Getting past that old MMOG grind

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It's called grinding. Or farming. To players of massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs), it means killing the same monster over and over and over in order to earn experience points. No, it's not fun, but it's one of those repetitive drudgeries one endures in order to "level up" in a typical MMOG.

There are gamers who choose not to play MMOGs because they find them to be a "stagnant, increasingly generic genre," according to Michael Wallis, CEO of two-year-old, Reno, Nevada-based Colony Studios, whose staff of ten industry vets is hoping to inject new life into this particular variety of videogame.

His company isn't alone. According to industry observers, there are currently at least 64 MMOGs in development, more than just a few claiming they'll be bringing new excitement to the party -- new methods of gameplay and new competitive strategies that may, perhaps, attract an even wider audience than the competition.

Their most obvious target is "World Of Warcraft," a 2-1/2-year-old MMOG that, according to its developer, Blizzard Entertainment, is now being played by more than eight million gamers worldwide with over two million in North America, more than 1.5 million in Europe, and over 3.5 million in China.

Grind or no grind, clearly gamers find something they like in "WoW," as it is commonly known.

" 'WoW' has done a number of really good things. But, if you look at any of the current MMOGs, much of the gameplay is exactly the same as that in 'WoW' which is pretty much the same as that in 'Everquest' which is eight years old already," observes Colony's Wallis. "You have these iterations on graphics and technology, but the core gameplay is essentially the same. They've got that same grind where a quest guy says 'I need you to bring me 10 orc scalps,' and you walk off to kill maybe 50 orcs to get those 10 scalps. How exciting is that? We intend to move beyond that."

Similarly, at Flagship Studios and at Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, titles are being crafted that, their creators say, will be part of the next-generation of MMOG that will appeal to hardcore gamers as well as a mass-market audience.

But the hurdles that exist behind the scenes at an MMOG developer hint at why creating a successful product can be such a challenge.

At Colony, it's still not clear which of two directions its project is headed due to contractual issues. Plans are to license a major Hollywood science-fiction property but, because the talks with the studio are still ongoing, Wallis was unable to confirm the specific property.

If the licensing deal falls through -- which is possible if fees can't be agreed upon -- Colony intends to create its game around its own original sci-fi IP. Regardless, work on both possibilities is continuing in parallel.

"That's our fallback position," says Wallis, "and if we have to use it, we wouldn't lose that much momentum. A lot depends on how well we do shaking the bushes for VC funding. If we can close the series-A funding round sometime this summer, then we can secure the license, relocate the entire team to our Reno studios, and launch in late 2009 after a 28-month development cycle, which is our goal."

However, securing a Hollywood license can cost more than a fledgling studio can afford. Wallis recalls that Colony was originally founded in order to build an MMOG from the "Battlestar Galactica" TV series.

"But Universal wanted $9 million for a four-year contract," he says. "It's great to secure a license like that given the property's built-in audience, but licenses have to be renewed at some point. And, with a successful MMOG, the licensor can really hold you hostage at renewal time. Because there's no way to tell how long an MMOG will continue to exist -- "Ultima Online," for example, is still going strong after 10 years -- there's a huge potential upside. With a licensed property, all of that can come crashing to a halt once the license is up.

"So I told them that $9 million just didn't make sense because," Wallis adds, "if they come back to us in four years and want another $9 million, we wouldn't have even recouped our expenses by then. When you use your own original IP, no one can threaten to shut you down."

Regardless whether Colony's MMOG uses licensed or original IP, Wallis and his team -- who have all had experience on earlier MMOGs like "WoW," "EVE Online," "City Of Heroes," "Everquest," and "Ultima Online' -- intend to build something that is different from today's fare.

"We're going to be more hardcore than 'WoW' and you're not going to have your hand held throughout the game," he explains. "Our MMOG is going to be all about choices in your own personal story line and how the environment will react to those choices."

He also intends to focus on PvP (player vs. player) action -- meaning players will pit their skills against other players, as opposed to being limited to struggles against monsters and the environment.

"I think gamers yearn for the wild early days of the original 'Ultima Online' when you were able to leave the confines of a protected city, wander around the wilderness, and encounter other players who may or may not be friendly. It got your heart pumping, your adrenaline flowing; that's the sort of unrestricted PvP action we intend to provide."

Like, Colony Studios, Mesa, Arizona-based Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment opened in 2005 specifically to develop an MMOG from a licensed TV sci-fi property -- MGM's "Stargate SG-1." But, unlike Colony, Cheyenne has the license in hand and is on track to release it in 2008, "hopefully earlier in the year than later," says Joe Ybarra, senior VP of strategic operations.

Ybarra's plan is to take the best from what "World of Warcraft" has to offer and then to utilize a multi-tiered strategy to differentiate the new MMOG, "Stargate Worlds."

"The big claim to fame of 'WoW' is its ease of use," he explains, "which is what's attracted people who have never played an MMOG before. Similarly, we expect to have lots of really big 'Stargate SG-1' TV fans drawn to our game, many of whom have never even played a computer game before, let alone an MMOG. We need to address that audience on the front end by letting folks ease into the product. But then, once we've got them hooked, we need to kick off the kid gloves and give them an exciting game that will appeal to medium- and hardcore gamers as well. It's quite a challenge."

Ybarra hopes to capitalize on the fact that the action on "Stargate SG-1" involves modern combat as opposed to the medieval sparrings in "WoW" and most MMOGs.

In addition, the new MMOG will focus on the Stargate itself, which allows players to step through a portal and be anywhere in the universe allowing for endless exploration possibilities.

And the MMOG will be packed with casual mini-games, a genre that has soared in popularity recently, especially among gaming's mass-market audience.

Those elements -- modern warfare, exploration, and casual mini-games -- are expected to add to the replayability of "Stargate Worlds," notes Ybarra.

"The paradigm for customer retention at 'WoW' and most of the other MMOGs is to build a game that takes the player 2,000 hours to reach Level 500, which is where the level cap is," he explains. "At that point, they're pretty burnt out with 'WoW' fatigue and they stop, never having seen maybe half the content of the game. We intend, instead, to design it so that it takes 200 hours to get to the level cap for any particular character, and then entice the player to see the gameplay from a different perspective using another character. In other words, every time you play through, it's an entirely different experience. We're thinking that we invested a lot of money and energy building all that content; we might as well encourage gamers to go through and see it all."

Ybarra's team is working closely with the TV show's producers, Brad Wright and Robert Cooper in Vancouver, to integrate content from the show into the game. At the same time, the goal is to take game content and insert it into the show.

"It's exciting to be tied to a TV show that's still being produced," says Ybarra, "which opens up all sorts of possibilities for us, especially ones that will enhance the game's replayability. We're going to do anything we can to eliminate the incessant grind that MMOG players are subjected to."

San Francisco-based Flagship Studios is a developer known for its high percentage of former Blizzard employees, giving its development team more than a little impetus to improve on its alma mater's 'WoW.'

"What you're seeing is that everyone is trying to dethrone the current champion by trying to improve on it incrementally, without actually breaking the mold," observes Phil Shenk, Flagship's art director. "But that's not easy given the tremendous brand loyalty that Blizzard has."

Shenk says that while basing an MMOG on a Hollywood license is compelling, he believes that it's often harder to translate that non-game property into something on which gamers will spend their money.

"A license isn't going to provide what it takes to upset the current reigning champion," he adds.

He cited, as an example, the film "The Matrix" which became the MMOG "Matrix Online" and met with only a warm reception from gamers. "It was a good IP, it had tremendous potential, only it wasn't that magic combination -- that perfect storm -- of tremendous brand loyalty and great gameplay," he observes.

And so, rather than depend on a known property for one of the MMOGs currently in progress at Flagship, says Shenk, the team recalled the extraordinarily popular gameplay of "Diablo II" which it created back in 2000 at Blizzard.

"Where 'WoW' is one big, persistent world," explains Shenk, "our MMOG 'Mythos' takes Diablo II to the next level with fast gameplay and towns where everyone can meet and medieval dungeons where you and your party can have your adventures."

As with "Stargate Worlds," plans are to create a game that appeals to hardcore gamers but has the "accessibility" -- the current buzzword for MMOGs -- for traditional non-gamers, "like moms and grandmoms," says Shenk.

At its birth, "Mythos" began as merely a test to check Flagship's network servers for its other MMOG, "Hellgate," which is being published by Namco and distributed by Electronic Arts. But, as "Mythos" grew, the design team decided to turn it into a product of its own that is expected to be released late this year or early next year.

Because "Mythos" is not based on licensed IP, Shenk has high hopes for its success.

"The problem with licensed IP," he says, "is that the developers start focusing more on the license than on the gameplay. That's because the publisher will typically say 'Here's a great license ... now go on and build a great, finely tuned, very innovative, compelling game to go with it.' And that's a very hard thing to order up. There's are only a few developers in the world who can make a game like that and they really need to have control over it and make the choices based on gameplay decisions, not the license."

He predicts that innovation in MMOGs in the next few years will come from developers that have a strong vested interest in making the games they want to make.

"When the license holder wants to exert too much control over the game world," he adds, "well, that's what can really hurt a game."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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