A Great Idea and $4 Will Buy You a Latte

This is going to get a little link-crazy, so pay attention.

Over in a thread on FoH about Scott Hartsman leaving Ohai, Illucide referenced an old post from Furor on his visit to Sigil when Vanguard was still in its very early stages.

tml;dc (too many links, didn’t click) – Furor pretty much posted that Vanguard was going to kick ass. I quote:

“This game was fleshed out and built from the ground UP. These guys put so much work into getting the game built that it would be impossible to put everything in this update; and also illegal. Thousands and thousands of pages of gameplay design and documentation – I’m talking massive BOOKS, full of lore, maps, class descriptions, races, monsters, everything. You won’t see any MOONS popping up out of nowhere in this game. Expansions, additions, extensions, all thoughtfully planned out…. The folks at Sigil already have a quality product on their hands and I cannot wait until they release some information to the public so all of you can have the pleasure of getting a glimpse of what I got to see during my visit.”

Many of those who tried Vanguard would suggest that the aforementioned quality was noticeably lacking in the final product. So what’s up? Was Furor lying, or at the very least stretching the truth so that he could stay in the good graces of some old friends?

I don’t think so. I think what happened on his visit was that Furor was presented with stories and visions, plans and ideas. And they sounded good. They had heart behind them. When coupled with some fancy artwork and a workable tech demo, Furor drank the Kool-Aid: he bought into the notion of What Could Be. Needless to say, he wasn’t alone–the Sigil forums were dominated for years by those who believed that Vanguard would be The One Game which would rule all others, and were willing to poke anyone who disagreed in the virtual eyeball.

It’s very easy for fans to hear a passionate developer talk about ideas and begin to believe that they will be brought to life just as described. It can even happen to the very people working on a game! Developers can get so caught up in the game playing in their heads that they lose sight of the reality of the game that actually exists on their hard drives.

What is the ultimate root of this mass delusion? The simple fact that ideas are cheap. Even great ones.

You’ve got a great idea for an MMO. So what? It means nothing unless you can pull it off. That means you must have both the skills necessary to implement it (writing, scripting, populating, coding, modeling, etc.) and the means to put it in game (stable, usable tools). If either your skills or your ability to implement falls short, your great idea will die a death of futility. The Graveyard of Ideas is full of great ones that simply couldn’t be pulled off.

Once again, it comes down to a simple truism: It’s all about execution. Do you have the skills to do it? Do you have the means to make it happen? And, if the answer to both those things is yes, do you possess the determination to polish your work to immaculate perfection as well as the strength of will to scrap it entirely if it doesn’t serve the fundamental pillars of your game?

I don’t mean to pick on poor Vanguard. Any number of failed games (MMOs and non-MMOs alike) could have been used to illustrate my point. Books, movies, music, TV shows… the same thing happens in every medium. Millions of dollars get thrown around every day on the strength of what someone believes to be a great idea. It’s not the idea that’s the gamble; it’s the ability for the investee to be able to execute it as well as they can talk about it.

By doing a bit of extrapolation, you begin to see why making a great MMO is so damn hard. You can make a successful console game if you execute one truly great idea extremely well. To make a great MMO, you need dozens of interconnected systems all based on great ideas executed extremely well, supported by thousands of iterations of quests, items, appearances, and locations executed to the highest degree of polish and care. All it takes is one major flaw to bring down all your great ideas like a house of cards. On top of that, if you have mediocre people implementing great ideas, those great ideas will end up looking mediocre.

It’s almost like you can’t win! Maybe all of us in this business are gluttons for punishment. Or perhaps, for some of us, the possibility of pulling it off is too intoxicating to resist.

It’s not (always) idiocy or incompetence that makes high-profile MMOs fail. It’s more that a whole bunch of interconnected things all need to go exceptionally right for one of  these games to come together. More often than not, it’s a few specific weaknesses in crucial areas that cause certain games to be considered a disappointment in the eyes of players.

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