[Frank Cartwright, SVP of Product and Platform Development for GamersFirst, discusses what is absolutely essential in a developer / publisher relationship for an MMO.]
Who you choose to publish your massively multi-player online game is more important than who you choose to marry. Seriously.
No matter how awesome, how compelling, how unique your game is -- if your publisher fails, you fail. Here you will learn what to DEMAND from potential game publishers and as a result be the proud owner of a successful online game.
Your publisher is the lifeblood of your game. A publisher must ignite and engage your community, market your game, and acquire and service your players, so it's vital that they have experience and success doing these things in your key target markets.
A publisher who has experience publishing first-person shooters (FPS) is probably not the best fit for your casual, FarmVille-type game -- unless they can really prove to you they can make the transition.
Test your publisher to get the proof you need. Ask questions -- lots of them. Put your potential publisher in the hot seat and get them to show off their knowledge of player demographics and describe in detail the differences in player habits. Ask them to describe the difference between the habits of a casual gamer versus a FPS player.
Keep digging and find out how many male players they have been ages 16-24. What about female players? How many of their players play more than one of their games? How about two? How many paying players do they have? What's the average revenue per paying user? Experienced publishers eat, sleep and breathe this kind of data, so if your publisher stumbles, it's probably not a match made in heaven.
It's critical that you speak to your potential publisher's current developers. If they don't want you talking to them, run as fast as you can, as this is likely a sign of poor developer relations. A great publisher will encourage you to speak to their other developer partners and will have a clear understanding of how valuable this open line of communication is.
Also, get a feel for the amount of attention the publisher gives current developer partners. Are there daily meetings? Weekly? Monthly? A good publisher will set these expectations and ensure each developer has adequate time and attention. Ask them what to expect so you won't be surprised down the road.
Most experienced publishers realize that localization is much more than just translating text from one language to another. Translation, however, is still a key component. How many times have you come across a web page that had an obviously bad translation and laughed about how silly and unprofessional it appeared?
You don't want players to think this about your translated in-game content or game website. Demand that that your publisher provide samples of localized content and get them to commit to professional localization services.
Beyond translations, localization, more importantly, consists of local market expertise.
Does your publisher know local regulations and have government contacts? Although this is not as important in North America, in many countries this knowledge is vital to the success of your game. For example, the German government in particular is sensitive to video game violence. Imagine spending millions of dollars developing a game that you licensed for Germany only to have it banned for being too violent.
Turkey, for example, has strict limitations on the amount of content that internet users can download per month. Users who download beyond their monthly cap are charged a premium and as a result, gamers in Turkey are deterred from downloading large game clients.
Suddenly, your free-to-play game is costing the user money before they begin to play. If you approach your publisher with a 10GB client for the Turkish market, your publisher should know that a client of that size simply won't allow your game to get on as many computers as possible.
Finally, demand that your publisher accept local payment methods and take payments in the local currency. Don't let a publisher convince you that PayPal is sufficient. It's not.
Once again, quiz your publisher. Are they able to tell you the currency breakdown in Turkey, Brazil, and Germany? Are they able to tell you the top payment methods for each region? Do they know what method each region prefers? Do they know the pros and cons of each of them? Demand that they do.
Hacking, cheating and payment fraud are rampant throughout the MMO industry, so make sure your publisher has solid prevention methods in place. Don't let your publisher simply tell you they have these issues covered. Make them tell you in detail. Give them scenarios and have them explain until you're convinced their approach is sufficient. How exactly will they prevent cheating and hacking? Are there dedicated resources for these initiatives?
Issues like hacking and cheating affect your users' ability to play your game. Issues like these make gameplay less enjoyable, angers players, and sparks distrust among your community. If your community is upset and feels like stopping hacking and cheating is a low priority for you, they're not going to spend money on your game, and that ultimately means revenue bleeding away.
Payment fraud can be an MMO publisher's nightmare. It's sort of an MMO publisher badge of honor to be blacklisted by Visa card processing, so if your publisher has never dealt with large scale payment fraud, you should question whether or not they have truly operated a large-scale successful game.
If your publisher claims they have payment fraud under control, call their bluff. Get them to agree to pay you on the fraudulent transactions they don't catch. If they look at you like you're insane, they probably don't have the fraud prevention you're looking for.
As a developer, you can greatly help your publisher protect your game by sharing information about the way your game is coded. The last thing you want is someone getting their hands on your source code. However, it's in your best interest to share as much as you feel comfortable about how your game is coded in order to help protect it.
At a minimum, have potential publishers tell you some of the things that make your code vulnerable to hacking, cheating and fraud. If you can get to the point where you're completely comfortable with your publisher, you're better off letting them review your source code, since they will likely know what to look for based on the types of exploits that they know to exist.
Demand that potential publishers have a robust Customer Relationship Management system in place. Make sure your publisher is committed to providing excellent customer service to all players -- paying and free-to-play. Ask them how many Customer Support agents will be dedicated to your game and what type of training they have received. If your game will be licensed outside of North America, demand that localized support is provided.
Poor customer support will frustrate and outrage your player base and will only lead to players leaving your game. Dissatisfied players are likely to bad mouth your product and your game won't receive valuable positive viral exposure. Referrals are a key component to the success of a new MMO. Demand customer support excellence.
In addition to being able to support your game's players, make sure your publisher offers technical support for integration tasks and has a scalable, easy to integrate technology platform. Get to know the technology you'll be working with and spend a couple of days with their technology team asking questions.
Make sure integration won't be as tedious as the actual game development. After all, you want to focus your time and energy on developing your game, not hooking it up to a publisher. For example, if you can't set up login functionality, at their office, in less than 30 minutes, you should probably explore other publishers. Ask if their platform is Linux or Windows. Trust me. You need to ask this question.
Don't let a publisher tell you they have servers in France and that they are sufficient for lag-free gameplay in Italy. Map it out. Find out how many dedicated servers you'll get and what the bandwidth is.
You also have to understand the guts of their daily operation. Although daily operations may not affect you, it may affect your game's success. Remember, a publisher is essentially a software developer and one of the things they struggle with is development resources. Their ability to market and operate your game depends on either having enough software developers or the right systems and tools to manage themselves. These types of tools give producers the power to manage their game without relying on development resources.
It's also critical that your publisher show you the types of data and reports you'll receive as well when you will receive them. Make them put specifics in the contract and make sure what their offering makes sense and is helpful to you. Ask them what types of metrics they use and what their benchmark is for success.
When it comes to marketing, don't immediately go looking for a million dollar budget for your MMO. Instead, make sure your publisher is a fine-tuned online marketing machine.
Have them show you their email marketing tools. How do they use email to connect with new users and reconnect with older ones? How do they measure the success of these types of campaigns? How often do they reach out to users via email?
Next, have them explain and show you their sales funnel analysis. Test their knowledge about pay per click (PPC) advertising terms. Ask the price of the term MMO in North America versus Germany. North America should be around double, so if they get this wrong, they probably don't have much PPC advertising experience.
Ask them what kind of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy they have in place and how they plan on expanding it. How do they measure web traffic, and how do they use this data to improve user experience, make website improvements and engage top referrers?
Public Relations (PR) is also a vital marketing component, so be diligent in making sure a solid PR plan is in place. A competent publisher will be able to provide an overview of what typical PR activities look like for a developer over the course of a year. If your game will be published outside of North America, make sure your publisher knows the local PR channels and what drives them.
In addition to a strong PR channel, a successful publisher must have a healthy relationship with distribution partners; the AT&Ts, AOLs, and MSNs of your target regions. Ask your publisher how they plan to get your game client in the hands of users outside of digital download. In some markets physical distribution is key, and an experienced publisher will have a solid go-to distribution channel. They must understand how gamers in their target regions think, where and how to find them, what they like, and how to get the game to them.
Has your publisher heard of Facebook? Of course they have. The initial reaction to Social Network integration, because of the FarmVille craze, is to build a casual version of a client-side game. Having a Facebook game does not guarantee FarmVille revenue.
Don't make the mistake and fight for this type of social network integration. Instead, make sure your publisher has a solid plan to leverage social networks the same way they utilize other marketing channels such as email, web content and partnerships. Demand a dedicated fan page with daily activity and make sure they are going to use this tool as another way to engage the community.
If you've attended any game conferences in the last year, you're probably convinced that monetization is all about surveys and offer walls. This couldn't be further away from the truth. Offer walls are the exception, an added bonus to a publisher's monetization strategy.
Monetization is all about having a solid pricing strategy, along with events and promotions that will drive users to get in-game and spend money. Monetization and gameplay go hand-in-hand, because if your users are dissatisfied with their in-game experience, it's highly unlikely they're going to open up their wallets. Ensure your publisher has a strong monetization plan by asking about how they determine item and premium pricing.
It's also important that your publisher have a virtual currency or e-wallet that can be used across all of their games. This will give you instant access to players that have already paid and are deciding what they want to buy.
Lastly, make sure your publisher can tell you how much virtual currency they have in the economy and how much typically cycles through the economy.
Developing a game is no easy task and every developer wants to see their final product enjoyed by gamers around the world. Before you select a publisher to service and operate your game make sure you demand the experience, localization, protection, support, marketing and monetization needed to ensure your game in an undisputed success.