Series Info...Biting the Hand #13:

Catching Up

by Jessica Mulligan
November 20, 2001

A lot has happened since the last column, including me missing a deadline due to overseas travel. It’s enough to make you scream sometimes, generally in pain after an entire day of wearing three-inch heels. Ah, the life of the working woman!

Anyway, let’s catch up on the news:

The Cart is Here, You Can Bring Out Your Dead…

Two years after paying News Corporation $30 million for it as part of the AOL Games Channel deal, Electronic Arts has closed down Kesmai Corporation. Of the 250 total layoffs in the latest round, about 110 people were cut loose at the Charlottesville, VA office, just in time to worry about how they were going to feed their families during the holiday season.

Kesmai was the oldest US company providing online games. In fact, more than any other company, Kesmai was responsible for creating the commercial side of the online games industry. Founded by Dr. Kelton Flinn and John Taylor in 1983, over the 18 years of their existence they pretty much covered every niche in the market and pioneered processes, policies and procedures in use today. The company was perhaps best known for the ground-breaking combat flight sim Air Warrior, the first graphics-based commercial MMOG, launched in 1986. They also developed Multiplayer BattleTech and the legendary text RPG Islands of Kesmai - and its pretty horrible graphics-based version, Legends of Kesmai; OK, even pioneers can screw up sometimes. As John Taylor used to say, "We suffer from Pioneer’s Disease. That’s what all those arrows are doing in our backs." All those games have since been closed by EA, along with a bunch of others, including a few by flavor-of-the-month developer Mythic Entertainment.

The layoffs occurred last month, but the handwriting was on the wall back in February, when EA fired around 150-200 people, mostly at Origin and Kesmai, to ‘reduce redundancies’ due to the $42 million acquisition of (nee TEN). This, after making Kesmai a customer service hub and adding something like 150 people to the employee roster. At the same time, they released almost the entire Ultima Online 2 team, many of whom were immediately picked up by old boss Richard Garriott for his new online games company.

So this year alone, EA has laid off somewhere between 400 and 500 people from its division, in the process cutting loose some of the most experienced people in the industry and creating a major competitor (Richard Garriott’s Destination Games, part of Korean online game maker NC Soft). In the process, EA is shipping quite a bit of their customer service overseas to Indian company Ienergizer in a cost-cutting move.

Considering all that, especially the latest round of layoffs of experienced people, one has to ask, "Is there a online games strategy here?" ‘Cause from the outside looking in, it’s tough to see one. Although a wooden shaft or two seem to be protruding…

What’s That Burning Smell?, the rant site successor to the late and very lamented The Rantings of Lum the Mad, found an interesting way to close itself down: Self-immolation. It was a fiery crash of self-indulgent pique in which the site owner, Eldin, picked a public fight with Mark Jacobs, President and co-founder of Mythic Entertainment, publisher of Dark Age of Camelot and current employer of Scott Jennings, the man behind the Lum. The fight proceeded apace amidst charges and counter-charges that included theft of donations, censorship, corporate conspiracy, favoritism and everything in between. It was rather fascinating to observe from a distance, like watching a train wreck from your front porch. If you really give a damn about the gory details, you can read all about it here.

The reason I mention this otherwise non-news event?

As it happens, many fans and ranters are being hired by publishers and developers to be ‘community relations’ specialists, among other positions, mainly to get them to hell off the Internet, but also to attract their readers to the games. Electronic Arts, Turbine/Microsoft, Verant, NetDevil, Wolfpack, Mythic… all have dipped into the Internet rant and fan site well. This is all very Borg-like and incestuous, and works to the publishers advantage more than the players’. Rant sites tend to vanish or sink into obscurity when the ranters are absorbed into the corporate consciousness, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. I’ll be the first to admit that rant sites can keep an online game publisher or developer on their toes; having your mistakes pointed out in loving detail to the masses will do that to you. And who better to do that internally, then, than the best of the fan site operators and ranters?

But hiring such folks to attract their readers/players can backfire, as appears to have happened here. If nothing else, Lum’s former patrons were and are among the most demanding MMOG players in existence and they don’t suffer foolishness gladly or without comment. That translates into a lot of customer interaction, which makes for higher CS costs. And the persistent world game player is fickle; if not handled with respect and openness, he/she can turn on you like a hungry dog going for that roast beef sandwich on the plate in your lap.

As the site operators of Slow News Day amply demonstrated. It wasn’t the first time; it won’t be the last.

AOL: 1 Former Volunteers: 0

After a two-year investigation, the US Department of Labor has decided to take no action against America Online on claims filed by former volunteers that they were actually employees and should be paid back wages.

My feelings on this subject are well known, going back a year and a half. Naturally, the former volunteers disagree with me about this decision and predictably raise charges of government collusion to spare AOL the costs of its transgressions ( Considering how these people responded to the original BTH column, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they think the CIA is trying to control their minds.

In a specific sense, the DOL’s action is probably going to make it harder for the former AOL vols to win their ongoing court cases; having the government decline to take action is a pretty nice point for the defense to bring up in court. In a broader sense, this may also make it easier for online games to have volunteer helpers in online games in the future. If the Labor Department isn’t going to go after AOL’s highly structured volunteer program, the generally loosely-structured game volunteer programs ought to be even less of a target.

How this might affect the ongoing lawsuit by former Ultima Online volunteers against Electronic Arts is unknown, but I’d suspect it works in favor of EA. Not that it matters for UO any more; the litigious have already done their work there.

Camelot Launches Well

In a previous column, I noted that it would be real nice if Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot launched well, considering how badly other persistent world games have launched this year. As it turned out, the launch went rather smoothly, which is all to the good. We needed a win.

Of course, now Mythic is finding it necessary to make balance changes (read: ‘nerfs’) as it finds bugs and adds in planned content that didn’t make it into the release version. This raises outcries from some of the fan base and the industry gets to learn all over again that effective communication is everything and that some customers will never forgive even one mistake. And Mythic has already had to fire three employees for unspecified reasons, though the conspiracy-minded speculate on corruption.

Whether there is enough dissatisfaction to cause mass defections now that players are entering their first actual billing cycle, who knows? It doesn’t seem likely that a significant portion of the 100,000 registered players will take off immediately; Mythic still has very open communication with its customers and that counts for a lot with the players. It builds trust and patience among your players and right now Mythic has a large reserve, to the point that I think someone could post a picture of the Mythic crew sacrificing an infant on a Satanic altar in front of an Episcopalian church at midnight and the reaction from the players would be, "There must be a rational explanation for this."

Xbox Launches

Unca Bill personally sold the first Xbox on Thursday. By the weekend, news outlets were reporting that 300,000 of the initial 400,000 manufacturing run had been sold. At around $300 for the basic box, that’s a cool $90 million, of which Microsoft probably gets half.

This is the start of the Console Wars between the GameCube, PS2 and Xbox. Sony has already sold somewhere between 10 and 14 million PS2 units, giving them a nice lead. Whether the Xbox can make a significant dent in that lead remains to be seen, and no one I know seems to consider Nintendo's GameCube a serious contender. Since Microsoft expects to lose between $100 and $150 on each console and not make a dime on combined hardware and software sales for at least three years, I’m betting they don’t much care right now. When you have multiple billions in the bank, you can afford not to care.

I think it’s a given that the games will compare favorably with PS2 and GameCube games, if only because the same developers seem to be making products for two or even all three platforms. With a built-in broadband adapter, where the Xbox could shine eventually is with online games. Microsoft has been publicly sparse with details about Xbox online gaming plans, but they have been making some key game hires recently, including persistent world game veteran Jonathan Baron, late of Kesmai, EA and Infogrames and author of an interesting paper at Gamasutra on psychology in multiplayer games. They are also building a new SDK to allow 3rd party developers and publishers to seamlessly incorporate the latest Zone features and account management into their products, as well as furiously hiring developers to help design and build an Xbox-specific online services technology and platform.

So there is a long-term strategy here, and it seems to include both the PC and Xbox. As for specific games, that’s something I’m going to have to research more. The future of online console games is a subject probably worthy of an entire column by itself. Although let me just say:

Microsoft, now that EA has abandoned the Mechwarrior license and you own it, talk to Jonathan about a persistent world BattleTech game that allows players to build their own lances and upgrade and salvage equipment to build them out into companies and battalions. With the way you keep improving the Mechwarrior solo games, I can only imagine what kind of incredibly cool multiplayer Mechwarrior persistent game you could develop…

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