Part 2 - Richard Garriott on what's next for the MMO genre.
In part one of our interview, Richard Garriott talked about the evolution of the MMO genre and the potential for further growth. Here, in part two, he discusses the risks involved with developing an MMOG, plans for Tabula Rasa and the difference between the Eastern and Western markets.
Q: GamesIndustry.biz: What would you say are the business challenges that come with developing an MMO today?
Richard Garriott: The development time for a big MMO is multiple years, and the teams are very large, so you are investing tens of millions of dollars prior to launch. The risk is exceptionally high.
If you fail to not only ship the game but fail to have a hit, the repercussions are substantial. It's understandable that a lot of smaller publishers who have less history in this space will be reticent to go down this journey.
That being said, if you are devoted to shipping a game only when you can prove it is very high quality, and you are devoted to continuing to support financially that product until you reach that goal, the rewards at the back end are still very, very high. No online game that has reached beyond 100,000 subscribers, starting with Ultima Online, has diminished significantly or gone away. All of them are going strong to this day.
Q: Is it harder for you today to be making Tabula Rasa, versus back when you were developing Ultima Online?
Oh, sure. I actually think we were lucky to be first with Ultima Online. But if [others] had produced a similar, high-quality game at that time, I think they would have seen similar, substantial results.
Q: How will Tabula Rasa make most of its money? Through sales of the game itself and subscriptions only? Or are there other revenue earning strategies planned, like selling in-game content?
While we're toying with the variety of secondary methods; primarily it is with a retail presence of the game combined with the subscription fee after the fact.
Q: Do you intend to bring Tabula Rasa to one of the consoles?
Not at this time. NCsoft is platform agnostic: wherever the customers would desire to have our games, then we will check development of those platforms.
Our first goal is to get as high a quality and successful [game] out as we can. Then once we have this running well and ironed out the kinks, we'll consider [other] platforms it might be appropriate for.
Q: What have been some of the big differences between how the online gaming business works, and succeeds, in Korea versus North America?
NCsoft is uniquely positioned to understand both territories, but so far there have been few examples in the online gaming business where you've seen games that are substantially successful in one territory that are also substantially successful in the other territory. What I mean by "substantially": you are getting in the top three [sales] positions.
It's interesting why this has been true. Probably the easiest one to describe has to do with the perception of what is a "hero". In the United States, your hero character is commonly somebody who is bold, strong, and physically capable - maybe an Arnold Schwarzenegger type.
Well, in Asia, especially in Korea and China, people who are broad-shouldered and square-chinned and full of muscles are universally the bad guy. The good guys are the skinny little school boy or computer nerd. In spite of their frail exterior, their inner strength is what allows them to eventually win against that muscle-bound bad guy.
So when you take cultural icon crafting, and come from a different position, there are noteworthy distances. But over time those markets get closer and closer together.
For example, when we first joined NCsoft, Korea was utterly uninterested in any 3D game that lets you do a "through the camera" [perspective], like a first-person shooter. There were no popular first-person shooters in Korea. People liked a top-down game where you move [characters] to where you click.
But over time as great first-person shooters found their way to Korea, the Koreans have become acclimated to that presentation style and user interface. Now in even MMOs that viewpoint is acceptable.
We're seeing the markets merge in other ways: Asia was very heavily PvP and had no interest in PvE. Whereas in the United States, most games are PvE with a PVP additional component. Over time, both territories are seeing the value of the opposite type of play style.
Q: Tabula Rasa has been in development for over five years. What's been taking it so long? Has there been a game play feature, technology, or business plan that has been dominating your team's focus?
We looked at online games that [NCsoft] have developed across the globe, and we think three years is minimum [development time] for a big MMO, and five years is the longer end. Obviously, Tabula Rasa has been longer than that.
One of the reasons why it ended up being quite so long has to do with a change we did about two years in. For the first two years, we had built a team to try to find this "hybrid" game design that would have equal amounts of mass appeal in the Western territories as well as the Eastern territories.
What we discovered was for all practical purposes an unsolvable problem, going back to the character iconography I was describing. We ended up making so many compromises that neither group thought that [the game] was compelling.
We're [now] going to make a game we here in the US understand well. And once the game is finished, then we'll make modifications for the Eastern territories.
Q: Lately, online game development - whether it is in regards to MMOs or other games with online-play features - seems far more appealing from a business standpoint. What are your thoughts about this, especially as someone who pioneered the MMO genre and who has been working mainly in the online games category for the past several years?
Prior to Ultima Online, I spent 20 years making solo role-playing games. From a creative standpoint, myself and my teams had only become minorly competent interactive storytellers.
Within MMOs, storytelling is much harder. Our competence, if anything, has gone down in a lot of the key areas of making great games. At some fundamental level, I would still very much enjoy making solo-player games.
That being said, though, the real creative frontier, especially the business opportunity, does come with online games. The solo-player games market isn't growing nearly as rapidly. The margins get tighter and tighter over time, as they would with any maturing business.
But online is where there is still huge opportunities for creative, technical, and business model innovation. That makes this, at least for the next ten years, the most exciting portion of the gamespace.
Richard Garriott is executive producer of NCsoft Austin. Interview by Howard Wen. To read the rest of this interview, click here.