Design for the 100,000

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Yesterday’s reminiscing about Ultima Online and the uncertain future of the MMORPG industry had me reflecting on this question: “What made Ultima Online, the oft-referred grandfather of MMORPGs, successful?”

UO had roughly 100,000 paying subscribers around 6 months after it released in September of 1997. Most people would agree it was an amazing game — it was “the next best thing” of its time.

Have you seen the list of games that released in 1997? Go ahead and Google it. On that list are some of the widely acknowledged best games of all times. Many of them outsold UO. Many of them are far better remembered — probably most of them. And a great many of them sure looked and played a heck of a lot more advanced than UO.

So it wasn’t the prettiest or most complicated game and it didn’t have the widest appeal. What then?

I submit that Ultima Online was a game designed for the right audience at the right time.

What does that mean?

I’m willing to bet no one sat around in a conference room talking about making the game to compete with Final Fantasy VII, Fallout, or GoldenEye 007. They made a niche game. The kind of game they wanted to play. The king of game people playing other graphical MUDs like The Realm would want to play. The type of game that MUD players would want. Those were not large communities — The Realm had less than a thousand people online.

When I see developers and/or players today talking about “the next big thing” or a game to “compete with WoW” or even a “really popular” game, I feel like shaking my head. If you try to make a MMORPG to compete with Fortnite, WoW, or whatever else is the most popular game today, then you have already failed.

Design for the niche. Design for the 100,000. Heck, find a group 100 people and make a game specifically for them. That’s where we will see the next Ultima Online come from. It’ll never be from a AAA studio or a game with investors. The spark of magic and life a game needs can’t come from an audience that large. The truly next best MMORPG won’t earn that title until its being shared with other people by a small niche of dedicated people who found their world to put down roots.

  • I’d say in today’s environment this is the approach that game companies should focus on, instead of online services. I’m not just talking WoW, but every AAA game now is trying to do it. Look at Assassin’s Creed, RDR2, CoD:Bop4, FO76, Forza, BF2 (2017), Monster Hunter World, Battle Field 5?, CoD WW2?… honestly the list goes on and on and on. Every game wants you to play it for X hours a day and they very quickly feel the same. If game developers would just look at the indie market and say wow, they are making good games with small studios and making a killing on their profit margins, instead of saying. “We need to go big or go home.” We would have such a better diversity of games.

    Honestly though big companies are lazy. They get a successful product and just want to make the same thing over and over and over. Look at tell tale, they started out with such a bang with the walking dead and just drove that formula into the ground instead of expanding upon the ideas and taking risks to keep themselves innovative.

    I’m glad to see that companies like Paradox have started to fill the void, but they only can do so much, and it won’t be long until their driver of profit beats out the need to make quality fun and innovative games.

  • I don’t know.

    I kind of agree and not agree.

    While design for the niche certainly can create great games and runaway hits, it also creates lots of dead on arrival games.

    While this is great for the succes stories, I am not sure a big AAA game can be designed like this. The cost of design/graphics/… is going to be too high.

    I am not unhappy with AAA companies making the massive, kinda samey but still enjoyable successtories that tend to be quite polished, while smaller studios still make really fun and original stuff. Also, making truly new and original stuff only becomes harder and harder.

    Also, in 1997(and before), you certainly had sony PS, nintendo and sega. People in boardrooms 100% certainly discussed making competition to the others big games. Or Quake vs Unreal Tournament. Age of Empires and Command and Conquer. I don’t think that is bad per se, but they certainly had board rooms fighting vs direct competition back then.

    That said, I did like things better back then, because I was young and everything was new and unknown, and there was no massive community of people to slam down new games. You just enjoyed what you enjoyed and that was fine. I miss those days, but I don’t think they’ll come back.

  • “If you try to make a MMORPG to compete with Fortnite, WoW, or whatever else is the most popular game today, then you have already failed.”

    Agreed. I think it’s one of the biggest problems with not only the MMORPG genre but games as a whole. One game gets popular and then the next several years we just see clone after clone until there are just multiple versions of the same game.

    WoW + every other MMORPG since 2004
    DOTA 2, LoL, SMITE, Paragon + however many other failed MOBAs
    DAY-Z, H1Z1, PUBG, Fortnite, even CoD now + however many other generic BR games I see lately

    Graphics have improved over the years by orders of magnitude but gameplay and innovation have stymied.

    • It’s strongly in my “want to try” category. I’ve read and watched a lot that discourages me though from a buggy/glitchy perspective.

      • I’ve been playing it for the last week. Develops clearly must have been pre-trammel UO fans. I’d describe this as a spiritual successor to UO. All I’ve been doing for the past week is mining/smithing. There is some definite optimization that needs to be done, and I have a feeling they weren’t expecting the server loads they’ve gotten. They did decide to delay Steam release while they work out some of the issues they’ve found over the past week, which I’m impressed by. I’d say if you were a fan of pre-trammel UO, it’s worth a try. I’m enjoying it a lot more than I expected.

      • I just picked it up yesterday. Having a lot of fun being completely 100% lost without a clue what to do. I’ve tamed a horse army so far and that’s about it! 😉

      • Will say that since my reply, they have been having quite a few issues that are causing server downtime and even rollbacks. As I write this, servers are down with no ETA. This doesn’t seem to impact the player run custom servers. Hopefully they figure it out, but it was a good thing they decided to delay Steam release because it would be getting destroyed on there right now! Bugs/downtime aside, I’m really enjoying it. Closest I’ve gotten to a UO feel in quite awhile.