But if you're making - or operating - a smaller game, your equilibrium threshold is much lower. If a game is built on the hopes of five hundred thousand players and only gets fifty thousand, it's in trouble. If you're banking on fifty thousand players and you get fifty thousand players, you're doing just fine.
Last year at the first Triangle Games Conference, Atomic Games boss Peter Tamte spoke of the difficulties involved in developing big-budget titles in the videogame industry as a whole. It wasn't uncommon to have a game that needed to sell a million copies just to recoup costs, he said, which meant that actually turning a profit on these large-budget titles was by no means a sure deal.
In response to this (and the struggling economy), said Tamte, you were seeing many developers switch tracks and create lower-budget titles that didn't need to sell a buttload of units in order to break even. Working on a $15 XBLA or PSN title may not have the glitz and glamour of working on the latest Next Big Thing from Large Publisher X, but it's also much easier to earn back what you spend and keep the lights on in the office.
Given how prohibitively expensive the major MMOGs are to develop and maintain - I've heard figures as high as $200 million for SW: TOR - it almost makes more sense to follow the XBLA model in the massive space. Make something small and cheap, and only shoot for as many people as you need. To be fair, it isn't like this is a new idea - so-called "boutique MMOGs" have been around for quite some time now - but it makes much more sense for a startup developer to try something like this rather than trying to join the major leagues right away.
It's almost impossible to be WoW, and if you try to replicate its success you'll end up almost needing its success to be profitable. When that success almost inevitably fails to materialize, then you have a problem on your hands. If you try to be WoW, there's a good chance you'll just end up being Tabula Rasa.
I've thought that smaller boutique MMOGs were a good idea for a while, but spending the weekend at SOE Fan Faire only magnified that. The people there loved their games, they loved logging into their worlds - a MMOG doesn't need to have millions of players to be beloved.
As events like Fan Faire show, it's still perfectly possible to have a healthy and passionate community in an MMOG even if it isn't one of the big kids on the block these days. As long as it keeps the servers running, and as long as your community is having fun, where's the problem?
The higher you try to jump, the worse the landing is if you fall - sometimes it just makes sense to aim small. Though MMOG headlines may be dominated by WoW and its hopeful #2 The Old Republic, this may well be the future of the MMOG space.
Or maybe it's already here.
John Funk apologizes for the earlier dig at Vanguard. The game probably has at least twice that many players.