25 May, 2010
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.
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.