This could just be an interesting coincidence, but I also think it answers a number of questions about Cryptic’s MMO development strategy.
In July 2009, G4TV asked Cryptic’s Chief Creative Officer (and fan favourite punching bag) Jack Emmert how many players Champions Online needed for success:
G4: Speaking of it being successful, when you’re launching an MMO, like how many subscribers do you need in order to survive or thrive?
JE: Well, I think that number is the number for success is over 100,000 for us. If it’s over 100,000, I’m skipping the light fantastic. The break-even point is somewhere below 100,000. And that’s obviously depending upon – every MMO is different – depending on how much money is spent on it. But, clearly, we mark 100,000 as success.
More recently, in November 2009, MaximumPC asked Cryptic’s Executive Producer on Star Trek Online Craig Zinkievich about STO’s business model and the number of players it needs to attract:
MPC: Is it a chicken-and-egg scenario where you need to have enough subscriber revenue to make new content to attract new subscribers?
CZ: Definitely. There’s a barrier. From our experience, if you don’t break 100,000 subscribers at any point in time, your game tends to just go away. Most games that don’t break that 100,000-subscriber mark tend to just be flashes in the pan. But once you do, you tend to get a really solid fan base with enough revenue to keep adding to the game, and things go pretty well.
It is interesting that both men mention that 100k figure as a key subscription point for their MMOs. It could just be a nice round figure they both plucked out of the air, but I think the potential also exists that Cryptic is aiming to build MMOs that break even at around 100k players, with development budgets to match. In an industry where MMOs need 500k players for success or might spend over $100 million developing a MMO, aiming to be successful at the lower end of six figures might seem like a lack of ambition. However, I see such a plan as a very intelligent given the number of high profile, big budget launches that have since failed to find and keep a sizeable audience.
If Cryptic is going down this path, it explains the reduced development time (2 or so years for STO, 3 or so years for Marvel Universe Online / ChampO), the reduced time given to open betas / testing (expensive to operate), the reliance on an evolving internal development engine (cuts down development time and costs) and the introduction of official microtransaction channels (the C=Store increases per-player revenue over just the subscription fees, meaning a lower subscriber base is required for profitability). It also explains the multiple MMOs in production at one time – Cryptic could be attempting to avoid having all its eggs in one basket by having a number of different MMOs on offer, all profitable at a ‘low’-yet-substantive active subscription figure.
This isn’t to say that Cryptic wouldn’t want to develop a MMO that attracts 5 million players and sees everyone rolling around in cash. It’s just that they aren’t betting the entire studio on only one title to do it.
But What Would Atari Do?
If this was Cryptic’s plan, would Atari have signed off on it? Doesn’t every publisher want to create the next World of Warcraft?
Maybe not Atari. Going back to the original press release of Atari’s (then Infogrames) acquisition of Cryptic, a key focus was on Cryptic’s lower development costs and in creating “unique, high quality MMO games on 18 to 24-month cycles“. It would be impossible to create the next WoW in 24 months even with an existing game engine, so (unless Atari is incredibly unrealistic) they must have some kind of acceptance for the minimum 100k players per MMO for a number of different, rapidly developed MMOs. Cryptic is Atari’s MMO developer / online platform provider, so it unlikely Cryptic is operating completely free of its owner’s control and developing MMOs for 100k players while Atari doesn’t want any less than 1m active subs.
When Cryptic announces its next MMO – rumours of Cryptic’s Neverwinter Nights exist, although I still think that MMO market is open for a dark world / horror MMO that Cryptic’s development art has hinted about for over 2 years (or longer) – it will be interesting to see if they follow the same pattern of rapid development and release (next title due in 2011, according to those same rumours).
Or the 100k figure could just be a coincidence and I’m reading too much into it.