Thursday, May 28, 2009

Game Design: Day One

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®, Lord of the Rings Online®, Eve Online®, Warhammer Online®, etc. I will be discussing game design from the abstract to the specific. First, during the coming weeks I will discuss why I believe:

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

This chart shows the top Massives in terms of paid subscriptions, To me this chart shows there is plenty of room for new subscription-based Massives. To me, the fact that World of Warcraft subscriber numbers continues to grow and World of Warcraft has as many subscribers as ALL the other Massives combined, suggests that Massives are a growing market. The key, from day one of game design, is how to position a new game in the market. And yes, as Massive game designers it is our responsibility to produce a game that will be profitable.

Where to start?

Having an idea for a new game is great. If you are not independently wealthy the next step is convincing someone to put up money, lots and lots of money. Our financial overlords like a tidy return on investment (roi), so we need to show them how this roi is going to happen. On Day One the first thing that should go on your white board is a detailed definition of your target market. Your first instinct may be I don’t have to do that. Just because WoW has 10+ million subscribers, and U.S. and European revenues in 2006 exceeded $1 billion dollars does not mean that your game will get a significant piece of that. Remember Tabula Rasa? or Age of Conan®? Any book on business planning will tell you that bringing any product or service to market does not guarantee a percentage of the existing market. You may dream that your game will be the next WoW, but to start you have to prove that it can be simply be profitable.


If you go to Wikipedia you will find “The cost of developing a competitive commercial MMORPG title often exceeds $10 million.” In 2009 I believe that number is low. But this $10 million figure is vitally important as your money guy will know it. You will have to justify going above or below this figure. Money guys get nervous about budgets that are low compared to the industry norm, figuring that more money will be needed before getting to market. There are dozens of good books on writing Business Plans, I would strongly recommend reading one.

Gross Revenue

In a subscription revenue model:

Gross Revenue = Subscribers times Monthly Fee over Time

As game designers/producers we have a large amount of control over our gross revenue.

Subscribers. I will talk about subscribers in two later blogs “Massives are all the same, sorta” and “Defining a Niche”.

Monthly fee as of this writing is $15/month for most commercially successful Massives. Different markets may be willing to pay different subscription fees which I will discuss in “Niche Games & Subscription Prices”.

Time. Historical figures show that if a Massive sustains 100,000+ subscribers for a period of six months then it will maintain their subscriber numbers for at least three years. I will be discussing more about this in “Keeping a Massive alive”

As game designers we have a certain amount of control over our net revenue as well.

Net Revenue

Net Revenue = Gross Revenue minus (Bandwidth, server hardware, In-game customer support, Live Team, Expansion Team, licensing fees, I.T., advertising, customer account support, corporate overhead, etc.)

Let’s have a quick look at some of these items, which will be discussed in more detailed in later posts. Also realize that this is a rough model, concentrating on items that we as game designers and/or producers have some control over.

Bandwidth is a measure of consumed data communication resources. That is, how much information goes back and forth from a game server to a subscriber’s computer.

Bandwidth can be managed by data compression and off-loading computations to a subscriber’s computer.

Server hardware has not signficantly changed since the industry started. I will write more about server hardware after I have filed patents on the subject.

In-game customer support people are primarily tasked with helping customers with bugs, such as getting stuck in the terrain. Customer Support requirements can be managed by code design, length of beta test and/or giving customers tools to deal with bugs without requiring live support. More in “Help, I’m Stuck.”

Live Team is tasked with fixing game bugs and game balance. Fixing bugs and balancing the game are the top concerns of current Massive subscribers. One solution is to throw money at the problem and have a massive live team. I will discuss reasons why bugs should be fixed in beta, thus requiring a smaller Live Team in “Beta as a marketing tool.” I will discuss the underlying systems that create game balance problems in “Fairness”, and how to change them. The Live Team is additionally tasked with creating new content. More in “User as partner.” The size of the Live Team is dependent on a number of design decisions.

Expansion Teams are usually tasked with producing an expansion every one to two years. Successful expansions can keep a Massive alive. We should be aware that the tools we pick or build will be used for years, and plan accordingly. More in “Keeping a Massive Alive”.

And the rest are just listed to be aware of. There are a lot of things that can effect profitability, we do what we can.

Note: I will save the topics of microtransactions and other revenue streams such as in-game advertising for a later time. At the moment these methods have not proven themselves in mainstream “A” list massives.

To Sum Up
The decisions we make as a game designer/producer on day one will have a very real influence on how profitable our game is years in the future. Making informed choices is the key.

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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