Mythic VP and lead "Warhammer Online" designer Mark Jacobs told me some of the things needed to make a successful MMO. But he also said if you're looking to make an online game nowadays, the odds are against you.
"If you look at the numbers, MMOs have the highest failure rates of any entertainment product," Jacobs said. Going all the way back 11 years to the release of "Ultima Online," the first MMO to reach 100,000 subscribers, he said that there have only a been handful of successful MMOs compared to the number of them being developed.
I mentioned how the measure of success nowadays might be if your game still exists in a year. "It does seem that way," he said, "and it is just tremendously sad when you look at the amount of money and effort that goes into MMOs."
In our recent conversation about the state of online games, we also touched on why last year's "Hellgate: London" went under, and what the troubled "Age of Conan" can do to prevent the same fate.
First, we discussed "Hellgate: London," the online action-RPG was made by Jacobs' long-time friend Bill Roper. Though Roper had experience as VP of Blizzard North working on the "Diablo" series, his company Flagship Studios recently closed its doors following the release of "Hellgate," its first title, last October. So what went wrong?
"I know for a fact that sometimes just having talent is not enough," Jacobs said after a long sigh. "You need leadership and you need patience. And what's most important -- something that so many developers forget -- is you also need to deflate the ego a little bit. You really have to remember that as good as you were then -- 'Diablo' was a great game -- you're not always going to be right... I think for 'Hellgate,' that was part of the problem."
"What's most important -- something that so many developers forget -- is you also need to deflate the ego a little bit."
He also said that no matter how great you think your game is, developers must listen to the community. "It doesn't mean you have to follow what they say, but you always have to listen," he said. "The test of greatness is to know how to look at it and either incorporate it or learn from it. We might listen to the wrong advice, but we always listen. That's how I think all developers have to be because nobody is that smart and nobody is right all the time."
On the topic of the listening to the community, I wondered what Jacobs thought about Funcom's May-released MMO "Age of Conan" and the trouble the company has had in terms of delivering promises to its fanbase. Blizzard president Mike Morhaime recently said that 40 percent of "WoW" players who left for "Conan" have since returned.
"If I was a 'WoW' subscriber, and I played another game hoping it would be great and it wasn't, of course I would come back," he said. "I'm not saying 'Conan' sucks but obviously the people who left it thought it sucked, otherwise they wouldn't have left it. And the same thing may happen to us... 'Conan' had great sales initially, but then [Funcom] failed to follow up with continued great sales. If you're not selling boxes anymore, if players aren't talking about how good your game is, then obviously people are not happy with it."
"When they looked at ['Age of Conan'] when they were ready to launch, I can't imagine how they didn't see the issues that other people saw."
With Jacobs having played the game and having read fan postings on both the "Warhammer" and "Age of Conan" forums, he thought that Funcom should have delayed the game. "I think that the greatest mistake that they made was not listening and not learning from what had gone before," Jacobs said, referring to the launch issues of Funcom's "Anarchy Online" in 2001. "When they looked at ['Age of Conan'] when they were ready to launch, I can't imagine how they didn't see the issues that other people saw. According to their annual reports, they had plenty of money. They should've looked at it and said, 'We need to delay this game.' There are probably reasons I'm not aware of... but I think that's their biggest sin."
Jacobs said not all was lost for "Conan," but with "Warhammer" and another "WoW" expansion on the way, they've now lost their head start. "If they're willing to spend the time and the money to fix the things that -- according to the players -- are broken, and put in the things that players say they didn't put in, they can turn it around," he said. "But now they're going to have to leapfrog over us and then leapfrog over Blizzard in order to bring back a ton of players -- that's going to be tough. They won't be what they could've been."
"We need to show the world that it's not just Blizzard who can make a great game."
Though "Age of Conan" is competition, Jacobs told me he actually wanted the game to do well. "At some level I wanted 'Conan' to succeed because for the last few years people have been saying it's all Blizzard and nobody else can do it," he said. "'Only Blizzard can get those kind of numbers,' and so far they've been right. But now it's our turn."
He added, "If we don't succeed with EA behind us, the 'Warhammer' IP behind us, with one of the most experienced teams in the industry, that's not going to be good for the industry. We need to show the world that it's not just Blizzard who can make a great game, and that the audience is absolutely willing to try new things and to play a game other than 'WoW.'"