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MMOs Dreaming of a China Boom

SPECIAL REPORT: On April 19, the San Francisco Marriott played host to “Mastering the Craft of Online Gaming”, a conference dedicated to the business of building MMOs. Overall, the event was underwhelming and unattended, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some interesting tidbits to be gleaned from attendees. The biggest take-aways:
American development companies underestimate the power of the Asia markets, and middleware is the path to success.

Ozzie Monge is vice president of business development at research firm DFC Intelligence. Based in San Diego, Monge was passing around a copy of his company’s latest report on the Chinese market. While the report didn’t contain any information that hasn’t already been covered in the mainstream gaming press, its weight and girth did underscore the fact that Asian gaming markets haven’t just exploded, they’re continuing to expand every day. With 180 million Chinese expected to be online by 2010, that could mean as many as 50 million potential subscribers by that time.

Monge stated that his firm’s research has shown the Chinese online game marketplace will be the biggest and most lucrative world-wide. 

Elsewhere at the show, infrastructure salespeople from the likes of OpSource and Emergent hawked their services to a non-existent crowd of developers. Indeed, the conference was attended almost entirely by vendors and speakers. Those poor speakers who happened to be from actual MMO companies, such as Three Rings CEO Daniel James (who gives good numbers), were hounded by sales pitches all day.

This was probably due to the fact that the world of MMO games is not yet one of entrepreneurial spirit: indeed, most companies would rather farm out their properties to experienced MMO developers than try to go it alone. While this may change in the future, it means that, for now, MMOs are typically made by expert teams who don’t think they need to attend educational conferences. 

However, the biggest sales person at the show was easily IBM’s George Dolbier. He’s IBM’s CTO of games and interactive entertainment, and he said that his company is seeing more and more interest from companies who don’t want to build everything from scratch.

“We try to take a neutral approach to the market, although we do have our internal leanings. If you were starting development of an MMO three years ago, there weren’t very many commercial choices for middleware, let alone the ability to outsource end-to-end infrastructure. Today, we see announcements on an almost weekly basis for a new pieces of middleware. There’s a lot of talk in the industry about how things like Emergent can save you like 12 months and dramatically enhance development,” said Dolbier. 

And that’s the key to getting new products up and selling in emerging marketplaces.

Discussions from attendees pointed to Brazil and India as possible new markets for MMOs, with limiting factors being broadband and poverty rather than technical knowhow or desire for gameplay. 

The net result of the Mastering the Craft of Online Gaming Infrastructure conference was to hammer home the concept that MMO’s are just applications. Derek Wise, Netoptex CEO, said “Games are software as a service. I think we can say that out loud now.” And he’s right. When it comes to massively multiplayer games, they’re just big database-driven thick client applications. The only real difference is that the development team includes artists and sound guys.

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