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Revisiting the MMO

Paul Mayze, COO of Monumental Games, argues the benefits UGC and in-game ads to the development of an MMO

The end of the recession cannot come soon enough for the British economy and for games developers and publishers who have not been immune to its effects. However, I do believe this is a good time to revisit our expectations of MMO games and specifically how a different approach to MMO design can be used to reduce development costs.

Given the precedents, there is an understandable perception that the risk/reward ratio for MMOs make such an investment prohibitive – a view that’s prevalent among some publishers.

This prejudice may be misplaced because this is a feature of narrative-heavy MMOs – and not a necessary feature of the genre. Instead, costs can be reduced where designers look to enlist the support of players themselves to help enrich and expand the games.

At Monumental Games, we are placing our faith in gameplay mechanics that allow players to generate their own narratives, thus empowering them as content creators and partners in production. This is a way of organically growing the game by getting the best out of the skills and imagination of players rather than laying everything on a plate for them ourselves. It is this spoon-feeding of content that contributes to the bulk of MMO development costs.

I firmly believe in the maxim that people support what they help to create and this more transparent, open and democratic approach has got to be the best way of fostering participation and engagement in what we are trying to achieve. Gameplay mechanics are the core of our content and having players create the narrative so they believe in the game is one way to build up momentum and control costs. Taking the two MMOs we have in production – Football Superstars and Hunter’s World – each new football game or hunt is unique, and adds to the global narrative.

Admittedly, this approach may not be suitable to all game contexts. With subjects such as football and hunting it is much easier for players to forge their own experiences based on their ingenuity and the opportunities for competition and collaboration than, say, a fantasy setting where players need to be progressively ‘taught’ the rules of that universe. World of Warcraft absolutely requires the hundreds of NPCs and quests that exist in order for players to understand the world they are in.

What we are seeing, though, is the best kind of UGC – players making what they want of the game, not by using content editors, but simply by playing it their way, whether that be by forming their own clubs, organising tournaments, or even convening for parades. (Yes, that last one sounds a bit odd – but nevertheless it happens!). It’s nothing new – we don’t believe we’ve reinvented games or anything – it’s just what happens when you apply sandbox principles to MMO design. Realtime Worlds are doing the same thing with APB, and I hope that this helps to encourage other publishers and developers to rethink MMOs.

We believe, rightly or wrongly, that the best business model for the provision of ‘sandbox MMOs’ is free-to-play, as it enables the greatest breadth of uptake. The dilemma is how to balance the different expectations and demands of the various people who might then be attracted to a game. If you have players who are time rich and cash poor, they will spend a lot of time in the game. Ninety per cent of our players may be playing completely for free (i.e. not purchasing any content) but they are improving the game for everybody else by enriching the content. The cash-rich, time-poor remainder will typically spend in order to augment their skills and capabilities. The key is to strike a balance so you do not alienate either segment.

There is also a perception that free-to-play can mean lower quality so expectations may also be reduced. However, the recession means that more players than ever are exploring free MMOs and realising just how high the quality can be. This migration from paid-for – which is likely to increase if the industry follows the example of Activision’s price rise for Modern Warfare 2 – also means the games are increasingly attractive targets for advertisers seeking new channels to promote their clients’ products and services.

In-game advertising and sponsorship are now major tools for any marketer worth their salt. People naturally expect ‘free’ means you have to ‘pay’ in some other way – they expect interruptive ads, requests for personal data or customer surveys. Understandably, many casual games have gone down this route. However, the advertising and sponsorship we use are exactly as they would be in real life: non-interruptive. Ads are where you’d expect them to be – on billboards, hoardings, video screens (again not really an option; and the same applies to sponsorship). All in all, it’s more likely to enhance your enjoyment than interfere with your game.

Football Superstars, the MMO we are developing with Cybersports, has benefited hugely from a collaboration with Puma after we successfully integrated the sportswear manufacturer’s ads and products into the game without any negative impact on player experience. The idea is not necessarily to create instant sales – although nobody is going to say “no” to that – but to engender brand loyalty by enabling a player to get better at the game if they purchase specific branded sports gear. ‘Puma boots help you play better.’ It’s the message Puma wants to convey in the real world; in Football Superstars they get to experience that benefit directly. Puma has strategic placements at key touch points in the game and a training facility was introduced at the start of the game to fully integrate the brand, as well as an exact replica of Puma's Carnaby Street store in London. So far, seven million virtual dollars have been spent on Puma items in Football Superstars. The in-game activity was due to run for six months, but has been renewed to last for a full year.

The relationship has already yielded some great results for Puma. Research from Harris Interactive showed intent to purchase its products increased nine per cent, while customers interested in buying v1.08 boots increased 76 per cent. Following the campaign, brand preference increased 63 per cent for Puma and 130 per cent for the boots. A total of 71 per cent of players agreed that in-game advertising improved their attitude towards Puma and 22 per cent of players said they were more likely to talk positively to others about Puma after seeing the advertising. In addition, 91 per cent of gamers recalled having seen Puma in-game.

These figures highlight why advertising in games is completely different to internet advertising and can be one of the most effective ways to promote a brand if the context is right: when players get to live the brand and enjoy product benefits virtually, interrupting that experience with a call to action can be inappropriate.

It’s important to the reputation of free-to-play games that there be no hidden costs (at least, not with the ones we make!). It is up to each person whether they want to buy special items to customise their characters, or purchase access to certain special features in the game - but if a player cannot enjoy a fully-fledged game without paying a penny then we have failed. Every additional player is enhancing the experience for everyone else – so people are actually helping us make the game better simply by playing it.

Paradoxically, free-to-play games can present a real sales challenge. Because players have not invested any time or money in getting them they do not begin with the same sense of attachment that they might have if they had travelled to a store and handed over money. We have to engender an enduring belief in the quality of the product and a sense of emotional engagement and personal investment as quickly as possible to attract and retain players – and we know that we have to keep improving in this area to fulfil the potential of our titles.

In this respect, it is essential to build up a community to generate buzz around a game so that publishers can have some idea of how popular it might be. Testing the game is crucial. For the last three months, we have been letting in a new ‘Ranger’ (an active community member) every week to try out our latest development, Hunter’s World. We are still 12 to 18 months from launch but already the feedback has been invaluable. All sorts of debates have begun in chat rooms and forums whether it be on the ethics of a game based on hunting, the penalisation of players’ avatars for not wearing orange safety jackets, or the mechanics of registering a "kill". A real sense of anticipation has been generated around how the finished product will look and play.

In the public eye, MMOs are still inextricably linked with science fiction or fantasy, but I’m confident we will see this link erode over the next couple of years. We are all about MMOs that are realistic, fun and engage with the real world - and make the player think about social interactions both in and out of the gaming context.

Global economic dynamics do not change whether a free-to-play MMO is going to be successful. Ultimately, if a game is a good enough it should work no matter what, and the converse also applies. However, this is a good time to re-evaluate the perception of MMO development as ‘betting the farm’: with a different design approach and the introduction of advertiser-friendly contexts, the risk vs reward trade-off begins to look much healthier. Who knows, the recession might just be the spur for massively multiplayer games to take a new direction.

Paul Mayze is chief operating officer of Monumental Games.

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