I didn’t start making an MMO because I thought it was a good business idea. I did it because I want to run an MMO. I love maintaining a world, tuning it, watching it grow. I definitely don’t love making MMOs. I love running them. Unfortunately nobody else is making the right kind of MMO and then letting me run it for them, so here we are.
So given why I’m making an MMO, you can see why making money has sometimes been back-burner issue for me. Oh, I know that indie developers are told that “you have to think about how you’re going to make money first! It’s critical!” But honestly, in the big picture, that’s a bunch of horseshit.
I know how to make money: I’m an extremely good programmer if I do say so myself, and a competent game systems designer, and if my goal was to make money, I would get a fucking job. Telling an indie game developer to focus on money as their top priority is equivalent to telling them to either quit the indie scene, or to seriously delude themselves. Indies have more pressing things to worry about. For every sad tale of a great game that didn’t earn money, there’s 5000 indie games that simply suck.
(To rephrase that to avoid confusion: Yes, it can be damned hard to graft a financial plan on to a game after it’s done. But no, that’s not the #1 problem most indie game developers have. It’s even harder to graft fun onto a game after it’s done. That’s the first step, and the hardest. )
That said, I do need to make money with my MMO. And a fair amount of it, too. This game is CPU-intensive (unlike a 2D sprite-based MMO, it tracks three-dimensional physics, which is not cheap). And the server architecture is … uh… adequate for my needs, but not top-of-the-line. Let’s just say it that way. It will get better over time, but right now, I’m making up for crappy tech by throwing extra hardware at it.
You Can’t Skimp on the F2P…
On the other hand, I have to support free players. That’s just a fact of the market. And the biggest lesson I’ve learned from studying F2P games is that a “free” game can’t slam you face-first into a pay wall at a certain level. There’s so many MMOs out there that if your “free play” option doesn’t let people play to max level, that’s a huge negative mark.
But F2P Players Mostly Won’t Pay… Ever
The most egregious Zynga games are said to earn their money from just 2% of the player base. MMOs are generally less terrible than that, but from what I’ve heard, a big MMO that aims at even 20% paying players is being extremely optimistic.
And you can’t overly pressure people to pay, either. Most of those free players have no intention of ever paying, and if you pressure them too much, they just go elsewhere. It’s tempting to imagine that you can push them into eventually paying, but for most of them, you won’t. You have to accept that a lot of your players — a majority of them — will be freeloaders.
(Why do we even support F2P players, then? Well, because those precious paying customers usually start out as free players. But the bigger reason is that there are now so many MMOs that it’s hard to keep people around unless you have a compelling free-play option. And MMOs can’t afford to lose 80% of their community. Even a loss of 20% often makes a game feel like a ghost town.)
But aiming for 20% or more may not be so crazy in a niche game. I remember hearing a few years back about Iron Realms raking in a ton of cash… that was a real inspiration. (They run PvP MUDs where you can buy item upgrades.) In niche games I think the old “80/20 rule” might get more skewed. The reason? People who play a niche game are going to be more invested, so they’re more likely to pay. If they were just screwing around, they’d go play a more mainstream F2P game.
However, even though my game is somewhat niche, I still think I need a compelling free-play experience. It’s not that niche.
The Two Parts of the Game
My plan is basically to split the game by skills: free players will have access to a bunch of skills, but not all of them. Paying players will have access to everything.
Free players will have access to (say) half the combat skills. They’ll also have all the auxiliary skills that make them fun — for instance, if they have the Sword skill, they can also access Calligraphy, which has important Sword buffs. The point is that their combat experience should be complete and fun.
As I’ve worked on the Kickstarter campaign, it’s become more and more clear that there’s really two key features to this game: the crazy “world interactions” stuff, and these big community dungeons, which still need lots of work but I think will be a lot of fun.
I want to shuffle free players toward those community dungeons — that way there’s plenty of people in there play with! So I’ll give free players a lot of interesting combat options and incentives to delve deep into the dungeons.
The “world interactions” part is the carrot to get you to pay. Some of the combat skills are locked, but also a bunch of crafting, gathering, information-collection, and utility skills are locked. Free players get just enough of that to support their combat skills — which is actually quite a lot of it, at least compared to a typical MMO.
So for the people who do pay, what are they buying? Well, I’d like to charge by the month. (I don’t care if it’s a “real” subscription that auto-renews or if you just re-pay every couple of months… in my head, if you pay for months of time, that’s a subscription.)
Subscriptions are great because I don’t have to nickel-and-dime you: if I can convince you to part with $4.99 a month, you can play all the game I’ve got. Enjoy. Done.
Sure, I’ll also have a la carte options for things like extra character slots. And I’ll have higher-tier subscriptions that give you benefits like offline skill advancement and access to special web tools for auctions and community. And maybe other stuff if I can think of it.
But the point is, for $4.99 a month you can access everything in the game. More money just gets you more convenience.
Why $4.99? Well it sort of straddles the line of my demographic. I think my target player skews a bit older (and thus more affluent) than a teen, but I suspect a price like $10/month would seem too much for some players. But anyway, it’s just a guess at this point. I don’t even know the break-even point on the hardware yet.
Right now I think my server architecture will support about 800 simultaneous players per world-shard. Unfortunately my world-shards are expensive — they may cost as much as $2000/month per shard. (That’s a worst-case scenario, but I have to work with that for now since I don’t have better numbers.)
If you do the math there, you’ll see that for each of the 800 concurrent users, I need to earn $2.50 per month, or I won’t make $2000 to pay for the hardware. But if I’m expecting 20% of players to pay, that math doesn’t add up. If only 20% pay, I’d need $12.50 from each of them to break even on hardware.
Each concurrent user might represent 5-15 actual active players (that are taking turns logging in, so to speak)… so it’s not quite as grim as it seems, but there’s an awful lot of “ifs” in there, and a lot more costs besides hardware.
So I have to optimize. I can get the number of concurrent users higher and the overall CPU usage costs lower. That’s actually pretty easy to do — right now things are so un-optimized that it’d be like shooting fish in a barrel — but it takes a lot of time (1-2 months!), and I can’t do more than basic optimizations until all the gameplay is hammered out. Premature optimization is … a huge waste of time.
So yeah, I think I can get my monthly costs down to $500/month or less. That makes the math a lot more tenable. But I can’t prove that I can get the server down that low. Yeah, sure, I’ve done optimizations before, and I know what I’m doing, but there’s always that little gnawing worry.
All day, every day: “what if you can’t optimize it enough? What if your architecture just can’t turn a profit in a free-to-play world?”
Just… shut up, brain. I’ve got this. I’m a bad ass indie developer. This is cake. Just shut up and let me work! Hell, I’m still struggling to make the game fun. That part comes first. Then the money.
It’s just another joy of wearing so many hats. I get to wear the “producer’s worrying hat” along with all the rest.