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[While most MMOs concentrate on developing linear content, EVE Online follows a systems-based design which allows for sandbox gameplay and player agency -- and this article, from EVE expert player/spymaster 'The Mittani', outlines why he believes its subscriber base continues to rise.]
The MMO industry has changed dramatically from its infancy in the Ultima Online era. With the accelerating proliferation of MMO gaming into the mainstream of the global entertainment industry, the revenue expectations from these exceedingly complex titles has spiraled out of control. It is no longer enough to pitch a MMO with the end goal of merely turning a profit; comparisons with titles that have the GDPs of small nation-states are inevitable.
After I gave my talk at GDC discussing EVE Online's metagame, I encountered a number of developers who were disheartened by the dominance of the blockbuster business model -- its incredible cost, its astonishing risk and rate of failure, and the linear content-based gameplay it has engendered.
Yet there is another model of MMO development, and one that's already proven successful in the industry. Both less risky and less glamorous, the "Icelandic Model" of MMO development offers salvation to aspiring developers who don't have $75 million in startup capital at hand.
Launching a MMO isn't an easy business. The vast majority of subscription-model MMOs fail, with the signature "death spike" of a surge of players at launch and reciprocal mass exodus once the first free month of playtime ends, followed by a humiliating and slowly declining subscriber plateau.
Corporate resources are re-allocated away from the ailing title, and eventually the plug is pulled on the servers. As the market has become increasingly competitive, the life cycle of MMOs has grown ever shorter.
The ultimate question of survival for a MMO is exceedingly simple: what makes the gameplay a continuous experience for the player, rather than a linear path with an endpoint? A vast oversimplification, some might say, yet it is precisely this question which is too often put off or ignored in the preparation of a title for launch.
A game with a certain amount of content and a linear path leaves a player with nothing else to do once the end of the path is reached except re-treading it with a new character. By contrast, a game which has planned for and emphasized the endgame from the outset ensures that its players have a motive to stick around after the first free month.
As more companies attempt to emulate the success of World of Warcraft, "big content" as a design model has come to reign supreme. The idea here is essentially that other MMO launches have failed because they didn't provide enough content for the players. BioWare's upcoming The Old Republic project is an excellent example of this; they have boasted of having created thousands of hours of fully voice-acted plot.
This is certainly one way around the problem of players "running out of game" inside of the first month; however, it requires a tremendous amount of capital and pre-launch investment. I intend to play TOR and expect to enjoy the hell out of it, but most aspiring developers simply do not have the money to follow BioWare's lead.
MMO launches have often skimped on content at launch to their detriment. It isn't a shock that this happens because content (be it in the form of quests, raids, dungeons, or whatever) is extraordinarily expensive in both man-hours and creative spark. Boring content is often just as expensive as engaging content, which requires the kind of narrative genius that can't be easily recreated.
Stopgap methods for plugging content holes, such as randomly generated quests, have been attempted but these have proven a failure; the most common complaint of players in such games is that the random content ends up being repetitive and stale.
If you are attempting to create a blockbuster MMO, your greatest difficulty is creating enough engaging content, and your worst nightmare is the endgame when that content runs out.