A “massively online game” is a game with a large enough population that there will be some requirement to distribute processing work and some form of shared, persistent state that is going to make distribution non-trivial.
WWIIOL is a big empty PvP sandbox with a shared world-state and a single, shared, resource (supply of equipment). Elite Dangerous is technically just a multi-player, map-based shoe box (star systems are sharded dynamically) but it has a single, shared, supply economy… Both are “massively” by the technical definition.
People have been making “massively” games, then, since 1988 (AirWarrior) at least. Many of the same problems have persisted across the development process since. But it seems that, today, there are still people stepping over that threshold in denial and breaking themselves in the process.
There are two main ways you can flop across the finish line, whether you’re a new startup or an established and successful developer…
Many just don’t understand their product crosses the line or how that represents a paradigm shift.
They build a product that marvels reviewers and E3 pundits right up until they launch and then it goes into a death spiral. Active development elicits resentment from players wanting bugs fixed, players tolerate large, understandable bugs but spew bile in forums about minor things.
Most of these teams(*1) get locked into fire-fighting mode which stagnates the game by delaying features and potentially expansions, exhausts and depletes the development team, and ultimately *drives away players*, dries up revenue, loses team members, rinse and repeat.
The other way is to believe what players have been telling you: “The only thing missing was a multi-player option” (looking at you, GTA V, Earth & Beyond, ESO).
Westwood were smart enough to realize they should call it quits. GTA is surviving, I guess. ESO… Hmm. Ok, mom, I hear you.
A common pattern among these cases is super-secrecy about the project right up until launch. If you’re developing an MMO and you have reason to fear your investors will pull out if they hear player reactions to the game; if you fear the Blizzard / Sony / King could steal the magic bean you think is going to make your game the WoW-Killer; if you think that having people test your game before it’s ready to ship is going to slow down development…
Put down the keyboard. Turn off the monitor. Go look out the window. See that place out there? You need to be there. That nice park over yonder. There are squirrels and pigeons. Feed them. Enjoy life. Find a career that thrills and delights you. Any time you start to think about maybe going back to massively gaming, just remember: YOU’RE A FREAKING MORON YOU SHOULDN’T BE TRUSTED TO HIT THE FLOOR IF YOU DROP SOMETHING, in this context, anyway. I’m sure you’re a really cool, smart, great person, but making massively games is not for you in the slightest (*2).
But today’s “massively” needs prolonged exposure to players. You need to learn early what’s going to be abused, what’s grindy, what core aspect seemed really cool but turns out to be about as fun as a paint drying simulator.
You also need time for your artists, designers and engineers to process feedback. Nobody copes well with shedding blood, sweat and tears for 3 years and getting 100,000 people saying “I’d rather have my genitals nailed together with razors than spend $15 on this” (I can’t find the exact quote, sorry).
The sooner you open up, the more bearable the harsh feedback will be, the longer your team has to take it on board. This is immensely psychologically important. It makes the hits easier to take, it puts them in better spirits, and most importantly it means that they don’t develop the typical loathing for players that makes the average game development career a mere 2.5 years.
Better still, it allows them time to adapt their mental projections of what the game is going to be, their models of the story.
It’s common for devs to build a ton of cool features into a game and then get really, really burned by the community pointing out that they are /cool/ but not /fun/. From there on, there’s a good chance that a formerly productive, creative and great game dev is going to become destructive.
If you have a successful, box franchise and you’re stepping it up to an online, multiplayer, persistent game: get your core game ready. Alpha test that to make sure that people enjoy it and have fun. Not for a weekend. Not for a week. Give ’em chance to play thru a few times.
What you need to take away from this is: was the core gameplay fun enough to sustain them through it? If people are telling you “this was really boring, there was no crafting or gathering” – TRANSLATION: Your core gameplay blows donkey nuts.
Now, that could be a matter of scale, or it could be a matter of variety, or it could just be that your core mechanics don’t make it fun. But you need to know this before you go off and layer other mechanics and content over the core.
You’re not looking for players to say “I enjoyed that so much, why is my money bouncing off the screen” – be sceptical of that. You’re looking for is a large majority of your players making it through as much of the game as you offer.
This is also your opportunity for you to evaluate where you need to focus on your tools pipeline, to get your QA, BI and CS processes started.
No, I’m not saying that you’re going into alpha with your CS processes fully fleshed out and a full team of GMs on call.
QA need to be involved so that they can start integrating themselves into the core development workflow. BI need to validate whatever their code tech/methodology is and prove to you they can gather and present data about how many people play, how much time they spend on assorted activities, and get data for themselves so that they can guarantee they can do all this without crippling your game/developers. CS should be there because when you go live, but CS needs to be represented at this point by at least a lead to start figuring CS into the overall picture.
The difference between a game that started QA, BI and CS integration by alpha – started – and one that didn’t, is that the one that left them until the game was finished is probably not around a year later. *cough*Sims Online*cough*
*1 Those of you who weren’t aware of “massively” games going back to 1988 probably also don’t realize just how many other MMOs have walked this route and vanished in a puff of smoke or disappeared so fast that few even noticed them.
*2 That’s exaggeratedly harsh, I hope it carries the tounge-in-cheek/comedic intent.