Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Massively Multiplayer Casual Games

Kart Rider and Gunbound show the way to impressive profitability

Pete just sent me a link to Dave Taylor's article on Kart Rider. It is an interesting read on a casual multiplayer game quite similar to Mario Kart whose parent company is racking in $110 million in 2003 with a projected growth of over 127%.

There's another rather popular called Gunbound that uses the same basic business model. This time the game is based on Scorched Earth. Gunbound has an English site and is well worth checking out.

Admittedly these are both Korean companies and there may be some cultural aspect that do not translate well to the US. However the highly successful business model of these two titles is worth studying in great and lavish detail. Western designers are constantly talking about how to create massively multiplayer causal games. The results are hardcore titles like Guildwars that sell quite a bit to the Diablo fanatics of the world but by no means would be considered 'casual'. With Kart Rider and Gunbound we have clear cut successful examples of a multiplayer game sporting millions of users that is appealing to a casual demographic. Talk about being provided with a golden opportunity on a silver platter.

What feature mix should we steal?
Let's say I'm a capitalistic game designer who wants to borrow key features and replicate this success in my own game title. What are the common elements in our two examples that are likely to be the defining factors of this new genre?

  • High production values using a neo-retro art style
  • Quick and friendly game play
  • Multiplayer
  • Highly polished ranking system
  • The ability to buy avatars and powerups at a small cost.

This seems to be a rather reasonable project to begin production on. There is a bit of investment in the server-side back end, but much less than is necessary for a game like WoW. The art costs go down since you are dealing with stylized assets. The game design is amendable to rapid prototyping since you are tuning a 5 to 15 minute experience instead of worrying about a 300 hour mega quest.

The challenge
The biggest challenge is picking core game mechanics that appeal to a broad audience. What 5 minute experience would appeal to Western players? Pac Man, Street Fighter or perhaps Puzzle Pirates with purchasable powerups? This is the million dollar question that I'm sure some enterprising developer will crack in the next year or three. At that point, move over WoW. There's a new game genre in town and unlike the hardcore niche market of current MMOGs, multiplayer casual games have all the makings of a mass market cultural powerhouse.

take care


  1. What!? You would steal their innovations? Isn't this a gripe of yours? That there isn't enough innovation... You should be innovating, not stealing! (Hehe...)

    I think a massively parallel game of Star Control 2, would be great. And a MMOOG (or whatever the abreviation is) of an adventure game like Pitfall, where you're racing to get a treasure while other treasure hunters are out there... And perhaps a MMOOG of Sinistar... and a MMOOG of Frogger... yeah... those would all be great...


  2. btw, Danc, I posted a poll/question on the latest game scandal about the ROckstar:GTA thing on your site's BB/Forums... You should start a thread on your blog... about minigames... and game ratings... ;)


  3. I might be off here, but hasn’t this already been attempted in American audiences? Didn’t Sony’s Station (their MMO center) start off with Comic Rift, Tanarus and Infantry online? These aren’t traditional hardcore MMO, but they’re not exactly light and fluffy either. Doesn’t Disney have its own MMO world full of random mini-games?

    I remember back about a decade ago there were a lot of these pay-to-play games popping up that weren’t all hardcore MMO games. Granted, the gaming world was a little less prominent and term ‘casual gamer’ wasn’t anything I had heard ten years ago.

    I know the pay for powerup design has been used in a number of lesser known MMO games. I can’t recall the name of the game off the top of my head, but a friend of mine first got into MMORPGs by playing some game that was free to play, but if you wanted any real power in the game, you had to pay for all your powerups.

    I know this is a tangent here and this might be from my own bias of not liking games where you have to constantly pour in money to stay competitive (a la Magic the Gathering), but is there any concern of turning away customers in a pay-for-power situation?

    To get back to the point I was trying to make. Were these early attempts unsuccessful because they were too early? Or were the unsuccessful because American audiences aren’t as willing to get hooked?

    Just a concern I thought was valid enough to point out.

  4. Dude, it's called Puzzle Pirates.

    Seriously though, I can't say I've played the Kart game, but long ago I played gunbound. It was fun for maybe a day or two, then it got really old really fast. The problem I had with it was that short of spending real money the only way to win was to play so much that you would get the awesome accessories to increase your power. So no matter how much skill I got it was really a game of whoever pays the most and plays the most wins. Even though the game itself really only required a small time commitment to play the experience was sub par.

    But that is only that particular instance. I think that we can see a lot more innovation in this type of gameplay from Nintendo in the future, at least that's what they are saying. Also, keep your eye on where people are developing games on the Puzzle Pirates engine.

    What someone really should do is make an incredibly casual short and addictive online multiplayer experience. Then add all kinds of personalization options that don't actually change the gameplay. That's to keep people addicted and emotionally attached/invested in the game. Next, add some more incredibly awesome, yet still useless as far as the game is concerned, customizations that must be earned, like trophies and badges. Lastly, charge a meager sum for playing the game. Maybe a dollar a day, or a penny a game. Give a bunch of games free, then charge the meager sum after they get addicted. The game should cost so little to make and run that if you have any large number of players you will rake it in.

  5. apreche: IIRC GunBound has two modes, one where the accessories are powerups and one where they just look cool. If you want an even game, you play the latter.

    The best system I've ever seen has to be the one in Guild Wars: low level cap, but hundreds of different skills to collect. Some are better than others, but they're all useful for *something*, and you can only have a few active at a time.

    In the Kart Racer context, skills could be permanent boosts (slightly faster, slightly better turning), weapons (one rocket equipped from the start of a race), new actions (jump three times to get a boost) etc. Hardcore players are able to tune their avatars in ways that new players can't, but they're not invincible just because they're willing to pay.

    It also encourages creativity and strategy, which is something you need to keep players interested.

  6. Re: Ray

    "Bad artists copy. Great artists steal" - Picasso

    You learn from the best, take their most brilliant ideas and adapt them as your own. Nothing pops fully formed out of an artist's head, despite our ardent claims to the contrary. :-)

    Re: Frogplauge
    I'm not sure if any of these are cute, pick up and play in five minutes free games. The business model seemed to be different as well. With the two games I mentioned, the trick seemed to be to hook people with addictive friendly game play first and then offer the chance to buy things.

    I suspect that Americans can be hooked but we still haven't hit upon the right game design. Puzzle Pirates, aside naturally. :-)

    Misc thoughts:
    If people don't want to pay stay competitive, that is fine. They can go elsewhere and play a bejeweled clone for free. The real question is "Is there a large group of people who will pay?" You can't please everyone, but if you can please people who are willing to pay you for your efforts...

    Guildwars is interesting, but it too follows an older business model. There's really not much different in the business model behind Guildwars and Doom except Guildwars has a bigger server cost. :-) They are playing a good game design card, hoping that a vibrant community will result in a longer shelf life. But the source of their cash and the way people buy the game is old school.

    take care

  7. I had a look at Gunbound's webpage and despite being a Scorched Eartha and Worms fan it didn't interest me. I've been playing Soldat a lot recently. It's a good multiplayer game. You die a lot but it doesn't matter. You often have a chance to shoot someone no matter how horrible you are. I'm not into MMORPGs because everyone describes how awful dying is. Dying should be fun. In the multiplayer Roguelike TOMEnet it's fun for a group of players to charge a group of cave spiders and get wiped out right at the start. If there was an action co-op MMORPG where dying just meant a respawn and the game was about fighting and having fun rather than roleplaying and training your character I'd probably play it.

  8. Danc says: '...there may be some [Korean] cultural aspect that does not translate well...'. I think the aspects within the game translate fine, but in my opinion the reason this game in particular has done so well is that it was fortunate to become the 'in-thing'. Fads in Korea are something chronic. When I went there, on the subway from the airport I saw a woman selling yoyos and I thought it was a bit strange, but that was nothing compared to what awaited me when I got into Seoul. I couldn't go a hundred yards in a shopping district without seeing yoyo street vendors, there were broken yoyos lining the gutters, even on-duty security guards were twirling them around. In just four days there I twice had to dodge a yoyo rolling towards me that had come off its string... anyway what I'm getting at is that while a decent enough game mechanic will do ok in the 'west', I wouldn't expect to rake in millions from it in the way that has happened in this example.
    btw Leon: after I discovered Soldat I don't think I got a single thing done for about six weeks, I played it so much :)

  9. "What 5 minute experience would appeal to Western players? Pac Man, Street Fighter or perhaps Puzzle Pirates with purchasable powerups? This is the million dollar question that I'm sure some enterprising developer will crack in the next year or three."

    Or a year or three ago. The item mall and casual game combo is a very popular business model and is only getting more popular as time goes on.

    Here's a great related topic on micropayments and casual gaming (Puzzle Pirates) from April 2006 :

    There's been a shift in that direction for a few years now, and the big buzz word at E3 2007 this year was "casual" games. EA's been cashing in on it for ages with POGO, but the MMO market has only been changing over during the past year or two.

  10. Now this is interesting! I was recently given the link to this so I thought it was current. I just noticed, after the above post, the date of the article and it was really cool to see that this was written right about the time that the MMO devs started taking notice of the success of such designs and payment models.