Mark Darrah on trap of live service games, or why napkin math doesn't work: "You can only play one Destiny at a time"

History is cyclical, and this is true for the games industry as well. Veteran developer and former BioWare producer Mark Darrah has shared his thoughts on companies that repeat the same mistakes over and over again when trying to make their own Ultima Online or Destiny.

Why game publishers repeatedly fall into a live service trap by making false assumptions based on the napkin math

Mark Darrah (left), Destiny 2 (right)

Last month, Darrah posted a video on his YouTube channel to discuss what he called a “live service trap.” He recalled how developers and publishers have tried to jump on the MMO hype train ever since the era of Ultima Online and EverQuest.

By doing some napkin math, companies made false assumptions that led them to believe that they could succeed in the emerging market. In the 1990s, according to Darrah, it worked like this:

“Ultima Online has 150k-300k active players. If we can get just 10% of that, then we will have 20k people playing our game every month. And they are paying $15 a month, so that’s $300k a month we have to work with to support this game.”

However, MMOs were always really expensive to develop, and games trying to catch up with market leaders ended up with 2,000 active players or less. So napkin math didn’t work, leading to projects shutting down or even failing to launch.

Some lessons were learned, but multiplayer became a thing again in the 2000s, with more companies adding online elements to their games. The reason was that titles with more “session days” used to sell better, were stickier, and had a longer tail.

Napkin math said that you needed to get more session days, and the only way that was understood to get more session days was to have multiplayer. So, 'all games must be multiplayer,' 'single-player is dead.' What happened? You can't just pivot your single-player teams to multiplayer, so you ended up with multiplayer games that were not fully featured.

Mark Darrah

Former executive producer at BioWare

Fast forward to the 2010s, Bungie released Destiny and then its (currently free-to-play) sequel, which spawned a looter shooter boom. Darrah noted that it also showed big publishers what a microtransaction-driven live service game should look like. So napkin math came back, making companies mistakenly believe that they could turn every game into Destiny, or FIFA Ultimate Team, or Fortnite.

The mistake is you can only really play one Destiny at a time. You can only do one engrossing live service at a time. So what happens in cases where one game is going to dominate your attention, you end up having a very tall steep head and a very thin tail because people play where the people are. So these live services tend to be dominated by one winner, two or three runners-up, and then a lot of live services that aren't really surviving.

Mark Darrah

Former executive producer at BioWare

As a result, many live service titles just shut down shortly after launch. History repeats itself, and publishers once again realize that time isn’t infinite, and people can’t play eight large GaaS projects at the same time. As Darrah pointed out, games are allowed to be single-player again, but that probably won’t stop big companies from chasing trends and trying to make as much money as possible.

In his video, Darrah summarized the main mistakes that happen when devs do napkin math:

  • Underestimating production costs — if you assume that development would cost two times what you understand, then in reality, it will be 10 times;
  • Forgetting that people have a limited number of minutes in a day — in the live service space, the winner takes it all, and competition for player time is really fierce;
  • Underestimating the cost of content support — to survive, a live service game needs new classes, weapons, maps, or other things depending on its genre, and all this requires experienced teams and tons of resources;
  • Treating live service game development as a linearly growing thing — in fact, the costs are growing exponentially (companies tend to extrapolate and use only the information they understand, but forget that things work radically different in an area or genre where they have no experience and knowledge at all).

“In some cases, don’t waste the napkin, use it first for what it was intended to — wiping your face — and leave the napkin math alone,” Darrah concluded.

More details can be found in the full video. Mark Darrah has also previously shared other stories and insights, including his videos on the development of Baldur’s Gate and Jade Empire, or his explanation of why the so-called “BioWare magic” is a flawed conception.

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