Smaller studios are the future

Tonight’s topic is one that I’ve had on my mind for a few days.   When I think about all the problems MMOs have, and all the issues I take with them, I can trace a ton of those issues back to big publishers and too much money.

Maybe I’m being a dreamer, or focusing too much on the idyllic scenario, but I think a small studio with a modest budget and a really good idea can and should do better than a huge studio with ridiculous amounts of other people’s money.  Maybe they want it more, or maybe it just comes down to survival.  A small studio values every single player, and works hard for every dollar — it all means because it has to for them to remain open.

A small studio can focus on making ‘riskier’ games.  That sounds backwards because the smaller studio can’t afford to fail any more than a juggernaut, but the smaller studio can afford to find a niche with a smaller group of players willing to pay.  People have a really bad idea of what it means to be successful.  If a MMO has 250,000 subscribers then somehow that’s a failure.  My favorite MMORPGs of all time weren’t much bigger than that, though.  And no, it doesn’t matter that the industry has grown and 250,000 isn’t what it used to be — that’s incorrect.  Again, it boils down to managing your business properly. Who’s to say 80,000 subscribers can’t be enough?

Smaller studios can make great games.  That should go without saying, but too often I read “small” or “indie” as insults or reasons to avoid a game. There are no free passes, though.  A bad game shouldn’t be given any leeway because it was made by a small team.  I completely support criticizing games and their creators when it is done for the right reasons.

I think our future (a future free of the usual tropes) lies with those smaller, more driven, and talented studios with great ideas and the willingness to take risks.  Consider giving them a chance.

  • It seems that with time the expectations with respect to polish and amount of content has increased dramatically. Smaller studios may just have a tough time to compete on these levels. If I look at Darkfall 1.0 – it was a good idea from a small studio and it took forever to make – once it was released – it just lacked polished – I dont know how many subscribers they had when they decided to work on 2.0 but I heard there was a lack of population.

    Of ocurse, we have seen so many themeparks and it seems to me that themeparks may require a lot more work as content is spoonfed to players. Sandboxes might be more of a small studio thing…

    I hope that some of the small studios make it and 100,000-250,000 players seems like a real success.

  • @Argorius

    I don’t even know if it is the “Sandbox” that makes it easier for smaller studios. If you look back in time a bit here, you’ll notice that as graphics and polish have increased in newer MMOs, the size of zones has decreased. To where instancing is a large factor in most games, but even in ones that don’t instance, the zones are incredibly small (loading screens are a good indicator of a zone edge).

    Dark Age had massive zones. The entire continent was one large zone. Did it look amazing? No. But it looked good. Why have we gone from massive to miniscule as budgets have increased exponentially. Why is that?

    The sandbox motif seems to stick better to small indie shops because you can have a massive area, and fill it with just a bit of sand, and let your players create the reason for being there. Eve is a great example (though it is indeed zoned quite a bit). Each zone is huge, the server is huge, its a sandbox.

    I guess this rambling is just me wishing more MMOs these days focused on large areas for me to romp around in. I was extremely saddened when I learned that the GW2 eternal battlegrounds were seperated into four distinct zones, that I couldn’t run from one to the other as I could in DAoC.

  • I definitely agree that a smaller studio with more realized expectations is the way to go and was my “3 things I want in a future MMO” wishlist in the thread that Mark started.

    I just attribute it to the MMO Gold Rush. EQ had one and so did WoW.

    And while the MMO Gold Rush is mostly bad for the industry (see 38 Studios or SWTOR,) there are some good things to come out of it. I may be completely off base here, but I’m willing to bet if EQ wasn’t successful then DaoC probably wouldn’t have had the funding to be made. And even though EA went around trying to gobble up the next WoW and caused a lot of good companies and people to fade, solid games like Rift and LOTRO came out of the WoW Gold rush as well.

  • I think it still really remains to be seen. There hasn’t really been any succesfull MMO from a small (indie) publisher yet. But I hope the right idea comes along, but with the latest MMO’s it seems its pretty hard, just to get the fundementals right. Beginning to bring in new ideas seems next to impossible

  • I agree with Keen. The only problem is that once one of those small studios is the gem we are looking for big companies will just buy them and screw us over one way or another.

    (Yes I am still pissed about bullfrog and westwood studios. “shakes fist at EA”)

  • If you’re looking for an MMO from a small studio, I’ve been working on one for just over three years and expect to hit alpha in a few months. I’m not saying too much about the game yet, but so far I’ve let slip that it is a non-sharded, not-MMORPG (although there are RPG elements), PvP/RvR sandbox set in a 300x300km world. If the game has any success (80,000 customers would be a whopping success), I would like to add more PvE elements.

    In case anyone thinks their comments online don’t affect the games that get made, I made one big change and a few little ones based on the thread on here with Mark Jacobs last week, so keep the ideas coming!

    The game has been playable for quite a while and I’m just finishing up the “make it pretty” stage (hence the limited info on the game and lack of pretty screenshots in the gallery.) I have a dev blog and I’m on Twitter @onemanmmo if you’re interested in following the game’s development.

  • I believe there is a certain saturation in the market by now when it comes to the AAA MMO; those big blockbuster titles that always create too big expectations. the future is niche MMOs and variety, more to choose from for different playstyles. and going back to a time when it was ‘okay’ to have 100k subscribers.

    like with any economy that grows fast, the MMO market too has created its own bubble which is now slowly imploding. they used more and more resources in inefficient ways and pushed the maximum that bit further, because they expected it to all pay off later. it’s common speculation strategy. WoW’s success had much to do with this.

    But we’re past that now. MMO players want good looking games for sure, but not without the package. gameplay fun and polish do not need to be ‘expensive’ (in that 100million sense). I look forward to smaller titles in 2013 and beyond. they tend to have better communities, too.

  • I think this is an interesting question and would love to see some data driven analysis. The rate at which smaller studios succeed or fail compared to bigger studios (given a specific metric of success) is an empirical question, and a much more convincing argument could be made with the support of some data.

    Going based on gut perception though, I’d say that smaller studios are likelier to produce an extreme result when compared to a large studio. Large studios are more likely to make safer choices based on their perception of what is likely to make more money. If larger studios perceive that there is a much bigger audience for themepark games (a reasonable conjecture given historical evidence), then all they are going to make is themepark games. There is essentially no reason for a large studio to make a sandbox game unless it perceives that the themepark market is completely saturated.

    A smaller studio is probably more likely to take risks and almost certainly makes decisions based on a less complete analysis of the market. Note that I’m not suggesting that this analysis is necessarily wrong — just that it’s likely to be less extensive and less sophisticated simply due to fewer available resources.

    I suspect that smaller studios are also likelier to have looser quality control, again because of the resource problem.

    Taken in sum, I think that this means that a small company is much more likely than a large one to produce a game that is a catastrophic failure — vaporware, disaster at launch, non functional on a basic level etc. However, there is also a greater chance that a small company who performs exceptionally will produce a “critical hit” as well by combining good design, tight implementation and an original outside-the-box idea that accesses an undertapped or unknown part of the market.

  • Speaking of MMO’s I would have to disagree. I can not name one decent MMO that isn’t triple-A quality.

  • Shalom!

    Smaller studios are the future! So many ways to read that.

    Here is what I believe to be a realistic way to read that: Smaller studios are great! They drive innovation, they keep the sleeping giants one eye opened and unfortunately remain mostly invisible and/or get into trouble in Rhode Island. It is very rare, emphasize very, that a small anything rises to the ranks of being powerful.

    Think of music, film and industry. The big stay big. Tesla Motors, its very unlikely that they will be as big as Ford in 10 years. Odds are they get bought out by a GM or Toyota, etc. Universal, Paramount, Disney are alive and well but we should cheer on the Weinstein Bros and like, they made some great movies! Indies can be wonderful! But when you look at who gets the majority of viewing $, it isn’t the independents. Everyone loves the almighty $ and will sell out to get some of it. Except for IBM who couldn’t see Bill Gates for the trees. A rare exception.

    Cheer on your small studios Keen and hope that one in x pulls through! One eventually will! But in a realistic world, EA, Sony and your AntiBlizzardVision’s will rule the majority of the gaming world – they’re OP. And let’s hope no one steals/magically comes up with a similar idea of the small studios – it’s an evil world!

  • @Zederok: I guess it’s relative, but games back in the day had lower budgets but managed to be considered AAA quality in hindsight.

  • Zederok, I have to agree with you.

    The combination of zero growth in the mmorpg segment and the insane dev costs creating an on-line, persistent virtual world would suggest the odds of an indy mmorpg being released in a playable state, let alone generating 80,000 subs to be near zero.

    Minecraft gives hope. A 16-bit art style, insane character customization, and a unique and addictive mechanic might get some traction.

    Oh, and the most important thing, make sure chicks like to play it.

  • “That sounds backwards because the smaller studio can’t afford to fail any more than a juggernaut”

    The smaller studio can afford to fail far less than the juggernaut. For the small studio, every game could be their last. It is no surprise therefore that most indies are concentrated on the iOS/Android apps space rather than the high cost/high risk/declining subscribers MMO market.

  • @Zederok

    I’d happily point you toward Eve Online and a few others, but Eve is the one that is still going strong (and flourishing/growing even today).

    A small indie company that nailed their niche product, and kept developing it as needed/wanted by their playerbase.

    60000+ *Concurrent* users online is a normal weekend for them.

    Quite the success story, actually.

  • @Rawblin Sorry Eve is really bad but I guess its perspective since i normally do not like sci-Fi anyway. Im sure the game is polished and is fun for alot of people but it still plays like crap to me, to slow, and to spread sheet’y for my tastes.

  • Well yea, the topic was successful “AAA” MMO titles from small studios. So your personal distaste of sci-fi, while understandable, isn’t relevant 😛