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Funcom's Vision for the Future of MMOs

Craig Morrison, creative director for Funcom's Montreal studio, tells Gamasutra all about his vision of how the MMO industry must change things if it hopes to avoid more games like The Secret World and The Old Republic -- titles which couldn't live up to players' expectations for scope or their budget.

This year, Funcom's big MMO launch, The Secret World, went bust. While the beta was a hit, players didn't flock to the title after it got middling reviews from critics; it also came out amidst a market flooded with high profile titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2.

"It's very hard for a new IP to stand out in a landscape of sequels and big-name franchises," post-launch game director Joel Bylos told Gamasutra earlier this year. Project lead Ragnar Tornquist said, "Being different can sometimes be a big disadvantage, particularly when the threshold for losing patience with a game is low."

Craig Morrison, creative director for Funcom's Montreal studio, is facing a very different market for the genre than he was used to. He'd like to see the walls between sub-genres get smashed down, and he'd love to see games launch small and build up, rather than launch big and be perceived as instant failures.

It's a bit disappointing, because everyone was excited to say, "Oh look, it's not in that tiny little wheelhouse of what MMOs are." It becomes "Look, someone stepped out of that line and they got punished for it."

Craig Morrison: Yeah, and we need to try and move beyond that. It's looking to the future and seeing [that] we have to find ways to utilize the potential of the genre that isn't just into this very narrow theme park or sandbox-type mentality, where you want to pre-define things before they're done.

I'd love to get rid of those phrases; I hate the terms "theme park" and "sandbox". To me, the beauty of these virtual worlds is they're community-based and that they can be actual virtual worlds, where players can tell their own stories alongside storytelling from the developers, and that they can merge into one. "Convergence rather than divergence", I think, is the [way], if you want to put it down into one phrase, because there's so much potential for the genre.

The EVE/WoW dichotomy doesn't have to exist.

CM: Yeah! We don't have to look at it in that way, and I think there's so many interesting ways where we can take the best parts of both and bring them together when we're making these games in the future, because we have to get there. Otherwise, the only people who are able to launch games on that scale will be a tiny, tiny handful of developers, and even they're going to be afraid.

You know, you look at the results for The Old Republic and you see a game massively invested in. I don't know their budgets, but I'm guessing something five or tenfold what we've spent on Secret World, at a conservative guess -- where they can retain a million subscriptions and that's a failure. That's a very harsh situation to be in for a genre.

We need to find ways where we can build these worlds. People tend to forget that EVE Online started with 10,000 customers and held that for the first few years, and then it grew organically to where it's now up to 400,000 accounts. And we have to have the space to allow those games to develop like that, because they build better games.

An MMO at the three-year point is a far better game than the MMO that released. And I think we have to find a way as an industry -- and specifically as people working in this genre -- to let that flourish, because that's how we'll build better virtual world games in the next five, 10, 15 years.

It's taking that approach to it, rather than this huge bet that we're going to spend 300 million dollars in the hope of making 2 billion from having a huge mass market, instant hit. When I think the true potential of the genre is in that more slow-boiling, building game that might build up and up and organically build a community.


The Secret World

Well, that's the thing. This is awfully oversimplified, but the failure of a lot of the games to retain their audience is because people play through the content and they reach the end of the content, and then they move on because the content peters out.

CM: Yep.

If you look at EVE...

CM: It's system-driven.

Exactly.

CM: And that's exactly the key. You need to build an ecosystem. You need to build a collaborative set of systems which give the players the ability to tell their own stories alongside yours. And I think a lot of the problem in the genre is people want to make it a partisan discussion. It's like your game's either story-based or your game's sandbox, and to me that's doing ourselves a huge disservice. Because we can take the elements that are really good in a theme park setting, and maybe the strong storytelling can still play a part in a sandbox setting. It's just a different part.

And then the question is how do you do that? How do you bring it in so that your story can sit alongside the player's? And then build the systems up that allow the players to express themselves and be part of the system. That's the beauty of a game like EVE, is that the players are kind of this organic wheel in the middle of all the systems that the designers have made.

And that's really where I'd love to see the genre go, is taking all the best bits. So you can have a quest-driven game, but it doesn't have to be linear progression. I think games like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2, to an extent, were kind of pulling at the edges of that, to see if we can bring it back to being more virtual world-y rather than a single player game where there happens to be other people doing the same thing as you at the same time. But I don't think anyone's quite there yet.


Well, that brings me to my next question. If you create a game that has a certain kind of play progression, is the solution to try to switch gears on people? Like, "Oh! You've been enjoying your theme park, but now it turns into a systems-based game." It's not going to fly.

CM: [laughs] That's not going to work at all, because you need to set the expectations at the beginning. It's like once you've got someone... once a user base is used to this happening, if you keep the wrong parts of that, you're going to be hitting the wrong motivators in the player base. So you have to make sure that you're -- from the very beginning -- building it to be open, and to have these open systems that the players can feed into.

Because you're right -- if you get a certain way through and then you're kind of, "Here's this big open world", any abrupt change in focus really can separate your player base and they don't want to stick around.

And that's the problem that a lot of these games face now. You build up progression and you get to the endgame and it's only raiding, or it's only PVP, which is completely different to what they've done to get there. And then, "I don't like that type of gameplay! Oh well, it's time for me to go. It's time for me to not play that game."

So I really think that designers have to take a more ground-up and organic approach to making sure that your systems are building on that from the very beginning. And like I said, I don't think anyone's there yet; it's the next step that I'd love to see the genre take.

This is about the future of the genre and kind of where we can take it, and asking those difficult questions that maybe our marketing guys wouldn't necessarily jump at the fact that we're asking. But they're important that we ask them as developers, because we have to figure out how we can leverage all the great potential that these online communities have. Because there's something very different to single player games. When you've got that community around a game, the potential for utilizing that is so massive, and we're doing ourselves a disservice if we're not looking for that in the future.

Speaking of the community question, I read a blog post a few years ago that really stuck with me that made this point. I think that the EVE developers would put this differently, but they have the same philosophy -- especially after their disasters with their in-game purchases. It's "building the game for the audience you have, not the audience you want."

CM: Yeah, exactly.

That's an important philosophy, and that ties into what you're saying about building expectations as well. Do you think that's the path forward? Looking at the audience you have, and then making decisions about the direction?

CM: Yeah, for sure. And again, that's why it would be so much better for developers if we were able to start small. And I think that's a lot of the pressure -- the pressure from sales, and the pressure from the industry as well, and the users.

It's not just an insular problem; a lot of the hype is actually generated by the players. They want you to start huge, and if you don't sell a million copies it's suddenly, "Oh, you're a failure. I don't care about that game anymore."

And I think we need to get people out of that mindset, so that a game can start at like 100,000, or an indie game could start at 10,000. Because a studio game is going to want to have a decent place to start with, and wherever that level may be. But that a game can start, as long as it's cost effective, as long as you budgeted your project to be in that ballpark and you know from the beginning, "Okay, we've set our budget, we're aiming for 100,000 at the start."

And then we need the gamers to not react with, "Oh, well. That's a worthless game then, because it's not going to have a million users." We need the users to be, "Oh cool, this game appeals to me in my niche and my interests, and I want to see this game succeed, so I'm going to support it."

And then if the game takes off and grows, then you can get that kind of organic growth. I think you saw it outside of the MMO genre, with games like League of Legends. They started with that same kind of smaller user base, build it up, continue to invest, tweak it based on the feedback from the users they get, and they didn't try and change what they were to appeal to a broader market. They kept the core of what their game was, and kept building on it and kept tweaking it and poking it based on the feedback, and I think that that gives developers an invaluable opportunity to build their game.

This whole idea that you can expect -- even with a triple-A budget -- an MMO to launch and compete with a game that's been out for seven years, you just have to think about that for a minute. It's ever so slightly ludicrous.

Hasn't the very existence of WoW permanently altered the landscape?

CM: Yeah, for sure.

If you look at what the problem with Star Wars is, and of course it's very easy to sit here and be like an armchair analyst, but it's like, ultimately, "We're going to try to compete with an eight year old game on the same basis."

CM: Yeah, and that's the challenge. In a perfect world, I'd love it where you didn't have to. You could launch and have your users build it up, and then maybe you really start to market the game in year three or year four. You keep your advertising budgets within scope, let's say your revenue, and you allocate a portion of your revenue to advertise.

And then at a certain point once you know that you've tweaked the product and refined your entry funnel, and where people are coming in, and what they're liking about the game, then you can go out and push. But in the current market, that's kind of too late. If you start to market a game a year after it has launched, that's kind of "Well, that's not right -- that's weird."


You definitely see the free-to-play games, people identify which games are going to be hits, and they just kill the ones that aren't, and emphasize the ones that are. But the studio scale that you're talking about, it wouldn't be feasible to do it, just because you're committing to these much larger projects.

CM: Yeah. I think it depends on your budget. You know, yes, on The Old Republic scale, if you're spending 300 million dollars on a game, I'm pretty sure your shareholders want a return that isn't maybe "In two years' time they'll get some return." They want an instant return, and that's completely understandable. And that's what I meant earlier about...

Maybe you can grow from smaller to bigger?

CM: Yeah, maybe depending on the company and the project and the team, that there should be a space for them, for smaller teams to start and be able to do it, and not over stretch at the beginning.

Do you think that's feasible, though, within the structure of a company like Funcom?

CM: For sure! I honestly do. I think for those of us who've done this and launched games before we have one huge advantage in that we have our technology. So we have the DreamWorld technology, for example, and Turbine have theirs -- okay, they're part of Warner Brothers now, and we're one of the last, I guess, independent MMO studios.

But everyone has their tech, and that means that if we come to take our next game to market, we probably have technology that's worth -- on a project level -- 10, 15, 20 million dollars, and five years of development that we don't have to do because it's done. We have the engine.

So say when we go to make the next game we can probably say, we could make a great systems-driven MMO for 10 or 15 million dollars. Which by the standards of Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, The Old Republic, is a very small budget, but we could bring it to market in three years with that kind of budget and hopefully have a chance of them growing organically from there.

And we haven't got the huge expectation of, "Oh my god, you spent 50, 100, 200 million dollars on this game, and it has to succeed." You know, it has to sell a million copies, and it has to retain half a million subscribers, or whatever the break even calculation is that the business has done, because they'll want their return in a year, or 18 months, or whatever it happens to be.

So I really do think that a company like ours could take that approach and be able to leverage that technology we've already developed. I think if someone was doing it from scratch, I would say they are very brave, because we know from experience -- and I think if you speak to any of the other developers -- the biggest pitfall is your technology. The servers, the infrastructure, the support, the billing, the account management, everything that goes into it; you can make a great game but if you don't also make all of these supporting systems it's very hard to succeed.

Do you think that live updating games is going to be more important than building big games and launching them? Obviously live updating games is very important, but I mean increasingly so.

CM: I hope so, actually, because I think that those kinds of live updates and doing smaller content pushes more often is a great way to connect to your audience, and to have the players be able to see immediacy of development based on their feedback, or based on what they do in the game.

Because I think a lot of the time traditionally up to now, we still kind of follow the old box model in some ways. Even though it's digital these days, and the distribution is easy, most of the MMO titles still follow that, "release the game, do an expansion," and we'll have some free content in between.

And EVE is really the only one that's constantly done updates, but even then they're like one or two a year. It's like a big push -- this is Inferno, and it comes out and then that's it for the year, or nine months. Personally I much prefer to kind of maybe do something every month. I think every game goes through it right at the beginning -- you're kind of pushing out updates all the time when you launch. But I think actually having -- you know, it's not a new thing.

It's important to remember Asheron's Call. Going back 10 years, it did that successfully. It had an update every month and it was expected. It wasn't just, "Well, maybe they'll have one this month," it was, "It's the end of the month -- where's the update?" And they missed a couple now and again, but that was very rare. They had a content update every month, where they progressed the story and had new stuff for the players to do, brought in new systems, and that was an addition to doing their occasional expansions and having big content pushes.

So it's not a new idea -- it's been done successfully before. It's just, to me, it's something that's very appealing, because it allows us to be much more reactive to the player base and be able to give them more content. It's something we're actually trying to push to move to -- Age of Conan is moving to that model. We do summer surveys of our players every year, and that was one of the big recurring themes through all the feedback from the players this year was, "We love the game, but we'd love to see updates more often." You know, "We appreciate that you put a lot of work into the ones we get, when we get them, but I'd love to see more. We'd love to see it more often." And it's not necessarily more content, but just more often.

And then I think if we can achieve that in this age of immediacy, it resonates much more strongly with people. They're getting used to it in a way, I guess -- the social media and the number of different ways people relate to their gaming now, it's kind of, nine months is an eternity. I've played that game, left it, and forgotten about it in a nine-month scale, which is very different to how things were five, 10 years ago. Now I think you probably have to remain important and in the mind of your users all the time, and not have too many big breaks between content updates.

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