GDC: Making an Indy MMO
Mar 05, 2007 18:46:26

Day one of the Game Developer's Conference closed out with a presentation by Daniel James of Three Rings, the creators of Puzzle Pirates. In his brief talk he went over the key philosophies that launched Puzzle Pirates to some considerable success within the casual MMO market. Like Runescape and Habbo Hotel, it was made on a shoestring budget by a team of six hard working individuals who didn't understand the meaning of 'quit'. The team was made up of of two programmers, two artists and two engineers (which I took to mean infrastructure design and deployment).

Here are the rules they lived by:

1. Kick Ass

Daniel pulled no punches here. If you don't want to work hard - real hard - find something else to do. If you're looking to kick out a carbon copy game of dubious quality by working 40 hours a week for a few months, you're in the wrong line of work. Starting an MMO from scratch with no budget seems impossible, but Three Rings is proof that if you kick a little ass, you might very well make it.

2. Keep it simple, tight and small

The words hardly reflect the goals of an MMO, but Daniel honed the meaning down carefully: Do not over-engineer your product. Do not try to be the catch-all 'kitchen-sink' MMO (games with Vanguard-sized time lines and budgets are welcome to try however.) Do not get enthralled with being the biggest, it is okay to be a little smaller and have high quality.

3. No one can screw this up but you.

Daniel hit on one of my tenants of Indy Game Dev here which is: never start a project you can't finish yourself. Why? Because people who aren't getting paid much or at all tend to flake and disappear. Three Rings had a trustworthy core team and they didn't farm out work to others. If something was going to fail, they wanted it to be on their shoulders alone.

After gently bashing us over the head with those rules, he went on to cover a few other nuggets of wisdom.

  • Do not take on too many investors unless they're angels who are giving money away, so to speak. More money causes more problems and raises the bar for success. If you have a million dollars to work with instead of twenty-thousand, the number of players needed to 'win' changes dramatically.

  • Publish it yourself. This one hardly needs explaining. Publishers put amazingly steep demands on studios and it can and (usually) will hurt the final product dramatically. This is a risk that independent studios may want to avoid.

  • Love your players. Daniel believes in treasuring every single player and demonstrates this as frequently as possible. He indicates that a little love here and there snowballs into a feeling of good will from the masses. How true.

  • Release early, release often, iterate. A common development mantra that allows problems to be solved on tight time lines, keeping many players happy. Daniel pointed out that perfection was secondary in many cases, noting that many of the casual games that are big in the market have a lack of polish that is almost appalling. (Runescape being the best example.)

  • Hire your best players. Again, a very common scenario in the gaming world. Players are a great source of human capital. They're dedicated, love gaming, and would give anything to be in the industry, especially if they're young and energetic and don't mind starting on the ground floor. This is something SOE has done to great effect.

    Daniel made many other remarks about the future of Three Rings. One point he made very clearly is that the success of Puzzle Pirates does not mean they're going to try to make bigger budget games. They're going to stick with what works and by leveraging existing technology, the budget on their net game will be less than that of Puzzle Pirates (which was made for $250,000.) This is rather amazing considering puzzle pirates currently drags in $350,000 each month and has very few full time employees (the website lists 24.) He also said that bandwidth and co-location costs were immaterial within the grand scheme of the budget for Puzzle Pirates, which in comparison with employee costs, is certainly true.

    Puzzle Pirates is not considered a true-MMO by many, but clearly the effort and the challenges are similar if not identical to that of larger scale MMO games developed by under-funded studios, and indy dev teams can probably reap great benefits by following the recipe demonstrated by Three Rings.

  • Submitted by Brent on Mar 05, 2007 18:46:26 CST (comments: 6)


    'Interesting...' by scytale2
    Submitted on 2007-03-05 19:23:46 CST
    There certainly is a lot of money to be made in niche market MMOs, like Puzzle Pirates (which has always failed to install for me btw). But where are they?
    Where's something from the Horror genre?
    What about something with robots and mechs?
    What Daniel, I think, neglected to list (or maybe this was deliberate) is that keeping small means minimising the amount of programming and maximising the amount of challenge to players. the idea of including puzzles was a brilliant one, because they are time sinks and require little programming. Use this model and you are well on the way to having a successful small MMO.

    'hmmmm...' by darrenl
    Submitted on 2007-03-05 21:20:47 CST
    It'll be very interesting if any MMO companies use these rules at all. Seems like the focus is on big subscriber base for as little cost as possible. Like all things, I blame WoWs success for that.

    I would love to work for that guy given those rules alone.

    'Failed to install?' by lizthegrey
    Submitted on 2007-03-06 20:58:04 CST
    scytale2, feel free to drop me a line at, or post on our Technical Issues board over at - I'm curious what kind of problems you've had with installation, and how recently you tried; there are a couple common problems that can be fixed fairly easily.

    darrenl, we're hiring :P - has the relevant info if you're interested in applying.

    So, I'm curious what exactly, constitute the arguments that Puzzle Pirates is not an MMO. Certainly, it doesn't fit with the traditional mold of a MMORPG with the cut and slash mechanic, stat improvement through items and grinding over time as opposed to player skill, and fancy 3d graphics etc. but I hardly would say those are all requirements for an MMO. (one of our pet witticisms is the fact that Boots of +3 Bilging are Anti-Listed; this gets trotted out every time someone suggests on our Game Design forum that there should be items that make puzzles easier/improve performance)

    'uh-ohhh' by darrenl
    Submitted on 2007-03-06 21:44:59 CST
    They're listening...

    ...and oh my liz...I'll give you guys a gander for sure.

    'The measure of an MMO' by Brent
    Submitted on 2007-03-06 23:59:27 CST
    I probably should have clarified that statement a little more. By the classic definition of large numbers of players interacting with each other in a persistent or semi-persistent environment, Puzzle Pirates does of course qualify. That being said, it is outside the core interest of VirginWorlds's readers and listeners, though I know a ton of people who visit here have played it and liked it. I meant no offense by the statement and I should have phrased that differently.

    'What is a MMO ?' by Dathmar
    Submitted on 2007-03-07 03:28:35 CST
    This is interesting - what does constitute an MMO ?
    I have often wondered.
    I played Dreamlords recently and to be honest it didn't feel like an MMO to me.
    I guess it had - a large numbers of players interacting with each other in a persistent or semi-persistent but mainly only in the same way people interact in for and Diablo 2 or Warcraft 3 - which are not MMOs....or are / were they ?
    Guild Wars in another one...MMO or not ?
    I am not arguing the case here honestly....just interested in how this is defined.

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