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What Goes Into An MMO Software Development Team?

Massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) and massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have taken the gaming world by storm ever since broadband internet was popularized. MMOs are fun, time-consuming, detailed, and, well… massive.

The software development teams behind MMOs are equally massive. These teams are composed of entire departments of developers devoted to each aspect of the game, from programming to design, sound, and even economists tasked with sustaining in-game economies.

Those who aspire to join an MMO development team would do well to obtain a master’s degree in software development and to focus their efforts on one particular type of development, such as animating characters and creatures, for example. The more examples of a particular genre of work a developer has in his or her portfolio, the better the chance of impressing an MMO recruiter or hiring manager.

Composition Of An MMO Team

Depending on several variables, such as budget, timeframe, and the scope of the development job, MMO development teams can include as many as 200 to 300 members. Many of them, however, will not stay with the game indefinitely. Before the game goes live or in preparation for a game patch or expansion, MMO teams will grow substantially through temporary employment.

Some of the larger MMO teams are household names and generate enormous revenue through sales and subscription fees. For instance, World of Warcraft (WoW) in 2013 pulled in more than a billion dollars and had a 36 percent market share. Lineage 1 made $253 million and Star Wars: The Old Republic made $165 million, according to tech writer Paul Tassi’s Forbes article, “‘World Of Warcraft’ Still A $1B Powerhouse Even As Subscription MMOs Decline.”

A list of game development considerations that determine the potential size of a development team can be found in multimedia journalist Brandon Widder’s “How To Make A Video Game (Experience Not Required)” on DigitalTrends.com. The list includes:

  • Type of game – First-person shooter, role-playing game, MMO
  • Budget – Obviously the game’s budget determines the size of the team and wages.
  • Length – Is the game going to be short and sweet, or sprawling in nature?
  • Basic plot – How involved is the game’s storyline? More story equals more detail equals more developers.
  • Skill level – Simple, time-burning game or an involved, difficult game? The higher the skill level, the more development will be needed.

A simple two-dimensional side-scroller or a Tetris-like phone app will require a smaller team than a photo-realistic, persistent world MMORPG. Accomplished game developer and programmer Alistair Doulin’s blog post, “Building A Strong Indie Game Development Team,” on GamaSutra.com itemizes the various roles that need to be filled on a typical game development team:

  • Programming – Responsible for the coding elements of game development and game tools, website development, and the creation of the installer.
  • Design – Developers whose job it is to connect all of the various parts of the project, maintaining and updating the game design document to keep the team on the same page, developmentally speaking.
  • Art – Tasked with making sure that the look and feel of the game meets specifications. The art department also works closely with the programmers to meet technical requirements and develop the requirements for the game’s tools.
  • Sound – In charge of all the sound effects, music, and overall audio atmosphere of the game.
  • Project management – Managers who oversee either an assigned department or the overall game development, making sure that each of their charges knows what they need to do and how long they have to do it. Project managers also strive to keep visibility high in the game development office so team members can see their progress and understand the reasons for their deadlines.
  • Quality assurance (QA) – Responsible for playing the game in order to find bugs and correct issues as they come up. QA can be in-house or farmed out to beta testers, or both (beta testers are players who are allowed free access to the game before it is officially released in to work out all the bugs).
  • Business – Tasked with running the business side of the game, from the writing of the business plan to obtaining funding, marketing, sales, and subscriptions.

Again, depending on many variables, not the least of which is budget, the departments could have one or two people apiece or full teams of 20 or 30 developers. For the more realistic, visually intensive games, developers may be responsible for just one specific element of the game, ranging from sculpting and painting terrain and atmospheric elements to animating characters and creatures over an underlying virtual skeleton.

Where MMOs Are Headed

The AAA MMO video game industry, which includes the games with the highest budgets and largest marketing campaigns, has been slowly declining of late, according to video game writer/reviewer Rob Fahey’s “Weak AAA Launches Are A Precursor To Industry Transition” on GamesIndutry.biz. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no future for MMO gaming.

The problem with MMOs is that most gamers feel that multiplayer games have become stale, not offering enough unique features to attract new players. So indie game developers are redefining MMO games from the ground up. The goal is to present players with a game world that they have total control over without being compelled to work within predefined character constraints requiring monotonous grinding (repetitive point accumulating actions) for XP points.

Games such as Ashes of Creation, an independent Kickstarter campaign, are offering an in-game structure that will unfold as the players themselves direct it. The events within the game environment will be created by developers based on how players have been playing the game, where they have built cities, and what they’ve done with the game economy.

Other companies have transitioned over to mobile platforms. Pokemon Go showed the world how augmented reality could be incorporated into MMOs on a large scale. Player interaction is evolving into multiplayer online battle arenas, which have increased the skill required of players to compete with other players. And player immersion will increase as virtual reality, audio input (voice recognition), and movement trackers make players truly feel that they are inside the game world.

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Sources:

‘World Of Warcraft’ Still A $1B Powerhouse Even As Subscription MMOs Decline – https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2014/07/19/world-of-warcraft-still-a-1b-powerhouse-even-as-subscription-mmos-decline/#415fd89e6db7
How To Make A Video Game (Experience Not Required) – https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/how-to-make-a-video-game/
Building A Strong Indie Game Development Team – http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AlistairDoulin/20100107/86323/Building_A_Strong_Indie_Game_Development_Team.php
Weak AAA Launches Are A Precursor To Industry Transition – http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2016-11-25-weak-aaa-launches-are-a-precursor-to-industry-transition
Ashes Of Creation – https://www.ashesofcreation.com/