The New Killer Platform for MMOGs is… FaceBook?
Since my last post was pretty theoretical, I thought I’d bring this back to earth a bit.
The MMOG market continues to be very hot, and possibly all but impervious even to our current economic chaos. I continue to see MMOGs in development for ever broader demographics and more obscure (or focused) niches. Despite the difficult times for some and the demise of others, investment and development in this area continues to be strong.
And yet technology continues to be a huge thorn in the side of any developer. There are a number of middleware suitors trying to woo developers, but recently an unusual one has appeared on the field. Can it be that Facebook will save MMOG development?
One of the enduring questions for any potential MMO developer is, what technology to use as a platform? Until a few years ago, it was common for MMO developers to create almost all their own technology, with the possible exception of a 3D engine for their client. This necessity has greatly increased the time, cost, and risk of almost every MMOG project. I have likened this in the past to someone saying, “okay, you want to make a movie? To get started, you first have to learn to grind your own camera lenses.” The intricacies of 3D scene graph management, scalable data base construction, billing systems, login servers, customer relationship management software, world creation tools, artificial intelligence, story creation, and a slew of other major areas, while all necessary for an MMOG, are typically far outside of the core competencies of any MMOG developer (trust me, no MMO developer rubs their hands in glee and says, “great, a new MMO! I’ve been wanting to try out a new account creation mechanism!”)
In response to this, many MMOG middleware providers have sprung up — companies like Bigworld, Simutronics (with the HeroEngine), Icarus, and others focusing on providing all-inclusive solutions as platforms for creating MMOGs. In the past few years a few others have popped up too with a slightly different model — companies like Multiverse and Metaplace, supplying middleware tools, but focused on hobbyist users and professional developers.
Each of these suites of tools has its strong points and weak points — either the cost is seemingly astronomical (approaching or exceeding a million dollars for a license), or the tools are incomplete or immature. No professional developer wants to risk an already expensive, risky project on technology that may leave them high and dry mid-way through development, so everyone is looking for the first big project that is completed using some form of middleware. In effect, all of us are waiting for someone else to take the first step and show that these tools can in fact create viable third-party MMOGs. So far, we’re all still waiting.
Amidst all of this is the typical industry blather that MMOG budgets are going up to unattainable levels — frothy comments about $50M and $100M budgets are not believable (and not necessary, if you’re building your game wisely) in my opinion, but even a more “reasonable” $15-20M budget for a professional MMOG can be difficult to fund.
So as often happens in nature, evolution finds a way. If the budgets for “mainline” MMOs are absurdly high, then someone will figure out a way to make these games with absurdly low budgets, and still be successful.
And this is where the odd miracle of Facebook comes in. I’m not going to go over the history of Facebook or other social networking sites enabling external apps; you can find that all over the web. ‘Social gaming’ is also all the rage right now, though even most of those creating these games really seem to have little idea what it means, based on the thin threads of socialization present in these games (attaching a chat channel or leaderboard does not make the game suddenly “social”). But there have been a few interesting bright spots, the first indications of an evolutionary change, in games like Mob Wars (and all its many copycats) and YoVille.
These games aren’t what any die-hard MMOG player would recognize as “their game” and in that regard may well represent the next stage in MMOG/VW evolution. Mob Wars has “jobs” (essentially quests) but no geographical world as such. YoVille has apartments and a geogrpahical world, and been described as a scaled down version of The Sims (or maybe Habbo Hotel — this gets back to the unnecessary conceptual divide between MMOGs and virtual worlds that I’ve already covered). In fact YoVille seems remarkably similar in its intent and gameplay to The Sims Online, which shows perhaps how these new games are recapitulating old lessons without having entirely learned them first.
The main things these games have in common is that they play in the browser (as do many other MMOGs in the current crop), they are free to play (ditto), and significantly, they have let Facebook do the heavy lifting as a social platform and in part as a purely technological platform. That is, tasks that are distracting, tedious, but necessary like account creation, user verification, etc., are handled by Facebook. Flash (as a bare technology or using existing client-server wrappers) enables the client-side. And since the games exist within the context of a social setting already, the ‘reach’ issues of any game, but especially any free-to-play one, are greatly reduced. Smart designs encourage players to bring in their friends — though notably without trying to trick players or spamming their entire address books as earlier putatively social efforts have done.
Moreover, while the revenue model on Facebook continues to evolve, the purchase of virtual goods is gaining acceptance quickly, and truly novel monetization methods are gaining a real foothold. For example, in games like Mob Wars, players can earn points usable in the game by filling out partner surveys or visiting other sites — so-called Cost-Per-Action advertising (assisted by companies like OfferPal and SuperRewards) where the advertiser gains useful information and actions, the game developer gains dollars in payment, and the player gets in-game tokens of one sort or another.
How successful is this? Mob Wars reportedly is the top Facebook game, making more than $20,000 per day (external estimates of $7-15M annual revenue) on about 500,000 daily active users. I don’t know how much Mob Wars cost to develop, but given it’s lack of animation, geography, heavy quest trees, or many other infrastructural elements, I’d be surprised if it was more than a few hundred thousand dollars at most — probably a whole lot less. Even though Mob Wars is the top game, it’s not as much an outlier as WoW is for the rest of the traditional MMOG pack — a compelling ROI case for any online developer.
In short, I think we can expect to see a lot more MMOG/VW-like apps on Facebook and other sites (but Facebook continues to lead the way at this point, not yet ceding the field as other SN sites before it have done). If your friends are already there, why would you go someplace else to play games with them? And if you want to play games with them, why not persistent games that have real social content as well? Facebook (plus Flash, readily available database software, evolving revenue models, etc.) make MMOGs there more than possible — they make them all but inevitable as the field continues to evolve.