Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sunlit Uplands

I wasn't going to comment on SynCaine's recent piece on the future for niche MMOs, or on Keen's very similar take on the same topic because, well, its all been said so many times already. But then I happened to read Massively's short piece this morning on the Pathfinder Kickstarter campaign.

This is the summary of what Pathfinder is supposed to be:

"a grindless, classless system that allows for limitless character progression, large-scale battles, player-built structures, player-driven content, and useful trade and crafting."

And to build this wonder they reckon to need just $1m.

This begs so many questions, not the least of which is why, if an MMO fulfilling all those criteria can be made for $1m, we don't we have a slew of them already. What's the variable that might allow this team to produce a such a God Game for 1% or less than what it would cost a big-name studio?

The main cost everyone seems to want to cut is the cost of making it look good. Is that really where that 99% cost saving comes from, though? Mightn't it really come down to how much the people making it are being paid? That, and the cost of the environment in which they work while they are making it.

How much of the $100 million in "development costs" of an AAA MMO goes on making the game look (and sound) beautiful rather than on salaries and infrastructure costs?  Is making something that looks beautiful intrinsically more costly than making something that, well, doesn't?

Is it shallow to want this level of detail?
If you could work for a big company offering all the perks and paying you the big money, why would you choose instead to work for a fraction of that somewhere far less comfortable? Won't indie studios always rely on new up-and-comers who'll be out of there as soon as a better offer comes up, on-the-slide devs just glad to get the work and mavericks who think they can do it better than anyone, regardless of the evidence to the contrary?

Or am I misunderstanding the way the industry operates? Does someone coding or 3D Modelling an indie MMO get the same industry-standard wage-and-benefits package he or she would get for doing the same thing for Blizzard or ANet?

I grew up with the punk ethic. "It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it" as The Desperate Bicycles declaimed at the end of their 1977 non-hit "Handlebars". And yes, it was easy and cheap to make a punk 45. Whether you can make a sustainable, satisfying  MMO as cheaply and easily, that I'm not so sure. And, really, $1m dollars isn't all that cheap and two years in development isn't all that easy.

Or to look at a screen as though through a window?
Hugely commercial video games can be produced by small teams. In the 80s that was the norm. In the 21st century Minecraft hammers the point home beyond argument. We've had MMOs for more than fifteen years, though, and if there's been a large-scale, commercial success from a tiny team operating on a shoestring budget I must have missed it. How many people work for CCP? How much did EVE cost?

Like SynCaine and Keen, I hope we are at that watershed. I hope the next few years will see a stream of well-designed, well-executed, stable, commercially and aesthetically successful MMOs emerging from a plethora of independent developers. I hope we have choice coming out of our ears. I'm more than willing to live with the problem of having too many good MMOs to choose from to be able even to try them all.

For the moment, though, this brave New Wave isn't much more than a ripple far out at sea.


  1. I fear they are trying create a pvp sandbox (player driven content)... sadly, only wolves will play it, sheep have other games to play. And there are a lot less wolves than sheep.


  2. I've commented on Keen's article too that I'm looking forward to smaller MMO titles in the future.
    as for the whole graphical argument, I never bought that myself. if you look at some of the indie games on Steam right now, they manage to look great or unique and play smoothly while focusing mainly on gameplay fun. granted, there are no 3D graphic monsters - but my point is that you can do a LOT, even as a small team, if you work efficiently (my partner is currently geeking out over Hawken which was created by 4 guys). some older engines can still be used to make fantastic looking games. maybe not state of the art, but still good enough. heck, I am playing LOTRO right now and loving it. it is far from visually perfect, it is old - still the graphics work and the world feels alive.

    budget is one thing, but how you use it is key. some small features yield great effects (just think of the sound effects in LOTRO) to add to a game's 'cosmetic' appeal - and they cost very little.
    we used to point this out constantly when the 2D RPG era started going 3D; why did games like FF6 or Chrono Trigger have so much more 'soul' than some of the later titles? because so much love and care went into the little details.

    1. Art direction is key, I think, closely followed by quirkiness. You can get by with one or the other but if you harness them both together you can get something really extraordinary like GW2. As for LotRO I always thought it was a gorgeous-looking game in terms of the world - the UI is another matter!

      City of Steam is an Indie MMO that looks amazing, especially since it's running in a browser, but to get that to happen they needed to go from a team of three or four to a studio that seems to have a couple of dozen people at least, and it's taken them, what, a couple of years so far and launch still looks six months off.

      Vanguard, on the other hand, stands as a salutary example of how a large budget and a big team of top-end experienced professionals doesn't always mean success. Then there's FFXIV and let's not even mention Copernicus. Maybe small will turn out to be beautiful after all...

    2. I know I shocked you with my Vanguard comment on Biobreak, hehe...the thing is, Vanguard is really at the threshold of what I can't accept anymore visually. compared to LOTRO or also AoC, Vanguard lies too close to 'EQ times' for me...I can't help it, I have my limits. :) I need a certain amount of textures and smoothness these days.

    3. In some ways I think Vanguard is the most visually gorgeous MMO I've ever played but it hasn't aged as well in that respect as it might have done. I did notice some of the textures when I last went back there in a way I hadn't before I played GW2 and The Secret World.

      I still think Everquest looks wonderful, though. The old bits that they haven't messed up, that is!

      In terms of gameplay, of course, Vanguard is the real EQ2.

  3. It doesn't charge the core of your post, but they're not actually aspiring to make Pathfinder Online for $1 million. They say they have "a production budget of millions of dollars".. "Most of the budget is being provided by our initial investors, but the money we're raising on Kickstarter is the difference between a 4 year development plan and a much faster, much larger plan."

    But it's still clearly very cheap, compared to a black hole of money like, say, SW:TOR.

    1. I didn't know that because all I've read are articles about Pathfinder - I haven't developed sufficient interest to go read the Kickstarter proposal itself, although I might just do that now.

      I find it interesting that they expect more money to lead to a shorter development schedule. It seems too little money leads to games that never actually appear (/wave Dawntide) while too much means years of possibly unnecessary "iteration" and feature bloat. There must be a sweet spot of just enough money to get the thing done but not too much to overdo it!

  4. "How much of the $100 million in "development costs" of an AAA MMO goes on making the game look (and sound) beautiful rather than on salaries and infrastructure costs?"

    It is all salaries and infrastructure costs perhaps some licensing. Not focusing so hard on how a game looks does reduce quite a lot as it spreads into optimization as well as creative refinement. If you pick 2D instead of 3D for instance you will get a HUGE cost savings immediately as you reduce the complexity of your project.

    There are other factors as well. Smaller dedicated teams work more lean and mean than ones that have many layers of management. They are also able to make quicker decisions and base decisions on the work they are directly involved in better. So if something's just not working there's less risk of a "visionary" pushing people down a time sink for months.

    There are also many different paths now to getting something done. Unity, XNA, Modding, out of the box multiuser servers. Depending on the end pricepoint and expectations there is a lot of stuff out of the box that gives the indie developer a chance to put out something that (while not AAA) may be unique enough to captivate people.

    I would not expect stable, asethically successful and complex all in the same bucket with things that are of smaller budgets. I would however look forward to imaginative, deep and engaging.

    1. What I really wanted to say was "how much of the $100m in development costs goes on grossly inflated salaries and overblown, self-indulgent infrastructure costs"?. But I thought better of it :P

      I actually have no idea where the money goes, never having worked in the industry but my suspicions are that the bigger the business, the more money is going into things that don't further the goals of the business but the goals of the individuals who make up the business. Unless software development operates very differently from any of the fields I have worked in...


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