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MMO Budget Busters

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Game studios in the West are finding it more and more expensive to bring premium MMORPGs to market. Internet rumors pin the cost of the upcoming Star Wars MMORPG being developed by BioWare at $100 million. Compare that with Blizzard’s initial $40 million budget for World of Warcraft back in 2004.

The recent announcement that Warner Bros purchased Turbine, makers of The Lord of the Rings Online, and Dungeons and Dragons Online proves that large companies are eager to get in on the white-hot MMORPG market despite the price tag.

Studios are not even phased by the failed launches of Warhammer Online and Age of Conan, despite both costing vast sums to develop. Is Star Wars: The Old Republic due for a similar fate? No one knows for sure, but we do know that EA needs at least 2 million subscribers right off the bat to justify its initial investment. The only Western, subscription based MMORPG to garner that many users is of course WoW. That’s a huge risk for EA and BioWare to take. Is there a more effective way to develop a MMORPG in 2010 or are huge hit-or-miss titles the way forward?

American car manufacturers were forced to adopt lean Japanese business models during the 1970s and I feel today’s Western game studios should turn to South Korea to learn how to efficiently develop MMORPGs. There’s much more to it than just charging for micro-transactions rather than a monthly subscription. Korean games are released incrementally, and only those games that catch on are actively developed while those that fail are allowed to wither away without taking capital with them. The episodic release of Guild Wars provides a perfect example. The game was free to play, but had an initial retail cost. Additional chapters were sold as a series of expansion packs that kept players paying for more.

Games like MapleStory prove that even completely free to play games can reach massive audiences and pull in tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually. When it was first released, there wasn’t a lot to do in MapleStory. The game world was small, and quests were lacking. Players basically had to grind it out. But it was an original game that struck a chord with gamers across the world. That spurred Nexon to spend more on developing more content for the game, eventually bringing it to the stage its at now. Many more classes and areas were added and the game continues to grow today. It has spawned many imitators like LaTale and WonderKing which each offer slightly different features in hopes of attracting their own audience. Some of these imitators including Ghost Online have already failed while others, like WindSlayer are failing.

The fact that so many free to play MMO and MMORPGs fail to hit it big is a good thing. It allows developers and publishers to experiment with many different titles at low costs. Just think of how many games Aeria has shut down in the past year. Even a company as big as EA couldn’t afford to release that many duds if they each had a $100 million budget.

EA hasn’t had much luck in the subscription based MMORPG market since purchasing Mythic. Imagine how many smaller titles like BattleForge, Battlefield Heroes or even Lord of Ultima could of been developed with $100 million. But The Old Republic is a BioWare project, and they haven’t let me down yet. Will they be able to pull off the same magic found in their single player RPGs?

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Game studios in the West are finding it more and more expensive to bring premium MMORPGs to market. We should develop MMORPGs the same way the South Koreans do.