The Evolution of Massively Multiplayer Online and Why MMO Is Still Popular Over 25 Years Later

Jess Mulligan is a consultant and troubleshooter for senior executives of online games operating in the US and Europe. Jess is a veteran in the industry with over 35 years of experience working in producer and leadership roles. Before offering their expertise as a consultant, Jess spent over five years at Travian Games in Munich, Germany, before exiting their dual role as Executive Producer and Game Director. Jess co-authored Developing Online Games: An Insider’s Guide, an overview of how to design, develop, and manage online games, published worldwide in over 10 languages, including Korean and Chinese. 

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • Jess Mulligan discusses the evolution of online games
  • Jess shares their experience working at Ultima Online
  • Creating engaging MMO and MMORPG games
  • Hiring practices and layoffs in the gaming industry
  • Jess expounds on game development, prototyping, and testing
  • Jess explains their path to becoming a gaming consultant

In this episode…

Massively multiplayer online is considered the most popular genre in the gaming industry. What features should you include as a game developer to keep this category fresh? 

MMO first launched in the late 1990s, with Ultima Online being one of the first. These games allow multiple players to interact with each other in a virtual world. However, inadequately-designed games can potentially bore players. To prevent this, MMO expert Jess Mulligan advises developers to create games that offer a great customer experience. This includes providing tutorials on developing characters and making the game functional for first- and second-level players. Jess also suggests creating activities that give players a burst of instant gratification, such as being immediately promoted to a new level. Additionally, implementing open worlds like theme parks can keep players engaged and incentivize them to keep playing.

In this episode of the Here’s Waldo Podcast, Lizzie Mintus interviews Jess Mulligan, a consultant and troubleshooter to senior online game executives, about the MMO industry. Jess discusses the evolution of MMO, how to create engaging games, and becoming an online game consultant.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode...

This episode is brought to you by Here’s Waldo Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm specializing in the video game industry that prioritizes quality over quantity and values transparency, communication, and diversity. We partner with companies, creatives, and programmers to understand the why behind their needs and provide a white-glove experience that ensures a win-win outcome.

The industry evolves. The market changes. But at Here’s Waldo Recruiting, our commitment to happy candidates and clients does not. 

We understand that searching for the best and brightest talent can be overwhelming, so let our customer-first staff of professionals do the leg work for you by heading over to

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Here's Waldo podcast, where we sit down with top visionaries and creatives in the video game industry. Together we'll unravel their journeys and learn more about the path they're forging ahead. Now, let's get started with the show. I'm

Lizzie: Lizzie Mintus, founder and CEO of Here's Waldo Recruiting, a boutique video game recruitment firm. This is the Here's Waldo podcast and every episode we dive deep into conversations with creatives, founders, and executives about what it takes to make a successful game. You can expect to hear valuable lessons from their journey and get a glimpse into the future of the video game industry.

This episode is brought to you by Here's Waldo Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm for the video game industry. We value quality over quantity, transparency, communication, and diversity. We partner with companies, creatives, and programmers to understand the why behind their needs. We provide a white glove experience that ensures a win outcome.

Before introducing today's guest, I want to give a big thank you to Wallace Poulter for introducing us. Today we have Jess Mulligan with us. Jess is a 35 plus year veteran of the online game industry, producing and managing online games and massively multiplayer persistent worlds. Their book, Developing Online Games, an insider's guide with co author Bridget Hatrovorsky has been published worldwide in over 10 languages, including Korean and Chinese.

Jess is currently a consultant and troubleshooter for senior executives operating in the U. S. and Europe. Let's get started. Thanks for being here, Jess.

Jess: Hey, thank you for having me.

Lizzie: Yeah, you have been working in online games for 35 years, walk me through where the state of the industry was when you started and where you see it going.

Jess: Wow. I actually got involved in online games in 1986. A friend of mine became the Apple system operator for the Genie network, one of the proprietary online services. And he brought me on as like an assistant game librarian, doing downloads and checking them for viruses, all of that.

There were no online games on the network at that time, but about six months in, the guy that ran Genie, Bill Loudon, had come from CompuServe, so he brought some games over with him. And they finally got up on that antiquated system. Imagine trying to program a multiplayer game in Fortran 77, because that's what these guys were doing, trying to translate, trying to make C work with Fortran 77 on a mainframe.

So the first game came up from Kezma, Stellar Warrior, and I just fell in love. I wanted to change careers overnight. The first time I played that game, played for about an hour and involved this huge battle with 80 people. Now, just bear in mind, in 1986, 80 people online was absolutely huge.

And the cost was huge too, it was like 6 dollars an hour. There were no flat rates in those days. So after an hour of playing, I'm like shaking and I'm sweating and I'm so excited that I immediately sat down and tried to figure out a way to get into this industry because this is what I wanted to do. So that was my start there.

Nobody asked me to be in the industry. I had to find a way in. So I managed to crowbar my way in by calling up all the game companies that existed at that time. Computer game companies like SSI, Origin, and Avalon Hill- some of these names don't even exist anymore. And just saying, hey, if I can get you a free account on Genie, will you come on and do support for your computer games?

And they all said, fine. Then I called up GD and said, Hey, I got 10 game publishers willing to come on and do support, but I want a contract. And it worked.

Yeah, it absolutely worked. They sent me a contract. I signed it. We got them free accounts and that's how I got into the industry.

Lizzie: Love it. That's what you wanted to do.

Jess: At the time I was a working actor in San Francisco, which means I was a working waiter and a working security guard who sometimes got to act, right?

Lizzie: I wasn't going to say that, but yeah.

Jess: I never failed to get in a show I auditioned for. But you had to be careful what you auditioned for because you needed to make money to eat too, and most of these shows didn't pay at all.

I Was actually having some success, making a little bit of money acting. But boy, this was just, this is it. I got to do this.

Lizzie: All in. Yeah.

Tell me about working on Ultima Online. What were some of the biggest issues and how did you overcome them?

Jess: Oh, boy. The biggest issue when I came on board... so I came on board about a year and a half after they launched.

And it was this huge success for Electronic Arts, except, remember I came on board in 1999. They launched in 1997. Even then 18 months afterwards, they were selling about 4,000 units a month, except that they were losing 4,000 players a month. So the biggest problem was, they weren't growing at all.

Yeah. Those were fantastic sales for those days.

Lizzie: That's so funny to think about.

Jess: I know. When I came on board, they had about 120,000 paying customers, but that was every month, which was good money. But they weren't growing at all. So I was part of the team that Gordon Walton brought on to find a way to fix that.

And we made various changes. The biggest problem why people were leaving was because it was a PvP game- non consensual PvP, you had no choice, right?

The only safe areas were the nine big cities. And the minute you stepped over the city limits, you were killed. People would just stand there, hidden, waiting for anybody to step across the line, and then they'd kill them.

We made some changes in the rules on how that worked. Sure enough, within a year, we were up to 190,000 subscribers. That's a whole lot more money and our bosses were very pleased. That's, at the time, an extra 700,000 a month, which paid for the team.

The big problem they had was, they were groundbreakers. They made every mistake in the book as well as doing everything right. A lot of what Ultima Online did, you find in MMOs today, it became the standard. But they also made a lot of mistakes because they were breaking new ground.

They were pioneers and they had the arrows in their back to prove it. So we just spent a lot of time trying to fix those mistakes. And it worked. So the team that made Ultima Online went on and made Star Wars Galaxies. So that'll tell you how good they were. They stayed together and made Star Wars Galaxies for Sony.

So that was it. Mainly, like I said, it was like they were breaking so much new ground that we just had to fix a lot of things.

Lizzie: What was better and what was worse during those days? Do you think there's anything that they did that

Jess: Like overall in the industry or for Ultima Online?

Lizzie: For Ultima Online specifically. Is there anything you think that should be brought back?

Jess: So our stickiest feature was housing. It's a The first game first graphic game to have that. You could place it anywhere you could find a spot on the landscape, and it was our stickiest feature. Anybody that owned a house. That they just stuck around.

Even if they had stopped playing, they would log on once a month to refresh their rent, right? So that they didn't lose their house or their castle or their manor or whatever it was that they had bought. Castle was the big one, right? You could find a place to put a castle, that was huge and entire guild could use it.

Yeah. So you don't see housing much in MMOs. They're staying away from it. Cause it's actually really hard to do well. The problem with housing and Ultima Online was it was dynamic, right? You could take your deed and find a place anywhere in the game world and lay it down, but since it wasn't hard coded into the back end, anytime a player came within range to see it, there was a pause, a little bit of lag while that house loaded so they could see it.

Now imagine 80 houses in a row and you're trying to walk down the road. They eventually got that figured out, but that's something that people just didn't want to mess with after that.

So I would say bring back housing. Be more skill based because the idea that you could work on skills and individual skill rather than just have to spend up your experience points was a huge seller for Ultima Online. You could be anything you wanted to be. I can't remember how many professions there were at the end of it, but you could be everything from a lion tamer to a baker.

That was a lot of fun. You get bored with the game, reset all your skills and go try something else.

Lizzie: Are there any upcoming MMO titles or games in general that you're really excited about right now?

Jess: Not right now. I'm playing a bit of Starfield. Checking that out, that, that seems really well done. Bethesda has done a great job on it. I haven't run into.

So one of the jobs that I did until recently for a publisher in Europe was I checked every submission of a game. They're constantly independents are submitting to publishers that try to get a contract. Over the course of the last three years, I probably checked out 100- 120 games. And it's the same game over and over again mostly.

There's nothing there that I saw. Out of those hundreds of games, I think I put my stamp of approval on three of them over a three year period. I said, let's not waste money except on these three. Those are really good.

So yeah, I can't think of anything I'm really waiting for right now, but you've got to understand, I have to play everything. So I get real tired of playing. Seriously.

So I have to play every MMO that comes out, at least enough so I have a basic idea of where this game is going to go in the future. That's the hard part. Is this thing going to make money for years? Because that's the whole purpose for massively multiplayer online games, you make money for it.

Ultima Online, still up, launched in 1999, you can still play it. That's the goal. That's the holy grail. And a lot of people just don't understand that they want to build a game. They want to play, but they get bored with that game after 20 or 30 hours.

Lizzie: I don't know if we can give away what these three games did in particular, but zoom out a little bit, maybe not the specific mechanics or anything, but what makes these three games special?

How can you create a game that's different so you can rise above the noise and keep people engaged for years and years?

Jess: The three games that I approved understood that there was a whole experience to be had here. Their game actually started the very first time you hit the website. Imagine clicking on an ad, that game looks interesting.

That's where the game would begin for you. The whole customer experience, taking you through, explaining it, making it easy to sign up, letting you know what you're getting in for. When you get into the game for the first time, they held your hand until you got done with the tutorial. Here's how you make a character.

Here's what you have to watch out for. How many times have you played an MMO and you make a character that you think is great, except you get a couple hundred hours in and realize you gimped the whole thing out at the start and now that character is useless, right? These three games would take you into it and say, be on the whereabouts for this.

If you're doing the magic user, think about this. Think about this on the late game. I understand you're going to be weak in the early part of the game, but you'll be very strong in the end game, that kind of thing. So they held your hand all the way through it. Did you a nice simple tutorial, gave you a lot of nice stuff to get you started as a first or second level player.

All three of them did the make sure this person gets promoted from first to second level, whatever that is, almost immediately. So they understand they get that little endorphin rush, right?

That was invented basically by D& D back in the day for their paper and pen games. They wanted to make sure when you started a new module and rolled a new character, you'd get some instant satisfaction very quickly. And the best online games picked up on that and that's what they do. So there was that, and then all three were open worlds. So you didn't necessarily have to have your hand held afterwards.

You could volunteer for it, join a guild, get somebody to take you around. Or you could just wander around and explore and see what the heck was happening for yourself. So that's what interested me in all of those. I don't mind a theme park like World of Warcraft is a theme park, right?

It's very cut and dried in many ways, there's not a lot of open world, especially back in the day when it launched in 2004. So it's a theme park that works really well. They learned all the lessons of a theme park game on what you have to do to keep the player interested, but also discovered that it's a trap.

Because if you're not constantly adding content, players go through your content so fast. I remember when I was the executive producer for the Asheron's Call franchise, and we would do an update every month. We would add content every month, and as much of it as we could cram in a month, and the players would go through it in three days, and be complaining that's it?

Dude, we gave you 10 whole new quests that you can replay. We gave you new weapons, new armor that you can go out and find. And they're complaining after three days because they've already played it. That's the problem with a theme park. With an open world, you don't really have that problem.

So people are just moving around, doing what they have, playing by themselves or raiding with their with their guild, if they're in a guild. I'm a big proponent of open worlds. So that's what I liked about those three games.

Lizzie: What are some of the most common pitfalls or challenges you touched on it a little bit that Online games face and how do you think they can best be mitigated?

Jess: Wow It always comes down to how much money do you have, seriously. For an MMORPG the problem is that the most popular games have been out for years have a ton of content, and unless you can really find a way to match up content or that there's gameplay there that doesn't depend on content itself, like PVP is an attempt to make other players the content so you don't have to add so much.

For an MMORPG, it's adding content fast enough to keep people interested or having enough features that make other players the content so that you don't have to worry so much. You could do it like once every quarter once, twice a year.

You just add new maps or whatever it is. That's the big one. And that's the one that takes a lot of money. People think that programming these things are the ones that take money. Now, it's paying all the artists to make new 3D models and animations. Environmental artists to make new maps, game designers to put all that together and test it in an interesting way.

People are constantly asking me at conferences, why does it take so long to put a new map in a game? I said, because it takes about 30 to 40 people to do it right and you've got to test it. There's always problems, so it's that's why it takes 90 to 120 days just to add a new map.

Lizzie: Yeah, games are wild. All these people have to work together cohesively. And I feel like today it's so expensive to make a game compared to whatever years ago. The prices are just up and up.

Jess: Yeah, if you're making a PC game especially, it's really expensive. Making a MMORPG today really starts at around minimum 20 million, which is like nothing when you look at the, for Star Wars, the old Republic, they spent 200 million just to get that game out the door.

Lizzie: It's really crazy to think about the budgets.

Jess: It is. They did things voice acting for all those missions. And that's a huge expense. It takes sound people to record it, actors, then you got to edit it, then you got to put it in, make sure it works correctly.

And then as you add content, you got to do it all again. Just thinking about having to do all the human voices on that gives me shivers.

Now, smartphone games aren't that expensive at all. You've got a lot more room to just play around or if you're playing with an engine.

I got a friend, he's now VP of Developer Relations at Unity. He must be having a real happy month, right?

Lizzie: It's been a time, yes.

Jess: Yeah, it's been a time. But when I met him, he was a first time producer at K2 games, which they would take other people's online games and run them. It was basically what they do. They'd manage them, collect all the money, pay a royalty back to these guys. They were real successful at that.

But he was building their first game. The general manager called me in just to spend a day with him and let him ask me questions about how do you actually make one of these games? Cause he never had before. He'd been managing them for years, but he'd never had to make one.

But on the side, since they were using Unity to build their own on the side, he just really work to understand Unity and work with it. And he started making a bunch of real cheesy, easy games. He went and got a public domain monster images like Frankenstein, the mummy from the old movies that were in the public domain.

And he'd make cute little side scrollers for kids. He kept doing that and putting them up on the stores, until one day he was making 3,000 a month with games that he could build in a day or two. Unity noticed and said, how would you like a job?

That's how he got into it basically, working at Unity. He's been there for years now. When you're doing smartphone limited games, you have much more flexibility to just play around and they're a lot cheaper. The problem is that when it comes time to launch them, you don't have any muscle, right?

Publishers have marketing budgets. They know who to contact, they can get you interviews, they know influencers online, that they can get to play the game online, and that's a huge thing these days. 50 percent of the marketing budget now is influencers.

So their games almost always fail, whether they're great or not, simply because they have no reach, right?

Lizzie: Yeah.

Jess: That's why, if you want to get started in the game industry and you don't know anybody, the way to get started is get Unity or Epic and start making games. Makes something to show people.

It's look, here's what I've been doing on my own time. Here's this little game, right?

Lizzie: Can you talk to my candidates? Make a website, make a portfolio, contribute to an open source project. Just do anything that sets you apart that shows that you actually care. Even if the market is good. Still do that.

Jess: Exactly. Yeah. Then you'll have something to show. I probably look at maybe 50, 60 candidates a year. Mainly for senior levels, but sometimes senior programmers or even junior programmers just coming in and artists. The first thing I look for is, show me your work.

If you've never been in the game industry before, are you interested enough that you actually built your own games? Did you do a website where you critiqued other games, what you liked, what you didn't like, what you would do differently? I'm right there with you. I'm 100 percent with you.

That even if you've never worked at a game company before, at least show me the passion that you love games and you want to make games.

Lizzie: That's what every hiring manager wants to see. But you touched on more junior people. I think, especially for senior, because the more senior you are, let's say you're a senior director at Amazon, you're not hands on at all at some of these large companies.

And then it's a struggle to find someone at a really high level who's also still capable and still understands what it's like for the people on the ground floor. So I think that's super valuable.

Jess: Yeah. You're absolutely right. When I talk to senior managers now, candidates, we talk about products that they've worked on in the past.

Who did you work for? What did you do there? What were the big problems that you had to solve? What were the risks? Things like that. They have a track record already, right? I know they know how to make games. I'm just trying to find out if they're, how good they are.

Lizzie: These days you can't really call up. It still happens, but backdoor referencing is less and less. But it is important.

Jess: Even for that, I'm looking at a candidate that I know knows Wallace Poulter, for example, first thing I'm going to do is call up Wallace after I've talked to the guy at least once. If I like him, I'll call up Wallace.

What kind of guy is this? Is he okay to work with? Can he really do what he says he can do?

Lizzie: Or she, maybe she.

Jess: Exactly. Since I do a lot of screening candidates for European companies the last 3, 4, 5 years. About half of them are women. It's just wow. The difference between America and Europe that way is extreme. They have no problem throwing a woman candidate in the mix. We like what this person did over here at this studio, please talk to her.

Lizzie: So it's better in Europe. You think?

Jess: Oh much. It might.

Lizzie: That's so interesting. I wonder why.

Jess: It depends on the country. In Germany, much as I love Germany, guys do not like to take orders from women. I talked to a lot of candidates at a junior or a staff level, but they don't look at a lot of female candidates at the senior level. Totally different in Britain and France. I haven't hired for a Spanish company in a long while, so I don't know what it's like. There's national and regional differences there, but on the whole, they've had colleges and schools there that have been turning out game programs for a long time. Women just naturally fell into it. As more women started playing games 30 years ago, it was more women going, I'd love to do this for a living. And it just happened organically.

Lizzie: They have better benefits too. I know in Poland, you have a year off and then after that year you have the option by law to work part time if you want. Your company has to offer you that. And they just have better childcare and systems to not make you go bankrupt in the process.

Jess: Oh germany is the one I'm most familiar with, but 14 months child birth leave. 14 months and both parents get that. In some cases they have to split that. A lot of times the mother will take 6 months and then the husband will take 6 months while the mother goes back to work and pick things up.

But still, 14 months. That's great. Once you've been there two years, you can't just be fired for any reason. There has to be cause. That's great for young people coming up, especially.

Lizzie: Yeah, really different. I think you also have to give a three month notice, which for me, recruiting is problematic. But I see the benefit depending on the situation.

Jess: Yeah. And it can be negotiated, right? Depending on your level and what you're doing at the time and how important your project is to the company, it could be negotiated. I found that a huge problem. From 2013 to 2019, I lived in Munich working for a game company and running various projects. And trying to get people on board was my biggest problem.

Like you said, they have to give 90 days notice. Those guys need them for those 90 days. You're waiting 90 days. So every project starts with a minimum 120 day lead time before you actually get started because you've got to source candidates, hire the right ones, let them do their notice and then you can get started with your core team and bring the others on.

Lizzie: I guess that's just a different process that you're running on the back end because you're not going to find anyone right now, unless maybe they're unemployed. Yeah, I'm not sure the layoff situation there right now.

Jess: There have been some layoffs. They do quiet layoffs in Europe. They plan ahead. So it's not like what Epic- yeah, we're spending too much money so 800 of you have to go. No, they look at 18 months from now, we're going to be hurting. So we're going to start letting people know right now that we have to lay them off.

They give them the 90 day notice, but if they can't find a job, a lot of times, what you'll see is they'll just keep them on the payroll. Just keep working half a day. And the other half of the day, you just go ahead and look for work..

Lizzie: That's nice and open. I read a LinkedIn post this week, though, somebody was criticizing epic in particular for their layoffs, and that it was a surprise. But other people commented that the impending doom of knowing that you're going to be laid off, but not knowing when they found to be much worse than ripping the bandaid off, which was interesting.

And for Epics benefit, they gave one of the most generous benefit, severance packages that I've seen.

Jess: Wow. Do you know what they gave? Can you talk about it?

Lizzie: It's public. You can go to Epic Games. They published everything, but they gave six months and you still get all of your bonus or stock or whatever you had and they'll pay your benefits. So that's a really nice severance package. Obviously, not all companies have the finances to be able to offer that, but I think that shows a lot about who they are.

And I just talked to a company that's collapsing because they made inappropriate hiring decisions and didn't let anybody go. And it's an unpopular opinion, but if you're in the red or had it to the red, hopefully you figure that out sooner than later, but there is a point where not laying people off is the wrong thing to do.

It is terrible. It is unfortunate for people, but Sometimes, if you want it to be around, I think their finances were not great. So it makes sense.

Same with the Unity, not that the way in which they executed their update was appropriate by any means. That was definitely fumbled, although maybe it's an on purpose situation just to create chaos, who knows.

But they did have to do something because their finances were not working out. They did have to create additional revenue somehow or lay people off.

Jess: Oh, yeah. Nobody is going to complain that if they just come out and say, we have to find a way to make more revenue. So here's what we're thinking.

Lizzie: Yes, for sure. It is involving the community. Yeah. What do you think we should do? Here's our situation, for sure.

Jess: Telling successful games, we're going to backdate this price and sorry if that puts you out of business, we got to make some cash here. That's absolutely horrible.

It's losing the trust that is really the big thing here. They could have done this any number of ways that would not have lost the trust of the developers. That's what's going to hurt them in the future. And now people are going to think twice about using Unity.

Lizzie: Yeah. We'll see what Unreal does with the pricing. We'll see how Godot, the new open source engine goes and seems like Unity and, Unreal are too far in to have any competitor come up, but we'll see. There's a shakeup. I wanna talk to you about shakeups, because you've seen so many shakeups in the industry throughout the years.

How should people be thinking about all the current layoffs? How should people think about this right now and how should people think about the future in the next couple years after this?

Jess: So I've been doing this for over 35 years. Like you said, this is not the first industry shake up I've seen.

In fact, my first year as a professional in the industry, it was all gloom and doom. Oh my god, the PC's dead, this was like in 1988. The PC's dead. It's gonna be all consoles. We're all screwed. What?

And it's Stuart Alsop at the time, one of the main industry writers and commentators, just looked at the Game Developers Conference and just said, would you guys just quit panicking? We've been hearing this for four years and you're all still making money with PC games. Okay, so let's not panic. Companies come and go. And that's what I want people to understand right now. This goes in cycles. Right now we're on a downturn, right? A lot of people are getting laid off.

But remember, every year at this time in the game industry, people get laid off. Why? Because companies are coming to the end of their fiscal years and they need to look good. They need their stock to look good. That means they need to cut costs. So they lay off people. Come April, they're going to hire a bunch of those people back. Maybe not the same people, but people that did the same jobs. And then we'll do the whole thing over again next year, right?

It's bigger this year than in most years. Certainly, the whole Epic thing took a big toll. Other companies have just been laid off left and right. Amazon laid off a bunch of game people. Google did the same. But those people will find work.

I want to point out that, I think it was like 10 years ago, there was a layoff of this magnitude in the game industry, and now we're bigger than ever. At the time, everybody said, that's it, that's the end of the game industry. They've reached their limits, that the industry is Peter Principles itself, and now we're dead. No, now we're bigger than the movies, for God's sake.

Lizzie: It's huge. There are layoffs, but think about all the growth over the last couple of years too. And all the companies you listed that are doing layoffs. I had this LinkedIn post because I always think this, if you're offered an exorbitant amount of money, This is a red flag. It is not sustainable for Google or whatever large company to pay people so much for so long. And I think everyone was really competing and offering more than the other person.

And then you look at your finances and that just doesn't make sense. So maybe you let those expensive people go. So people are looking for jobs, but their expectations are maybe reset now. Maybe it'll take them a little while. But things are so out of control that I think some normalization occurred and just a new reality.

Jess: I think you're 100 percent right. People have to reset their expectations. The cost of people is going to go down for a while. Yeah. Three or four years.

Lizzie: Totally. It'll be crazy.

Jess: It'll be right back up. Somebody with a lot of money will say, yeah, we could take over this industry if we're just willing to roll wheelbarrows with the money in and we'll go through the whole thing again.

I'm not worried. Over the last 35 years, I think there's been two times when I thought that's it. I'm out of the game industry. It's been a downturn for three years. I'm not getting as many contracts. Wow. That's it. Nah, always turns around.

About the time I start to think that I'd literally get free phone calls going, Hey, you got six months you can give us. Yeah, I can do that. I'll take your money because I'm Irish and I like money. Yeah, it'll turn around.

Lizzie: Yeah, for sure. Just keep your calm. Be good to people. If you have 10 offers, if you can't find a job, just remain the same. Be a good person. Keep your portfolio up to date. Do some personal projects. No matter what, it will be okay.

Jess: Exactly. Exactly. You'll make it through. Take what work you can get.

Lizzie: Maybe get off your high horse. That's a little rude, but seriously, you might have to do a job you think is beneath you or for a company that wasn't your dream company, but that's okay. Again, reset your expectations. Things are not so great all the time.

Jess: Exactly. Or get a bunch of your friends together and start a company.

Lizzie: I've been telling my team this too, and I've been seeing a lot of people, especially like with the Epic layoffs. If you work there for a while, you've had your Fortnite bonus, depending on your circumstances, you could have saved quite a bit and you could really be in a position where you're able to start a studio.

So I think throughout the layoffs, so many new companies will be born and that's thrilling.

Jess: Exactly. It's how Infinity War got started. Guys who had worked together for a while and guys who knew how to find money. Not every company can go out and get 10 or 15 million in seed money, like you say, if they've been getting the Fortnite bonus for the last couple of years, they might be able to at least put together a prototype and start shopping it around.

Lizzie: Totally. They just have to be able to have money to bootstrap for X amount of time.

Jess: Exactly. The industry has gotten to the point where if you don't have a prototype to show, just don't even bother.

Unless you are so well known in this engine, like Will Wright could go with a proposal and anybody's going to take a meeting, right? That's just the way it is. But if you're not as well known or have made as much money as Will Wright has in games, you need a prototype. You need something people could play and say, okay, now I'm interested.

Lizzie: Yeah. I Always laugh. All the startups are like X Riot, X Call of Duty, X or whatever fancy name, right? But it does help you get some funding. So now it

can be X Epic.

Jess: It does. It does. I've played some prototypes that were just like outlandishly good, put together in six months.

If you bring us a prototype, we understand it's not going to have high class art. It's not going to be AAA art. But what we want is show us one small section of that AAA art if you can. What we want to see is there a fun factor here when we play this game?

Are we having a good time? At least, are we compelled ? You don't have to entertain me so much as compel me to want to play more. That's what I look for.

Lizzie: And more and more games are going into beta super early and getting a lot of player feedback.

Can you talk about the evolution of that? We just see that more and more.

Jess: Yeah, and it's a good thing too, right? I say we used to build games- I call it that the pyramid method, right? We used to build them by the pyramid method, which start laying blocks on the base and then more blocks. But you didn't have a game till you got to the very top with the last block in. Then you had a game you could test.

That was expensive, especially if your game sucked, okay? You just spent millions of dollars on a failure because you couldn't test until you got there. And then I guess the late nineties, Turbine with the Asheron's famous for this.

 They were building an MMORPG, but what they built first was a melee game. They didn't add any magic or any ranged combat or any of that. They built the best melee combat game they could build. And then they tested that with players. Not a lot. I think it was less than 300. Enough so the players could go, that's really good. I like that. I like that melee combat. Then they go back and they start adding in all the ranged weapons- the bows and arrows, the spears, the throw knife. And I think they were really the first team to really do that. And it worked out great.

Asheron's Call sold like hotcakes. That made a lot of money for Microsoft and Turbine. And now more people are doing that. You hear it described as fail fast. And I guess that's one way to describe it, but I think of it as, find the fun fast, or do something else, right?

Lizzie: Something more positive than fail.

Jess: If I'm going to build a prototype, I don't have to have all the bells and whistles around it. I just need that core loop, right? Whatever you're doing, what's the core loop? What 80 percent of their time on? Most games it's in actually playing with and against other players, so you get that core loop in and test that. And you either see some potential there or you see you should go do something else.

But don't forget Supercell, right? Clash of Clans made them billionaires. 27 failed games before that. So they were an overnight success, like 10 years in the making, so it, but that's because they were willing to build a game and then throw it away.

We thought that was a good idea. Turns out now I really wasn't until they found that great idea that made them billionaires.

Lizzie: It's scary though for the team internally. Like I went to a play test lately and the art director was there and he told me like five times, this is not how we're going to ship. I just want to let you know what that was like.

I know. I know you've been building this 16 weeks.

Jess: No, I think it's great. Get the core loop down and do early access if you can. You don't have to charge money. If you just want people to go, look, we just need pre alpha help here. We need players to actually tell us that we're heading in the right direction.

It's a great way to do it. I know Steam is like Lord of the Flies, right? The players can be really rude and ugly and talk about your mother behind your back and the whole nine yards, but the guys who are actually willing to help you there are worth it. Do early access if you possibly can.

Lizzie: Valve is like Lord of the Flies as a company, so maybe that drills down into Steam. The most

interesting company in the world, truly.

Jess: So true.

Lizzie: What's your favorite MMO of all time?

Jess: MechWarrior Online. Multiplayer Battletech, as it was called when it launched in 1991. I went to Activision and said, Hey, what would it take for us to license the original MechWarrior 1, license the code to do an online game? They told me, and then I went to Kesmai Corporation, which was the class act of online game developers at the time. And they did Air Warrior and Harpoon online, just a bunch of great games. They really knew what they were doing. I said, hey, I can get this for this amount of money. Do you guys think you could turn it into an online game? And they said, well, hell, yes. It'll be like only the second time a commercial game had ever been turned into a multiplayer online game. And so we did that. And they took off and ran with it.

If you've ever been involved in the MechWarrior universe, and I just loved the books. I loved the solo games. Just ended up being great. You ran your own mercenary lance, you scavenged off of the enemy mechs, you killed, you hired other players to be in your lands. It was just so much fun. It was so much fun that even though I work for Genie, I paid 5 an hour from my own private account so I could play it like a player.

That's how much I like that game.

Lizzie: Love it. I love your passion. And I love your initial story about how you broke into the industry by force.

Jess: I was lucky I could do it. It was early enough that they couldn't stop me. They hadn't built the wall high enough yet.

Lizzie: No, I think this is the trick to getting a job and maybe the trick to life. Just contact a lot of people, do the thing you want to do and make it work. But it's uncomfortable, right? You're calling all these people, you're really putting yourself out there.

Jess: Oh, yeah. I've talked to people that I'd never talked to before. Cold calling people, like in Activision and Ultima. They'd never heard of me and they'd probably never heard a Genie at the time. I had to explain everything about it and get them convinced to come on. It was scary, but boy, I really wanted to get in. I wanted a contract in this industry really bad.

Lizzie: Can you tell me about starting your own business and being your own consultant and that journey a little bit.

Jess: Oh, yeah. In one sense, I screwed myself starting about 12-15 years ago, I had risen high enough that I was always the first person laid off because I made the most money or I was in the highest bracket of making the money.

Yeah, you talked about that earlier. You get up that high, it's like people go, we need to save 7, 8, 9, 000 a month. Let's start with Mulligan. It's just like what you do.

So I've been working for Interplay and I left them. I started their online division that spun off into a new company. And they hired a president and everything. So there was no room for me there at that point.

And so I left and I said, what am I going to do? I'll put myself out there as a contractor. And I just let my friends in the industry know that I was available to do things like executive briefings or come in and troubleshoot a project.

And sure enough, my first contract was a guy I had worked with back in Virginia at America Online. He was working for 3DO, and he called me up and said, hey, we're working with Amazon. We just bought this game, Meridian 59, and we're not exactly sure what to do with it. Will you come in and give a briefing on what online games really are?

And so that was my first contact, and then Trip Hawkins, it wasn't Trip Hawkins... trying to remember who the head of 3DO was at the time, anyway. He recommended me to one of his buddies in another company an executive. And so it just started snowballing until I decided I can make a living as a consultant.

I don't have to look for a job on the side. Occasionally I would stop consulting like when I was the executive producer for Turbine, for the Asheron's Call franchise, that was in house employee. But then I went back after three years. I went back into consulting because I got an offer in France from a guy I met at a conference who said, we need somebody to troubleshoot our game. How would you like to come live in Paris for a year and we'll pay all your expenses?

Lizzie: Very much.

Jess: Yeah. So Turbine, but bye bye..

Lizzie: I'm off to Paris.

Jess: Yes. I'm off to Pa-ri. Yeah. So yeah, I ended up spending like more like 18 months there.

And then while I was there, another friend who was working with a German company said, Hey, these guys want to talk about doing a n online version of their key product. It was the Anno series for sunflowers. And so I ended up going first to Austria for about six months to work with the lead designer and then to Germany for a year.

And then it just kept going. A guy hired me as a business incubator in Switzerland after that because they wanted to explore what it would take to do an online world. And they had all this money and I'm greedy and I'll take it. So they hired me into Switzerland for two and a half years.

And then I came home and was contracting again. It comes and goes right?

Lizzie: And you get to travel the world. That's the dream.

Jess: Exactly. You know what? I have been so lucky. This career has allowed me to spend weeks and weeks in mainland China. If you've never been to Shanghai, I really recommend it. Talk about a thoroughly modern city. Getting to work with the Chinese.

I think I've worked in 11 different countries. Talk about being lucky. Yeah, you bet. I loved living in Germany. It's so centrally located that on weekends, I just get on a train. I get a ticket on the first train going out after I get to the train station. So I'd end up places like Serbia, Croatia, Berlin, wherever. I just visit all these countries. Romania. That was great. Bucharest. I love that. I highly recommend,

I didn't speak a second language before I started consulting. Now I speak, I don't speak a second language yet, but I can square in seven or eight different languages.

Lizzie: That's what's important.

Jess: And ask where the bathroom is. I highly recommend people here, you want to get a perspective on how good it can be to work in this industry, find a job in Europe in this industry. Absolutely.

Lizzie: My dream is traveling, getting on a train, checking out all the other countries. There's nothing better.

Jess: I did that in Paris too, except I never left Paris. I would go to a different train station every Saturday because they're beautiful. Most of them are works of art and you could just wander around that train station for an hour or so going, this is amazing. And then when you go upstairs.

There's a flea market every Saturday. Every train station has its own flea market. So you go in there and see what people are selling. It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

Lizzie: I would love to be there now. Yeah. Thank you.

I have one final question. If you have your top piece of advice for a studio making a multiplayer game, big or small, what would it be?

Jess: Do not overscope your game. Most of the games I've been brought in to troubleshoot have been because they tried to do too much. Cram too many features in. Think of the term, this sounds horrible, minimum viable product. What's your minimum viable product going to be? If you run out of money, what do you have to have in to launch, right?

That limits your scope a lot. Like you look at Riot Games, like League of Legends. When they launched, there was not a lot to that game, but it was the minimum viable product. And again, it made the company a billion dollar unicorn. Because they paid attention to that. They knew they didn't have an unlimited bank account.

They had this great idea for the MOBA, the multiplayer online battle arena players not having to grind, but can earn or buy these heroes, that's what they concentrated on, and it worked. If the game had failed, they wouldn't have been out too much.

They still had money in the bank and they could go do something else. So don't over scope. Don't get too enthusiastic,. Sit down and understand just exactly what game it is you want to build and who's going to play it. And that'll tell you everything you need to know about the feature set and the mechanics you need just to get into testing and understand whether it's going to work or not.

Lizzie: Thank you. We've been talking to Jess Mulligan, who's an executive consultant for Online Games. Jess, where can people go to contact you to troubleshoot their game or to learn more about you?

Jess: You know what? You can email me at jessmull at proton dot m e.

And I hang out on Facebook with other game developers a lot. So Facebook, LinkedIn, you can do a search and find me there pretty easily.

Lizzie: Perfect. Thanks so much.

Jess: Thank you. Thanks for having me. This has been fun. I've really enjoyed this.

Lizzie: Very fun. Thank you.

Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. To catch all the latest from His Waldo, you can follow us on LinkedIn. Be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes. We'll see you next time.

Share this story