Archive for the ‘Production’ Category

50 things I never need to hear at another conference

  1. Korea is the future. They are five years ahead of us and where Korea goes, the rest of the world will follow.  (I have been hearing this for at least five years. )
  2. Free to play with micro transactions is the one true business model.
  3. Client downloads are death.
  4. We must look beyond the core gamer audience and embrace more casual players.
  5. Women are 50% of the audience.
  6. Don’t trust the client, it is in the hands of the enemy.
  7. You game is a service.
  8. MMOs are hard. No, they’re really really hard. Seriously. You can’t possibly imagine how hard they are.
  9. Runescape is the second biggest MMO and is the one you should really watch.
  10. Club Penguin is huge and is the one you should really watch.
  11. Lineage is huge in Asia and is the one you should really watch. (These days it’s actually more likely to be ZT Online or some other game in China.)
  12. Flash is the best platform to build your MMO on.
  13. Web games are cheesy and no core gamer will ever play them.
  14. Rudy’s has the best BBQ in Austin.  No, County Line is better.  Are you kidding me?  It’s obviously The Salt Lick.
  15. The game industry is bigger than Hollywood.
  16. Triple-A MMOs are a dead end. WoW is impossible to compete with.
  17. Game X is going to take the top spot from WoW.
  18. Games cost so much to make now that the industry is about to collapse under its own weight.
  19. MMOs are just like MUDs and you should all learn the lessons MUDs learned X years ago.  (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve actually heard this one in a few years.)
  20. All of these things happened in UO. Why won’t you people learn from UO?
  21. The community around your game is incredibly important and you should take care of them.
  22. Your players have no idea what they want. Don’t believe anything they say.
  23. Forums are very important.
  24. Don’t believe anything you read on forums.
  25. Launch is just the beginning. The real work comes after launch.
  26. Metrics, metrics, metrics.  Record everything!
  27. Don’t record too much with your metrics. Too much data is just as useless as too little data.
  28. Some people spend CRAZY amounts of money via micro-transactions
  29. MMOs on consoles are the Next Big Thing.
  30. Casual games are going to save the PC market
  31. MMOs are going to save the PC market
  32. My background in economics tells me…
  33. WoW is a wonderful thing for the industry because of the way they expanded the market.
  34. WoW has set expectations so high that you can’t make an MMO for less than X million dollars. (Where X>=30)
  35. Person X is a jerk. Let me tell you this funny story about…
  36. Company Y is so clueless that they will never put out a successful game
  37. Fantasy is where it’s at! MMOs just don’t work as well in other genres.
  38. Fantasy has been done. Players want us to move on to other genres.
  39. There’s so much money to be made in Asia! Just make sure you internationalize your game first.
  40. Gamers in Asia demand click to move so they can smoke while they play.
  41. Players are going to trade stuff for real money no matter what you do. You might as well embrace it.
  42. RMT causes huge amounts of fraud.
  43. Gold spam is impossible to stop.
  44. Our startup is the next big thing in MMOs.  Just look at this giant pile of money we raised!
  45. Game development is all about iteration. Waterfall doesn’t work.
  46. There’s this guy named Richard Bartle who proposed dividing players into four types…
  47. You can’t use scripting languages in games. They’re way too slow.
  48. Writing all your code in C++ is stupid.
  49. Launch early, launch often.
  50. You only get to launch once.
This year it was obvious to me that I’ve hit the Austin GDC level cap. Fortunately that means I have moved on to the conference elder game and learn far more interesting things speaking and engaging in deep hallway conversations.
What about you?  What things are you sick of hearing in conference presentations?

Where does the money go?

Everybody knows that building an MMO involves a lot of people, takes a lot of time,  and costs a lot of money. Fewer people know how much money, how many people, and what all those people are doing for all that time.  I thought I would share a bit of my experience on Pirates and give you some idea what those big MMO budgets are spent on.  All of the data behind this post is up on Zoho Sheet; feel free to do whatever you want with it. (Also, Zoho is much cooler than the Google Docs spreadsheet.)

There are a few things I should mention up front: These are not the numbers from Pirates.  We had a gradual ramp up of people and project scope over the course of five years and that’s definitely not the right way to do it. I also rearranged people to compensate for some of the staffing shortages we had on Pirates.

This “budget” also doesn’t include anything but people’s salaries. Most costs scale up with staff, including desktop hardware, office space, software, office server capacity, taxes, benefits, etc. You would need to add 40-50% to the dollar figures to take that into account.  I mostly care about the percentages, so I didn’t bother trying to include any of those items. The budget also doesn’t include any server, hosting, or bandwidth costs. Those can be pretty significant in the beta and live phases.

Most of the salaries were drawn from the 2007 Game Developer magazine salary survey. Those are:

Programmer $83,383
Artist $66,594
Designer $63,649
Producer $78,716
Tester $39,062

There were three functions I didn’t have any salary surveys to draw from, so I just made up some numbers. I assumed Community people make about the same as Designers and that Operations people make about the same as Programmers. I put Customer Service people down at $30k on average, which is much more than front-line CSRs and forum moderators, but less than supervisors and managers.

Community $63,649
Customer Service $30,000
Operations $83,383

I broke the project down into four phases: Pre-production, Production, Beta, and Post-Launch. Pre-production is a period where tools are being built and the game is being designed, but work has not yet started on much (if any) final content. Production is the Big Expensive Part when tons of content people crank out all the final assets for the entire game. Beta is the period at the end of production where your game is exposed to external players in a significant way, and includes closed and open beta. Post-Launch is obviously the period after the game has launched.I also divided the effort into three major areas: World, Systems, and Infrastructure. World is the construction of the game world, quests, dungeons, etc.  Systems is the development of character classes or skills, character customization assets, UI, and game systems.  Infrastructure is the less-glamorous stuff behind the scenes like core server code, operations tools, scheduling, and IT. I broke it down this way for the benefit of a future post that currently exists only in my head.


The purpose of the pre-production phase is to figure out the answers to a bunch of questions before the team grows to its full size and things get really expensive. There is an emphasis on programmers and system designers in this phase, because they have the most questions to answer. As expected, the programmers take up the biggest chunk in pre-production. They are both numerous and expensive. System development is also a big focus in Pre-production.

Main title - http://sheet.zoho.comPre-production by Function -


This is where most of the money on the project will be spent, and most of that is spend on building the world:

Production by Area -
Production by Function -

During the beta phase other significant costs (such as operations and customer service) start to come in, but the content team is still going full bore on building out and bug fixing the world, so it doesn’t affect the numbers too much.

Beta by Area -
Beta by Function -


The Post-Launch phase of the project is represented in this graph primarily because it takes a while to get money out of your players and through the various intermediaries involved, and into your bank account.  Even if you have 100k players on launch day you won’t see revenue from those players for a while.  If the game isn’t at least self-sufficient beyond that, then you’re in trouble.  The Live phase has a smaller number of world artists since you are not building the main world anymore at this point. Depending on the (paid or unpaid) expansion pack strategy of the game, this will vary.

Live by Area -
Live by Function -


Here are some graphs to break down the total amounts spent. See how world is the biggest chunk?  That’s why everyone is talking about user-generated content.

Totals by Area -
Totals by Function -
Totals by Phase -

How closely to these numbers reflect the budgets on MMOs you’ve seen? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Pirates Post-partum at ION

At ION I gave a talk on our development process for Pirates. Darius Kazemi has posted a transcript of the talk. It’s also up at the Vault Network. I wonder how much buzz it’s going to get.

I’m giving the same talk at AGDC this year, so if you missed me at ION you can catch it there.

Getting Feedback

Andy Brice recently posted on getting feedback from software customers. With Pirates, our options are similar but somewhat tweaked.

We host our own forums for our user community to hang out on. On most MMOs about 10% of the player base actually uses these, and they self-select into a very hard-core and usually unhappy group. We can use the forums to find out what they’re unhappy about, but they probably don’t represent the actual player base very well. Still, listening to this segment of our community is important.

Click-cancel surveys are another common option. When someone goes to your site to cancel their subscription you ask them why they’ve canceled. SOE isn’t currently set up to run these, so we don’t have that data available, but many games do this kind of survey. This information is useful for finding exit points for players so you can eliminate them.

Recently I’ve started doing something a little different. I show up in game with no warning whatsoever and announce that I’m running an impromptu devchat. I offer to teleport any players who want to attend to an out of the way spot and then spend an hour or so answering their questions. I’ve run four of these so far (with one of our designers helping out on all but one of them.)

The biggest difference between what I hear in these impromptu devchats and what I read on the forums is the tone.  The forums are all about this OMG important issue or that OMG important issue.  The devchats have all been players asking about various new stuff that we might add to the game. (The answer is almost always “That’s a great idea that we want to implement, but we don’t know when we’ll get to it.”)  I think to get more feedback from players I’ll need to actually ask them some questions.

Maybe I’ll have to try that in the next one…

From Beta to Live

The other day I was on a conference call with SOE and said something like, “That build will go to testbed on Monday and to beta a week later.” Since we are going live tomorrow, they were confused by my calling anything “beta”.  I meant “live” of course, but we’ve been in closed beta for two years and just finished a month of open beta. Old habits die hard.

It did get me thinking about the difference between the two and the big change we’re going through when our first paying customers log into the game. The shift in vocabulary is really the least important change that launch day will bring. The biggest change is that we shift from doing players a favor by letting them play to them doing us a favor by being our customers.

When you’re in closed beta you have a huge pile of applicants begging for a small number of beta slots. They have to play by your rules or you will kick them out, and those rules are pretty draconian.  They can’t let anyone know they’ve been accepted to beta. They can only play during select hours. Their characters could be wiped at any time. They work for you.

When horrible bugs or completely broken builds happen in beta, people are upset, but they understand that such things are what they signed up for. The people who rant about stability problems in the beta forum are invariably attacked by other testers with cries of “It’s a beta!” These “beta-cops” have much more tolerance for downtime than the developers do, and often need to be reined in.  Extending downtime to debug a serious server problem is a frequent occurrence in beta. Beta downtime is often unpredictable and usually not announced more than a few hours in advance. You also tend to push the limits of your systems to see where they break, even though the breakage means hardship for players.

All of that changes when you go live. Once your game is live, yours is just one of many ways your customers can spend their time and money. You are lucky they picked you, and if you want to keep them, you will treat them well. You can’t tell them what they can say or when they can play. You can’t ever delete (or lose) any of their data without serious repercussions.  You work for them, and can’t ever forget it.

Your game must be up as much as it possibly can be. If another half hour of downtime will let you diagnose a problem that will take two days to figure out otherwise, tough.  (Obviously exceptions can be made if the half hour of debugging will save you a hour of downtime down the road.) Planned outages have to be announced at least a day, and preferably a week, in advance. Major changes can’t be on the test server for a few days, they need two or more weeks. Nobody gets check-in permission on the closest-to-live branch(es) unless multiple high-ranking staff members have signed off on the change.

Some things don’t change when you go live. Communicating honestly and frequently with your community remains essential. In fact, communicating with the community gets much more interesting after your NDA drops. They start to have an idea what they’re talking about when they can see what game you actually made. Of course keeping them involved in your decision making process is just as important in beta as in live, the audience just gets larger because the whole world can see the discussion.

At least I think that’s how it will go. I’m still 14 hours from launching my first MMO. Maybe those of you who have done this before can tell me how far off I am. :)