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MMO do’s and don’ts: Launching an MMO

Thord Hedengren (TDH) posted for GigaOM a list of things you should and shouldn’t do immediately after launching an MMO. They are mostly specious – I’m afraid I have no idea who Thord is or what he’s done, but from reading the article I get the impression he doesn’t know much about MMOs. Now, I’m sure TDH is a nice person, probably very smart, but these dos/donts are naive and ill-thought-out to anyone who’s been working in the MMO field for long. Some of TDH’s advice will probably cause you more harm than good if you follow it as-written.

What’s wrong with TDH’s list:

“Make sure the game is stable” – the games that launch “prematurely” (TDH’s description) ARE stable. Perhaps he meant something about “works on the majority of machines of your target market” or “has no economy-breaking bugs” or “all the quests work out of the box”, or … or … or etc. Depending on what he meant, my response would go in different ways.

If I were him, I’d have said “make sure the game is READY”, but whilst I know what that means, and most people in NCsoft seemingly had mostly congruent opinions, that’s not something I’m sure I can quantify off the top of my head. Hey, it’s part of what good publishers do as their value add, it’s not supposed to be obvious! More on this later, maybe.

Include significant content for all levels – you cannot possibly afford to do this, and it’s NOT ENOUGH even if you could. Rather, you need to provide masses of highly polished content for two particular levels: level 1, and level 20. Levels 10 through 19 need increasingly polished levels of content. Here I’m assuming that level 10 is the end of the newbie experience, and level 20 is the highest level 95% of the playerbase will reach within 1 month of starting play EVEN USING THOTTBOT et al to cheat their way through content faster.

Why? Because you lose subscribers at two points:
1. When they start playing.
2. when their first month subscription comes up for renewal.

All players should have completed the newbie experience (level 10) before their first subscrption renewal. From the moment they complete that, you want them to be more and more surprised, in a positive way, by how much “better” the game gets the longer they play. You also want to offset the decreased sense of wonder they have as individuals as they get to know the game and the world, so that they perceive a linear, constant, level of content quality (when in fact the content quality + volume is increasing, but their expectations are also increasing).

“Add new content on a regular basis” – like the outcome of a negotiated sales price (which can never go further in the vendors favour on future re-negotiations), whatever rate of content release you provide, you can NEVER reduce that rate in future, your players won’t let you. So DEFINITELY do not go around adding the “frequent” chunks at first that TDH recommends. That may well be suicidal.

“Make it easy for players to network, form guilds” – don’t bother. They will do it anyway. No MMO in existence has bothered to make this easy, and so the players have become adept at doing it themelves. This feature is therefore a complete waste of money – UNLESS you decide to make it a major competitive feature/advantage which becomes part of your sales strategy. Given how few MMOs do it even at a mediocre level or above, you could easily get great sales out of doing it well.

“Let players move characters between servers” – except that this destroys server-level community – something that all the big MMOs make heavy use of today. IMHO, the benefits to character-transfer outweigh the losses, ASSUMING you know what you’re doing and make use of those benefits, but TDH’s explanation (by omitting these) is probably going to lead many into weakening their game instead of strengthening it.

“Keep an open dialogue with the players” – Yes! This I agree with. Good recommendation.

So, just one of TDH’s points actually works without large amounts of hedging. Hmm. What about the “don’ts”?

What’s wrong with TDH’s list part 2: “Donts”

A general observation here: these have almost nothing to do with the realities of launching or post-launching an MMO; rather, they read like TDH’s personal bugbears of what he wishes that his MMO of choice did differently. I would humbly suggest that GigaOM is not the place to be airing a random selection of your personal criticisms of minor elements of someone else’s game-design (my personal blog, on the other hand, is an AWESOME place for me to be ranting about the quality of articles on other people’s sites. HA!). I’m only going to go through them for the sake of completeness, but mostly I’m not going to bother analysing them, they’re too trivial.

“Don’t promise features that are months away” – what TDH should have said was “in the management of online communities, Expectation Management is one of your core activities. This is also try of all mainstream AAA game development, just do what you would normally (not) do with a mainstream game”.

“Avoid having portals to future places” – this is just the same as the previous point. Nevermind.

“Don’t rebalance the game too much, too fast” – Hmm. Apart from directly contravening one of TDH’s “Do” points (“frequent updates and changes”) – what does TDH think updates are? Every update rebalances the game, de facto – “breaking [players] characters” is probably a good thing rather than a bad thing, as it extends the content for them (rebalancings can be the impetus for players to create an alt (second character) for the first time ever, and thereby increase attachment / stickiness for mass-market (non hardcore) players). Just don’t do an SWG NWE (if you don’t know what that is, google it – it was an extinction-level event in the Star Wars MMO that has masses and masses of commentary and post mortems all over the web).

“Publicly acknowledging problems” – Yes! Again, TDH’s final point actually has merit. Do it. It helps. But then again, this is nothing surprising – this is, in fact, part of that basic community management I referenced above.

Fine. “So, Adam”, I hear you ask, “if you’re so damn clever, what ARE the do’s and don’ts of launching an MMO, especially with respect to the post-launch period?”

Since I am currently technically unemployed – doing a Super Sekrit Stealthy Startup – I should really just put a PayPal donation link >HERE< and/or my cell number and an offer to answer your question (and any others you may have) at a discounted $100 an hour.

Launch Period: What Really Counts

For a subscription-based MMO (the target that GigaOM chose), two things count above all else:

  1. Absolute number of registered active accounts
  2. Conversion rate of registered accounts to subscribers who make one monthly payment IN ARREARS (i.e. one payment at end of month, or two payments at starts of months)

There’s some extra things that matter, because you NEVER launch an MMO in isolation – there has always been months or years of development leading up to this, and at least an alpha, if not two or even three betas, before launch:

  1. Retention of final beta (usually “free”) accounts that convert to paid subscriptions

I’ll come back to all three of these in a later post – I’ve been meaning to write something up about this stuff for ages now, but I don’t have the time this instant to do it justice.

As a parting shot, though…

Big Background Question Number 1

Ask yourself (and your team) this:

Do you even know what an MMO launch is? A pre-launch? A post-launch? A live team?

…and think about it; a lot of people these days don’t stop to think about the knock-on effects of that question, and there’s really no excuse now – there’s so much evidence staring you in the face, in the form of many many MMO launches that have happened. If you can’t answer those questions – and understand the menaning behind them – go do some research ASAP before you get even close to launching.

It’s easy to gloss over the launch, think it’s a one-off special event you plan for, just like alpha, or beta. It’s easy to forget some of the complexity that is peculiar to launch. We had people at NCsoft (both external developers and internal staff) who failed to include the live team as part of the budget for their games. Live team is going to be anywhere from 50% to 150% of the size of the develoment team. Since dev team staff are the majority of the project cost, failing to budget for live team is a MASSIVE hole in your budget. There are games that have launched with live teams as low as 30% (I think there’s some that were even like 10% but I can’t remember any off the top of my head) of the dev team; they failed.

Damion Schubert came up with the term “AO Purgatory” (AO = Anarchy Online) to describe live teams with just enough income to pay for upkeep, bug fixing, etc, and a few bits of content upgrade – but not quite enough to add enough content, fix enough bugs, to cause the overall subscriber base to grow significantly month-on-month. Rule of thumb: I would never launch a game without a live team that was the same size as the dev team if I could avoid it. If I had someone else’s cash to burn, I’d budget for live being 125% size of dev.

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