Online Games

Post note: This presentation was made to the Miller Freeman Online Games 97 conference, held at the Cafe Royal in London, November 97.

I proposed a few topics of discussion; an interactive 'test the business model' session - shout out the plan and I feed it through a complex spreadsheet I'd been developing, a history of MUDs and the aggregator barbeque mentioned below. They preferred this proposal, though not without changing the name in the promotional material (see below).

The conference was good, with notable presentations from the eclectic Clem Chambers (once more trying hard to discourage retail publishers from fouling Online), the solemn Steve Cooke (telling us how it is with small drop-in games vs. persistent games and stealing my thunder quietly on anti-aggregation), the venerable Richard Bartle (with bad ideas for online games), the learned Douglas Crockford (first look at Habitats, which I might have used for my Tolkien project) and the down-beat Colin Duffy (who managed to evangelise Wireplay whilst sounding a funeral dirge for the current Online Games market).

At the time I was pretty hype on Ultima - I thought they'd get it right, given that they'd hired some very cool people from LegendMUD.

I think that, since, my assertion here has been neatly validated by the demise of TEN, Mplayer and Heat. Likewise the success of UO, EverQuest etc.

Let me know what you think.

Daniel James


Good afternoon

My name is Daniel James. I've been playing Online games for about 15 years, since Essex MUD days.

Avalon is an independent commercial MUD that's been operating for 7 years or so, via dial-up in the UK, location based for a while, and for just over 3 of those on the Internet.

I'm last up today.

I am between you and the free drinks.

I will be brief. I want to talk about some things that have been bothering me since E3 in 1996.

If you want to ask questions, raise your hands.

Presentation License Agreement

Before I proceed, in the tradition of great software publishers the world over, I'll have to point out that by sitting here you to agree to this here license.

Later on, if you see me scuttling off to certain companies, cap in hand, you can all have a good giggle.

This presentation is about games networks and MUDs.

It is written from the developer's perspective.

It's not intended to offend anyone or be otherwise libellous.

I freely acknowledge that I could be wrong.

I am going to make some pretty gross generalisations.

All statements do not apply to all companies that might fall under these generalisations.

Some are better than others.

Some are very clever indeed and I like them lots.


Bin the Boxes!

This is not the title of my presentation.

Retail is not going away.

This is not a rant about retail.

Retail is not going away. It has many ills, but it's still a good medium for bit distribution and product promotion.

Especially if you're EA.

Real Online Games:
Aggregation vs. MUDs

This is about games aggregation 'networks'.

The title of my presentation was changed by the nameless one to the somewhat misleading 'Bin the boxes' because it was thought that the audience might not understand 'Aggregation'.

Aggregation Explained

a'ggreg|ate v.t. & i collect together; unite (individual to company) ; (colloq.) amount to (specified total) hence ~A'TION n.

I am using Aggregation to describe the new 'game centres' or 'networks' whose principle business model has been to collect together the facility to play 4-16 player retail games online.

One of the first ideas for my presentation was;

The Aggregator Barbecue

In which people from certain networks would get asked some questions that they don't want to answer. Unfortunately this wasn't possible, but some of the questions were;

'How can you spend $40m on a web site, without developing any games?'

'Why does my pal Bernie's quake server have less latency and cost him $49.99?'

'Have you ever played a MUD?'

The last question is most pertinent as it appears to me that the whole thesis of aggregation is pretty much contrary to what works well about established massively multi-player games.

It seems to me that the answer to the last question has to be either;

'A what?'

'Oh those crusty old text things, what do they matter?'

and that this indicates either;

A gross failure to consider the historical backbone of online gaming.

Possibly a consequence of hiring staff from the retail, video and cable trade.

A brave attempt to ignore the past and 'jump-start' the online market by leveraging the retail trade.

Whether the retail trade deserves leveraging is worth a whole conference in itself.

Of course the latter is true, but there is a bit of the former too.

I believe;

The games aggregation networks have spent millions of dollars creating web sites that attempt to retro-fit LAN games with the features of real online games.

LAN games, those designed for 4-16 players, over a single game session, do not provide the kind of compulsive, repeat-visit attraction that a real online game provides.

Real online games …

So what do you mean, 'Real Online Games?'

Real online games have been around for over ten years.

Lots of them are called MUDs.

There are over 800 of them, and most of them are free.

Most other successful online games, in different genres, have the same essential features.

( Gemstone III, a MUD, is the highest (online) grossing online game ever. )

( Quake might just make the top ten, TEN. )

What I am fundamentally saying is this;

The pitch

MUD-style games, singular persistent game worlds are going to dominate the future mass-media of online entertainment.

Games aggregation networks will be around, but they will not hold any kind of dominance or stranglehold over the marketplace.

'strange as it may seem, of the reasons for this is that

Picking a game is not like choosing dinner.

'We used to have a front end on Avalon, when we started as a dial-up service. You had to log in, select Avalon on a menu, and then the sword came up and you started playing. We had a couple of other games but nobody played them. Then the machine died horribly and before we replaced it, we though 'Why have the menu? Why not just go straight to the sword?' and so we did. And we looked around at other people's servers and wondered why they had so many menus when all people wanted to do was play one of their games.

If you look around today, you'll find that only one or two games on any aggregation network receive the great majority of playing hours.

Assumptions about our mission;

We're game developers.

We're developing for the Internet.

We want to develop games that;

I am assuming we are all game developers or publishers here. You might not fall into this category. You might be an aggregator, bear with me.

Now I will give you my secret recipe for a great MUD-style online game. Actually I think this has been covered already, so in brief here are the relevant points here;

MUD game design;

Persistent characters;

Persistent environments;

Relevant Lessons from MUDs

People play one MUD.

Most people play one character.

People will play a single MUD for years.

People will invest extraordinary time and money.

Changing MUD means 'leaving'.

The promise of Aggregation

Single brand to pull wide group of consumers.

Multiple products.

Retail purchases drive on-line take-up.

The promise of Aggregation II

Running back end.

This has something to do with lots of flashing lights

Advertising driven medium.

Subscription levels are not good

Lots of freebie members.

Messed up branding with the-same-thing's-free-elsewhere.

Do quake players mix well with bridge fans?

Often relying on the stupidity of the consumer.

Running the back end is not hard

Low Latency is not the issue.

Servers are cheap

Billing is easy

Advertising sales are more of a problem, but you'd want control anyway

Developing and managing games is the expensive, difficult bit.

What does the aggregator do?

Provide a busy site.

A banner ad on

Some customer support (this varies).

Sell adverts (hey Persil rocket launcher, cool).

What aggregators have learnt

Persistent identity across games.

Long-term scoring, games and leagues.

Player-developed groups.

Messaging, bulletin boards etc.

Aggregators start buying MUDs

Why should the developers sell?

What's the developer's problem?

The aggregator owns the client base

They can terminate your contract;

for all sorts of reasons;

They can change their business model overnight

The best MUDs will be developer operated

Development costs are high, often unsupported by the aggregation network.

Online costs, barring support, are relatively low.

Ownership of customer base is essential.

Unique, individual, independent branding.

They want to immerse players in their one game.

Aggregators 0, MUDs 1

The best Online games operate their unique destinations and own customers.

They can charge people money to play.

They have learnt from MUDs.

Some of them even hired the entire development teams of MUDs.

And you can tell.

Daniel James

Internet Game Design