Developing MMOs in the Sweet Spot

niche mmo sweet spotI believe the ideal future of MMOs can be found in the sweet spot.  What’s the sweet spot?  Check out the nifty graphic on the right.  The sweet spot is the niche of the niche; it’s the space where a developer can target a market of players where only that developer is able to meet the needs and wants of those players.

Consider Camelot Unchained.  Mark Jacobs wants to make a RvR game for RvR enthusiasts.  There won’t be any PvE, levels, or loot drops.  He wants risks to be taken and tough choices to be made.  Mark has openly said he knows CU won’t appeal to everyone, and he wants to make the best game for the specific group of people interested in, and passionate about RvR.

One of the most important aspects of targeting the right competitive environment is avoiding your competitor’s offerings.  Look how easy it is to go fall into a position where you still meet what the customer wants, but fail to capitalize on what you do well.  Rift is a great example: Trion made a good game that met the needs of a segment of players and fell within their capabilities, but they went for a space in the competitive environment where several other developers were already positioned.

Why not operate in an area where you dominate?  Why not find a group of players who are passionate about your game (your love group) and who will want to go out and recruit others to your space?  Cater to the right crowd, and if at all possible cater to the right niche crowd, and you won’t be competing for their attention.

This is the space where the most innovation, risk-taking, and progression will take place for MMOs — no coincidence that in 1999-2003 developers were all operating within their own sweet spot.  McMMo developers these days have to make way too many concessions, appease way too many people, and worry way too much about meeting some magical ROI figure for some guy in a suit who has never even played the game.

I think the sweet spot is where we find the passionate developers who simply love making the best game possible for the right group of people.  In the future, I want to play in a MMO industry with plenty of sweet spot options.  Don’t you?

  • I dont think Rift is a great example, while it might have lost subscribers since launch, I think its doing very well, with regular content updates and expansions. And there still seem to be a decent number of players.

    Its wierd with MMO’s, because if you take FPS, for example, there are so many, and they look so alike, yet many of them do really well, despite looking alike.

    MMO’s are really different, and I think your right, but it seems harder to make a decent MMO, even a niche one, without it costing too much, or being of low quality. I do not know why this is, but it seems to hold true.
    But it seems MMO’s have been targeting “everyone” for too long, instead of finding a segment of players, and aim for that. RVR players could be an obvious segment, but there seems to be a limit of how many segments there are, because they are tied together? I mean, you could make a PVP (rvr) game or a PVE game. Ofcourse there are different ways of doing this, should it be a sandbox game, or a themepark game. But, for instance, I like crafting alot, but I like it because its pretty offent a niche within a game. I do not want a game full of crafters (which wouldnt make much sence anyway) so, a crafting game would have to be PVE or PVP centric.

    MMO’s for me have allways been about the big world, the huge number of options, a lot of things to do, the journey of making my char. better, exploring areas and stuff. Everything is MMO nowadays, and sometimes they seems to abuse the word, but “There won’t be any PvE, levels, or loot drops” does not sound like an MMO to me. I like crafting, but it makes fun to go out and kill stuff for loot as well.

    Another question, I wonder of you can get that exploring feels, you get from giant sandbox like games, in a RVR centric game? My guess is you cant, everything will be populated with real players, which means everything is allready explored.

  • “what the customer want” is valid if the customer really know what they want…the majority of customers only imagine what they want and when they actually get what they want it often turn it down and usually blame the company for some ridiculous details, like it miss x thing when x thing might be the detail of details…

    when 10 people tells you I like the game to be y x z, 1 of them really knows exactly what y x z is and the concequences of that features while the 9 of 10 are just big boy words…

    I know people complained about wow graphics/difficulty e.t.c. while I found them ok or I didn’t care. Then lotro came out with great virtual world. We all played lotro but all of them left back because “the combat wasn’t good enough”. I was alone in lotro in our guild for almost a year leveling my toons.

    Then Aion came and we all went to Aion. Epic graphics and armor/weapon skins and great combat…again only me and 2 more of my friends made it to max level while the others left because now “it was too grindy and it take ages to kill a single mob”

    The most recent GW2 had everything they ever asked, amazing graphics, fun and easy combat but guess what?gw2 does not have a gear progression…

    of course the 15-20 people I know and play for years is not valid numbers to use for statistics or to convince you about the majority of gamers, but in my opinion customers don’t know what the f** they really want. They want teleports and fly mounts but the whine that the world is empty and don’t see anyone around…

    Majority of customers are not able to realize the advantages and disadvantages of every MMO feature

  • what I wanted to say in conclusion and forgot 🙂 is that I was the only one that did not complained about wow and I am the only one that really left wow for years now and play others MMOs constantly.I have max level and played the endgame of almost every MMO came out and still play them from month to month, while all the others that complained about wow and always wanted something else (more challenging, better graphics, more serious, other things) are still playing wow after so many years…

  • Bottom line here Keen… The niche market has to be big enough for the developer to survive. If dev goes in with a good product made cheaply, in budget and the niche is large enough and likes it.. well you have a successful game no matter the numbers.

    The key is that player base has to be large enough and stay long enough for the game to go on and be this success. All MMO’s try to market to everyone and satisfy as many as possible and then end up a niche game over time. That niche better be big enough to sustain them like Eve online for example.

  • That’s a very sound plan for making commercially successful MMOs but it sounds a bit…soulless. And that’s an underlying problem with MMOs, I think. They tend to be rather large, expensive, time-consuming endeavors, involving a lot of people with a variety of opinions, desires and expectations. They often come out looking either as though they were designed by a committee (because effectively they were) or like a jumble of disparate ideas that don’t hang together.

    Maybe this overstates his influence, but I felt the main reason that Rift worked as well as it did was because of Scott Hartsman’s project management mojo. If an MMO has someone like him on board it’s like a movie with a top-flight Producer keeping the whole unwieldy enterprise on track. Most MMOs don’t seem to get that and suffer accordingly. The downside may be that Rift is quite flat in tone, brilliantly put together but never really becoming more than the sum of its well-made parts.

    Mark Jacobs strikes me as more in the director role, bringing his vision to various projects. There seem to be a few MMO developers in that mold and it makes for interesting and exciting projects even if they don’t always quite come off commercially. I’m all in favor of that as a player. Art for art’s sake and all that. I get the impression that MJ is making Camelot Unchained for him as much as for an audience and that’s a good thing in my book.

  • Oh and keen i think you would need to adjust your circle graph to be more accurate. Currently in your customer needs, over 50% is not offered or covered by competitors or the current company. Your customer needs circle needs to roll more in towards the left probably covering it almost to 90% by competitors offerings leaving a small sliver out in needs that is not offered. Therefore your sweet spot(niche) is now a lot smaller and more realistic, hence the reason why it is called a niche and a dangerous place to survive in the market.

  • Did they finally wake up after all the WoW clones?
    Maybe this will become a trend.. lets hope so.

    And yes you can make a Niche game for any group of people no matter how small.
    You just have to budget accordingly.

    A small profitable game is a better option, then a high cost MMO that costs money.
    Back to smaller mmo’s made by gamers for gamers.

  • I was part of Fallen Earth’s Alpha and Beta and during those very early stages it really felt like it was being made by really passionate people and was being designed for more of an old school MMO crowd. Then of course something happened and the path of the game seemed to shift more towards being more appealing and getting in more players and focusing less on what it had done right up to that point… being unique and different from other MMO offerings.

  • @Romble: I believe the niche market is relatively plenty big, as long as you identify a niche where you can position yourself as the fundamental entity capable of meeting the needs of those niche consumers. Now I’m not a finance guy, but I think it makes sense to me on a macro level.

    There’s a group of people who want a RvR game with factions, open-world, dedicated crafting specializations, consequences, and they don’t want PvE or leveling. If that niche only has 50,000 people willing to pay $15 a month, that’s $750k a month in revenue.

    I think I read somewhere that Mark wants to have about a $10M budget for development over the course of a period of time (I don’t know if that’s upfront or not).

    Keep the team small, make sure one of them is awesome with finances, and begin paying back your investors within the first year. I don’t see that as unrealistic at all. This isn’t a space for the EA’s of the world. The EA’s dominate the other 90% of the competitive environment because they throw money around — and fail.

  • @ romble

    This line “All MMO’s try to market to everyone and satisfy as many as possible and then end up a niche game over time. That niche better be big enough to sustain them like Eve online for example.” Is a really bad example.

    Eve started out as a SMALL niche MMO with the intention of being a niche MMO. CCP didn’t make a product trying to cater to as many people as possible, they made their space MMO and they made it well, and that drew exactly the type of people that were looking for a space MMO of that type. They are extremely large and successful now because they held their niche, and simply improved their game instead of trying to cater to other types of play.

  • I know we keep talking about the goal of 50,000 subscribers but let’s get real…we will not end up with a game with 50,000 subscribers if all goes according to plan. IF we end up with 50K, it wont be because the interest in the type of game Mark wants to do is so small that only 50K people can be found to like something like that but rather because the game didnt achieve what it set out to achieve. When WAR came out there were…what…750,000 copies sold and that many people that were interested in an RVR game? Since then the MMO market grew…WOW will become even more stale…Titan wont be out…people will still be interested in an RVR game and even though many people may be cautious – but 50K is a very conservative number and to se yourself to be happy with this – is great but I believe the interest in CU will be much much higher.

  • He may get more — actually he probably will. Even if 100k buy and 50k stay on, as long as the game is designed to be a game those 50k love, and the financials are designed around operating with 50k, then everything is fine.

  • 50K actually strikes me as quite optimistic for a truly niche game like CU.

    I suspect Mark Jacobs may have more trouble than he thinks raising $2 million he wants from his CU Kickstarter campaign. Take a look at the recent Kickstarter for Pathfinder Online ( ). This game is selling itself as a PvP-heavy sandbox, promising many of the same features as CU (player-built structures, meaningful trade etc), and it would have drawn in some PvEers as well. Yet it only just managed to squeak past its $1 million target in the final hours of the campaign. And that came from a measly 8.7K backers (normally you’d be lucky to get $500K from that number of backers).

    I’d love to be wrong about this (and I’ll be backing the Kickstarter), but the cynic in me can already see this ending badly. Or rather, failing to get started at all.

  • On an off tangent, slightly related to what Fuzzy just posted;

    Has anyone else stopped to think about the trend that has happened over the last twenty years with gaming? The one I am talking about in particular is how we have slowly progressed from buying games upon release, to buying games that released with “DLC” coming later (read: Sold Incomplete), to buying games that were in beta, to now buying games that are for all intents and purposes just a few notes jotted down on a piece of paper?

    Struck me as interesting is all…

  • @Rawblin:

    Good observation!

    Another big difference for myself is that the amount that I spend per month on games has decreased substantially in the face of purchasing more games per month.

    I no longer maintain any monthly subscriptions and buy games months after release paying only a fraction of the release cost. Indie games also comprise a large percentage of my purchases.

    I would say that the average cost per game in the last year has been under $15. I end up buying so many Steam and GameStop sale games that look interesting and have favorable Metacritic scores just because I come to the realization that the time I might spend reading in depth reviews and dl’ing demos is worth more than the $5 spent in buying the game (FTL for instance, which is an amazing game btw).

  • You raise good points. But let me remind you of the legendary tale of Brad McQuaid and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes! He picked his sweet spot and was definitely catering to the hardcore group of gamers who missed the early challenges of EQ. While that game is still alive, it’s hardly a success. Can we label it a case of execution failure? If he had executed flawlessly would that hardcore niche have been enough to make the game successful?

    To some extent, Mark is also targeting a portion of this niche. Those who miss risk and reward. But I would argue that he is actually targeting an even smaller niche because it’s PvP (RvR whatever) only. So does he need to execute even more flawlessly to be successful?

    And then you have to consider a game like Planetside 2, which in my mind is already on its way to doing what he’s building (except it’s in space, doesn’t have crafting, and has lasers!). So is there already a competitor partially in that space? Does it make his target market even smaller?

    I’m excited about his comments. I look forward to trying his game. But so many of these guys talk a big game and then fail to execute, I’m finding it a little hard to believe that he appears to have you hooked already.

  • @Sanz

    I loved the direction Vanguard was heading. I tested the game and it had way to many issues. You can only say, “ well it is beta “ for so long. As we all know the game came out of the gate, like a mule in the Kentucky Derby.

    On paper, I like what I have seen so far. Mark, the dev team, the investors and the testers, must ensure that the game comes out of the gate cleanly. Gamers like us will probably put up with more issues then most. Since it is a niche game, there is even less room for error. If there are to many issues, even the diehards like us will walk away.

  • @Sanz: You present good points. Vanguard was an execution failure with issues internal to the company hindering its success. You’re right, though, in that Vanguard was targeted at McQuaid’s sweet spot. I’m confident that had the game not been buggy, had it been complete, and had the dev team not imploded from within, Vanguard would have resonated much better with the industry.

    Planetside 2 is definitely close to what Mark is going for, but PS2 misses one key element: RPG. One of Mark’s taglines for CU has been “we’re putting the RPG back in MMORPG.” There will be crafting, housing, etc.

    Going after the sweet spot is the right idea, but nothing can help a game if the company fails to execute. We’ll just have to cross our fingers.

  • I just hope that before they open up the Kickstarter, they release more on the side of concrete information and less on the side of the Foundational Principles Mark has been writing. I think that the whole ‘GameDev as a rockstar’ attitude can kill hype as much as build it, especially when crowd funded through Kickstarter.

    I think Mark is great and find his ideas interesting, but I would be far happier as a potential “investor” if they laid out the bullet points for the features of the game, and throughout development checked off each one as they achieved it as a milestone.

    It may be just me as a jaded MMO player, but I can’t help but hear the infamous “Bears, bears, bears” video playing softly in the background as I read each one of the Foundational Principles.

  • @Spents: I believe that’s why Mark is getting started early. Concrete info + a few months time = preparation for a Kickstarter to succeed.

    And I agree, we’ll need lots of concrete info.

  • I happen to read a thread on MMORPG (boy do I hate the discussions over there…the general MMO discussion is at a much higher level on this blog) talking about stealth. Stealth and other features are probably a breaking point for many players. The final decisions havent been made on this topic but as long as they are not made, I suspect a lot of potential customers will also hold off on their final decision to back this project. Stealth is one issue – but there are probably many more.

    Also interesting, right now Mark is listening to the community to see what they want…however, while “listening” and collecting feedback can probably never hurt – you really have to be extremely selective as to who you really listen to. if you listen to the community, you have to realize that it is the very same community that has been on the war path to take all of the same features out of modern MMOs that he intends to put back into his MMO. The community is partially at fault for the state of MMOs that we have today and more of a guide as to what to avoid. This is totally counterintuitive though – make a successful MMO by not listenting to the masses…I do think that is a key piece.

    Like John mentioned above – I do believe that there are lots of people that couldnt accurately tell you why they like a certain MMO and why they don’t…they may dislike a certain feature but features are so intertwined and can cause a chain reaction that they may actually really dislike a different game state that causes their disliked feature to be present in the first place etc. I always find it interesting if people aks for feature X and then someone points out how this feature X would have a totally devastating effect on something completely unrelated.

  • @Argorius,

    I played a stealth class and several others in DAOC. I played him when the high speed trains zoomed around the landscape. If the numbers were one sided, the stealth class was the only class to play and survive a fight. If you traveled around as any other classes, you were quickly dispatched.

    If you were placed everything into damage you were an easy target. If you had resists you were a much tougher target.

    I on the other hand hated those pesky Bone Dancers. They’d send all their pets on you and you’d find the Bone Dancer on the other side of the keep. But when I wasted one it was true gaming satisfaction.

  • Yeah, hate to say it Keen but you’re almost certainly overestimating the population that would play CU (single issue RvR players that aren’t currently happy with GW2 or PS2, and who won’t miss PvE, and are ok with playing in a low-pop game), and underestimating the cost of developing and maintaining a mmo.

    Just quick back of the envelope math, a team of 30, with an (optimistically) average salary of 50k-100k is $1.5-3m/year, probably looking at around twice that in terms of overhead costs (office space, healthcare, insurance, taxes, etc. etc.) puts us at $3-6m. Per month that’s $250k-$500k, that’s 1/3-2/3 of the game’s revenue just into headcount, before they put any money into servers, dev tools, marketing, etc.

    Also, you say the EA’s of the world have thrown money around and lost, but they’re the only people who are winning. WoW (Activision) is still the only runaway success. And SWTOR (EA), as much as it’s everyone’s favorite punching bag, is still probably has the 2nd or 3rd biggest subscriber pool for an MMO.

    Aiming for a niche isn’t necessarily a loser, Eve has obviously done it. But Eve did a permadeath, hardcore PvP space MMO (that had the added bonus of reducing art costs, as it’s a lot cheaper to build spaceship graphics than AAA people and organic environment graphics) a massive divergence from the tolkein-esque worlds we’d had before. CU doesn’t sound like a different niche, it sounds like “It’ll be a Tolkein-esque fantasy world, but with less PvE”.

  • I don’t think 50k is overestimating the demand. I think even 100k peak is possible. To be quite honest, the Kickstarter will give a good idea of how many they can expect for their love group.

    GW2 and PS2 both fail to deliver on key points. GW2 failed to deliver true RvR, and PS2 fails to deliver RPG. If CU can pull off the RPG and true RvR open-world feel, then they’ll be filling a niche that is currently on the table.