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Friday, 14 February 2003

The curse of massively multiplayer immersive games

The ultimate problem with the massively multiplayer immersive gaming genre as it stands at the moment is a profound and depressing lack of innovation: since Microsoft/Warner Brothers released the AI promotion (and I hate to be carping on about this), the amount of real and successful innovation in the field has been next to nil. The main (weak) additions to the genre have been that of prize money (and there may well be problems with that, depending on what kind of game you're trying to build), and even more media tie-ins.

To be blunt: they have all, to a greater or lesser extent, sucked.

Spooks, a BBC production, was tied into a television series, but lacked prize money, and--probably due to constraints imposed by the BBC--made no effort whatsoever to get the player to suspend her sense of belief at any time. It was a game. It told you it was a game. There was even a disclaimer. This, though, isn't necessarily a problem. The fact that the BBC was behind Spooks is a special case that I'll come back to later.

Push, Nevada, a game trumpeted with a television series, or a television series trumpeted with a game, had nothing to offer but swathes of corporate advertising and a large cash prize.

Both of these games were free. The BBC, with what seems to be limitless pockets, was able to carry Spooks to term. It helped that Spooks was a gripping television series that earned stellar ratings and is back for a second series. It helped that the writing was good and that the producers were perfectly happy with killing off a main character in the middle of the series, shocking viewers out of their seats. It also helped that the BBC is funded by a licence fee that anybody with a television has to pay, raking in a net income of 2.371 million in 2000-2001.

Push, Nevada, on the other hand, appeared not to have killer writing or, at least, wasn't attractive in its genre. It was hard to explain. It was described as a Twin Peaks-esque television show. It failed miserably in its timeslot. It was stillborn. Oh, and it offered you the chance to win a fairly large amount of money.

You see, smacking a large wodge of cash down on the table is a great way of attracting people to your product. So is, well, making an engaging product. Note: these two concepts aren't mutually exclusive, but for some reason, people find that smacking the large wodge of cash down is probably a) cheaper than making a good product and, crucially, b) easier than making a good product.

The depressing thing is that not only is the innovation in this area close to nill, but production values have gone down the drain, too. The result is that we've seen project after project fail after an abysmal run. Majestic? Canned. Push, Nevada? Canned. Terraquest? Canned.

What to do? No one who has produced a subscription or registration model product has managed to pull it off in this genre. Majestic (subscription) and TerraQuest (registration/one-off) both flopped. Why? Assuming that marketing wasn't a problem in Majestic's case, judging from the carpet-bombing approach of interviews and hype, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that the content wasn't too hot: we already know that it's possible to attract a reasonable-sized audience on the promise of recurring content provided it's good: something the MS team did well with the AI campaign provided the content is free. Unfortunately, it's becoming rapidly apparent that in spite of the "reasonable-sized audience" that the MS team attracted, such audiences are not yet ready to provide sufficient pay-for revenue for production.

We know that the Beast "sort-of" worked, but that we can't rely on it since it was free and ideally we'd like to make money out of this type of venture. Assuming that all subsequent pay-for events failed because they were, quite honestly, not good enough, this leads to the kinds of questions that financiers will have to ask and that are terribly uncomfortable to answer. The underlying message is that your content is incredibly important. Great. We knew that. We also know that the Ultimate Question is: how do we make good content? This is the problem, and one that is hard to answer.

It's like asking what goes into making a great book, movie or album: we can work out, more or less, a list of what goes into not making a great book, movie or album, but trying to positively define what goes into producing good content invariably leads to a waffle-filled statement that's not much use.

We have an additional problem that's peculiar to this particular genre: with Microsoft's effort, the development team quickly found that they had--intentionally or not--targeted a hard core of infovores. These people would slave away, twenty four hours a day and grab up every single last piece of information and try and connect every single dot. They are a content producer's worse nightmare, because nothing you can do can satisfy them. The scarcity is on your side, not theirs: limited resources to produce limited content for an insatiable audience.

How terrible! Now not only do we have to create magic content that, de facto, we'll be taking a risk on, but we have to produce impossible amounts of it. Now the lack of innovation in the field after the efforts of the MS team sound increasingly like an inevitable death knell, producing still-born extravaganzas.

The whole point of this genre is that the interactivity is the draw, but immersive interactivity isn't really a draw when the immersion is lacking: good content provides immersion. You find yourself drawn into a good storyline and are willing to suspend your sense of belief, but this isn't going to happen when the writing is atrocious, the characters unbelievable, the production values low and the (unintentional) typos manifold.

This, of course, poses a problem. Given that we know that good content will attract an audience and that we know that, for these purposes, we'll be requiring vast swathes of content, how exactly are we supposed to finance it? Good content isn't cheap. The standard model so far has been hoping that the advertisers will flock to the rescue, and it's not yet clear whether they will. The advertising market as it stands is depressed and purse strings are drawn tight.

Assuming that we're able to persuade at least some companies to open their fists and let go of some funding on the basis that everyone prior to the pitched effort really wasn't trying hard enough and this time--honest--we've got it, how do we show that we're able to expose eyeballs to their all important brand? There's ways of doing this, and unfortunately, they all involve getting on the cluetrain. The line between subtly working product into a storyline without it bashing the player over the head:

"Hm, maybe the Tivo we bought yesterday has recorded that programme we needed to check on the WB?"

is a thin one, but it can be navigated. It's not as if product placement hasn't been used elsewhere. On the other hand, this is the web--and the web has overt advertising. Considerations as to whether or not to exercise certain activities over, say, a database full of player email addresses are left as an exercise for the reader.

The next problem is that of generating good content cheaply. Don't think you'll be able to solve this problem. Don't think, either, that you can count on getting good content for free. Good content will cost. Lots. Your task is to find the point at which diminishing returns set in, the point at which you've maximised your audience and minimised your expenditure.

If you're clever--or, in some cases, if you're just lucky--your audience will help you by creating its own content. The observation that many of the killer apps of the internet have been based on fulfilling social needs (think instant messaging, email, and sites like classmates.com) should lend you to the undeniable conclusion that sooner or later (hopefully the former over the latter), a community will spring up around your content. This community is your best friend, ever. You'll want to keep its pulse, you'll want to know what it's been saying and doing while you've been asleep because, quite frankly, if you don't, you're flying blind. Unfortunately, even with community created content, you can still quite easily be doomed.

By now, you may well have spent all your money, in which case it's probably a good idea to work out how you're actually going to make this entire endeavour worth your while. Besides basking in the warm glow of seeing your audience (hopefully) talk about the enjoyment that your product has bought into their life, it's assumed that making some sort of financial gain might not be too outlandish a concept.

The last problem is that of the size of the audience and the distribution of its makeup. As well as the MS effort did in terms of drawing people in, the audience still wasn't particularly large compared to those that hit Yahoo! Games day in, day out. The general consensus is that in this type of situation, we'll get a sort of power law curve (aren't they trendy nowadays) of participation, not a bell curve, where a disproportionately small number of users is driving thousands of others. These are the infovores, and the general public won't want to play like them. They're fast, they're smart, and they quite clearly don't have jobs that they're particularly worried about because they spend Every Waking Minute grinding through content. In some senses, they're not even "playing" your creation, they're steamrollering through it. They have to be held back from cracking into your servers. How are you going to level this out? There are implications when there's a hardcore who have pushed ahead and done everything before everyone else. It gets discouraging. It's like standing in line for a film when two hundred and fifty people run in to the theatre, stay for five seconds, then run out saying that it wasn't particularly worth seeing.

No one has made this work yet, but maybe your content is better than theirs was, and maybe your hook is. On the other hand, maybe--just maybe--you can find other ways of making money: SMS interactivity is a big deal in Europe. It makes money, and we're not talking about negligible amounts, we're talking about amounts enough to fund a project of this nature. It's not hard to see how premium SMS rates could be worked into the immersive fiction genre (and if you can't see how, you should probably think about a change of career).

Bottom line: if you think you've got killer content, and you've got to be honest with yourself about this, it's going to be hard to persuade people to consciously part with money in either a subscription or registration model. Even if you do, it's arguable that you simply won't get enough thanks to the behaviour and makeup of current audiences unless you have the next new hook.

8 comments and trackbacks

ext|circ Feb 14, 2003 1:38 PM
I have a new article up on the future of massively multiplayer immersive games, the best example of which to
Read more in The curse of immersive massively multiplayer games »

Brilliant, Dan. Just Brilliant. This is the message all developers, commercial or amateur need to understand. The content can't just be amateur grade.

Posted by: Tom Bridge on February 14, 2003 03:29 PM

You raise some interesting points. I missed both The Beast and Majestic, so I can't speak from personal knowledge. I also missed Lockjaw and most of the first season Alias Online Game. But it seems from the posts I've read that both of the latter games were acclaimed successes by people that played. Neither charged money and Lockjaw was strictly a grassroots affair, not a commercial production.

From what I've gathered, the size of the community is considerably smaller than it was in the days of The Beast. Based on the size of the Yahoo group, Push, NV garnered about 10,000 members, but I would venture that fewer than 1% were active online.

Until the size of the active community reaches critical mass or an immersive online game provides a compelling enough experience for large numbers of players in other genres to cross over, I don't think that there are enough people to make any commercial venture successful.

Also, given the plague of negativity that abounds everytime a whisper of any grassroots efforts is revealed, fan-based games and other grassroots campaigns will be fighting an uphill battle as well.

Obviously, no one can predict the next blockbuster with any degree of certainty, but it behooves those of us that remain active to keep a longterm perspective if we are to have any hope of seeing this genre prosper. I've dedicated my genre website to promoting the genre and providing tools and resources for both players and puppetmasters. My only hope is that those who remain are able to take the high road and give the PMs still willing to cater to us enough space to breathe, make a couple of mistakes and learn how to do things right.

Posted by: Bill Shaw on February 14, 2003 08:44 PM

The learning curve for PMs is much sharper than we're all willing to commit to in our own jobs. Much of this springs from the fact that if their illusion is flung wide open, they lose their audience. So, you really can't work with much of a safety net. You need to be resilient, able to respond in the blink of an eye, brutally intelligent to the point of supervillainy, and with the ability to flesh out entire worlds.

Yes, those who played Lockjaw were satisfied with the experience. However, Lockjaw didn't attract the same audience as the Beast did. Those who stuck around stuck around because they either got attached to the community or were hoping that the game might take a great turn. Some did both.

Community is a valuable experience for the gamers involved, for certain. The camps that form while in an IRC room working on a puzzle, for example, are part of the experience that makes the rest of us crave it. However, it's not just the level of community you create that makes a game like this good. It's the puzzles, it's the characters, and it's most assuredly the vision that they make you share that takes the effect to the next level. While we can all work side by side on upcoming games, and I do look forward to doing just that, when you can clearly share the vision provided by a good author into the world of their making, and care about the characters and what happens to the point of insomnia, then you have something.

And that's really where the Cloudmakers community stemmed from. We cared about Laia, we cared about Red King and Georg and Martin. They were real to us, to a degree. They were unpredictable, like people are. They were intelligent and witty and expressive, like people are. Too often in these kinds of things, we end up with thin cardboard caricatures of people.

I have hope for the genre yet. I think there is much left that can be done. There is much yet, however, that has to be done by trailblazers willing to spend their hard-earned money on writers and puzzlemakers, or find those that are truly exceptional at what they do, and are willing to create a masterwork labor of love for all of us to share. I apologize for the run-on sentences, it's clear I'm not the writer to make the next round of games. But I'll bet there is one of us out there who is.

Posted by: Tom Bridge on February 15, 2003 05:15 AM

An excellent article, but I find it odd that in a piece about following up The Beast, you don't mention its (arguably) only successful sequel, Lockjaw.

Most ardent Cloudmakers seem to be under the impression that the game's players consisted entirely of diehard ex-CMs killing time before The Beast 2. In fact, I would estimate that approximately half of the most active players never played The Beast. Even of those who had, most were fringe players. The Cloudmaker 'celebrities' mostly sat Lockjaw out.

For a game that recieved next to no media attention until after its denouement, a game that drew in new players with nothing more than word of mouth, Lockjaw was remarkably adept at hooking them and turning them into permanent members of the community. At endgame, its fanbase was estimated at about equal to that of the Alias webgame, a rival backed by a multi-million dollar promotional machine and a hit TV show. Lockjaw may have lacked The Beast's scale, or any sort of business model, but it was certainly successful in its own right.

I do find it interesting, however, that very few of the people who played Lockjaw have demonstrated interest in the latest batch of games, just as the diehard Cloudmakers were blase about Lockjaw. Perhaps the problem with later-day unfiction games isn't that they can't compete with prior games, but that they can't compete with our memories of prior games. Maybe becoming immersed in an alternate world is an experience best savored only once.

Or maybe Push just royally sucked. Peter Pan? PETER PAN!?!

Posted by: Simon Wright on February 19, 2003 08:25 AM

"The Curse" hits the nail on the head. There are very few of us, for whom online game content is more interesting than our own lives. When we want entertainment, we buy Sean's books or Anne Rice or whomever. Online games are usually derivative trash.

AI.2142 came from Brian Alden, Kubrick, and Spielberg as well as from Sean Stewart. What online game is going to match that lineup ?

Instead of glorifying the puzzle-immersion players, the 24/7 types, the fact is that these hyper-players took the fun out of it for many of the other 99% of the audience. "I'm a solver, you're a fool" is unpleasant.

Avoided the 24/7's was a pleasant game strategy. Ultimately, irrational mano-a-mano competitiveness prevented the Cloudmakers Group from becoming a useful, reality-based human commmunity.

At present the "my way or the highway" Mod's have all but killed off Cloudmakers. Not enough that they wanted to do CD.org and make some money, they had to kill off CM for everyone else. Removal of the Volvamus team cut CM off from the future.

I'm reminded of 9/11 and watching South Tower come down. Sad, indeed.

P.S. CM inspired one useful invention. The affective-algorithm monitor for SIDS has been patented and logic units are in the pipeline. CM could have inspired such projects over and over again.

Why would anyone, ever, insist on trashy online games and kill off the real stuff ? Preference for the artificial or a "bleed" of game-thinking into real-world behavior ? Whatever, MPOG "immersion" is dangerous. This should be once-in-a-lifetime experience as Dan has pointed out. Amadeus....

Posted by: Sam Greenlaw on February 20, 2003 04:35 PM

Dan:

Thank you for another well written and well thought out article. As an individual who is an avid reader of many different genres I believe that there needs to more of a link between literature and the content of a game. You address the issue of what it will take to make a game a commercial and financial success. If you want to make a game a huge success why not enlist the creative talent of a commercially successful author. Think for a moment about the draw a popular author has. You want to get people involved in your game bring in the best talent you can afford. Would the Beast have been more successful if Mr. Stewarts fans knew he was behind the Beast? I would think so and it would have opened the door to an additional group of fans who would otherwise never been involved in the game. Would a person willing to pay $20-$30 for a hard back book be willing to shell out a few dollars a month to follow the story of there favorite author? How about if they are given the opportunity to do so and interact with those characters in a way they could never do in a book, with graphics, puzzles, multimedia presentations ever evolving web pages, etc. What a way to introduce a whole new set of potential customers to your product. This coupled with the new boards (ARGN Collective Detective etc) that are light years ahead of what the beast had to work with (Yahoo groups).

All of this does not address the issue of what to do with the "Super Gamers" or the 1% that you reference. Having been one of those who is "Steamrolled" in games as I have a job that I do have to worry about it can at times be frustrating. But it never takes away from the content of the story. Despite the fact that I was not able to crack the Red Kings binary code it did not take away from the emotion he brought to the game. Having followed other recent games including Push and Noahbody that seem to be going NoahWhere the story is key piece that is missing. Noahbody (the Push continuance game) is clearly a low budget game that is offering a $$$ reward for the final solution. Yet the story is lacking, it is hard to care about the main character as there has been no real effort to developed him into something other than a one dimensional character. The complexity of characters is also lacking as there have been only a few introduced with a single story line. With the Beast and LJ you had multiple story lines to follow adding to the excitement of the game.

The answer seems to be to proceed secure in the knowledge that you can never please everyone. By striving to do so you will please no one.

Posted by: Douglas Husovsky on February 20, 2003 05:44 PM

I played Majestic, and loved it. However, it did flop. I think the problems with Majestic were four-fold:

(1) When the game first came out, there was no "shelf-presence" -- it wasn't sold through stores, where many people buy games. It had to be downloaded, and though the download itself was small, that's not the point: one of the key sales outlets was out of the loop. Later, EA did put Majestic boxes in WalMart/BestBuy/whatever, but by then it was too late.

(2) The EA team completely underestimated the time required to generate new content. New "episodes" seemed to be always delayed by a week or two from their announced release dates.

(3) As is so often the case with "figure it out" games (I'm not using the term "puzzle" here because connotations of that category differ), some people found the objectives and tasks easier to decipher and perform than others. When complaints started arriving from the "speedier" players, the EA folks tried adding another layer onto the game, with an unknown party sending highly cryptic messages to opt-in players for them to discover secret conspiracy info and such. I can't judge how well that worked, because I was satisfied with the base game and didn't feel the need to explore the extra messages much.

Both #2 and #3 feed into (or from) the third, major reason Majestic failed:

(4) A vast number of the players of Majestic were the "infovores" you describe: unable or unwilling to play a game whose schedule of play they could not control. Despite the fact that the game was clearly marketed in that way -- "IT PLAYS YOU" was the tagline -- the complaint I read most frequently on bulletin boards was, "This is frustrating, I don't want to do 5-15 minutes of IM'ing or watching intercepted videos or hacking websites, only to have to wait hours (or even a day or more) before something else happens."

The in-game justification of this was clear: events in which you were not directly involved were "playing out in real time." If your comrade who was breaking into the secure facility (while you were hacking the security system to let him in) got spotted and had to flee into the Arizona desert, well, it might be a couple days before contact could be reestablished.

Players who understood this, who completely bought into the concept, were willing to play along. But a significant number were too impatient to wait for events to play out in real time, and those people created a lot of bad word of mouth for the game.

And so ended Majestic, with some hurriedly tied up storylines and a lot of loose ends. It was a real shame. I enjoyed it. Ask all my friends how thrilled I was to get a veiled death threat on my answering machine! :)

Posted by: Jay Hinkelman on April 25, 2003 08:22 PM

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