So what challenges offers an MMO with a low population? Here we go.

Feedback, communication, flooding

To make sure the game is on rails I try to be present as much as I can to players. It means frequent forums posting, jumping in-game to have a chat and answering bug reports (which most of them are questions or suggestions in fact). Early adopters are quick to understand everything going on and finding weak links so it’s an invaluable source of information. It can however quickly become overwhelming.

Getting in-game and letting know players I’m around is a sure way to receive a ton of suggestions/rants/bug reports/questions. It’s great but you need to step on the breaks at some point otherwise you’ll never get out of there. If I had to manage a high population MMO I just wouldn’t do that. Maybe I’d focus on forums or maybe I’d build some in-game tools to make communication easier with players without having to be online myself. The bug report system is a start but it’s not perfect for follow-ups and half the bugs are never reported through this. Maybe a reward system linked to the bug report might be a nice way to get players to use this tool more.

So I was saying that you are flooded by players and at some points you being online creates expectations and sometimes it’s your own fault. For example if a bug happen I can quickly check the data and reimburse a player. Now if I do that for 1 player others will expect that I do the same for them. My own fault for providing a service way too good. So with expectations you inevitably end up creating frustrations as you just can’t keep up. So why keep doing it? Well I need those bits of gold players will reveal. Can’t afford to lose those players so you do the best you can.

Balancing

Well balancing by itself is really hard and when there’s not enough people to group with it can become hell. For example I’ve become aware that the “boss NPCs” were literally being farmed as the main source of credits. Now of course I’ll correct this as soloing never was something I quite wanted for these NPCs. I mean I wanted players to be able to solo in very easy and easy systems (zones) but other than that my goal was to let players feel that it’s better to wait for a friend than to try to go solo.

So if I “force” this grouping thing in the current state of Star Corsairs it won’t be a great success as at any time it’s hard to find others to play with. Let’s remember here that there is PvP, PvE, mining and crafting so there are quite some things to do so that splits the population of the game in different activities. So while there might be some players online it doesn’t mean they are interested to join you for a specific activity.

And if I allow players to solo? Well they burn content way too fast, inflation becomes a huge problem and they expect more new content than tweaks to the current one. Need I say that tweaking content takes less time than creating new content…

Making the game feel alive

That’s where you hit a catch-22. Someone creates an account, not much people online, quits. Well if that person quits because there wasn’t much people then how will it ever get more players! The answer is a short but intense rush which you usually expect at release. Well what can I say it didn’t happen for Star Corsairs… Maybe I’ll get another opportunity (like appearing in a popular indie bundle) as it would make things way easier (well maybe the server would explode but let’s stick to one problem here).

That’s a big reason why ads are useless for a low population game. You get people to the game but slowly (well unless you can spend the kind of money I don’t have) and slowly doesn’t cut it. You want at least 10 players getting online in the same 5-10 minutes. If you get these 10 players over 40 minutes then they might never run into each other. Of course advertisement is not all that (someone might as well just enjoy what he sees and decides to stay) but we’re talking about an MMO here. You need to have people in it. Well at least in this one you need to. Maybe I should start creating solo MMOs instead so population wouldn’t be an issue.

So that’s why making sure you communicate with players is important as you need to keep those currently playing since they are currently your only way to make the game feel alive. Not everyone is patient though so you have to deal with requests and expectations coming from frustration sometimes. People are quick to threaten to leave an MMO “if X is not done” I know. But when there’s not much people around to keep them playing it’s way easier for them to make this threat reality. Players keep playing MMOs because they want to stick with others. I can’t count the times I’ve seen someone upset over an MMO but still playing it anyway just because “hey everyone is here anyway!”.

Deciding what to do next

Yes. What to do next? Improve the game as it is to hope to convert new accounts into active players? Create new content to keep your current players happy as they are part of the reason new players might be interested to stay? Deploy more promo efforts? Do a bit of all of the above at the same time? Working alone or in small businesses means being a Jack of all trades, master of none but there’s no way to escape it.

So improving the game as it is? Well sure. If there’s something wrong it must be fixed but it might not be always that clear. Is it something that players might run into after playing for a week or 5 minutes? Better take care of the 5 minutes issues as if a player stay around for a week it’s a good start. Of course your current players are already in that week mark so they might not enjoy as much the changes.

Creating new content? Well I learned to be careful with that. I take baby steps and hope players will understand that I can’t make everything happen at once. For example today I added missiles. Nothing too fancy but it still adds a new mechanic and prepared the code for other special weapons. Next I might make a step to prepare for special zones (something like raids) but since I can’t dedicate 100% of my time doing that it might not seem like I’m going into that direction to players. Again communication helps.

More promo efforts? Well of course but what? With limited time you can’t just try anything without putting some thoughts in it first. There’s a limit to the number of emails you can send people in the hope they might post about you. I already did my 2nd run of emails. The 3rd one will start to look like spam unless I have actually something new to say (like a big update for example which… well takes time… and it didn’t really worked for Golemizer). Today I tested a Twitter contest but those really work best when you have a lot of followers and your followers also have at least some followers… Of course by running a contest you’re actually offering something new so it’s a way to not make it look like spam. It’s not just “hey check my game” but it might take a few more contests to actually see any result from this.

So doing a bit of everything is probably required with promo and improving the current game coming first. But then having an idea to do promo work isn’t just a matter of sitting and waiting for the good idea to come up (hence this post).

Feeling like you did, you’re doing or about to do something wrong

Well we all do things the wrong way at some point but when you don’t quite see results or hear from anyone you always remain in doubts and then become afraid to make your next move. You do have to make a move at some point but the whole doubts thing slows you down a lot.

Here’s a simple example. I was trying to come up with something simple and catchy to write to an indie games website in the 2nd email I was about to send. All I could think about was “did I made that much typos in the first mail (go back reading, nope), was it boring, too long, did the links worked (go back, yep), was there any other big news that day (well BlizzCon but that’s not indie news…)” and it goes on and on and on. Maybe the news just wasn’t interesting to the editor and I couldn’t do anything better but how can I know… Much easier to blame me instead as it brings an answer to my questions. It’s not the healthiest thing to do though so I try to not waste too much time thinking about it and get back to work doing the best I can. There’s really not much else to do isn’t it?

It would have been easier to not have to face the low population issue once again with Star Corsairs but eh…

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