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IMGDC: BioWare's Walton Talks MMO Creation Essentials

At last weekend's Indie MMO Game Developers Conference in Minnesota, Gamasutra was there to hear BioWare Austin co-studio director Gordon Walton parsing out some essential lessons for online game creators, suggesting how indie efforts should differentiate
At the Indie MMO Game Developers Conference in Minnesota, BioWare Austin co-studio director Gordon Walton parsed out some essential lessons for indie MMO developers. The Kesmai, Origin and Sony Online Entertainment veteran - one of the most experienced MMO creators in the industry right now - addressed issues such as how indie efforts should differentiate from AAA online games, at every stage of the process from development to launch. "I've made one one-hundredth of the mistakes that you can make over the years, which is a lot more than most people," began Walton -- but admits he's not perfect. "I've made a lot of mistakes twice, but I'm aiming not to make them a third time," he added. Walton stated that the most important factor for indies is the need for fluency in an intimidating number of technology. "Not mastery, but fluency," he noted. "It's just very technically daunting." In the face of steep odds, then, it's the team that's important. "There is no room for a B-team," Walton warned. "B-level players in an MMO team are grit in the gears. If you have multiple skills you need to pick the one you're best at and stick to it." Indies - Playing To Strengths? Indie MMOs should focus on their own strengths rather than worrying about comparing to the AAAs, Walton advised, because of high content volumes and associated costs. "The content load is a bear if you try to compete with them," he said. "Look for area where you can be content-light. The tech is just 20 percent of the final cost -- most of the cost of making a game is in content. Anytime you need lots of something, it's costly. You want to stay away from capital-intensive issues." The issues worth focusing on: "Is it fun? Does it rock? You don't have to have a wide game, just one that hits a specific topic well." He added that younger designers tend to be over-ambitious, reflecting present online gaming trends and wanting to add too many customization options. "When you go to have everything, everything is too much," Walton cautioned. "The alchemy of all those things may not be fun." Another critical factor for independents is brand building. "No matter what you are going to make, people get an impression right away," Walton said -- and users will either be intrigued or dismissive. "Everything you talk about externally is critical to understanding. If you are going to have customers, it's critical to think about." Finding The Correct Niches That certain larger products are tying up the majority of MMO audiences is a familiar refrain, but Walton urges, "No whining! You can target existing online audiences. "If you are going for 1 percent of WoW's audience, you are walking the path of death." Look for your target... You need to go looking for where the audience is living. Once you understand the audience you can target them." The biggest mistake? To design for the taste of the designer instead of the audience, according to Walton. "Designer tastes are not where the audience is going to be," he stressed. Next, said Walton, begin slowly. "Once you find an audience, you can scale the game up. You don't have to be everything to everyone on day one." But how to fund these projects? There are a few tactics: Getting "dumb money" is a skill, says Walton. "The best super-power to have in the games business is the ability to find money." Additionally, middleware prices have become more reasonable, he added, and lower-priced solutions are gaining in quality. Conclusion: Focus! Finally, one key piece of advice: "Focus, focus, focus. Focus on what you can do and what your talent is good at. There are lots of reasons to quit or stop. You have to be crazy to want to do this in the first place." Despite this, Walton concluded, "The nice thing about being indie is that you can and must take risks. Surprises are not coming out of big companies. The more money is spent, the less they can afford to risk things. The really radical innovations are going to come from the folks that have the least to lose."

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