When I recently spoke to Cryptic design director Bill Roper about his new game “Champions Online,” we also talked about the successes and failures of the MMO genre. In our discussion, Roper, a friend of Mythic’s Mark Jacobs, mentioned just how “Warhammer Online” will continue to thrive.
I recently had the chance to speak with Cryptic’s Bill Roper, industry veteran and design director of “Champions Online” at New York Comic Con. In our lengthy conversation, he discussed the business side of supporting an MMO, the MMO landscape as a whole, and what kind of help online games, like his own and “Warhammer Online,” need to continue to grow.
MTV Multiplayer: You say it’s a good time for MMOs, but people could look at “Tabula Rasa,” “Age of Conan” and some might even say “Warhammer Online,” and think that it’s not really a good time for MMOs. What do you think about that?
Bill Roper: I think the challenge is what genre are you in. And to be blunt about it, if you’re anywhere closely associated with a fantasy MMORPG, you’re trying to convince everyone not to play “[World of] Warcraft,” and that’s pretty tough. I think that it also depends on what your expectations are. It’s so funny, I hear half the people are saying, “Oh gosh, ’Warhammer’ looks like it isn’t doing so great,” because they said they had 300,000 subscribers. Those are not bad numbers. And I think people look at it and go, “Well, ’WoW’ has got 11 million and your game only has 300,000, your game must not be doing good.”
“If you’re… a fantasy MMORPG, you’re trying to convince everyone not to play ’[World of] Warcraft,’ and that’s pretty tough.”
You have to throw the aberration out. It’s like when you’re in school, and there’s the one kid that gets 100% on every single test. You have to throw him out of the curve to actually see how everyone else compares because everyone fails when compared to that guy. But I think that there are a lot of MMOs out that are thriving. And the good side about that is that you can have a few hundred thousand subscribers, do great, keep the company alive, grow it over time and keep it moving. I really think that the biggest challenge maybe is that there’s a much higher expectation now for MMOs. And it’s really tracking more like traditional console sales, where if you don’t have a certain amount when you launch — you have to get that big forward momentum at the beginning. …
I think when you see the ones that succeed and survive over time it’s because they have a publisher that understands that model. “No, we’re going to support that. It came out, it’s doing well. You’ve got a base. It’s fiscally sound. We’re going to keep pouring more into it.” And that’s getting a lot of bigger publishers to realize that mindset. Everybody wants to do an MMO because they see it as having a great business model, but if they don’t understand the development side and what that means… They come out and they go, “Oh, we got an MMO. 100,000 subscribers? 300,000 subscribers? Okay, kill it.”
I know many games out there that would love to have 300,000 subscribers. There are very few games that continue to grow their numbers after launch. And I know [“Warhammer” is] not launched everywhere either. I don’t think they’re in Asia yet. There’s a lot of room to still be able to grow their numbers.
“I know many games out there that would love to have 300,000 subscribers.”
You saw that even when, for example, “EverQuest” was king, people would go and try some other MMO. [The game gets] the numbers and then [players] go, “I’m going to go back to the game I’ve been playing for a while.” And then the number would dip back down, but then they peaked at that number, right? I think a lot of people, especially because of the similarities that exist, you saw a lot of “WoW” players go, “Hey, I’m going to check out ’Warhammer.’ Okay, ’Lich King,’ I’m going to run back over and do that.” So the numbers dipped back down, but they maintained a vast majority of the people that signed up, and they’re only going to be able to grow that in new markets. I think it’s a really good thing. I’m sure [Mythic head] Mark [Jacobs] would always love bigger numbers, but I can’t imagine he’s disappointed that he’s only got that many. That’s a lot of players to keep happy, and a good base to build off of.
MTV Multiplayer: Well, with the recent layoffs at the company as well, people may assume that it’s not doing well.
Roper: No matter what genre your game is, it’s bad times economically right now. It’s difficult, especially when they’re publicly-traded companies that have to look at their bottom lines. I think it’s maybe less connected to the fact that whether a game does well or not, and more just the industry as a whole. Some companies are really thriving in general because of their entire broad-based categories. So they hire and other ones cut back.
“[Cryptic is] spending a lot of time working on… lowering our system requirements [for our games].”
I still think it’s an exciting time to be doing MMOs. I think there’s growth there and that there’s actually a lot more growth that’s possible. There are still some countries where they really aren’t that big and popular yet, and others where they really, really are. It’s just finding ones that are appealing to people. And a lot of that is accessibility. One of the things we’re [Cryptic] spending a lot of time working on right now is lowering our system requirements [for our games]. And making sure if somebody bought a computer a few years ago, they can still play. If they have a laptop, they can still play.
I think that sometimes where difficulties lie. It’s like “Wow, it’s really good game, and it looks great,” but only 20% of the possible playerbase can actually play it because the system requirements are so high. So there are so many elements to juggle, and MMOs are a long-term investment from players and from developers, too. I think “Warhammer”’s got a lot of awesome stuff about it, obviously the Mythic guys are great. I’ve known Mark forever, it seems like.
MTV Multiplayer: As a friend, do you have any words of advice or support for him now?
Roper: Well, it’s not Mark’s first time at the rodeo. [laughs] He knows he has a great game that has a lot of great elements, he knows he’s got a good community base. If there are people who don’t realize the intricacies of the MMO market, really, he’s a great guy internally at EA to be showing them that, saying “Oh, this is really how it goes.”
“The mindset of publishers is still, ’Here’s money to get a game out.’ And then the game launches, and… ’You’re done, right?'”
But it is difficult. At [the now defunct] Flagship [Studios], we had a certain amount of people. And we tried to grow it, but we were an independent company. It’s really hard for indie developers to stay alive because the mindset of publishers is still, “Here’s money to get a game out.” And then the game launches, and… “You’re done, right?” And it’s really difficult to build into most publishers’ mindsets that we really need to fund the game a certain amount of time after launch so we can keep making content.
That’s one of the big problems we got into, is that there were really no specified provisions on where continued development money was going to come from. So when we got the game out, and then everyone agreed we needed to do more and these other things had to happen, but at the same time, who’s going to pay for that? We paid for it as long as we could. But I think that that’s something that’s slowly becoming more recognized — that [MMOs are] a longer commitment. Because they are games that naturally grow over time and they are organic.
Cryptic’s Bill Roper Talks ’Champions Online,’ MMOs and ’Hellgate’ Hopes
’Warhammer’ Userbase Below Launch Sign-Up Mark
Mythic VP Explains What Went Wrong With ’Hellgate,’ Why He Wanted ’Age of Conan’ To Succeed