DMO: Making the Wrong Game

I spent almost a year as the lead writer of Dark Millennium Online, the 40K MMO, at Vigil Games in Austin. As is typical with a new job, I spent the first 3 or 4 months getting up to speed and learning how the company worked. After I had settled in, playtested the game on an ongoing basis, and done a bunch of writing, a feeling began to grow inside me. The more I thought about it, the more I felt we were making the wrong game.

There had been a lot of trial and error at Vigil before I got there. The game I worked on was actually the third attempt (the first being a ill-considered WoW clone; how THQ approved that idea I don’t know). By the time of my tenure, the moment to moment gameplay was like a shooter game and the MMO elements were very slow in coming. The company’s leadership believed all that stuff was “easy” and could be done later. The people with MMO design experience said, “Uh, that shit is not easy.” It didn’t matter. 

The proposed scope of the game was huge. Imperial, Eldar, Chaos, and Orks were all to be playable factions with unique character classes and content. With all the different factions, the use of other 40K races like Tyranids and Necrons, the inclusion of vehicles, and a robust endgame, the assets needed were enormous. No surprise then that Vigil had to sell THQ on a respec that scaled this all down for launch. 

Even if the new plan had worked, the cost of the game was easily going to end up at $50 to $60 million, and this while THQ was already floundering. Maybe it’s my hobby gaming background, but it just seemed crazy to me to risk that much money on a MMO when the pattern already seemed clear. Even games with successful launches (and many never even got there) saw big sales the first months and then a nosedive that cratered their numbers within a year. Remember Age of Conan, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, or Tabula Rasa? 

I thus began to think that instead of spending all that money on one roll of the dice, we could be building a 40K shooter franchise. Start with a game in which you play a Space Marine. Have a good campaign with a strong story, and then multiplayer for PVP. You could then follow it up with more games that explored different aspects of the 40K universe. The second game could feature an Eldar protagonist, the third a Tau, etc. All the while you are building up a library of assets and hopefully a fanbase. After the development of the first game, you can crank out one of these a year. Less risk per title, regular revenue, and a franchise you can build on sound a lot better to me than 5 years of development and 1 year of trying to make your money back. 

I talked about this with colleagues but no one thought it would fly. THQ wanted a MMO, GW had been sold on a MMO, and Vigil’s leadership wanted to prove they could do a MMO. About six months after I left, Vigil laid off almost everyone I worked with on DMO. THQ announced that it would now become a single player game. That news would have excited me while I worked there; now, I very much doubt such a game will ever appear from THQ/Vigil.

Postscript

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a little more about the Vigil team. While I had my problems with the leadership and certain managers, overall my colleagues were a great bunch of talented people. I was certainly not the only one who became frustrated with the project. Still, I’m glad I had the experience and I’m glad I made some good friends in the process. 

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I’ve Seen This Before

I was just starting my freelance writing career when Magic: The Gathering came out of nowhere and invented the collectible card game. WotC went from a small RPG company to a giant practically overnight. The game industry hadn’t seen that kind of money for a long time, so soon everyone was chasing the dragon. Two years after Magic’s launch there were a huge number of CCGs that had been pushed out. Many succeeded in making some money initially but then petered out (usually at about the point they released a “standard set”). Most of the Class of ‘95 games were dead by ‘98. Who remembers games like Battlelords, Heresy, OverPower, Red Zone, or Towers in Time. 

The costs to make a CCG are huge. You need hundreds of pieces of art and to make the game collectible you need to print way more cards than you’d have in a non-collectible game (those common cards have to come from somewhere). Releasing any CCG is a big roll of the dice and taking that chance wrecked a lot of companies. Still, new companies continue to launch new CCGs. WotC itself launched a long series of failed games until they struck gold again with Pokemon (which they didn’t design, ironically enough). Sometimes I forget that CCGs like C23, Looney Tunes, and MLB Showdown even happened. Then after Pokemon there was Star Wars, Xiaolin Showdown, and Hecatomb, and more. But Magic always made up for those sins, and indeed Magic is doing better now than ever before. Its competitors? Not so much. Sure, there are some successes. Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!  have shown surprisingly longevity. A handful of old guard games like L5R and Shadowfist soldier on. It’s been clear for a long time though that trying to launch a new CCG was a sucker’s game. 

MMOs are like CCGs but writ even larger. To make a AAA game, you need to spend tens of millions of dollars and years in development. And for all that money and effort, you get to roll the dice…once. The odds, as always, are with the house. And guess what? You are not the house. 

allandaros said: I hadn't realized that you were lead writer on Dark Millennium. Now I'm even sadder that it got shelved! Anyway, question. What would need to change for new MMOs to be viable?

Companies need to stop chasing WoW. The resources required to make a AAA MMO of that type are enormous and the road is littered with the corpses of those who have tried. 

The typical MMO creates a head of steam and then does this. Why put yourself through that? If you are thinking of making a MMO, cancel your plans immediately and give me $1,000,000. I promise to make cool tabletop games with that money and it’ll go a long way in my business. You’ll save yourself the pain of launching a MMO and save a lot of money in the end. It’s win win!

The typical MMO creates a head of steam and then does this. Why put yourself through that? If you are thinking of making a MMO, cancel your plans immediately and give me $1,000,000. I promise to make cool tabletop games with that money and it’ll go a long way in my business. You’ll save yourself the pain of launching a MMO and save a lot of money in the end. It’s win win!

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