Imagine, for discussion's sake, that you don't have $50 million, so you can't build and market a full-scale World of Warcraft massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) clone. Suppose, too, you don't have rock superstar Bono on speed-dial, and unlike BioWare/Pandemic Studios, you can't finance your new MMOG through his $300 million Elevation Partners holding company. To get still more outlandish, let's say you cannot easily lay your hands on a paltry $3 million - no, really, work with me here - so you couldn't even produce a smaller-scale "casual MMOG" like Puzzle Pirates or Gaia Online or Dofus. Assume, hypothetically, you - just you, together with maybe two or three other indigent programmers - have six months of savings and a budget in the low four figures. How would you create and market a full-featured MMOG?

Building a major game is hard, and there is no harder kind to make than an MMOG. At the 2003 Game Developers Conference, longtime producer Gordon Walton listed 10 reasons not to run an MMOG, including eight-figure budgets and teams of hundreds of people.

Nonetheless, despite this received wisdom, there are dozens, nay, over a hundred low-budget "boutique" online MMOGs. Some require a downloadable client; many others are browser-based. Some cost in the mid-six figures to produce; others launched for the price of domain registration plus 10 bucks a month for cheap hosting. Most are lame - it's been a while since we've seen Commodore 64-style sprites - but some look startlingly professional. Many are run as hobbies, but some are intended to earn money. A few do. In fact, they earn a lot.

High-end developers might deride the boutiques as "not getting serious audience numbers" - until they learn about the games with more players than EverQuest. Onlookers, too, may sneer at these little games as "not serious money." But there are different ways to define "serious" - for example, how much money a given developer personally earns as take-home pay. A rank-and-file animator or designer at Blizzard earns basically the same salary whether World of Warcraft has 2,000 subscribers, or 200,000, or 20 million. Revenue from a successful boutique MMOG would be a rounding error for Blizzard, but it all goes straight to the game's small development team. With a player base in the low five figures, a single boutique developer can, over the medium to long term, earn personal income that dwarfs the Blizzard employee's - and yours.

In for the Long Haul
Dave Rickey, a designer for EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot, spoke in a June 2005 Corporation interview about opportunities at the small scale. "The economics of MMOGs under the standard business model are pretty simple: For each $1M [million] invested, you need 10,000 subscriptions to pay back the initial investment in a reasonable period (two years - investors have a different definition of 'reasonable period'). A game that costs $5M to make and maintains a 50,000-subscriber level for five years will make an overall return of $7.5M (assuming 25% is skimmed off the top for the investors). A game that costs $50M needs half a million subscribers to do the same trick. Somewhere in there, anything untried starts to look like an unreasonable risk.

"But this math works better at a smaller scale," Rickey notes. "A team of three, investing sweat equity for a year and getting 10,000 subs for five years, will clear over $1M each, over paying themselves reasonable salaries and hiring a few CSRs [customer service representatives]. Smaller teams have less overhead, fewer managers, less inefficiency in communication, less effort wasted on office politics. 10K is only a tiny, minuscule piece of the market." Since giving the interview, Rickey has joined Shannon Cusick at Orbis Games to design a niche MMOG targeting young girls, Virtual Horse Ranch II.

In October 2005, onetime game developer Dan Cook wrote a widely noted post on his Lost Garden blog called "A Game Business Model: Learning from Touring Bands." Dubbing these niche MMOGs "village games" - "quirky, isolated communities much like a traditional village or small town" - Cook drew parallels to evergreen bands like the Grateful Dead:

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