Why Don’t We See More Indie MMORPGs?

I’ve interviewed a few independent developers over the years, and if there’s one piece of advice I’ve heard time and again, it’s that multiplayer – especially of the massive online variety – is a dangerous proposition, even with experience. Indie developers, as a general rule, should avoid trying to create MMORPGs. A cursory look at the market seems to support this notion. Although exceptions exist (League of Legends comes to mind); the vast majority of 2014’s most successful MMOs are designed, developed, and maintained by large, AAA studios. Today, I’d like to explore a few of the reasons for that.

It’s no secret that the MMO market is sort of hostile ground for any development studio. Anyone looking to break into the industry has to contend with some extremely heavy-hitting competition.

On the MMORPG front, you’ve got World of Warcraft. For all its faults (and for all the subscribers it’s lost in recent years), it still manages to be reigning king of online RPGs. I’m on the verge of renewing my subscription myself (even in light of my faint distaste at Warlords of Draenor). Everyone who knows anything about MMOs has at least heard of the game, and most people who’ve played MMOs subscribed to Blizzard’s game for at least a while. Factor in other strong competitors like EVE Online, Wildstar, and Guild Wars 2, and it’s pretty clear that any game looking to hit it big needs to do pretty much everything to perfection – and then some.

Things aren’t much better where MOBAs are concerned, thanks (somewhat ironically, I suppose) to Riot Games. League of Legends is currently the most-played PC game in the world, and is the title more or less solely responsible for transforming the job of pro gamer from a sort of hobby into a legitimate, internationally-recognized profession. Dota 2, though somewhat less accessible, is no less formidable, and the market is positively overflowing with imitators and pretenders to both games.

Since indie developers don’t have the advantage of being supported by a large marketing department, they’ve got to rely solely on their own skills (and a healthy serving of luck). That’s a reality of independent development in every field, but it’s particularly pronounced in the world of MMORPGs. The indie problem though…it’s not tied solely to marketing .

Running an MMO generally requires a level of investiture which, for a small studio, can prove next to impossible. First and foremost, you need to pay for servers capable of supporting your game. Speaking from a hosting perspective, that’s expensive – you’re pretty much required off the bat to shell out for dedicated hosting, and there’s a good chance you’ll need to be prepared to pay a significant overhead on top of that.  It’s not just a matter of money, either.

You need dedicated developers, prepared to regularly update your game with patches, bug-fixes, and new content. Those developers, naturally, will have families to feed, so you’ll need to keep all of them on a reasonable payroll. You’re also going to need support staff for when one of your players runs into trouble; that staff needs to be both well-trained and affable. On top of all that, you’ll want to hire a legal team to draft up an airtight EULA, lest you find yourself getting dragged to court.

In other words, it’s no picnic.

That isn’t to say it’s entirely impossible for an independent studio to run a successful MMO – the existence of games like League of Legends shows that it most assuredly isn’t. At the same time, however, doing so requires a level of investment, a degree of business savvy and a dose of luck so high that most developers simply cannot pull it off – independent or otherwise.  So the next time you’re wondering why we don’t see more indie MMOs, just think about what’s involved – it’s really no surprise.

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