My last post came off as very cynical to people not in the MMO industry — which surprised me, actually, because I wasn’t being as cynical as I feel I usually am! But when calling most companies a “rudderless ship of doomed people” I probably should have thought about what that would sound like to people who haven’t worked on an MMO before. But as I worked on this post, I found it’s hard not to come off as cynical when talking about an industry this bad off.
There was a great comment on the discussion thread:
Swift Voyager Says:
I’ve never seen you make such a cynical post before. Do you really think that “most MMO companies are rudderless ships of overworked, desperately hoping, doomed people”? Sure, most video games fail, but the industry and the people who work in the industry cary on and succede in the long run. Not every game can be a blockbuster and the industry doesn’t expect every game to be a blockbuster, do they?
This is a very reasonable counter-argument, but it presupposes that the people in the industry are working reasonable hours, making decent money, and are able to stick with the industry for a decade or more. But for most developers and companies, those things aren’t true.
It’s very telling that I’ve never worked on an MMO that didn’t expect to be a blockbuster success. They didn’t just think it — they needed it at a very fundamental level, in order to keep their jobs and company afloat. Yet in spite of their high-flying goals, most MMO companies fail to even launch a game, let alone be a blockbuster.
The unusual thing about the MMO industry is that the normal flow of MMO development sets the company up for failure. Here’s a couple of the (many) reasons:
- There are no MMO engines for sale that can make robust games. They just aren’t any good yet. This means your company needs to either make a new engine from scratch (VERY HARD) or hack the living crap out of a third-party engine (only slightly easier). To put it another way: imagine that you wanted to make a film, but first you had to invent a camera. Hard. Risky. It’s trying to do two very different things at once.
- It is impossible to make a triple-A quality MMO with a tiny team. You need a major investment of money. Investors (typically VC companies, or your corporate evil overlords if you’re a branch of a mega-company) don’t want to give you just a few million dollars — the way they do the math, they expect to earn 500% return on investment for every dollar they give you. So they want to give you LOTS of dollars. Good luck getting $5 million. You’ll have an easier time getting $15 million. Suddenly you have to think big.
- The people who give you money need to see a return on their investment fast. They want your game out the door NOW so they can start earning money back. They tend to pressure management to move forward before they’re ready. Hire up your staff fast! Get your art production moving fast! Get the game in beta fast! No time to waste. Hurry!
There are a lot of ramifications to this. One of them is that prototyping (the key to making a game successful) is incredibly hard in an MMO. Your engineers are busy making the networking go, so they don’t have time to keep iterating on your wacky new experimental quest system. Or the VC company is pressuring you to start hiring ASAP… which means you need to declare your preproduction done now, so there’s no more time to experiment. Or you’ve successfully fought the urge to staff up your team too soon, but that means you don’t have enough artists on hand to flesh out the prototype to see if it will look good. Or… so on. It’s hard.
At the most fundamental level, this is a failure of management. It is management’s job to make sure the gameplay is fun at a prototype level before beginning production. But this requires a really really good management team. Game companies do not have this.
In fact, compounding the issue is that game companies are decades behind other industries in management practices, and have a really hard time hiring competent managers from other professions. Most MMO management sucks. I should know, I was made an MMO manager with no training, no experience, and no clear goals, guidance, or even expectations. Go forth and prosper! Or fail! Whichever! Just work hard!!!
I remember one time when Sandra (a very capable and experienced MMO producer, with many more years of production experience than I have) was talking with a producer from Google. She was trying to explain how the industry works. And he called her a liar. “No industry can survive using those practices.” He would not believe that an industry could be so mis-managed. Yet it is.
How many of the 1000+ MMO companies started this decade have you heard of? The ones that make it to market and then flop are the good ones, the uncommon ones. Most simply never go anywhere. They can’t get funding, or they can’t make the engineering work, or they implode when suddenly staffing up dramatically. Or all of the above.
I will grant you that there are well-managed MMO companies, but they are very rare. And nobody wants to leave them, so they aren’t hiring. It’s also very easy for a well-managed company to suddenly and spectacularly become a terrible company with just a few personnel changes.
The Three Year Loaf of Bread
Another seemingly cynical thing I said was that “if you can’t fix your game, you should quit.” Here’s another counter-argument from the same great comment:
I work at a bread factory. Sometimes the bread doesn’t rise. Does that mean the company is a rudderless ship and we’re all just blindly sailing towards the edge of the world? Should I quit my job and go re-evaluate my life before this company sails off the edge of the globe? Naaahhhh, I’ll keep working and try again tomorrow.
Let me run with this example a little bit. Say you’re a baker. What if baking a loaf of bread took three years, and after year one you realized the bread wasn’t going to rise? Would you just keep baking the crap out of it hoping it will get tastier tomorrow? Or would you insist on making dramatic changes, including possibly tossing out the loaf early, instead of praying for a miracle? And if loaf after loaf failed after one year, how many times would you keep using the same recipe?
If it’s just a job, that’s fine. Maybe you don’t care about bread loaves, you just care about getting paid. You can be a cog in the machine for years and let upper management take the blame, and then move on to another job. Some MMO people do this, but most don’t. Most MMO developers are trying to make something special. They’re willing to sacrifice their personal lives, their money, and their happiness to take a roll of the dice. I respect this incredibly — it’s what it means to follow your dreams.
And frankly, if you aren’t in the industry to “follow your dreams,” you’re kinda… stupid. The MMO industry pays poorly, if it pays at all; it treats its employees poorly too, and all too often it works them until they drop from exhaustion. (How many MMO devs reading this can say they have a life outside of their job?) There’s no job security, poor health care and benefits, and often every day is a pressure cooker. In other words, the MMO industry subsidizes your meager pay with hope: hope that you get to be a part of something amazing.
But if most people are here to follow their dreams, then just bakin’ the crap out of bread that clearly isn’t rising is not the secret to success.