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LEGO Universe Developer: I Will Never Make an MMO Again

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An open letter to my fellow developers and gamers who follow the industry.

Drafted by Ryan Seabury, Chief Creative Occifer & Founder, END Games Entertainment.

I recently departed my beloved old development studio after helping build it from five to two hundred people, with consistent 50% growth year over year for over 10 years. I departed just after a five-year stint heading up development of LEGO Universe, the third major MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) we built. While the specific reasons for departure were related more to cultural and ethical conflict with the corporate ownership, it created an opportunity to reflect on the past decade and re-evaluate creative priorities. I have decided to get out of the MMO game, for 3 reasons.

Number One: Joe Public: "MMOMGWTF? Birds and pigs? Sounds fun!"
OK I lied, I didn't really decide that. I simply realized there actually hadn't been an "MMO game" to get out of for at least two, three years. It's no longer a meaningful label. Point at any significant entertainment experience trending today, you won't be able to find one without some kind of social feature layers and persistent aspects. No one cares if something is "single player" or "multi player" or "massively multiplayer" anymore. We have come to a point where the game concept trumps such insignificant bullet points, and global social connectivity is a given.

From a creative standpoint, this is fantastic. Ideas are king once again; the industry feels as vibrant to me as the golden nostalgia years I experienced as a kid growing up through the coin-op and early console eras, except we've finally ditched the nerd-in-basement stigma. I know this because Megan Fox claims to play games on set. (Crafty PR move, Meg. P.S. Why won't you reply to my friend invite on Xbox Live?) We are appealing to the masses slightly more than the B-list celebrity reality show of the week, as Nielsen surveys and the like attest.

So what if I'm writing this from my basement and haven't shaved in 3 days? Irrelevant. I'm Top 10 in ten songs on Dance Central. That makes my gaming basically as sexy as Justin Timberlake.

Number Two: Taking 5 years to do anything is ridiculous (and stressful)
For over thirteen years we devoted ourselves to creating ambitious, deep, living breathing persistent worlds. These projects were each never shorter than four-to-five years of calendar time. Factoring in the many extra hours of team effort probably brings them closer to an equivalent six-to-seven years of actual work effort for all involved. This kind of effort will eat your soul and send you to an early grave, it can only be sustained by sheer passion. Or sheer lunacy. Or sheer both.

Some fun comparisons: The highest grossing movie of all time, Avatar, took four years, 900 people, and about $300 million to produce just over two hours of non-interactive 3D world space for teen-to-adult audiences.

My last project, LEGO Universe, took five years, around 250 people, and less than 1/10th the budget of Avatar (considered well-funded by industry standards!). Still, we produced over 100 hours of fully explorable and interactive 3D content, threw in an open ended creative play user content generation system, adhering to impossibly strict quality and accuracy constraints of the LEGO system, and made sure it was safe and playable for kids as young as eight and as old as 99. That was hard. It took a long time and a lot of effort.

This kind of business risk is on par for a powerful, beloved, and nearly 100-year-old brand like a LEGO. I know they realize the economy of value they get from long play in digital investment. However, if you try this with an original IP or less popular brand, the odds that the market just won't care about some fundamental aspect of your offering are pretty high.

At NetDevil, we were never that interested in safe, cookie-cutter projects. We always tried to push some boundary, be it genre, technology, or creativity. As a result, we watched business models completely vaporize and consumption styles totally shift during the course of each of our projects. With cycles this long and risky, you basically get one shot to succeed in half a decade. Ever been to Vegas? Ever put all your weekend money on a single number in roulette? It's kind of like that. Better have some backup bling to bet that big.

Number Three: All Work and No Play Makes Ryan Something Something
As a person labeled as a "creative" , I have a deep need to play and create. (Side note: Everyone is creative, most of us just get the belief drilled out of us by our woeful education system.) Playing around is expensive when you lead teams of hundreds over many years. Playing on the same project, no matter how deep, for many years at a time, is exhausting creatively. I also felt I would like to ship more than four or five games in my entire career.

My long time business partners and founders of NetDevil, Scott Brown and Peter Grundy, reached similar conclusions. So we came together again to form END Games, with a new mission to turn our approaches upside down while leveraging all the expertise we've learned in a decade of making the most complex and technically demanding entertainment forms known to man.

Let me make this clear: this does not mean we don't want to create unique worlds and experiences that take five years to reach a grand vision. On the contrary, I have a personal motto to always think big. The difference in my next decade of blood, sweat, tears and therapy will be taking smaller market driven steps to get there. I'd rather release a way too early alpha test of a new concept every few months, and have three-fifths of my attempts fail immediately, then wait five years to find out if anyone really likes the idea. Yes, you can consumer test along the way, but that does not equal real market behavior. This way I can find the couple of ideas to latch on to that might generate revenue, so I can pour what remains of my soul into them while still eating.

Those who lament the end of "real games" as more and more traditional game developers drift towards this philosophy, take note: First of all, stop lamenting. (The first four letters of lament are L A M E.) What's really happening here is not that real games are going away, but the old ways of distribution are. See my third reason below.

One More Number Three: This is an indie's market (for now)
The future is here. I know this because people walk around with communication devices attached to their heads, just like the cartoons of the '70s and '80s predicted they would.

I also know this because never before has there been this much opportunity for us, the entertainment producers of the world, to connect so directly with our fans. We can reach fans in previously inconceivable locales and cultures, we can reach them instantly and on demand, we can reach them in numbers so vast they feel impossible, like the United States deficit. I tweeted to Lady Gaga the other day, and I'm pretty sure she read it and appreciated it.

Never before has the quality of artistic expression influenced its business value more directly, rather than arbitrary variables such as marketing budgets, retail buyer preferences, or supply chains. Never before has the consumer had as much power over exactly what to watch, play, read or listen to. his is all because of the instant connectivity and exponential degrees of social reach we enjoy with each other today.

Love him or hate him, Justin Bieber is real. Farmville happened. Snakes on a Plane got made. I own a Three Wolves T-shirt. We all haz had cheezburger.

In fact I came to a realization the other day, almost everything I consume in entertainment comes at the recommendation of a friend or social network contact. I don't channel surf anymore, I don't bother reading game or movie reviews, I don't look at the NY Times Bestseller list. Not saying that plenty of people don't still do these things, but I don't. It's not as efficient or risk-free as letting people I know tell me what sucks and what rocks, and deciding based on what I know of their preferences.

Am I a consumer free at last from the tyranny of the retail distribution monoliths of the 20th century? Of course not. Somehow my social network is getting informed about new products and experiences, and the best of these make their way to me based on personal credibility. It seems like the marketing is just less direct and intrusive, albeit maybe a touch nefarious in some cases.

You still need to market, and the same people still own most of the important channels. Yes there's a lot of noise-over-signal in the market place. But finally, after all these years of the industry moaning lack of innovation and sameness, there is noise! As a player, it's like everyday you can find a new box of random toys to sift through and discover little gems in.

Noise is good. Don't let the PR trend of the day scare you Everyone pushing the message "it's too hard for products to get noticed now" is selling something. Like a good dating network, artists are finding more compatible audiences quicker thanks to ubiquitous internet and technology and the nature of the idea of "network". It may take time and patience and a little bit of money and sweat. Still, what a great opportunity to have some fun and try some ideas that would never clear production oversight in traditional development models!

At least for now. After all, the only constant in life is change, so carpe your diem while you can.

END Games will be stamping out a markedly different footprint of releases than we did with our previous studio. Expect to see us foray across a ridiculous variety of game ideas, including "real games" such as Vorp!, the first multiplayer online battle arena and best-looking game on Facebook (in this author's so humble opinion), currently in alpha testing. Our next title was built to answer the question "What is the simplest game construct possible?" We believe we found the bizarrely addictive answer in Click!, which will be playable on iOS devices as soon as Apple gets around to approving it, or maybe Android if they take too long. Our third title in dev is a really fun and oddball take on a socially conscious message.

I have a sense this is part of a broader movement in the industry, at least for those of us who have poured our souls into multi-year AAA development. As game makers, we're here to have as much fun making games as we want our communities to have playing them. We want to toy around with lots of ideas and go down weird thought avenues. Variety is the spice of life. Kind of like cilantro is the spice of burritos. Or like how spice is the spice of Dune.

Are you a developer out there, working hard on some corner of a "AAA" title, on the edge of burnout? Why not get together with a buddy or two in whatever off time you can squeeze, and make something for fun. It's invigorating and can get you through that next crunch cycle. As an industry, we've got to remember to keep having fun.

If you are a player out there, hopefully you're fully enjoying the current cycle of creativity and variety while it lasts. Thanks for playing our games and remember to try weird stuff once in a while. It just might save a life.