STO & the Niche Game Approach

I’ve written quite a bit recently about the situation with Star Trek Online, starting with an explanation of why Star Trek is such a hard IP to make into an MMO and continuing with advice for the team to attempt STO next. Those posts got a lot of comments, leading me to pour a little more fuel on the fire.

One of the more insightful comments asked about a niche game. Why try to appeal to the broadest possible audience? Just make a smaller game for the fans.

If some startup company got the license, that is exactly what I’d propose: make a lightweight space flight simulator, make sure space combat is lots of fun, abstract away the “ground game” (that is, provide a mini-game for it, or just text blurbs and choose-your-own-adventure style options — something very simple), and add systems that support “crews” of players somehow. In other words make a small niche game that very carefully targets hard-core Star Trek fans.

This is a game that will initially appeal to perhaps 25,000 players. If you do the math, that nets $4.5 million a year. That sounds great if you’re a small company of 15 developers. This is exactly the sort of thing that EVE Online did. And if the game turns out to be really fun, your player base can actually expand over time, and eventually hit the 100k player mark or even higher (again like EVE Online did). It’ll never be a huge (half a million plus player) game, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s still great returns for a small company.

The niche game isn’t really an option for Cryptic at this time, though. Cryptic is a larger company with big expenses. Say Cryptic only wants to support 50 employees with the profits from Star Trek Online (which is a low estimate — remember they have well over 100 employees). For 50 employees, they’re spending 5 million a year in salaries and overhead. That doesn’t include the millions that the Star Trek license will cost them, nor the other costs of doing business, like advertising, distribution, servers, bandwidth, and customer support. If it takes three years to make this game, they’ll need a hundred thousand subscribers just to break even. Ideally they’ll be hoping for at least 250k subscribers so that they can easily fund further development (like expansion packs). This means they need to appeal to a much larger audience than the niche game would.

The financial outlook for a niche game gets even more grim when you consider that Cryptic will likely need venture-capital to complete this game — especially since they’re doing the Marvel game at the same time. When you take VC money, you can’t think small. You have to think big. VC firms are looking to earn a 500% increase on their investment. If they give you $20 million to make a game, they are hoping to earn back $100 million within just a few years. This is why every company says they’re going to be a WoW-beater … it’s what venture capitalists want to hear. On the other hand, very few companies actually expect to be a WoW-beater. They are just hoping to grab a few hundred thousand fans of traditional MMO games — maybe 1% of the fantasy-MMO audience — in order to pay their bills and keep the VC folks from getting really angry. (VC folks won’t be happy with just a few hundred thousand subscribers, but they probably won’t disembowel the company right away, either.)

But like I said, I hope the Star Trek license has reached Cryptic, not some smaller startup company. Why do I hope that?

  • Making an MMO from scratch is hard. EVE Online managed it, but they are the exception to the rule. Most startup MMO companies crash and burn because they vastly underestimate the tech requirements. Cryptic won’t make that mistake.
  • The Star Trek IP costs money. You have to buy that license. Small companies can’t afford to spend a big chunk of their cash on the license and also hope to make a decent game. Honestly, small companies are much more likely to succeed if they make their niche game without a pre-existing IP, like EVE Online did.
  • The only way I’ll ever get to have all my Star Trek fantasies come true — a space game and a ground game and interesting missions and so on — is if a larger company does the job, one piece at a time.

So, in conclusion, yes, my advice to Cryptic is to initially pattern their game off of well-understood MMO memes in order to ensure a reasonable population shows up to play. This isn’t my answer to every MMO — but it’s the best answer for the STO situation.

And my advice to a small start up company is to make a niche game, without taking VC money if possible, and to hope that the money situation works out okay. The odds of such a game reaching the market are pretty dismal, but certainly not impossible.

(PS: If you want to know more about VC investment, Paul Graham’s article is a good read.)

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8 Responses to STO & the Niche Game Approach

  1. Frojoe says:

    ok, first of all what a bunch of crap that conclusion is.

    1. if you copy and use all the current successfull features, and theres nothing new other than a star trek skin, theres nothing to pull the “current online gammer” off there current online game!!!!, it seems to me that this would only cater to star trek fans, and poorly at that since the game isn’t desined to be star trek, but an MMO that feels trek.

    2. for a new game to be wildy sucessfull, or “world class AAA”, the game needs to be something ALL the others are NOT!, the game needs new features, and a new way of thinking. if they come up with creative gameplay thats nothing like any other MMO on the market. THATS what will pull the “current online gamer” off there current online game to try this new exciting star trek MMO that takes a totaly different angle to what it means to be an MMO, and yet is still fun!!

    thats the only way to pull ahead of the crowd and be a leader in MMO’s

    look at every sucessfull MMO out there. like the top ones. ALL of them are innovative, and have pioneered new paths in MMO technology and thinking. and for STO to suceed in bringing in non star trek fans, they need to do the same.

    3. to get the Star Trek fans to be happy enouph to play the game for a decade or more, the game has to be made “trek”

    so I say start from scratch and don’t as yourself “how do we make an MMO Star Trek?” ask ourselfs “how do we make Star Trek and MMO?”

    just because your desining a game thats not like any other, doesn’t mean it only appeals to a “nitche” crowd, it may appeal more the that crowed, but if the game play is genuenly fun, creative, and outside the box. the game is made for a “new” “mass” crowd. ready and eager for a new, thrilling expirience in an online persistant world

    and on top of that, the star trek community is HUGE, Startrek-online.net alone is testoment to that, haveing over 7500 users. and I know at least 15 people wanting to play it who have never even been to startrek-online.net. I’d say the potential players at release are at least 15 to 20 times the ammount of people on thst site! so I wouldn’t realy call us “nitche”

  2. Frojoe says:

    also there are plenty of games out there that are as your describing, whats to make star trek online better than the others if what your trying to put out there is a game thats just as good as the others that people already own?

    I just don’t understand the logic of makeing a game that already exsists in many other forms.

    you should make a creative new game. thats fun for everyone, not just trek fans. but you can use star trek as inspiration to make this game different, and make it stand out and more appealing to everyone

  3. Dave says:

    Frojoe:

    “look at every sucessfull MMO out there. like the top ones. ALL of them are innovative, and have pioneered new paths in MMO technology and thinking. and for STO to suceed in bringing in non star trek fans, they need to do the same.”

    Do you have a list of how each of the top ten MMOs are innovative and have pioneered new paths? I’d be really curious to see such a list for my own education.

    “and on top of that, the star trek community is HUGE, Startrek-online.net alone is testoment to that, haveing over 7500 users. and I know at least 15 people wanting to play it who have never even been to startrek-online.net. I’d say the potential players at release are at least 15 to 20 times the ammount of people on thst site!”

    Hmm, 7767 registered users that have dropped by over what, 3 years? While if I were to make a MMO I’d love to get my hands on that many people, that isn’t enough for a large corporation to base a business decision on.

    And where’s your market research that there are at least 15 to 20 times more people that would buy such a game? Link please?

    Thanks.

  4. Frojoe says:

    ok, well, lets look at the top ten MMO’s

    all of them appeal to there genre, weather it be fantasy, midevile, sci-fi, pirates, or based off a book or movie, all of them stayed true to there genre, at least the ones that lasted, and the ones that strayed from that to try to get the crowed WoW has have suffered in reputation. but anyway, each of them have unique game play brought to them through there genre’s. some more than others.

    and as for market research, I have none. but I do know that there are a lot of star trek fans out there, I for one know of at least 50-60 in my middle sized town alone, and most of them haven’t even heard of star trek online. the following it has now are just the ones that have stumbled onto it, imagin the amount of people who will fall into the base when actual advertising goes.

    Star Trek is profitable when done right. DVD sales are still doing great, and there are scores of fans out there waiting for something trek.

    I think the recent decline in star trek is due to the producers of recent star trek titles, such as Nemisis, and Enterprise. they have staryed from gene rodenberrys vision. its not that the fans don’t accept change, they did when next generation came around and updated the original searies. but the new trek has to maintain the ideals of the old trek, and simply update the technology to modern standerds of a sci-fi.

    where star trek producers get into trouble is when they think star trek is a wall paper they can put on any face. but its not, its a genre of its own. ENTERPRISE went for a more hands on trigger,shoot em up, sci-fi, and thats not what star trek is about.

    to make a sucessful star trek game you need to balance mindless combate with mind intesive deplomacy and puzzels. star trek fans want something with substance and depth, and I fear that a developer will see something like this and make a weak MMO, and put a star trek skin on it. and send out a product no one will be happy with.

    sure a diplomacy/combate balanced game wont appeal to all gamers, but there is a large minority of gamers that crave this type of crative, thoughtfull, unique game play. and I’d wager enouph to support an MMO, and at least make decent money.

    I also believe strongly that people are getting board of WoW style game play. its been out forever! and if ST:O came out with something fun, but nothing like WoW, how could that be bad.

    it all comes down to the fact that the game has to be fun, the game can’t be “hard core” and “just for the trekies” it has to appeal to a mass audience, a sci-fi/trek audience, and people who are sick of WoW and it clones.

    the market is saturated with WoW clones.

    yes people want casual game play that allows people to play for 30 min. segments, and I think that would work well with star trek online, as many trekies are adults with jobs and little time on there hands, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a WoW clone, or that it has to copy and past othe MMO’s. it just means they have an opertunity to be creative and invent a way to fit an immersive expirience in 30-45 min. wile offering more highend game play that offer 2-3 hours of play. that balences combate and diplomacy, and that finds another way of advancment other than leveling, and supports an economy not based on money or loot.

    just because people want a casual game, and a fun game with exciting combate, doesn’t mean that they have to give up what makes star trek star trek, why even make the game if your gonna do that. it just means you have to think outside the box, and be a little creative and find a way to make that game play style fit with star trek, not make star trek fit with the game play style.

  5. Botanybay says:

    A question that remains in my head. Eric suggests to make that niche game look like that:

    “If some startup company got the license, that is exactly what I’d propose: make a lightweight space flight simulator, make sure space combat is lots of fun, abstract away the “ground game” (that is, provide a mini-game for it, or just text blurbs and choose-your-own-adventure style options — something very simple), and add systems that support “crews” of players somehow.”

    Why not the other way arround? Why not a ground based gameplay and leave the space sim out?

    But wait, Botanybay, how can you make Star Trek without space?

    Well, to run arround in the corridors of a Galaxyclass is a ground based game, isnt it. And so are Main Engeneering, Sickbay, the Transporterroom…

    So, what if you now make the terminals “fully functional” in the way that you “abstract away the [...space simulation...] (that is, provide a mini-game for it, or just text blurbs and choose-your-own-adventure style options — something very simple)”.

    Does that remind anyone of the kind of game some many fans where asking for?

  6. Anticorium says:

    “I also believe strongly that people are getting board of WoW style game play. its been out forever!”

    And I believe strongly that ponies can sing, but both of us live in a world where levels-and-classes-and-orcs-in-3D gameplay is nearing its tenth anniversary and is more popular than it has ever been, and the stupid ponies still can’t even hold a middle C.

  7. Jason says:

    The problem I have with the “start with WoW” approach to design is that it is also the “stuck with WoW” approach. Unless they were to plan an NGE style switcheroo like SWG did, Star Trek Online would always be WoW with a Star Trek skin. And frankly, no matter how well you skin it, I don’t think a DikuMUD style game is what is best for the Star Trek property.

  8. some random trekkie says:

    i think that star trek online sould have someting diferent city of heroes has it star wars galaxies does not anymore (curse you NGE) you sould think about the fukin game not worry if its world of warcraft clone if its i dont care if its gonna be WoW in space i just want to play a decent trek game for bloody once
    ps i think you should be able to play the borg asimilation for the nation