Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

25 May, 2010

The dangers of purgatory

One of my favorite indie MMO developers, Dave “Over00″ Toulouse, wrote a great post about his experiences with Golemizer. He gives a brutally honest assessment of how his work went on the game and his current state. If you’re thinking about developing your own MMO, especially if you’re going to try it alone, this is a must-read.

I thought I’d share some of my perspective and experience as well.

There are two main issues that Dave touches upon that I think are important. The first is the really sticky issue of MMOs: the purgatory of doing well enough to sustain the game, but not well enough to actually grow the game. As he points out, Golemizer as a small but dedicated fanbase. It’s enough to keep the servers running, but not enough to compensate him for his time. It’s a tough position to be in, because you don’t just want to shut the game down, but you can’t realistically continue to throw all your free time (and then some) into the project.

Of course, the fans rarely see it from your point of view. If you cut back on the time you work on the game, they will see it as you abandoning the game and therefore abandoning them. MMO players want a constant stream of updates to show that the game is not stagnant; they want to know that their dedication is being rewarded with more work on the game. As a developer who hopes to make a living from making and maintaining games, it’s hard to keep the excitement going to develop the game. Not to say that we don’t love the game anymore, but it isn’t letting us accomplish our goals.

I can relate to Dave’s situation because that’s exactly the same position I was in with Meridian 59, although on a slightly large scale. For many years, M59 had enough players to pay the team a meager wage and keep the lights on. But, the game wasn’t helping me to accomplish my professional goals. As a colleague mentioned to me, I need to work on something else successful in order to really advance my career. As M59 failed to get traction with a larger audience, and thus give us more resources to expand the game and develop others, my own career stagnated. As I shifted my focus away from the game, some players became rather irate.

I still love Meridian 59 (just as I know Dave still loves Golemizer), so it hurts us to leave it behind. But, as Dave says, “So that ‘Golemizer guy’ is now looking to become that ‘game developer guy’.” Likewise, I decided I want to go from being that ‘Meridian 59 guy’ to something bigger. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that while M59 was running as a commercial concern. I certainly do wish all the luck to the current operators of Meridian 59.

The second issue Dave touches upon is how something that is very impressive doesn’t necessarily give you a free pass with an audience. Dave did two really amazing things: he developed an open-world, sandbox type MMO by himself. He also created an animated game with a pure Javascript client. Both amazing things, but this hasn’t gotten him special press attention.

And, make no mistake, both of these are impressive accomplishments. The fact that a single person re-created an open sandbox game with an original concept (building golems) is nothing short of amazing. Usually sandbox games like this require a lot of developer work. As I’ve told Dave before, teh fact that he tackled this as his first project was just insane. Added to that the fact that he created a client that doesn’t require a download like Flash is pretty amazing. But, these technical feats don’t give him a free pass. People are still going to compare Golemizer to other MMOs. Sadly, WoW players aren’t going to flock to his game and make him an overnight millionaire.

Again, this is something I can relate to with M59, although on a lesser scale this time. It was hard work resurrecting an MMO and running it on a shoestring budget. But, people still compared us to other games like EQ, or later WoW, and found us wanting. Even if we didn’t think we should be competing with them, we were. And, of course, the “true PvP fans” wouldn’t stoop so low as to try out an established (read: old) game with mediocre graphics that promised a lot of what they claimed they wanted.

In the end, being an indie is still hard work. For every huge success like Runescape, there are several more languishing in the shadows with a project that never quite reaches a wider audience. We don’t need the millions of people the larger games do, but we do need enough people to keep food on the table and perhaps even save some money for that “old age” thing I hear about.


  1. Interesting! Never really considered MMO development from this point of view before. Niche MMO development from a single dev is really risky business when you see it from this point of view. So what makes Runescape so popular compared to Golemizer or Meridian 59?

    Comment by Coppertopper — 25 May, 2010 @ 4:22 PM

  2. Without going into too much dept as I don’t think I can for sure find the one perfect answer to this I’d say it’s a mix of a lot of things.

    First I made a couple of mistakes and even though I was a noob and mistakes were to be expected I could have avoid some of those (like taking way too long before releasing something and have players look at it). I should have scaled down the project a bit to achieve that to be able to have something more polished a bit sooner. Like Brian said even if the whole thing was impressive as a project it didn’t make a good enough impression when I released so I missed a big window there.

    So the first part concerns me. Hopefully I learned from that. Here are some other things crossing my mind. Just don’t consider this as me bitching about why it didn’t work as hoped but as me doing my best to figure it out.

    The fact that it was niche wasn’t something to help. Give a sword to a player and the player will automatically know he must kill something with it. Give a sandbox where combat is a minor part and … well it’s not as easy to get in.

    Time of release. Runescape was released in 2001. The web wasn’t what it is now and it was probably easier to be noticed. Today we are flooded with news about great indie developers, web games, success stories that another guy giving it a shot is not big news anymore. People have seen many games now so the context of being alone building your own thing isn’t an excuse to release something that might not be as good as what people already know.

    Almost no press. Whatever the reason it had no press (not polished enough, ugly, buggy, whatever you can think about) it’s a problem. The game did improved a lot with time but people can’t start playing it if they don’t even know it exists. I’ve worked with 3 partners that could have spread the word but barely no efforts were done to help (you would think that if they want to make some money they would help but no). So yes it’s not an AAA production, it can be rough at times but even if just 100 persons out of 100,000 would like to play the game they can’t because they don’t even know it’s there. I’ve tried ads (expensive), partners (like I said 3 of them and not some unknown portals), sending news/press release/personal mails, ninja posts on forums/blogs but it comes to a point you really need a hand otherwise it’s just not happening.

    People are playing Runescape. A lot of players in Golemizer have been playing or are still playing Runescape and I receive frequently mails that compare both games. If they like Golemizer it’s usually good but there’s always something about “how that part is not as good as Runescape”. It would be easy for me to say it’s unfair to compare Golemizer to a game that existed for almost 10 years with now a full team working on it but I have to deal with Golemizer being compared to Runescape anyway.

    Not thinking about money soon enough. Sounds stupid but I guess I’ve been fooled by stories of ads and donations and it didn’t apply to Golemizer. Even though the number of players is not enough to make more money than is needed to run the server adding microtransactions was a lot of work and that counts toward your motivation and fatigue level. When you’re not feeling well it starts having an impact on the game. Thinking about this right at first would probably have change nothing at the number of players but would have changed something on my side at least.

    I’m sure Brian will have a better answer at this as he’s the wise one but that’s just some stuff I think may have an impact at some point. Overall I know that a lot comes down to me and the mistakes I made but I now also know that it’s just not that either. Call it luck or anything but like I said a mix of things.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 25 May, 2010 @ 7:58 PM

  3. As usual, Dave is probably a bit too hard on himself. When you’re in the middle of things, all you tend to see are your mistakes.

    But, why is any game more popular than others? I agree with Dave, there is no one reason. Perhaps one game had a bigger marketing budget, or another hit at the right time and found its audience easier, or the developer hit a lucky break in getting some scarce coverage. The classic example here is that Myst hit at the right time with CD technology coming to the forefront. The game sold CD drives, and the increasing availability of CD drives drove sales of the game.

    I definitely think that Runescape was a hit at just the right time, and it was able to find its audience with a new type of business model. I disagree with Dave that it was easier to get attention, keep in mind that 2001 was nearly the peak of EQ’s reign. Runescape definitely had to deal with larger competition. But, Runescape tapped into a younger (and thus more restricted) market. It ran in Java in a browser so it was easy to play anywhere, even school and library computers that wouldn’t otherwise allow people to install a client. Players could try the game for free, and then pay a low amount to get “premium” features; this allowed fans to get their friends to play without much hassle, with the encouragement to upgrade later to get more features.

    On the other hand, Meridian 59 required a client download so it was going to be compared to other client download games. M59′s focus on PvP gameplay meant that the community wasn’t always very welcoming of newcomers. It also meant that we couldn’t really do a “free trial” because that would allow people to create throwaway mules to harass paying customers. It was hard to expand the audience for the game for all these reasons. Maybe life would have been different if we had gotten the big graphic engine revision done earlier and had gotten a bit more attention. Ultimately, the question I ask myself is if I did the best I could have given the situation I was in. I think I did, even if I had hoped M59 would have grown bigger than it did.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 May, 2010 @ 8:22 PM

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