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Postcard from GDC 2005: How Can MMOs Develop Mass Appeal in the US?

Rich Vogel of Sony Online Entertainment looks at the barrier between massively multiplayer games and mass market audiences in the U.S. and reaches a number of realizations.

Rich Vogel

Rich Vogel, Vice President of Product Development at Sony Online Entertainment, began his lecture by reflecting on the ever-changing world of MMOs. As of October 2004, Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy XI, Dark Age of Camelot, and Ultima Online, in roughly that order, were the big players in the MMO market. Once World of Warcraft launched, however, every other MMO game had subscriber numbers below 300,000 while World of Warcraft grabbed over 800,000 subscribers. Earlier entrances of new MMOs into the market would result in minimal fluctuations in subscriber numbers. With Blizzard's entrance, the market saw the first decline in every other MMO's numbers.

For Vogel, this creates a number of realizations. First, the MMO market in America is not as big as they once thought. Second, established communities within individual MMOs are portable between games. Lastly, people will move on to the next significantly big and shiny thing, which is exactly what World of Warcraft is.

Despite the impressive way that Blizzard stormed onto the market, their numbers don't compare to other best-sellers. World of Warcraft's 800,000 paying subscribers don't compare to the 42 million of The Sims series of games or even the 4 million of a hardcore best selling game like Half-Life 2.

Vogel moved into an analysis of the components that make up today's generation of MMOs. He quickly reviewed such pieces as: character customization, combat systems, advancement systems, crafting, and socialization. "Why can't we hit the 100 million mark?" It's largely because of developers' attachment to the system we have in place, Vogel argues. Things like excess complexity, inadequate social mechanisms, singular focus on killing as game advancement, and the dreaded treadmill (where MMO activities get reduced to a repetitive grind.

In order to reach one million subscribers and beyond, developers must focus on these core issues which are currently ingrained in MMO culture and tradition. Vogel emphasized that future games must have both ease of entry and ease of use. Ease of use should come before even depth of gameplay. "It's much easier to make a deep game than an easy game."

Future games should also foster new relationships, especially in affording the creation of different social spaces and executing non-combative roles. Having multiple and memorable rites of passage are also key to future games. "There are people that want to [start their games over]; how do we turn that into ceremony or ritual?" Vogel also stressed the need for adventuring that was not limited by class or advancement. He cited City of Heroes's sidekick model as an excellent innovation that kept friends able to play together, regardless of game level.


Everquest 2

The next generation of MMOs must also adapt to a new audience with a new playing style. Playing cycles have dropped since MMOs first entered the video game market, from an average of 20 hours to 12 hours a week. The average life span of a subscriber is now 6 months instead of the 10 months of earlier MMO players. The glue for players, Vogel says, comes from developers building room for personal achievement, relationships, ownership, customization. The ability for a player to make his mark on the game world is a huge factor. Handling real estate was originally scoffed at in the original plan for Ultima Online, but it is now the number one activity in the game.

In the question and answer section, Vogel offered some external sources of inspiration for MMO design. "The people at Disney are geniuses at hiding lines," he said in reaction to clogged servers. "They're also masters of flow." In forming in-game events, he takes people from the theater world to play important roles. The entrance of Darth Vader into Star Wars Galaxies recently is a good example of how employees are able to pull off larger scale game events.

On the relationship between Everquest and Everquest 2, Vogel noted, "The whole idea is it's better to obsolete yourself than to have someone else do it… we want to keep Everquest alive [as long as we can]."

A final question on the Asian market prompted Vogel to exclaim, "There are things there that are absolutely incredible." Vogel then described a dance party that featured players dancing and others cheering or jeering the dancers. Fame points are then allocated to players based on performance. "There's a cultural thing in Korea. It's very PvP-centric… designers are taking a lot of risks [well into the game's lifecycle]."

"Game designers in Asia and Korea are gods," Vogel said. "Here, we're just regular people."

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