Series Info...Bonk! Bonk! On the Head, Bonk! Bonk!

by Jessica Mulligan
July 31, 2001

Something interesting occurred in the online game industry last week: someone at a publisher put the players ahead of the game and the company.

Whoa, easy there! Here, sit down right over there and I’ll get the smelling salts and a cold compress. Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you like that. Here, let me explain.

The MMOG Fallen Age from Netamin has been in Beta testing for a few months now. If you were one of the testers, you may have noticed that changes and new versions have been few and far between. In fact, about the only activity in the game has been hunting slugs of various ferocity, which spawned a cottage industry in rude dead slug mottos but not a whole lot of fun. On Friday, July 27, we all found out why the game has been so moribund and why it has now been placed on indefinite hold: creative differences.

Nothing unusual about that; it happens all the time between external developers and publishers. What is unusual about this particular instance is that Netamin Producer Daniel Manachi was open and honest with his testers about the reason for placing a hold on the game and that he actually went to a competitor, Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot, to find a new home for his 1,000 Beta testers. And just to ice the cake, he’s having T-Shirts made for those 1,000 testers. All this, for a game that probably will never see the light of day.

The first phrase that pops to mind about young Manachi is "classy guy." But then, I already knew that; I worked with Daniel briefly earlier this year when I did a short consulting job with Netamin. It was easy to see then that this is a young man with a boatload of potential. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him picked up by one of the Big Three; he gets it and has the touch to go with it. And let’s not ignore Mythic’s role in this; it would have been easy for them to say No, ram another nail in Fallen Age’s coffin and let this whole incident be just another sordid chapter in the recent history of MMOGs. Instead, they helped out some potential customers, which may be good business relations but is also pretty classy in it’s own right.

Of course, a bunch of would-be testers who didn’t make it into the DAOC Beta are up in arms about this act of generosity, proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished. If they stop and think about it, however, they’ll realize this is a good thing for everyone; it gives the industry a bit of a burnish in the midst of the chaos of games launched months before they are ready. We need it.

All this got me thinking, of course, about how these actions are atypical of the industry as a whole. With the exception of the developers of Turbine Entertainment’s Asheron’s Call, the teams for every MMOG released since 1997 has been completely shocked about the size and attitude of the incoming customer base and immediately reacted badly, treating them like an invading enemy bent on the destruction of the game.

So OK, why would a service treat the customers in such a manner? I think quite a bit of what is wrong with customer relations in MMOGs today can be traced to two issues:

1. From the start, games are designed and implemented by people with experience in a free MUD environment.

It is a huge mistake to go into a design and development project on a for-pay massively multiplayer game with a non-commercial MUD mindset. The environments are antithetic, nay, virtually antagonistic. Many features and concepts that work in a non-commercial game just plain won’t work in a for-pay game. Developing an MMOG with this mindset is just guaranteeing that, after launch, your customers will be hitting the complaint button like a speed freak playing Whack-a-Mole. And, gee, won’t your customer service representatives love you for that?

2. After launch, the team continues to treat the game in the spirit of a non-commercial MUD player environment. In other words, the game and its mechanics are treated as more important than the players.

You can get away with this in a non-commercial environment and, in fact, it's a plus; the whole idea of messing with a free MUD’s balance, features and code is to learn something and, maybe, advance the science and art of design and development, no? We all learned early in our MUD playing days not to expect consideration from free MUD implementers; their objectives were not our objectives. When playing a non-commercial MUD, none of us are surprised to experience such things as half-thought-out design changes implemented on the fly, code reversions that erased hours of game play… sound familiar? Hell, we expect to see them; a free MUD truly belongs to the implementers first and the players second.

Unfortunately, the minute you start charging money for access to a game, this changes. Those pesky irritants known as "paying customers" expect certain considerations in exchange for their frogskins, such as game and change process stability, fairness, a level playing field, major testing before nerfs, human help to be available when they need it and, most of all, they expect to be kept informed of what you’re planning to do to them.

These expectations are rarely met even in part in today’s commercial MMOGs. Part of the problem is that a lot of designers and dev team members seem to be former MUD implementers or admins. These folks are used to changing code willy-nilly to ‘balance’ the game and make sure it conforms to their vision of what the game was supposed to be and how it is supposed to be played. Their whole experience trends less toward customer satisfaction and more "Hey, what will happen to the group dynamics if we do this?"

Which means: Publishers and developers currently just don’t have the experience, skills or requisite "customer first" attitude to do it right, because most of their experience comes from the free MUD world. They plain just don’t know how to do it right and, to get carried away with an earlier analogy, what usually happens is that the subscribers and the developer/publisher start playing Whack-a-Mole on each other. The developers try to whack down anything and anyone who has the nerve to stick his head out of the hole and demand some consistency in the game stability and customer service and the players get frustrated, build their own mallets (also known as message boards and Web articles) and start swinging back.

This consistency issue is where most games get in trouble. It comes down to creating the bond of trust between the game and the players, and you can’t have that trust when you change the game willy-nilly or provide no stability. In fact, through experience both personal and vicarious, I can safely state that many developers and publishers treat their players in much the same way Temujin treated the citizens of a city that didn’t immediately surrender when he showed up with his army. While I agree that a big pyramid of skulls will no doubt make the next guy think twice about resistance, it also makes him think about moving some place where body parts aren’t considered Lego blocks.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that developers or publishers are malicious twits out to torture the players. They don’t sit around in the server room plucking the wings off flies and making plans to screw the customers, giggling insanely all the while. As frustrated and disgusted as the players may become at some of the antics displayed, the team on the other side is just as puzzled and hurt by some the reactions of their players. They have this vision of one really incredible game and they are trying to make that vision come true. They really believe they are making all the right moves, doing what is right for the game and the players. That they aren’t, that they don’t have the tools or skills to actually deal with a commercial environment that has different requirements, is one of the tragedies of our industry today.

(I just know someone is going to say, "Hey, many of the EverQuest developers came from a DikuMUD background and they have 400,000 subscribers. Doesn’t that make your opinion, well, stupid?" Indeed, 400,000 subscribers is a mighty achievement and not to be taken lightly. It is also begging the wrong question. The correct question would be: EQ has sold something close to one million units at retail in two years and has 400,000 players; where are the other 600,000 and why did they leave?)

Why is this such a tragedy? Simple: the experience was out there for the taking. There were plenty of successful for-pay MMOGs developed and serviced in the 28 years before Ultima Online launched in 1997 and took us into the third generation of such games. To name just a few off the top of my head: British Legends, MUD II, Islands of Kesmai, Dragon’s Gate, Gemstone III, AD&D: Dark Sun Online, Rolemaster: Magestorm, Splatterball, AD&D: NeverWinter Nights, Air Warrior, The Hundred Years War, Multiplayer BattleTech, Federation II, Meridian 59, The Kingdom of Drakkar, Galaxy II, Shadow of Yserbius… the list goes on. Sure, the total number of experienced developers and post-launch management people was small, perhaps 100 folks total, but they were out there. And many of them were looking for steady work from 1996 to 1999, when publishers were recruiting for MMOG projects.

But to my current knowledge, not one of the current top three MMOGs had a single person experienced in the for-pay MMOG sector during development, and only UO had even one such person at launch, although they brought him in too late in the process to make a significant difference. The developers involved were recruited from the free MUD sector or were retail SKU developers assigned to the team. Hell, they didn’t want the experienced people; they were called "old guard" and "garage inventors." "We don’t need those guys from the past," they said. "They don’t know how to built hit games; we do." Arrogant, yes and silly, too; it would be like a TV manufacturer deciding to go into filming TV shows and using the people that made the TV sets successfully, not actual producers, directors and actors.

Well, they paid for their folly; who knows just how much subscriber money the Big Three left lying on the table? Not that they need to be overly worried; current teams don’t seem to have learned much from their mistakes, as the recent launches of World War II Online and Anarchy Online have shown. If it’s one thing you can count in the MMOG industry, it is initial arrogance, followed by puzzlement, outrage and a tendency to ratchet down on unusual play patterns in an attempt to fix things.

What does this mean for the future? Well, as an industry we are building some experience in how to treat the customer. As some of the newbies responsible for developing and managing the third generation of MMOGs churn out of the industry or move into other positions, new people like the afore-mentioned Daniel Manachi, who understand these issues from both the player and management sides, will move up in the ranks and start changing things. That is something I think we all look forward to.

That will also probably take years. Eventually, though, the standard will be raised. It will be raised because it makes good business sense; you make more money with happy customers. In case anyone needs a grade school primer on why: Happy customers pay you money. Happy customers recruit new players and old friends to the game to pay money. Happy players talk nice about you, which recruits others to pay you money. Having happy players is good. Having unhappy players is bad; that leaves money on the table.

And if there is one thing that game companies hate, it is leaving money on the table for someone else to pick up.

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