer needed to play it is. WoW for example uses lower quality graphics and is playable on most modern computers, including laptops. Looking ahead, I want to support player vs. player battles with 200 players in close proximity. So I want to scale my graphics back where large battles are possible. Ancient Egyptian artwork is so impressive I want to use as high quality as I can when I know it will not cause problems with gameplay.
· Medium quality graphics in player vs. player areas
· High quality graphics in quieter areas

Customization of Player Character. This is a highly desired feature by gamers. Being able to make their player characters unique really brings a player into the game. WoW is on the low side of player character customization. The higher the customization the harder it is to display during large player vs. player battles. My desire is to have more customization than WoW for advertising purposes. How much customization we can have will depend on what the coding guys say.
· More player character customization than WoW

How much artwork. Artwork in Massives can be broken down into two categories, World Artwork and Character Artwork. Artwork costs resources to produce. Artwork costs computer resources on a subscriber’s computer to display. Subscribers like lots of artwork; hence we have a conflict to resolve. Our game is set in Ancient Egypt, so for world artwork, we will spend a lot of resources on Monumental Architecture, like Pyramids, temples, obelisks, etc. We will go with more generic world artwork depicting villages, farms and other everyday objects.
· Lots of different Monumental Architecture
· Generic everyday architecture

In WoW there is different character artwork for the different player character classes as well as different artwork for different gear a character may equip. In WoW, this artwork is a visual record of how far a character has progressed in game and is very important to the players. Our game is going to be more social focused than WoW and will have a private area that WoW does not have. At this point of our game design let’s just note this needs to be resolved, but needs to wait until more of the game is designed.
· Character Artwork needs to be determined

Game Play. Under game play above I listed a number of bulleted items that are common to current Massives. Our new game must have novel gameplay that experienced Massive players will enjoy, while still retaining enough gameplay that they are used to in order that they are comfortable in the new game. Players expect to be able to equip gear to differentiate their player-characters. So our new game Ra will include gear, however, it will not be as important or as rare, as it is in WoW. How a player customizes a character will be familiar to a WoW Player. How combat is performed will be familiar to a WoW Player. In general a lot of the Hows will be familiar to a WoW player, in Ra the differences are in the Whats and Whys. I’m just going to briefly sketch out some ideas here, you all really don’t need to read a 200 page game “bible” to get the point.

In Ra the Gameplay will be divided into three main areas, Faction (north vs. south), large social group (commonly referred to as guilds), and solo. In WoW a player must choose how best to advance his own character. In Ra a player must choose not only how to advance his own character, but perhaps more importantly, how to advance his guild and his faction. In order words we are creating a more complex game by giving players more choices.

Ra Faction Gameplay. The two factions are at war. Every month (or technically every lunar cycle of 29.53 days) a winning faction is determined, the winner getting a bonus to some aspects of game play for the next month, and the war is reset.

Ra Guild Gameplay. Guilds have the ability to build Monumental Architecture. The size and type of this architecture gives bonuses to all player characters in the guild. For example, a guild may build a small temple dedicated to the god Set, which would give a small bonus to moving in deserts and at night. A temple dedicated to Isis will make peasants work faster, thus making future Monumental Architecture take less time to build. Monumental Architecture will take a long time to build, so while a guild might build a small temple in a month, it would take many months to build a pyramid. A guild will be challenged to decide how many resources to allocate to various tasks such as: to defend their area, to keep their peasants happy so they build the Monuments as fast as possible, and to contribute to the ongoing faction war. In effect we are adding some real-time-strategy game complexity to our Massive. It is one thing to look up a guild’s accomplishments in a game such as Warhammer® and see some dry statistics. It is another thing to be walking down a road and see a guild’s pyramid blazing in the sun.

Guilds in current Massives can be as small as 10 people and as large as 500. One way to keep things Fair would be to segregate guilds (i.e. put them on different servers) depending on their size.

The single biggest problem in Massive real-time-strategy games is having to defend one’s area 24 hours a day. In Ra guilds will only have to defend their area for predetermined hours. For example, a small guild of 25 people may have to only defend their area six hours a week, say Monday and Wednesday between 8pm to 11pm. I know the problems, and have designed game play to solve them.

Solo Play. In Ancient Egypt having a good tomb was essential for the afterlife. In Ra a player will be able to design, build and expand his own personal tomb as he plays the game. There will also be living quarters that a player can customize. A player will have a traditional game experience of fighting mobs, taking part in player vs. player, questing, crafting etc. The reasons for actions and consequences of in-game actions will be different. For example, in WoW a player may be tasked with killing ten alligators and be rewarded with some coin and experience. In Ra a player’s guild may post a quest to kill ten alligators which are terrorizing the peasants working on their Monumental Architecture. In Ra the player will be indirectly rewarded by his guild’s architecture being completed faster, as the guild’s peasants are happier.

Cross Faction Play.
Current Massives do not allow cross faction cooperative play, so to differentiate us from them we will. We will have instanced mini-games similar to WoW’s battlegrounds, but ours will be Egyptian player-characters (both north and south) vs. barbarian non-player characters.

Game Play Summary. We start with Historical Egypt and Mythological Egypt, take a bit of the realm-war from Warhammer, add a little “wonder” creation from Age of Empires®, stir in a bit of guild vs. guild from Guild Wars® and take the best non-grinding parts of current Massives, stir em up and we have a new game.
· Realm vs. Realm
· Guild vs. Guild
· Real-time strategy Monument creation
· Player housing and tombs
· Cross faction cooperative play

So we have sketched out a niche game. Our niche is a game for non-beginners. Ra is for the thinking gamer. When a player has outgrown, Candyland®, Risk® and World of Warcraft® they can move up to Ra.

To Sum Up
We are in the game industry because we love games. (I’m pretty sure there are easier and quicker ways to make money.) It costs a lot of money to produce a Massive and investors expect a return on their money. Therefore it is part of our job as designers and producers to design a game from day one that will get that return. Designing a good or even a great game is not enough.

I believe that historically there are 100,000+ subscribers ready to try out a new game. And that 100,000+ subscribers is enough to make a Massive profitable. And that the best way to get 100,000+ subscribers is in my opinion is to design a niche game that is clearly differentiated from industry leader World of Warcraft.

Niche market design is more art than science. I discussed my thinking behind a preliminary design of a niche game I’ve called Ra. Before you begin thinking of a new game, pull some random books from the history section of the library, turn on The Discovery Channel, or perhaps think about a feature from your favorite game, Massive or not, and see how it can be incorporated into your new 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

Related discussions.

Casual vs. Hardcore


  1. This concept game "Ra" seems intriguing, however given that Age of Conan had a very Egyptian flavor to it there may be a negative backlash derived from that game. I would prefer to see a different gameplay/setting concept. Or perhaps have egyptians just be one of the factions, and the norse another, etc. (with the number of factions limited via capital). I would be really pumped to see a massive that gives Joss Whedon's "Firefly" a new home. The space spliced with wild-west could be further explored and the space portion allows for infinite expandability.

  2. Also Firefly hits that niche portion you have discussed so much.