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Thoughts on Game Development for the Niche Market

City of Heroes, a relatively small title, is remarkable in that it has had me play for over 900 hours now. Yet, I loathe World of Warcraft as being little more than a streamlined EverQuest clone.

This lead me to realize that one thing that has become increasingly clear about MMORPGs, yet another reminder that they don't break the rules of general game development, and that is that you can either make a game that pleases as many people as possible or you can make a game for a certain niche of players.

Now, maybe this won't impress anyone that already works in game design, or maybe it will floor them, as I don't know what those oddly proactive folks do when crafting the magic that I live for. However, I had some interesting considerations along these lines.

Consideration #1: Casual games suck, but they're the only way you can afford a big-budget game.

If your game costs 50 million dollars to make, you're going to need to have 10 million people paying 50 dollars a copy, of which you get 10%, just to break even. This is an over-generalization, but the point you should take away from this paragraph is that an expensive-to-develop game requires a lot of players.

If you're trying to pull in a lot of players, you're going to immediately run into the problem that there's not that many players who are utterly obsessed with gaming. You need to create a game that can appeal to people who don't play a whole lot of games. These are roughly categorized as "casual gamers."

The "casual gamer" is an interesting beast in that they do not exist as anything but an abstraction. The developers who are developing games for them have to invent interesting ideas of who these people are. The general consensus is that they are game-dumb, consequently don't care for deep game mechanics, and the ultimate goal is to fish them in to play with the blinking lights.

It is with some grim satisfaction that I can say that games developed for the "casual gamer" are often so shallow that even their target audience is not entertained by them for very long. So often these kinds of games end up blowing up in the developers' face, with pleases me because games developed for morons suck and people who develop them deserve misery.

So we've come full circle. Casual games suck, but they're the only way you can afford a big-budget game. Next consideration.

Consideration #2: Niche games rock, but they can't have a very big budget.

Now, I just wrote that "casual games suck" many times, but is that fair? The reason I unabashedly wrote this completely subjective thing is because it was me writing it. I do not enjoy games that were made for the "casual gamer" because they're generally not deep and/or artistically satisfying games. I've reached the point where the only kind of game I enjoy playing has to be deep and/or artistically satisfying to be worth playing at all, and having to wade through hordes of "casual gamer" crap is really wearing on my nerves.

From an artistic standpoint, I'm right to say that deep and/or artistically satisfying games "rock" and the kind of games worth making. The only trouble is that players like me make up a small part of the overall market (even though we make about 30% of the overall game purchases on the market). From a financial standpoint, you'd call gamers like me a "niche," and we do not look all that lucrative.

Why make games for a niche? How about because niches are not nearly as abstract as the "casual gamer" and, as such, they're a much more real market. We're people generally interested in certain kinds of games and, if you make the best one and we hear about it, we'll buy it. Simple. However, it carries the catch that there's not too many of us, and so even if you got all of us playing you'd not be able to afford that 50 million dollar game. What's the solution?

Smaller budgets.

It might surprise you to learn that you can make a truly deep and/or artistically satisfying game without spending millions of dollars. Niche markets don't care if it required you to rent NASA facilities to get a realistic zero-G simulation in order to create your game. They care if the game is fun and artistically satisfying in the ways that please that niche. You can do this with adequately talented developer brains, powerful but cheap development tools, and the what little funds it requires to keep everybody clothed and hydrated.

My cunning marketing plan for the niche.

Alright, I'm about out of steam, so here's my thought:

First, develop your games to be cheap, with the knowledge you're only appealing to a niche but there's not that many of them. Priority number one is to develop a game that is deep and artistically satisfying to that particular niche.

Second, make your game dynamic enough that everybody's likely going to be able to try it. You can't find your niche, your niche needs to find you, and that's why a lot of people need to try your game... so there's still a considerable amount left when most people leave to find other games.

That second one can be tricky, so I'm going to pitch an idea (other than advertising):

I think the best way to get people to play your game is to make it free (or at least very cheap) to download and play. Then how do you make your money? Use money purchases tied to the kinds of features that players who play your game would really want. It's a fine balance, but basically anyone who enjoys your game should be interested in paying for these features, and a lot more people will enjoy your game than if you can get them to play it.

It's not so crazy, it's actually tried and tested. It's a "The First Hit's Always Free" model, it's worked for Korean MMORPGs and collectible card games, it can work here too.

So, that's the direction I would go. Forget the mythical casual gamer, lets start developing for niches... like me! Admittedly, my motivations for writing this are completely selfish, but do I not have a point?


Olphar said…
Unfortunately, your notion is unrealistic, because the up front costs of a "cheap" "niche" MMORPG aren't all that much different than those of a big-budget "casual" game (that sucks).

What you're asking for is the equivalent of "the flying car" dilemma. Both planes and cars are incredibly complex and expensive to develop in the first place. So it's very difficult to create "cheap" or "niche" planes and cars without making changing significant cost factors (cheap labor, cheap parts, bypassing regulations, increasing risk over safety, etc.). That's not to say that cheap, niche planes and cars don't exist -- they do -- but they're rarely profitable enough to make them appealing to anyone but extremely small niches.

But what about "the flying car"? Everyone agrees that a "flying car" would be really cool and appeal to a wide audience. Unfortunately, a flying car would simply multiply the challenges and costs of building BOTH an aircraft and an automobile. The risks and costs multiply exponentially, not geometrically. Plus a whole new set of complications arises. The net result: as popular as a flying car might be, they simply aren't practical to build and sell at our current point in history.

Similar challenges present themselves for 3D MMORPGs. While there have been several 2D MMORPGs that started off as "cheap" and eventually made the transition from "niche" to "popular" (one example: Adventure Quest), most of the "cheap" 3D MMORPGs haven't yet grown beyond "niche" (e.g.: Rappelz). That's because the technical requirements to grow them further would take them out of the "cheap" category.
(2 months later)

Well, if what you're saying about the costs is true, I could definitely agree with where your line of reasoning has taken you.

However, in computer technology, I believe there's such a thing as being able to put together a low development cost MMORPG that pleases its targetted niche. You don't need gee-whiz graphics or multimillion dollar development companies to put together a niche-pleasing product. You just need a few talented, driven people and a tried and tested licensed development kit.

What I'm pushing for here is a budget in the hundreds of thousands instead of millions. I firmly believe that careful management could create a product that could potentially engage the niche. You may only end up with 100,000 players, but given a smaller budget, that's more than acceptable.

I'm sure there's examples of games already out there that have done this. Runescape (open source), Dofus (Flash), and probably nearly every Korean Free-To-Play game developed.

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