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E3 Workshop: MMO Experts Take Genre Out of Stagnation

"Beyond Risk: A Modern Approach to MMORPG Development," a workshop held on the Tuesday prior to E3 2006, brought together representatives from NCSoft, Multiverse, and veteran freelancer Jessica Mulligan to ask fascinating questions on online worlds.
"Beyond Risk: A Modern Approach to MMORPG Development," a workshop held on the Tuesday prior to E3 2006, brought together John Lee, Managing Director of Global Publishing at NCsoft, Jessica Mulligan, Author/Consultant and self-described "delicate flower of the online world," and Bill Turpin, Co-founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Multiverse Network, Inc in a Q&A session concerning the likely future of MMORPGs. The first question asked was concerning real world economics that have begun appearing in certain online games, as well as the future of in-game ads. Jessica Mulligan began by pointing out that real world economics and MMORPGs are not strangers and that "someone sold a character in Gemstone 2 for about two thousand dollars back in 1987. So it's been going on for a long time. But because the industry is larger now, it's just become more visible." John Lee followed that real life economics are "big in Asia because the time spent playing is seen as an actual investment. People are making a living off these games, and that's where you see game addicts...who aren't really game addicts but are just trying to make money. But I don't see one to one money transactions happening anytime soon." Bill Turpin continued with "You see gold farming going on, and that's seen as destructive to the games. But in the future I see a secondary economy happening in MMO's. Like in Second Life, people sell T-shirts and such in the game." Concerning in-game advertising, Jessica Mulligan said "It depends on the game. Like, what ad would you put in World of Warcraft? Kentucky Fried Chicken?" Mr. Turpin was a little more in-depth: "Right now in North America, the majority of MMO games are subscription based. But we'll start seeing more business models, like item-selling based games, or having a choice with playing the game with ads and free or a subscription with no ads. It can actually be a good thing." He then added "Nielson statistic shows that the critical male 18-40 year olds are showing a decline in prime time viewing. So advertisers are going to start going after games to reach them." The next question was concerning the lack of innovation in MMORPG design. As the questioner summed it up, "They all have elves!" Jessica Mulligan began with "Building an MMO is incredibly expensive. So developers go for the tried and true. You spend 20 million on a game, and you make another, what I call, 'men in tights' game." John Lee was more optimistic. "In North America there is a stagnation, but in Asia there is a lot of experimentation," he said. "And in Korea especially there's a large independent developer scene. They're willing to take risks, so Asia is really where to look for innovation... I think what's really needed in this industry is like a graphic development tool for prototyping. Instead of making decisions based on a two page word document, you'd have an actually tech and design demo." Bill Turpin concluded that "It's like a Hollywood blockbuster, you gotta have cars blow up. What needs to change is the economics so that you can take risks. Things like Friendster and Myspace were started on a shoestring which is why [our company is] trying to make our tools free, so that people can experiment... You are aiming for a lot of players and for that you need large environments. So a lot of budget goes to art and building. So where innovation comes in might be user generated environments or something that doesn't require a giant art team." This inspired Jessica Mulligan to bring up Sturgeon's law, which reads, "90% of everything is crap. So a lot of middleware made games will be crap, or at the most mediocre, but those ten percent can be great and might get picked up by a publisher. It's about throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks." Someone then asked if there was a future in MMO games built as a single player experience/online hybrid. Mr. Turpin commented that "Blending a revenue model of the MMO with the single player gameplay is something I've heard from a lot of developers. More people are interested in doing that." John Lee pointed out that "Funcom is doing Conan, which is an MMO that starts as single player game then grows into an MMO after you complete the main mission." Pointing out why there may have been some hesitation in that game, he said, "I guess one of the problems is you need to keep the content server side, because putting it client side is just asking for all sorts of trouble." A quick answer came from John Lee regarding the eternal question of content vs. technology and where the balance of focus should be, "That's really decided by the developer. The tech and content is usually created at the same time so that they don't realize their engine can't handle their design aspirations. Guild Wars is a game where they didn't make content until about fourteen months into development. So they knew what their engine could do." One of the more sticky areas of MMORPGs is the wonderful new world of potential lawsuits. When a questioner brought this up, Jessica Mulligan coyly asked John Lee "Has NCsoft ever been sued for online content?" To which Mr. Lee replied, with a small grin on his face, "Next Question." Speaking more seriously, Jessica Mulligan said "A big problem with lawsuits in with global audience is that different jurisdictions have different ways of interpreting things. In China a company was forced to pay reparations to a player for the death of his online character. So it's just hard to predict." Following closely to the last question was one concerning the role of government regulation in regards to MMORPGS. Mulligan said that "The ESA is our lobbying group basically. They file a lot of 'Friend of the court' briefs. And with the past few years and the increased focus on violence and sex in videogames we realize that lobbying is going to be more important." Concerning the Asian perspective, John Lee added that "In Asia the government is very important. So you have to be very open with the governments. The smartest companies have an entire staff dedicated to working with whatever government they're assigned to." Next they covered cheating, and what might happen with it in the future. "One of the things you want to make sure of is that you can provide a secure experience." Jessica Mulligan then clarified that a lot of online cheating is "really just players trusting other players and opening files that they're sent. So usually it's not a tech problem but a people problem." Once again discussing his company's project, Mr. Turpin added that "One of the things we also are working in our middleware is to provide a security system. You usually would actually hire security experts to figure out all this out but we're including it in our base platform." The workshop concluded with a focus on the issues of the player community and keeping games fresh through backstory and history. "Backstory is huge," said Lee. "Games that aren't PVP focused really need a history and backstory to keep people interested. You shouldn't just dump people on the east continent and other people on the west continent and have them fight over what's in the middle. You want to give them a reason or motivation usually." Bill Turpin finished up by saying, "User generated content is going to be really important. Myspace and the like have really shown the interest in that. Whether you want to consider Second Life a game or not, it shows a lot of interest in that area." [Chris Woodard is a freelance writer. He is also a pleasant conversationalist.]

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