MMOs as Self-Sustaining Small Businesses

[This blog post isn’t related to Project: Gorgon per se.]

I wanted to take a second to answer an email I got. I tried to reply to the email, but it bounced! So here it is as a blog post. The question is from someone contemplating creating an MMO-like game. Here’s what he asked:

My specific question: do you think it’s possible to have an MMO as a “lifestyle business”? Is Project Gorgon trying to, eventually, be a lifestyle business?

If you don’t know the term, a lifestyle business is one with no intent to grow exponentially or to “be a big hit”, but which does profitably serve a niche; it’s usually built and run by just the founder(s), and pays enough to give them a “nice lifestyle.” Generally, the long-term goal of a lifestyle business isn’t money, but rather time: to grow the business enough so that some of the revenue can be used to contract out content-generation and maintenance on the service, so that the service becomes a passive income stream to the founder (“just a cheque in the mail each month”), unless they specifically want to dive in to add/change something. (See, for example, Patrick McKenzie‘s thoroughly-blogged-about Bingo Card Creator service.)

So, do you see the development on the Gorgon project reaching that self-sufficient state–where you won’t really have to touch it again if you don’t want to–or do you see it more like an old classic car: something which is fun to hack on, but which will require constant attention on your part to keep it running? Or perhaps, do you expect it to grow (and for old content to get stale) such that the live team required would keep expanding over time?

Somewhere in between. Well, yes, an MMO can definitely become a fully hands-off business in theory. But I suspect most indie MMO devs — myself included — will generally need to be around forever. Two reasons for that: first, many MMOs have fairly high maintenance costs, so it becomes tricky to hire out all the work that needs doing. And second, MMO communities are especially interactive, and being in touch with the community is really important for indies. For instance, you can get away with a lot of terrible bugs if the community knows you and trusts you’re doing your best. (Community management is also something I’m pretty bad at, so I hope to eventually hire someone to help there — but even so, I’ll need to be around forever, if only to write monthly newsletters and chime in on forums occasionally.)

I guess it ultimately depends on how much of a team you can afford! But it’s the sort of business where you need a sustained investment of energy, or it can all crash.

Paradoxically, the size of your community has a dramatic effect on… the size of your community. What I mean is that it’s a lot easier to sustain a population of 5,000 than it is to sustain a population of 50. If you drop below a certain point, the rest of the game’s community will rapidly disappear and that’ll be that. A single-player game can still sell a few copies long after the mass of players have left, but that doesn’t happen for MMOs.

But on the other hand, while MMOs will never be as turn-key as a Bingo-card app, they can definitely be self-sustaining and relatively low-maintenance. You just need to be large enough to maintain a small team of employees to keep that core cluster of happy players involved. And then yes, you can wander away from time to time, as long as you come back.

An MMO won’t last forever, but it can last a decade. A few games to look at are Furcadia and A Tale in the Desert. These aren’t particularly successful games right now, but they’re great examples of “lifestyle businesses.” They are 17 and 10 years old, respectively. Their primary developers have sometimes had other employees, and sometimes not, depending on the ebb and flow of their focus on the game. I don’t know how financially successful they’ve been in their creators’ eyes, but from where I’m sitting, they seem like successful indie MMOs. They’re both in need of a jumpstart if they’re going to last much longer, but they’ve already had a hell of a run.

Very notably, neither of these games have much pre-made content at all. Furcadia is a graphical chatroom where users create custom areas to roleplay in; A Tale in the Desert is a cooperative world-building game that wipes the world and resets every couple of years. They’re very niche games — more niche than my game, in fact.

My game will have higher overhead because I intend to release a modest-sized content update each month, much as Asheron’s Call 1 has done for a decade. Those updates don’t have to get larger and larger; they’ve stayed the same size. But they do have to keep happening on schedule more-or-less forever.

If I was trying to optimize the maintenance costs, I would definitely create a game that didn’t have any hand-made content. But that points out a trap that indies often fall into. On a large indie project, you have to be personally excited by it or you won’t have the motivation to sustain the multi-year development cycle.

When I was working as a designer for other people, I took pride in being able to make games for audiences that didn’t include me. But now that nobody’s paying me, it has to be a game I’m passionate about seeing come into existence. Which (unfortunately for me) means a rather complex game with a decent amount of pre-made content, along with user-created content experiences.

So to re-answer your question: yes, these games can be sustainable, but some game designs are much more sustainable than others because their maintenance overheads are lower. But MMOs are surprisingly difficult to create, even for expert programmers, so I’d encourage you to pick a game design that is exciting to you personally. Otherwise you’ll never make it to the finish line.

Where to go next? Let’s see… Daniel Cook often writes about aiming for audiences that are self-sustaining; his blog is a pretty good place to go next. (Though it looks like some of his more specific advice for what he calls “evergreen game designs” are only on his G+ page, not the blog.)


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5 Responses to MMOs as Self-Sustaining Small Businesses

  1. So, do you see the development on the Gorgon project reaching that self-sufficient state–where you won’t really have to touch it again if you don’t want to

    Anyone thinking that such thing is possible isn’t very familiar with MMOs at all and you don’t need to be a dev to know that.

    The day I stopped being “around” players in Golemizer is the day I decided to let the game die peacefully. Of course I never achieved that threshold that would make the game a “lifestyle business” but even then in these projects the dev(s) is/are really part of the community. Having more players would have only mean it’d have take just a bit longer for the game to die without me around.

    For some player just having the opportunity to chat with me once in a while was enough for them to keep playing even though they still have many things to complain about. I had to create a multitude of alts just to be able to do some admin stuff without being interrupted. But so is the deal with these games.

    In AAA MMOs players stop caring about the game when bugs are not fixed and new content is not added. In smaller projects it happens when players feel they’re not able to chat with the dev anymore (in-game or on the forums).

    Maybe with more players I’d have been able to slow down the pace a bit. That’s the hard thing with “small” MMOs. If it doesn’t pick up you keep working hard for very few people in the hope that more will come so even “small” MMOs are a lot of work.

    A single-player game can still sell a few copies long after the mass of players have left, but that doesn’t happen for MMOs.

    That’s precisely why I stopped working on such projects even though I had a blast doing so. Getting to that point where it becomes “lifestyle business” is hard but based on what I see from those who made it, it seems quite satisfying.

    Best of luck to you. I sincerely hope you make it where I failed.

  2. Zack Johnson says:

    Kingdom of Loathing has been characterized by business dudes we’ve met as a “lifestyle company,” and while that’s often said kind of disparagingly, I guess it… is one? It has been the sole source of income for me and 5-7 other people for more than ten years, and it isn’t driven by user-created content at all.

    Our technical overhead is very low, because there are no graphics and relatively little real-time interaction between players. So basically all we do is make new content and tune and tweak old content. Our work is split probably 70/15/15 creative/administration/technical.

    I think the previous commenter is spot on about community engagement. We would be nowhere without the many hours a week we spend directly communicating with our players.

  3. Small niche lifestyle mmos can be extremely profitable
    Heroes in the sky is the brightest example – very small team and revenue was to 5mil usd per month.

    Good f2p with 1000 concurrent users can earn 100k per month. It could be a good lifestyle business for a team of 5 devs.

  4. Daniel Cook says:

    Great topic! It is certainly possible to have a lifestyle business based off an MMO. Realm of the Mad God was the one I have direct experience operating. A lot of the folks that have doing this for years (Furcadia, Tale in the Desert, Kingdom of Loathing, and even now commercial successes like Puzzle Pirates, Habbo, and Runescape) are heroes of mine. They show it can be done. Hopefully Project: Gorgon will join ’em. :-)

    With the right design, you can also minimize the cost of content updates, but it is never a release and forget project. Events, features, bug fixes, and community support are all ongoing activities that take up a lot of time.

    Having spent the last couple years working on almost entirely online multiplayer games, I returned briefly to making a single player game. Wow…so much easier. Scope is less, technical requirements are less, design challenges are simpler to solve. The biggest realization is that single player games don’t nearly have the same functional requirements. A player buys the game and then even if they play it for only 5 minutes, your job is done. If they don’t buy it, you just make another game and chalk it up to bad luck.

    With MMO’s, if your retention, engagement and monetization aren’t clearly demonstrated with real numbers statistically derived from the actions of real people, the lifestyle business is a bust. So far my batting average is 1+years after launch before the game starts getting any traction. It took that long to backfill little essential features and understand where the community saw the real value in the game. And that builds on years of single player execution and polish. Like an engine, everything needs to work.

    It ends up being a curse and blessing of being able to steer towards success. On one hand you have agency that doesn’t exist so much in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it single player world. On the other hand, when your immense efforts have zero or negative effect, it is all on you and your choices. :-)

    A profitable route. A satisfying one. But by no means easy. Really it is master-level work in game development.

  5. Jason says:

    Hasn’t exactly reached the lifestyle level you described, but Istaria (originally Horizons) has been around 10 years this December and we’re still chugging along with under 5k subs. Still have to have a regular hand in development, but we do quarterly content releases (if we can). Still get a nice check in the mail, though I could never quit my regular job for just Istaria. The community does require a bit of work and if we’re silent for very long (a couple weeks) the natives start to get restless.

    As with all things there is an ebb and flow of the population but we manage through it and our updates usually bring folks back for a while.