Yes, the MMO Industry Really is That Bad

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.

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16 Responses to Yes, the MMO Industry Really is That Bad

  1. Pingback: Zeitalter3 Entwicklerblog » Blog Archiv » Kurz gebloggt: Teufelskreise, Fonts, 3d und 2d

  2. CaesarsGhost says:

    I’ve, personally, seen people drop from exhaustion at game studios. MMO and not… For a measly little 23k a year (I actually knew somebody making that) at that.

    I’d watch new artists coming in to work buzzing with the excitement of “I get to make a game!” only to find their portion of the work is put in front of them to do, and it can be about as exciting or enjoyable as a cubical, spreadsheet, job. They arrive at 9 and are kept late into the evening, if they go home at all.

    Same with Junior Designers, they come in buzzing only to find they’ll spend the next 24 hours creating algorithms and item names, not game systems. When their work is done, they’re let go as if they were contract workers… and sometimes forgotten (accidentally AND purposefully) on the Credits.

  3. Centuri says:

    Why do you think that there are no viable MMO engines out there for purchase or licensing? With so many failed MMOs and defunct companies, you would think that there would something viable out there for purchase.

  4. Servalan says:

    I think every industry has its share of horrible, underpaid, death-traps. My father was a quality engineer for most of his life, working mostly in the automotive industry. Talk about an industry that operated entirely on hope and preferred obfuscation and denial over truth. He spent most of his life on the road, traveling to one client after another spending sleepless night after sleepless night fixing boondoggled projects. He was overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. Eventually he would get sick and tired of the job and move onto another, only to realize the grass wasn’t greener there; it was just the same cesspool of problems. Later in his life he decided to remove himself from the automotive industry altogether. He got an engineering position at a medium sized company that produced helicopter parts. A month after starting he was back to encountering the same problems and the same management shortsightedness. Thankfully, this time around it was on a smaller scale. Still, he was extremely dissatisfied that many of these problems he had worked his entire life to fix were systemic across many companies. So, it’s safe to say there are a large number of dysfunctional businesses out there and sadly not confined to the MMO industry. Many of these companies operate on the hope-strategy while others don’t even get that far. I think the Google producer Sandra met is either lucky to not have experienced what many of us tend to or he’s blind to how many businesses operate.

  5. Eric says:

    Centuri – I wish I could point to the reasoning behind that. It’s maddening that the big 3rd party companies aren’t panning out at all. I have some half-baked theories, which I’m in the process of baking, but I think the simplest answer is: most companies that make MMO engines fail, whether they are making the engine for their own game or for purposes of selling to others. If only 10% of MMO engines end up usable, then 3rd party engines only have a 1 in 10 chance of success. And we haven’t gotten lucky yet.

  6. Eric says:

    Servalan – that doesn’t surprise me, but does make me sad. It’s frustrating to work in an industry where working really hard has no bearing on happiness and success. I wish there weren’t so many industries like that.

  7. Michael Kujawa says:

    Centuri: An engine license without a shipped title and a support plan from a viable company is not attractive to most game companies.

    Since MMO engines are currently one of the limiting factors to entrance into the space, this makes a company’s engine a huge edge in the marketplace. There is probably considerable resistance to give that up in exchange for some small short-term revenue.

    MMO engines are HUGE and typically held together by tribal knowledge. They don’t have nice documentation, tutorials, and samples (the shipped games themselves tend to have assets that can’t be licensed.) Thus the supporting your license holders will be a non-trivial burden to a company that releases their engine.

    But I think it will happen. The market wants it, and there are already companies trying to provide it. And I think it will change the face of the industry when an MMO equivalent of Gamebryo, or the Unreal Engine, (etc) comes out.

  8. David McGraw says:

    I would love to start a well managed MMO Engine company.

    If you could push out an Unreal Engine for MMO’s… Well documented, feature rich, plug-in based, quest-driven warrior. Man.

    I wish I were rich.

  9. Swift Voyager says:

    Wow, glad to see that I inspired you go deeper into this. It’s hard for an outsider to believe it’s really that bad, and I’m understanding more of your situation now.

    I didn’t think much about the engine and staffing problems till you brough it up, but looking at 38 Studios as an example I see all your points illustrated quite well.

    They keep hiring top tallent, which means that all those highly skilled people were looking for new jobs for some reason. Proves your point by anctedote at least. (my spelling sucks, so sorry if that’s wrong)

    They also keep buying or licensing little pieces of stuff like they’re going to bolt it all together to create an engine (vivox, azeroth advizor, Morpheme animation, Unreal 3 engine, etc). How they plan to use the Unreal 3 engine for an MMO is my question, but oh well.

    I actually have experienced impending doom in programming myself. I was working on some enterprise software for Lab One Inc before they got bought by Quest Diagnostics. I was told that they would not be using our software, but was told to hurry up and complete the project anyway. I also was told that my department would no longer exist after New Years Eve, but work long hours to complete our software anyway on salary. However, that was a special situation, not really the same as what you’re talking about.

    I’ve run out of time so I’ll leave this post as it is, though my thought isn’t really complete or reviewed yet. More tomorrow perhaps.

  10. Nikos says:

    I’m still waiting for my first royalty check from a company I left two years ago. They never got around to releasing the project I worked on. I don’t know if it’s still going or if it was binned since I left. While I was there, the pay was under $25000 a year, I regularly worked nine and ten hour days, ate lunch at my desk so I could debug while I ate, management kept hiring developers and artists with more industry experience. I wish I was a fly on the wall, see how things went after I left.

  11. Openedge1 says:

    This makes me wonder how games like Spellborn (based on the older 2.5 Unreal engine) and Aion (based on the Crytek engine) are faring, monetarily that is.
    Did they cost umpteens to make? And are these standard engines viable for MMO’s?
    Vanguard is the last game to use a standardized engine (that I know of), and well, we know how that went. SOE is just surviving probably by their teeth on that one, and probably got the original code at bargain basement prices.

    As to a “standards” engine, it is my understanding that the “HeroEngine” is being pushed as the defacto standard down the road. With visuals, database code, and the whole 9 yards in one place, and Bioware is going to be there to prove if it can work.
    “Bigworld” out of Australia is growing, and Stargate Worlds is being developed on that platform…
    Do you not believe either of these engines can be the ones “that could…” (hehe)

    Cheers

  12. Platinumstorm says:

    Just a short post today.

    Even if management went smoothly we would still be inundated with the same game. Would just like to inform everyone that the “same game” was almost perfected several years ago, and another company made the same game (with a better content/customer support) and has had great success with it.

    Spellborne is stuck in marketing woes limiting its exposure to the US, and causing concern across Europe – a shame because it looks terrific.

    I don’t know enough about Aion other than it looks incredible to make a comment.

    I think successfully made MMOs smaller in scope than the current games, that can significantly define themselves from the current 10^x same games can find success, developers just aren’t addressing it properly in a way that the consumers care, so it can’t advance to a point where organization is stable and not panic inducing.

  13. Pingback: The MMO Industry as a Raft « davidryanhunt.com

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  15. Carlos Carmeiro says:

    Your argument is not true,. There’s a lot of MMO games that have they great goals reached.

    1 – “There are no MMO engines for sale that can make robust games.” nobody said that the job have to be easy, trying to innovate technology is not a task for anyone.

    2 – “You need a major investment of money … they expect to earn 500% return on investment for every dollar they give you”. what are you thinking? what a wonderful world?, if you have no money to produce a great idea (no matter in game industrie or not) you look for investment and the pressure over you will always be very hard.

    3 – work with technology is something related with research, evolution and love, do this job is not easy and the people who make, have to overwork to reach they self goals. brilliant minds in the past had to work hard to make a new step and is always amazing to see that still exists people like that.

    sorry but you need vacations.

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