Virtuals worlds are a huge risk and usually require a big investment, with the failures of big companies in the sphere scaring many away from such ambitious projects. However, some companies, hardly the size of the big publishers, have carved out a place for them in such a cutthroat market.
Kerry Fraser-Robinson, founder of RedBedlam, talks about the sudden mainstream popularity of MMOs, the key skills required for developing a virtual world, and why developers should embrace gold selling.
Q: Looking back on the past year and ahead to the rest of 2009, what do you think of the MMO landscape at the moment?
Kerry Fraser-Robinson: I'm quite enthused really. Having been an MMO evangelist since I was 13, I've been saying to everyone that would listen that MMOs or Virtual Worlds are going to be a huge entertainment medium and are going to eclipse movies and TV. Back then it sounded nuts but I started the company nine years ago and over the first eight years of the company's existence I was still having to tell people what MMO's were every time you tell people what you do for a living, but around the beginning of January 2008, it really just felt like there was a sea change in the mainstream.
There was a buzz about virtual worlds that had not existed before outside of my head. It was during that year that it was no longer anything to be laughed at. MMOs were very often seen as the geeky end of a geeky world, well now the whole world is geeky so it's a little less eccentric, a little less on the edge, much more mainstream to the extent where it is being seen as a viable mainstream media.
Within a couple of years, even three or four years, virtual worlds, MMOs, will be seen as something much more pervasive, a much more standard and everyday thing in entertainment.
Q: There has been a big explosion of MMOs and a lot of money piled into them - but a number of them have launched, foundered and even collapsed. Do you think this has deterred a lot of companies from pursuing MMOs in the future?
Kerry Fraser-Robinson: I know it has. I know its put off a lot of companies… the reason people were saying no to so many of them in the early days was because they just didn't understand what the proposal was. Then when they understood they thought 'that's a bit costly'. When a couple took off, like EverQuest and Ultima Online, some people and some companies started dabbling and they failed - they failed in fairly drastic ways.
The list of failed MMOs is long and growing - all of these things do put people off, boards don't want to take this kind of risk and quite rightly too. But what I think is that that risk is greatly exaggerated because the people that started dabbling, not to put too fine a point on it, didn't really know what they were getting into.
It's a bit like saying you're going to build a space ship, you can start by building the rocket engine, and all the rest of it, but then you find out that there's some really, really, really tricky maths involved and you need a physicist but you've already spent billions just on your hardware. Justifying keeping all that going for another nine months while you sort your maths out can't be done. That's what happens to a lot of these MMO projects.
I'm not knocking the videogame industry because that would be like casting aspersions on my own father but the videogames industry to a certain extent is to blame. A lot of videogame developers have a lot of synergy to virtual worlds, they have large teams of artists, large teams of programmers, and superficially an MMO looks like a multiplayer videogame, so they understandably thought to themselves 'well we can get it to that stage, we'll do that'.
You've only got to look at the first attempt at Warhammer Online by Climax, where they suffered from exactly that. They had lots of artists turning out fantastic art, they had lots of coders building the game but there are lots of things about virtual worlds that are not videogames that they did not know about - like scalability, the sever model, how to provide a networking protocol… and load balancing and all that other stuff. The problem is a lot of game developers started building a project without really realising what they were getting into and then having spent and got the team built and got the massive cash burden they would kill the project. Even if it was released they were under massive pressure to recoup the money they just spent. People all over the world and companies all over the world are looking at the number of companies that have failed saying 'We can't possibly do that. If good, well funded games developers that have got 20 years of experience failed at this. We can't possibly take on the risk ourselves.' That's why it became this very tough sale for many people.
Q: A lot of companies with a lot of money have also seem to struggle with the customer service side, so do you think that they've underestimated the general infrastructure that's required these days?
Kerry Fraser-Robinson: Absolutely. The thing is, developing an MMO has more in common with distributed network applications, it has more in common with ISP, it has more in common with that sort of stuff than most videogames companies realise. So, if you're a videogame company and you start this there's the easy 90 per cent and the hard 10 per cent. The easy 90 per cent is actually just completely syllogistic with videogames development - it is art assets, it is game design, just programming - but all this other stuff is an entirely different MO to what game developers are used to.
Q: With the increased cost of development on top of the expense of the genre's backend, can any company without the financial clout of an EA or Activision succeed in the MMO space?
Kerry Fraser-Robinson: Yeah I think so. We are. I think what it's about is a sort of generational thing. I'm sort of one of the first digital natives, as it were. I'm old enough to remember life before mobile phones and young enough to be part of the mobile generation. I can see how that's changed and I think it's quite clear that in the future companies will have more of an understanding of the fact that virtual worlds are not just a different kind of videogame but a cousin of videogames. They are different, there are distinctions and I think that understanding is starting to seep into the mainstream. Once they've got over the hurdle that it's not hard to do this stuff it's just extremely specialist.
There are more and more people, ourselves included, that are developing their virtual world tools with a specific purpose that third parties will be able to develop with. We've got a lot of mature tested code for virtual world engines and so now somebody wanting to get into the virtual world business will not necessarily have to write all of that stuff from scratch and take that massive risk. They can hire one of the dozen or so companies in the world that has already proven they've done it, that they've already got stuff up and running.
Q: What titles hold particular promise over the next year or so?
Kerry Fraser-Robinson: I think its an exciting time in the MMO sphere - I'm the first person usually to try and predict how things will go but the changing economic situation can have very curious effects on the entertainment industry. I'm quite hesitant to make any predictions about what's going to work, what isn't, and what's going to pan out. Because you never know, the financing in the most promising project in the world could get pulled and alternatively someone could come in from the wings.
Q: You've said in the past that gold selling in MMOs should be brought in-house, do you still hold that opinion and why do you think developers resist the notion?
Kerry Fraser-Robinson: Yes I do believe in it, very, very strongly in fact. It's going to happen whether you like it or not. People will always find the path of least resistance, if you stop them buying your gold then they'll buy that gold from somebody else who is gold farming.
If you don't build that into your system then you're not going to be able to compete with the gold farmers and that will ruin your in game economy, which will in turn ruin your game. At the very least having the recognition that virtual economics is a discipline and is a very important integral part to being a virtual world. Take EVE Online for example, they didn't allow for in-game transactions but they did design a very robust economy and they did design that game knowing it's a problem, and designed it with an awareness of virtual economic conditions.
The closer you get to having a virtual world that has any kind of trading, barter or value system you have to take virtual economics very seriously. I strongly recommend that people at least allow for purchase and sale of gold within their game, otherwise third parties will and that will ruin their game. Even if it's not their central revenue model they'll still need to do that, if it's a subscription game, they'll still need to have at least the awareness and preferably the capacity for people to buy and sell currency in their virtual world.
I think part of the resistance to that is the same thing I was alluding to earlier, it's another discipline and no company really wants to accept that there is a missing area in their knowledge that is required before they can embark upon a project.
I only know of just two or three companies that actually have economists specifically for the purposes of understanding their own virtual economy. I think that's absolutely essential going forward… because wherever humans are in communities and whenever they are bartering there is a market and there is going to be a market place. If you let that go with no regulation and no recognition then very, very crazy things will happen.
If you're making TV programs and you find that people are pirating each episode out all over the place online, then you have to recognise that trying to stop that happening is literally like telling the tide not to come in - you will fail. You have to, whether you like it or not, accept that, build your business model around that… at least accept that it is inevitable, if you accept that then it is a massive relief, you can move on, its just a matter of working out how you're going to do that.
Kerry Fraser-Robinson founder of RedBedlam. Interview by James Lee.