Developing Online Games: An Insider's Guide (Book Review)

Nov 11, 2003
Reviewed by Ryan Hartwich

Authors: Jessica Mulligan and Bridgette Patrovsky
Publisher: New Riders
1st edition (March 7, 2003)
Paperback: 528 pages
ISBN: 1592730000

List Price: $49.99
Available for as little as $30 online

Are you a hard core Asheron?s Call, Everquest, or Dark Age of Camelot player who isn't happy just playing the game? Do you also aspire to design and program a PW/MMOG (persistent world/massively multiplayer online game) or a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' (remember the 80's) with Flash animation and a ColdFusion back end?

Or perhaps you have a strong affinity for games of the Sims Online genre, and want to work in the gaming industry as a content creator or manager ...

Then you might want to sit down and read Developing Online Games: An Insider's Guide.

This book covers the development process, from writing the executive summary, budgeting, staffing and pre-launch, to post launch and ongoing technical support (without going into the technical details) for massively multiplayer online games.

Significant attention is paid to the planning and development stages that occur before the product is launched and the long term support trends you will experience after your game goes live (i.e., you start promoting it as the next killer application for gamers). How do you design a game and what kinds of features are necessary to satisfy your customers and keep their experience fulfilling enough to continuously pay for play years into the future? Not surprisingly, the true potential (money-wise) of a game is not the initial boxed software sales at your neighborhood computer store. It is the ongoing service fees that players incur (typically $10-15 USD per month).

Three recurring themes permeate the book: planning, socialization and customer service.

The longest and somewhat repetitive part of the book is the ongoing discussion of the importance of planning ahead. Examples are given to highlight the need for every step of the game's design to be planned in the most exacting detail possible. Failure to plan every detail during and especially before coding starts is frequently the cause of multi-million dollar fiascos and cost overruns. The authors point out that with careful design early in the project, total development time and costs can be cut while increasing quality and bringing the game closer to the desired outcome. While this point is important, it seems to be mentioned in every chapter, even in places where it doesn't fit ... almost as if the authors thought that we hadn't heard this before and would somehow change our development styles because the mantra was ringing in our ears. Thankfully, their examples supported their premise that planning helps immensely.

I was rather surprised to read about the relatively high importance that players of online multiplayer games place on social interaction. It is the authors? (Mulligan's and Patrovsky's) strong belief that the quality of socialization possible between players can make or break a game's success. I grew up with Dungeons & Dragons on paper, and Bard's Tale on my Apple IIc. Through on again and off again spells of role playing games I have consistently played them by myself, never online, with only occasional game interaction with friends at school or in the workplace. Maybe this is why I so rarely play the games anymore. I desire more social interaction than is possible in front of a computer, playing against an Intel chip. There are numerous examples of games with weak community interaction inside the game, and just as important, skewed/imbalanced game playing features that give unfair advantages to aggressive players. At least a few chapters cover game balancing and communal play characteristics necessary to keep people returning for months. I was pleased to read of a few examples where the games themselves were less than spectacular, but the strong circles of friends that developed inside the game kept players paying for the thrill of meeting up with their friends in an artificial world.

Probably a hundred pages are devoted to the planning necessary for designing tools and building customer support features necessary to handling a large influx of players. With careful management of customer expectations, happy customers can be made from potentially unhappy ones. This is one of the key areas that the authors point out where detailed planning pays off. Without planning everything out, game publishers tend to underestimate the development time for the product as a whole. The projects then run over time/budget and building the tools necessary to handle the user load (hundreds of thousands of players, with thousands connected to each of many computer server clusters at any one time) get ignored. Customers experience difficulties, both technical and non-technical, and without the correct mix of tools, internal customer service, and peer support methods, users can't get their problems resolved in a timely fashion. They quickly stop playing and paying!

A thick appendix at the back of the book is devoted to case studies of games - some total failures, others spectacular successes. I found this to be a fascinating though somewhat dated section. Many of the games that I have heard about are not featured in the appendix.

This book thoroughly covers the basics of planning out a massive multiplayer online game, from a non-technical point of view. The case studies and technical examples will have wide appeal for a number of years since there is limited material that can be dated (i.e., discussion of video cards, hardware and programming languages is almost non existent). The book is an easy and pretty interesting book to read.

However, I was looking for a little bit more technical detail. I was happy that the authors stuck to their non-technical target audience, but an extra 30-50 pages with firm technical materials would have been nice (at the risk of it being outdated within 2 years). There was also a bit too much time given to the 'plan ahead' push of the authors.... Maybe they are trying to tell me something.

I have three suggestions for the authors on ways this book could be improved.

  1. Remove some of the references to planning and documenting throughout the book. This would cut 15-20 pages without taking away anything important.
  2. Add about 10-15 additional pages of details to discussions of programming languages, art design, bandwidth and hardware requirements for hosting tens of thousands of players, etc. This would help diversify the book from purely the planner/project manager to more of the individual designers/developers (though they will benefit from reading the book the way it is).
  3. Consider following some of their own advice for customer service and add a 30+ page FAQ type document to their book's website. It should include a comprehensive listing of large online games, additional up-to-date case studies, more accurate and detailed bandwidth utilizations and coding techniques, and a more descriptive example of a typical organizational chart for a game development company. Use this as a widely available teaser to get programmers and game writers interested in buying the book.

This book was a pleasure to read. I had not read any on game design (technical or managerial) before and it was a great introduction. It helped me remember why I enjoyed games as a kid and kick-started me into picking up Neverwinter Nights, though I haven't yet played online with others. When I finished reading, I had an urge to try building a Zork/Choose Your Own Adventure type game using Flash and ColdFusion. If you dream of going into game design, especially online games (which increasingly are massively multi-player versus one to one like chess), this is a must read.

Ryan Hartwich is a Kansas City based Mechanical Engineer with 5 years of ColdFusion experience. He specializes in technical sites for industrial companies. He is ColdFusion certified and an active leader in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Toastmasters (a public speaking organization). In his spare time, he manages the Kansas City ColdFusion User Group.

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