Series Info...Volume 11, Issue 1a

by Jessica Mulligan
May 22, 2001

Welcome to the new home of Biting the Hand. My thanks to the great folks at Skotos for picking up the column after Happy Puppy was hit by the ad banner crash and lamentably forced to trim costs and cut freelancers. There’s nothing like knowing I have an appropriate home to continue my tough-love rants about online games and computer games in general.

Over the next few weeks, the BTH archives will be going live on this site, in the BTH area. There are a bunch of columns to be converted, so don’t expect it to happen overnight. In the meantime, Happy Puppy continues to maintain the archives at

For my first column here, I thought I’d take on something that many in the online games biz understand intellectually, but haven’t really thought about in any great detail.

Mass Hysteria

Quite frankly, the mass market scares the hell out me.

Not because they are the ‘mass market’ and not one of the Anointed Hard Core, but because we just plain aren’t ready for them. Yet the mass Market is the holy grail for which every online game publisher is actively searching. If one of them actually finds the key in the next year or so, it could give the whole industry a major black eye.

The reason for my scaredy-cat attitude can be boiled down to three elements: the inappropriate technology, the low service standard and misunderstanding the customer base. They are all intertwined so tightly that a problem in one area causes repercussions in the other two. The only way to get ready for mass market MMPs is to fix two out of the three areas, and preferably all three.

That’s going to be very tough to do.

The Technology: Stone Knives and Bear Skins

As a game network, the Internet sucks.

Massively-multiplayer games (MMPs, for short) require a fairly lag-free and predictable environment to operate well, because hundreds or thousands of players are simultaneously reacting to each other and the game in real time. To have an enjoyable experience, that means all that data the player generates by clicking here or typing there has to move in a fairly consistent and speedy manner between the game servers, the home PC and back.

If the goal had been to create a high-speed, lag-tolerant network that would move data packets from here to there in a short, predictable time span, we sure as hell wouldn’t have built the Internet. We’d have looped the servers and routers together on a closed network, on which we could have easily predicted the time of transmission of a game command from one computer to another and back again. That would also mean you’d have ‘hard’ connections between remote server clusters, which means stringing dedicated copper or fiber lines between the server clusters.

ArticlesThat works pretty well on a small, local scale, say in one or two cities only a few miles from each other. When you have to start laying dedicated copper or fiber between server clusters in cities fifty or more miles apart, however, you better have pockets deeper than Bill Gates, because the phone company charges by the mile to lay those lines. This is the reason even the old proprietary national networks, such as GEnie and AOL, went with remote modem banks that used repeaters to connect to a small number of main server complexes. Not as fast and lag free as dedicated phone line connections to the Big Iron, but much more cost effective and still pretty fast and predictable, overall.

Unfortunately, what we built was the Internet, a decentralized network of computers, routers and communication lines designed not for speed and consistency, but to survive a nuclear war and eventually move information from Point A to Point B. Speed of transmission was not the primary issue; if that takes ten minutes to send and receive an email, so what? When you’re hunkered down in a fallout shelter, dividing the amount of available food and water by the number of people in the shelter and getting an ugly answer, a ten minute delay in receiving email from your Congressman becomes a Who Cares? Moment.

Of course, if you have to wait even ten seconds for commercial online game to update, you might as well be watching a slide show. For that matter, waiting two seconds for an update is too long, especially if some PKer has a clear line of sight, a broadband connection and a bad attitude. However, Internet latency is not something a game provider can control. The plain fact of the matter is, developers can only control the lag on their own servers (and that’s difficult enough). Once a data packet leaves the server complex, it is at the mercy of the current weather conditions in it’s route through the Internet Cloud.

What does that mean? If the Internet were a civilization, it would be in the stone knives and bear skins stage, waiting for some genius to discover agriculture and the mud hut. Just as we don’t expect a hunter/gatherer society to be able to support works like the Great Pyramid, we can’t expect the decentralized, already overburdened Internet to be able to support a truly mass market MMP. It means the technology to provide a good mass market MMP experience on the Internet, as perceived by the average mass market player, does not exist today. It may exist in the future, but I don’t see that happening for at least five to seven years, and maybe never.

Not that companies won’t try to build one. When there is money to be made, reality kinda goes out the window. One would think that, given that the technology sucks, one should design the game systems around the limitations. One would be right, unless one works for on of today’s developers. That is a column all by itself. This is going to be the toughest one for us to fix, so we’ll have to concentrate on the other two issues.

The Service Standard: What, Me Worry?

Most of today’s MMP publishers don’t know squat about customer service.

Why should they? Most of them come from the retail side of the industry, where they’ve never had to perform any intense customer service before. For the most part, they build a game, ship it, take technical support calls and email for a few weeks, then its on to the next game to be shipped.

With subscription MMPs, that kind of attitude just doesn’t wash. I’m fond of saying that, when it comes to online gaming, instant gratification takes too long. The complaints of lag, bugs and design flaws in current MMPs are loud and long, and the people playing today are the hard core fan niche more willing to put up with such things. They understand the technology better than the average joe and know that these things are just something to be dealt with. They complain and complain, but they also understand… and keep on playing.

The mass market consumer is nowhere near that understanding and forgiving in nature. Hey, TV is instantaneous, right? So is the phone, by gum! What do you mean, you can’t control the lag? It’s your game, isn’t it? Fix it! What, you can’t fix it? Screw you, you incompetent boobs, I’m gone. And give me my money back, you thieves!

For the publisher, this kind of technology problem is easily dealt with in a retail hybrid game like a Quake Arena or Unreal Tournament; they just ignore it. The publisher is busy developing the next retail game, not providing online support, and the development team is merely providing bug fixes and a few new features every now and again. What the heck, you get what you pay for, right? Online play is free for these games, right? So chill, dude, and let us work on the Next Big Thing. Which will also have lag, bugs and design flaws; just deal.

This kind of experience and attitude hardly prepares them for the shock of actually servicing online games. Indeed, it is the difference between providing a product and providing a service. MMPs are both. This is an unusual situation; usually, you only have to provide one or the other, which also means you only have to be competent in one or the other. The skill sets and technology needed for product development and service maintenance are mondo different.

To date, MMP publishers have handled this difference in product/service competencies by ignoring the reality of the situation and assuming the service is just another product. For example, if you’re a developer, how many times have you heard some variation of the following themes:

"Online games are just another platform and we know how to port to new platforms."
"I’ve been making computer games for <X number of> years; I think I know what I’m doing, thank you."
"We need someone in charge who understands subscription content. Let’s hire someone from HBO."
"Our customer is the exact same guy who buys our FPS and RTS products."

We’ve seen what those attitudes have done to the service side of today’s Big Three of EverQuest, Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call, though there has been some minor improvement in the last year or so. Frankly, CS is damn near non-existent and what does exist is, in most cases, painfully poor. I could go on for a loooonnnnggg time about the need for larger personnel budgets so you can have more CS reps online in the game at the same time, or anticipating bandwidth and server needs and installing at least 10% more than you need so as to grow more gracefully, or just understanding that some people will play the game in ways that you didn’t anticipate and that such ingenuity shouldn’t be punished just because you didn’t think of it first…

Suffice it say that MMP CS sucks because publishers, as a class, don’t understand the difference between a product and a service. There may be individuals within the company who clearly understand the issues and solutions, but they generally have no power or influence. The people with the power are people who understand good, ol’ fashioned business practices.

In fact, in one of the strangest dichotomies found in any industry, companies will go out of their way to hire experienced online game developers and service folk and then ignore that experience. More, these people are branded as true believers and considered fanatics, people not to be trusted, to be looked at askance and preferably from a distance. Good god, they aren’t business people; they are more like, like… players. Yuck! It is an Industrial Age mentality wrasslin’ with the Information Age and doing it’s best to wrap chains around it and keep it still.

Top that off with the fact that customer service is the last department funded and the first to get cut, and is it any wonder customer service sucks? This one can be fixed pretty easily, but not cheaply. It only requires somewhat higher CS budgets and hiring people with experience in MMP CS and listening to them.

(And just once, I would like to hear all the following said at one company:

"Online games are a different platform and we need to understand it thoroughly to be able to develop and service great products."
"I’ve only been making online games for a few years and this is what I’ve learned...."
"We need someone in charge who understands both the technology and the customers who play online games. Let’s hire someone with that experience."
"Our MMP customer has different needs and wants from the people who buy our FPS and RTS products.")

The Customers: Hey, this isn’t like TV at all…

This is where things really get scary.

Remember up in the Technology section when I said that mass market consumers are less understanding and forgiving than the hard core fans? Unless you’ve worked in some capacity in the service side of an MMP, you have no idea how true this is. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in on support calls from some normally polite Grandma who bought this online game thingy for her grandson and we’re having just a couple of leetle-bitty problems you can help us with…

Thirty minutes, countless attempts at explaining the Internet, four major tongue-lashings and one slammed phone receiver later, the poor sweat-covered phone rep takes a break and wonders why he didn’t become a ditch-digger like Mom wanted. If you think I’m exaggerating this… trust me, I’m not. Every MMP customer service representative I’ve ever known experienced at least one of these types of help calls each day. On bad days, such as when there is a major problem with a game bug or server downtime, pretty much every call is like that. The mass market customer wants — no, expects and demands — hand-holding. It is part of what they are paying for.

This is not to bang on the customers; without them, what would we have, after all? But when it comes to the mass market, expectations on usability have been set by such ubiquitous technologies as TV, radio and the telephone. These are gadgets that work right 99% of the time and are simple to use. When they don’t work right, the customer are used to a certain amount of hand-holding until things are working right again. Game marketing departments have gone out of their way to position computers, the Internet and games as similarly friendly and easy to use, or they’ve just ignored the complexity in favor of pretty pictures and purple prose. They don’t know — and, frankly, probably wouldn’t care - that the service department isn’t prepared to handle these types of customers.

And those service departments can barely handle the hard core customers of today under the best conditions. They are under-funded, under-staffed and under-trained. Their only saving grace is that most of them are hard core gamers, too, so they at least understand the problems and know that the hard core players don’t want hand-holding, but solutions. Sure, solutions can take hours, but the hard core are used to that.

So it is no wonder that the mass market customer is unsatisfied when he/she actually tries an MMP; compared to TV and the telephone in their minds, the technology and the service suck. If you ask folks in the know at the current MMP publishers, they’ll tell you that most of non-hard core players (and some of them, too) bail in the first hour of play.

The solution here is actually pretty simple: Understand that mass market consumers are more demanding and be prepared to rise to that level of demand. That means that doing the best job possible with the Technology and Customer Service and not being afraid to devote more of the margin to customer service needs.

When you sum up all the above, it paints a picture of an industry that is not ready for prime time. Actually having a mass market success with an MMP in the next couple years looks like a recipe for incipient disaster, given how poorly current publishers are doing with the Hard Core gamer. And the current publishers are the people with the most money and resources; if anyone can afford to do it right, they can.

Now do you see why the mass market scares the hell out me?

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