Project Top Secret and Community Control in MMOs

Ironically (or maybe not so ironically),
my first post will not be a legal post. While video game law in and of itself
is an interesting topic, my primary concern when it comes to any entertainment
industry is the business itself. While there are legal implications to business
models and business structures (i.e., business formation, financial planning,
taxes, contracts, et cetera, et cetera) entertainment attorneys don’t rely on a
lot of case law.

A
colleague and I were discussing this very fact earlier today—according to my
colleague it is easier to teach musicians entertainment law and contracts than
it is to teach experienced lawyers entertainment law. Lawyers are taught that
contracts require good faith negotiation. Entertainment lawyers know that there
is little of anything resembling good faith in industry contracts between, say,
an artist and a record label—entertainment lawyers therefore aim to get the
best deal out of a guaranteed bad deal. In short, non-entertainment lawyers
rely on the law when examining a contract or an infringement claim.
Entertainment lawyers rely on industry standard.

So this
particular post, my first post, isn’t about the law. If you want the law, I
urge you to visit gamepolitics.com. It’s an excellent resource for a variety of
reasons.

This is
about MMOs. Namely, this is about MMO business models.

Anyone
familiar with the recent development in Acclaim’s brand already knows that the
brand and David Perry are putting out new MMOs almost as quickly as Blizzard puts
out patches for its one MMO (slight exaggeration… on second thought, no, it isn’t).
David Perry is fairly innovative when it comes to MMO business models. Like
NCSoft’s Dungeon Runners, a game like 2 Moons uses a blended business model that
combines advertising and subscription services to make the free software
profitable. Considering the substantial threat of piracy in today’s PC game
market, finding profitability via any channel but software sales is a great
idea.

A while
back David Perry came up with a new concept/gimmick. Project Top Secret is a
competition for the MMO/game designer community. This competition encourages community
game designers (such as those alpha and beta testers who think they could make
a better game with the same resources, and who, let’s face it, are sometimes
right) to get together and collaborate on a game design that they want to see
developed. One winner of the competition gets directorship of the development
of a new MMO, and Acclaim will front $1 million or so plus license fees in development
costs to the winning developer.

There’s
a design document new contributors to the project are encouraged to read. There’s
daily discussion on the forum to hash out game ideas and mechanics. It’s
recently been released that the game will be a racing MMO.

MMOs
typically seem to fail for one or several of three reasons– A) The primary MMO
market (RPG) is cornered; B) The game crushes under the weight of its own
expense and technology; and/or C) The game developers stop listening to the
community and decide that they are going to make the game they want to play as
opposed to a game that will actually generate subscriptions/players. In other
words, a lot of games fail because the developers didn’t listen to the
community.

Whether
there is a market for a racing MMO is beyond the scope of this entry. The
concept itself is novel, but the real question is whether or not this is just a
gimmick. An MMO doesn’t ship like console or stand alone games on release—a lot
of small time MMO developers use release as a second Beta. Release is followed
by a constant stream of new builds, patches, hot fixes, updates, changes in
game mechanics, and little game breaking changes that alienates ¾ of your
player base. Allowing your community to come up with the game concept and
design is a brilliant idea, and it will definitely get press, attention, and
hopefully a lot of brand loyalty. But what happens after the game’s release?
Will the winning developers control the game after release? If not, is there a
dev team in place to take over the game once it’s in the pipeline for release?
Will the new dev team listen to the community, implement the appropriate
changes and fixes to keep the player base happy, or will they, like many other
developers, choose to take the game down a different road?

  The success of the game will probably
hinge on Acclaim and David Perry’s commitment to the community. It would be
nice to see a game like this succeed, because it would reaffirm the already
widely held belief that MMO makers need to love and listen to their
communities.