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E3 Workshop: Persistent Professionals in Persistent Worlds

In this fascinating E3 session, representatives from BioWare, Sony Online Entertainment, Perpetual Entertainment, Disney Online, Webzen and Turbine gathered to discuss the past, present, and the future of the MMO.
Around eighty Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) are in flight or production, according to panelists of "Persistent World Possibilities: Taking the online experience to the next level." The workshop was held on the morning of Wednesday, May 10, the kick-off day of E3, with representatives from BioWare, Sony Online Entertainment, Perpetual Entertainment, Disney Online, Webzen, Inc., and Turbine, Inc. World of Warcraft provided a central example throughout discussion. Rich Vogel, Co-Studio Director of BioWare in Austin, quickly pointed out that Blizzard spent a great deal of money to create WoW, and its success was a steep goal for other titles to reach. But Vogel referenced what he refers to as boutique games, such as Puzzle Pirates and Toontown Online, as accessible goal bars. John Blakely, Vice President of Development at Sony Online Entertainment, recommended scaling the goal appropriately, "It depends on your model and how much you put up front. Every month they [the players] stick around is huge." When Blakely added, "Your launch defines the curve that you'll live on for the rest of your product cycle," Vogel posed the question, "What do you do when your game isn't finished to launch?" If a business is trying to make a successful MMO, they either have to launch a game that is a sub-set of WoW or target a different demographic, argued Jeff Anderson, President and CEO of Turbine, Inc. Vogel agreed that WoW has raised the water level for MMO developers. WoW has brand value that is worldwide, which is not the case for most companies in PC games. To Vogel, brand value relates to quality, and usually a company has to make tough decisions where quality is cut. "Your velocity at launch dictates your cycle. I've never seen a turn-around or success out of a slow, slow build." Mike Goslin, Vice-President of Virtual Reality Studio at the Walt Disney Internet Group, argued that was only the case for games reliant on retail sales at launch. Building community and hype before launch is still important in either situation, panelists concluded, because mass is needed in these games to build and maintain momentum. Even with WoW's player base starting at 1 million and growing to 6.5 million, the market of MMOs is still considered niche. Products must sell 5-10 million units in a country to be considered mainstream in that area. How do companies in MMOs appeal to a wider demographic? Whereas most MMOs in the US use a subscription method of payment, Asia has taken the path of micro-transactions. Chris Lee, Head/Global Studio Management of Webzen, Inc ., explained the appeal of micro-payments. As there are several ways to pay bills in the games, whether it be through credit cards, game cards, or cash, games are initially free and make money from selling items in the game. Average players spend anywhere from $5-$20 a month. Vogel inferred changes in the US, “Consoles will help push that barrier down. Even single player games like Oblivion have item purchases. Subscriptions models aren’t going to be around much longer.” Blakely promoted the micro-transaction model as well, stating that getting a game for free lowers the barrier to get in and offers players a transition period. Virtual property and liability are concerns. Once companies start virtual transactions, they become banks. Vogel has been on four games that have lost data, which in a virtual transaction model would have meant a loss of money. Anderson thinks it is worse than being a bank, because companies have to deal with issues such as gold currency and inflation in the game. Tracking customer service greatly increases costs. Currently, gold farmers dominate the exchange of money in MMOs. Joe Keene, Co-Chairman and CEO of Perpetual Entertainment responded, “Players dislike the way the game is letting them progress,” which points to game design issues of the single progression form. If players don’t have the time to progress, they can buy their way up, creating imbalance based on finances. Keene suggested pricing parts of the game, “Games could charge players $3 to get into a dungeon.” After back and forth comments, the panel did agree that game design is the key. Mike Goslin, Vice-President of Virtual Reality Studio at Walt Disney Internet Group advised not forgetting about the possibilities of opening the market of MMOs through theme. Goslin feels WoW has filled the need for a fantasy themed MMO. Vogel asserted that “light” games, such as Animal Crossing, could make perfect micro-transaction games online. Items account for reputation in games. To Vogel, community is about reputation, and players look for ways of bolstering their representation in the community. Will, then, future MMOs be more about existence than entertainment? Anderson summed up the opinions of the panel, “The game should be made through existence, but you need an underpinning of entertainment.” Vogel wants to see more tools for players to create their own entertainment. When getting into issues of content development, the panel shifted to issues behind using original IP or an established brand. Goslin sees using established IP as a bridge to new players, “If you’re doing something for the mass market that rides on an IP, you can get new players to break past the barrier.” Anderson followed, “This market is getting tougher and tougher, and a brand gets you awareness.” Anderson continued by using Lord of the Rings as an example. Using the Lord of the Rings IP gave Turbine, Inc. not just brand recognition, but also a wealth of content and a vision from the beginning. Blakely has found the same result from using the DC Comics IP. Echoing sentiments from the "Casual games update: How new business models are accelerating the growth of today's game marketplace" workshop, panelists stressed the importance of brand identity, whether original or established. To be wary, brand recognition also means expectations. “There isn’t one answer. One player will post saying they want to walk between destinations in real time, (which means and a lot of content), and the next person replies saying they want to teleport,” Anderson joked. Vogel highlighted integrating community management and creating feedback loops to gather player input. With numerous MMOs due to launch, important questions about game design, consumption models, and player interaction are being raised. Although it is on each company to decide the new trends in MMOs, industry professionals at E3 identified key strides to change and success—promotion before launch, considering micro-transaction game design models, developing and maintaining brand identity, and responding to player feedback.

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