Today at GDC Massively is liveblogging a sort of 'MMO Keynote', a panel entitled simply "The Future of MMOs". A simple title, perhaps, but probably the most anticipated event for Massive game designers and fans alike. On it are a few names you might have heard of, like Cryptic Studios' Jack Emmert, Nexon's Min Kim, BioWare's Ray Muzyka, and Rob Pardo (who has apparently worked on some sort of popular fantasy game). Moderated by MMORPG.com's Jon Woods, it's sure to offer some insights into the games of tomorrow.
Below the cut is our blow-by-blow account of the jabs, cuts, and parries from these Massive genre heavyweights. The last time I saw a get-together like this was at the Austin Game Conference, and the result was a spectacular confrontation. If ... you know ... you like MMOs. Otherwise it's a bunch of guys talking generalities about "those addictive games".
If the idea of the mind behind World of Warcraft talking about the games that he loves, along with observations from one of the founders of BioWare, combined with the insights of a tabletop gaming champion and a pioneer of Korean gaming doesn't interest you ... why are you here?
[Note: All times noted are Pacific US]
11:47 am -- We're in place in the front row as people begin pouring in looking for a seat. Jon Woods and Ray Muzyka are already conferring on stage, and we're very much hoping that we have the power reserves left to make it through the session.
11:49 am -- Min Kim joins the panelists on stage as the hall continues to fill - still ten minutes to curtain and the places is already three-quarters full.
11:55 am -- Elizabeth solves my power issue and we're good to go. All the panelists are on stage and conferring about the discussion to come.
11:58 am -- Jon told me earlier that designer Matt Miller might be stepping in for an absent Mark Jacobs (who is out with a bad back). He's on stage with the group, so we have five speakers again.
12:02 pm -- Two minutes past and the room is beginning to overflow, and the panelists are still chatting.
12:04 pm -- The panelists take their seats and it looks like we're getting started.
12:05 pm -- Jon kicks us off by asking each of the panelists to introduce themselves. Sitting left to right is Jack Emmert, Matt Miller, Ray Muzyka, Min Kim, and Rob Pardo.
12:06 pm -- Ray notes that he's among good company, and Kim notes he's bringing the free-to-play model to the US.
12:08 pm -- Jon's first question is about IPs. AAA games have been leaning towards licenses, outside IPs. Can a game be successful without one?
12:08 pm -- Jack notes that the license means a guaranteed return on investment, which clashes with artistic concerns. Because of the cost of MMOs - "Thanks, Rob.", companies are going to trend to IP. Cryptic is going to do their own thing, but VCs want big names behind the project.
12:09 pm -- Matt Miller: "Players want to play stuff they know." Smaller markets but better development sounds like a good deal to him.
12: 09 pm -- Ray: Every IP started as an original title. Both concepts are very exciting, but BioWare approaches them very similarly; there are specific ways to work with both.
12:10 pm -- Min: No IPs! They saddle a company down, and we look at the business as being perfect for creating new products. We don't want to saddle ourselves with up to five+ years with someone else's ideas.
12:11 pm -- Rob: IPs are challenges, but with WoW it allowed us a head start because the world was ours. WoW took about five years to make, and it might have been much longer with a brand new concept. If you've never made an MMO before it might be a great way to get a head start.
12:13 pm -- Jon tosses out: "Do MMOs need to go to consoles? Jack: YES! It's insane to think that creators could ignore this. It's ridiculous to think that MMOs won't migrate there. "I just want to discourage Blizzard from going there. Is it true that you're going to buy the continent of Africa?"
12:14 pm -- Matt says, heck yes - big audience. Ray sees players spending time in different ways, and the play habits of console and PC being separate markets. If you want to go to sports fans, you might want to hit console gamers. If you want to hit a broad audience you can take on the huge challenge and technology issues of a cross platform title. You have to understand who you're selling to. You can be competiteve on any platform.
12:16 pm -- Kim agrees completely. PC is still mass market, from his perspective, but they're looking to new areas. With MMO business it's about infrastructure. He wants to make sure that free client gets to the users.
12:17 pm -- Rob notes that it's about the users. The kinds of MMOs out now work better on PC, that doesn't mean there won't be good MMO games on the console. There are a lot more PCs out there than even the PS2 - hundreds of millions of potential users, if you do it right. "Pick the system that will be the most fun."
12:18 pm -- Jon's new query: RMT/microtransactions or no? Jack Emmert: "MIcrotransactions are the biggest bunch of nonsense." I like paying one fee and not worrying about it - like my cellphone. The world's biggest MMO isn't item based, "even though the black market item GDP is bigger than Russia ... microtransactions make me want to die." As a developer and a player, it's the way to go.
12:20 pm -- Matt Miller: The accountants like to see x players times y dollars. They like subscriptions, but if you only sell through microtransactions, what if nobody buys it this month? Subscriptions allow for some reliability.
12:21 pm -- Ray takes a different tack: you have to understand what you're making. Why are the players going to be passionate about it? If microtransactions facilitate that, if it's a pull instead of a push, it's viable. It's the dominant form in Asia. It's not viable here yet. Could it be there yet? Some games would be a poor fit. Know who you're selling to.
12:22 pm -- Kim is understated, saying they pioneered the business. When they started they were the little brother; now they are bigger than NCsoft in Asia. Free to play goes beyond core gamers. iTunes has allowed one-off purchases, makes players opt in. They're just not targeting the core users. Kids can't afford a subscription, and subs are not a great fit for all players. It's a viable model depending on who you're targeting.
12:24 pm -- East vs West question, according to Rob. They didn't want to change the design of the game to fit with another culture, but it's not the magic bullet. Your business model won't make your game great; there are ways to make money on the side (charges for server transfers and name changes), and that was more of a social thing than anything else. Opportunity for add-on services, making a hybrid model. Subscriptions aren't going anywhere either.
12:26 pm -- Jack jumps in with "that's a myth." He says that Blizzard is asking people to pay for time, not pay microtransactions. Rob responds with the offering that some people see transactions as the bullet, a trap Jack hates. Jack sees it not as an East vs. West issue - Rob as a player issue.
12:28 pm -- Kim jumps in with "When was the last time you talked to a 17 year old?" Jack fires back that microtransactions are not "the answer". Kim notes Target's love for MapleStory. Ray soberly offers that a hybrid would be the best of both worlds. Why not let people play the way they want to? Without compromising your design, why not let people use a model that fits them. Otherwise, pick a model that fits with the people you want to cater to. It's about your fans. (YES!)
12:29 pm -- Matt Miller notes that some CoH pack-ins are available even for the subscription-based game. Why not offer costume pieces or some-such to set the player apart? Plus, it gives more to the developers they love. Min Kim says that what they are really selling is social experiences - not items. Looking at the target audience, many have never played before.
12:32 pm -- Jon's last question: MMOs are getting more expensive, can you make one without multi-millions? Jack responds that there will be two tiers, because the major publishers are afraid to try. WoW offers an alternative to your game-play, and you need to look at what you can reasonably expect for subscribers. There are a few that are going to try to "pass WoW's numbers", which is insane. And they have the money to back that up.
12:34 pm -- Matt: If low-budget games need 50k subscribers, that's all they need. 100k is vacations in the Bahamas. Ray asks about barrier to entry and the target audience. The casual audience, mobile games, Asia - inspiration is everywhere. Jack asks Ray what his game is, and the audience concurs. "It's good to know that you care", he responds.
12:37 pm -- Ray continues, "Who would have known Portal would win last night?" You have to know who you are, with polish and passion. Kim says the AAA MMO is unsustainable. Nexon has never tried to launch a title with big budgets or teams. $230 million in revenue and no team is bigger than 100 people. Kart Rider started with 2 people. You need a smart team with a product the consumer is looking for.
12:38 pm -- Rob says "It's great to hear people don't want to try to take on WoW, as a business person." As a player he hopes more folks do. If you're going to do a big-budget MMO, though, you're not just competing against WoW, you're also going against expansions. You need to track the target; players change their minds as new content emerges. But there are other types of big games that aren't content driver, like a sandbox. Spore as an MMO wouldn't have required a huge team.
12: 40 pm -- Ray asks, "What is an MMO?" Thousands and thousands of multiplayer games, is than an MMO? Jumping into and out of sessions with other players on Xbox Live? Is that multiplayer? At BioWare they examine Bartle types a lot - you combine the social elements with that and you can choose the feature set you want to aim at. Business model flows from that - pick the model that's attuned.
12:42 pm -- Q&A? First query from a player: Can sci-fi succeed? Jack: Has some big hurdles. You know what you're going to do in a fantasy game. Sci-fi covers the gamut from space to gritty, so the player is a bit alienated from the get-go. It's difficult to overcome. Matt concurs, but notes there are IPs that started as single player games that could grow into MMO games. "Like Mass Effect." Ray smiles.
12:44 pm -- What possibility space are you enabling for your players, Ray asks. What do you want players to be? We're proud of what we did with Mass Effect, but we're about fulfilling many different fantasies. As long as you are making something amazing, people are drawn to it. Kim notes the challenges of understanding what a sci-fi IP is. StarCraft is one of his favorite games, World of StarCraft would be great.
12:45 pm -- Rob says the question is silly. Movies used to be the same way, and then Star Wars cracked the barrier. All it takes is the right product. Are there different challenges? Of course. You just have to have the right product, and it could be just as successful as WoW.
12:46 pm -- Q: What about user-generated content and addons in MMOs? Matt offers that user content is definitely out there, the players are used to editors, they can make good stuff. Would be stupid not to let players have some of their tools. Blow away the original content the developer made. Ray notes Will Wright's discussion of the "Pyramid of Needs" players have. They thought of that when making NWN, but it really helped them have players embrace the game. That's the key - if you launch with it, if it's part of the essence of the game, it's got to be good, and it has great potential. If you tack it on, you're going to have problems.
12: 49 pm -- Q: A rambling query about the value of item purchasing. Kim responds that it's dependent on the user.
12:51 pm -- Q: What do the future of MMOs have to do with everything else? Ray says "the answer is 42." Matt notes that single-player and MMO players have overlap. Rob uses the analogy between of the feature film industry and the feature film industry. An expansion to an MMO is like another season of your favorite series. That's one way to look at the difference, but they can co-exist.
12:53 pm -- Q: What has changed about the industry from the last year, which sucked? Jack says the industry is sick. "They worked QA for you, Rob, and now they have a few million dollars." LOTRO is the only game post-WoW that's broken 100,000 users. In terms of Massives it's scary. You have to make a good game is a big part of it. If the screws are applied 2/3rds of the way there you're going to lose your way. Ray offers that "ambition and humility" are the keys. The team cares and goes for quality, but at the same time they don't assume they know what they're doing. They're hungry to do something amazing, but make no assumptions. They try to learn from mistakes of the past. He sees the industry as growing, the most change, a great time to be a developer (applause to that). Kim follows that if you're just trying to "steal WoW users away, you're going to lose." MapleStory has succeeded here by going for another market.
12:57 pm -- Q: Are unofficial RMT vendors problematic? For Blizzard, they take an aggressive stance, but it's a choice they made early. They made a promise that when you come into WoW you're even. After your fifteen bucks you're on your own. They have a lot of tools that detect sellers quickly. They're pursuing it diligently - but it's a problem for WoW, not the industry. What do you want to make money off of? We still want to do the best we can to take it out. Matt: The biggest problem is the annoyance factor. They're going to get tells, see spam, and that's a customer service issue. Have to stop them from annoying the players.
1:00 pm -- And that's time! Everyone goes for the doors and we have a good laugh. Amazing panel, couldn't have written a better discussion in a fictional setting. Thanks for reading!