Your own MMOG?

image All the intrepid soloists (or trios or quartets) highlighted in “Boutique MMOGs” started their own online games. So can you. Allen Varney explains how.

With commodity hardware, free software, and cheap hosting, the barrier to entry is excitingly and/or frighteningly low. More important than your machine’s software is your own. You must be smart; “amateur” doesn’t equal stupid. Experience helps a lot, but mainly you need good sense and willingness to learn.

    If you plan to make money, design your business before you write your program.

    A program is not a product, and a product is not a business.

    Identify a niche market, then make a game they want.

    Pursue a Blue Ocean Strategy – go where competitors aren’t.

    Hire a professional bookkeeper to set up your accounts.

    Develop a business model and marketing strategy based on community-building.

    You’re not selling a game, you’re selling its community. Compete on quality – the quality of your community.

    Try anything, measure everything, but never, ever betray the community.

Project management priorities of boutique MMOG producers differ from triple-A studios in remarkably few ways: cost containment above all; launch early, small, and quiet; iterate often; expect success to take five years. Otherwise, your guiding principles are those common to all online games.

    To schedule, estimate how long you think it will take, then double that and add six months.

    Design the entire interface first, before you write one line of production code.

    Keep all game logic on the server side.

    When your game looks 90 percent done, you’re only 10 percent done.

    Feature creep is toxic.

    Design for internationalization and, when applicable, accessibility.

    Establish useful metrics.

Boutique designers are technological generalists. Though you can outsource art, sound effects, and web design, the technologies you yourself may use include not only programming languages, but also server configuration, networking, security, database design, content frameworks like Drupal and MediaWiki, customer service and forum software, and accounting and billing systems. Fortunately, there are open-source versions of everything you need.

Small games still require good software engineering. Even (especially) on a four-figure budget, you cannot afford sloppiness. Write maintainable, scalable code. Use version control, Model-View-Controller or another sensible architecture, a robust build system, component testing, bug tracking, production and test servers (with offsite mirrors), tight security, frequent backups, access profiles, logging, and an ACID-compliant database.

No, you shouldn’t run the game from your home machine. If cash is extremely tight, you can start with shared hosting ($5-25 a month, but you get what you pay for). The instant you can afford it, move to a dedicated server.

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