"They provide a service, not a packaged good. They sell to a dedicated fan base that, despite being small, provides enough additional revenue per user to make the venture profitable. The result is a self-contained community served by a small team of dedicated independent developers. ... A typical customer will spend an average of $60 a year and stays on for an average of 18 months, with some players staying for years. The developer generally keeps all $60 in revenue. Making money is a matter of maintaining your current customer base and incrementally increasing that base over time. The viewpoint is almost always long-term and focuses on maintaining and extending customer relationships."
Cook estimated the cost of developing a typical village game at $250,000; with 6,000-9,000 users, such a game reaches break-even 18 months after launch.
These figures are, in some cases, far too pessimistic:
" Two British college students launched Neopets for next to nothing in November 1999, and it became profitable by the following July. Six years later, having drawn 30 million users, they sold Neopets to Viacom's MTV for a reported $160 million.
" Started in 1997, the Sweden-based soccer management simulation Hattrick now runs on 40 servers in 20 languages and claims over 900,000 users. Membership has doubled since 2004, entirely through word-of-mouth. Hattrick is free; some players become Supporters (25 euro annually) to gain minor perks. Rival Managerzone, also Swedish, has nearly 600,000 players. Rumor has it the Hattrick team is also responsible for Popomundo, a rock 'n' roll career simulator.
Cook correctly emphasizes the boutique operator's long-term planning. A bad launch for a high-profile MMOG means disaster within months, even weeks. Again, the boutique works differently:
" Jagex Limited's RuneScape launched quite slowly in 2001. Cambridge University undergrad Andrew Gowers formed Jagex with his brother, Paul, and Constant Tedder; the three stuck with the game, built it slowly, and now employ hundreds. An October 2006 Wall Street Journal story says RuneScape has over five million players and may gross $50 million annually. "RuneScape" is one of the 10 most-edited Wikipedia articles, surpassing "Islam" and even "Michael Jackson."
" Kings of Chaos was created in 2003 by four high school juniors and now has nearly 40,000 active players.
We gasp when World of Warcraft passes seven million accounts, but RuneScape, Hattrick, Managerzone, and Planeshift together (never mind Neopets!) almost match that total. And they're just four of the hundred-plus boutique games you never hear about.
Bruce Woodcock tracks subscriber numbers at MMOGChart for WoW, EQ, Ultima Online, Lineage I and II, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, and all the best-known subscription-based MMOGs in North America. At the September 2006 Austin Game Conference, Woodcock estimated their combined player bases at around 15 million.
In all likelihood, the collected population of boutique MMOGs beats the pants off them.
Games of the Long Tail
The success of these and many other niche games illustrates Wired editor Chris Anderson's Long Tail theory: In a networked age of cheap storage and easy "findability," you can aggregate a profitable audience for topics of narrow interest. Alien Adoption Agency targets male tweens. Andrew Tepper's venerable Egyptian-themed A Tale in the Desert proceeds in 18-month cycles called "Tellings"; Tepper has just commenced his third Telling, with almost 2,000 players in tow. Lots of virtual pet games let you raise dogs, cats, horses and cows. Raising animals in other ways altogether, Furcadia caters to furries, an anthromorphic fetish group.
Boutiques find niches even on the well-traveled trails of fantasy. Ashen Empires (nee Dransik), from Iron Will Games, was originally pitched as "Ultima V for 10,000 players"; they're still working on their third thousand, but the game supports a modest four-person team. Tibia claims 100,000 players and has nearly 70,000 premium subscribers. Canadian programmer Gene Endrody is quietly creating a boutique powerhouse at Maid Marian Entertainment. Endrody outsources the art for his Shockwave-based online games, but otherwise works solo. MaidMarian.com attracts 700,000 unique visitors monthly.