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.)