by Scott Roberts
"Money, its a hit.
Today were going to start with an actual response to some real feedback posted on my forum, because a well-thought-out response deserves acknowledgement. Besides, the poster quoted Lazarus Long/Robert Heinlein, an action guaranteed to earn my respect.
Brian (murf) writes, in his post I wont quote it here, but rather point you to the link at In Defense of Offense-that perhaps I was a bit too harsh on the critical masses out there. I am forced to agree with most of what hes saying here, but would also say (perhaps a little belatedly, in my own defense) that my point was not that criticism is unwelcome. Well-phrased critiques, even plaintive requests for the redress of perceived wrongs, are not only welcome but essential to the assurance of quality in any endeavor, from making stuffed animals to MMORPGs. Without feedback from customers, any business will fail to survive and fail to thrive.
The point of this series of articles, though, is that MMORPGs and the gaming industry as a whole tend to garner quite a bit more than what I perceive as their 'fair share' of criticism. By and large, this is probably a function of the milieu in which they exist the Internet, where anyone who can type can freely post their opinions on a number of sources. The client base for online games tends to be vocal, and giving them a public forum with no existing standards or guidelines for acceptable feedback has turned what could be a valuable source for client feedback into a breeding ground for flames, trolls, diatribes, rants, and the occasional gem of feedback.
The signal-to-noise ratio of most forums for criticism and complaints about the MMORPG industry leaves much to be desired. Speaking as a customer service and quality assurance professional, I can tell you that, quite often, the very openness of the medium and the proliferation of angry, ranting, or meaningless responses will make it a tremendously time-intensive piece of work to sort through them all, pick out the ones that contain useful action items, and phrase them in such a way as to allow engineers/developers to review and test correct them.
Not too long ago there was a buzzword going around the dot-com industry called "Internet Time", which referred to the fact that Internet startups were growing (and working) faster than most any other business in recorded history. The course of the last year has shown just how illusory that concept was. But there are those consumers, especially in the gaming industry segment, who still seem to expect that kind of rapid response to issues, and who get flustered when they dont get them. The gaming industry as a whole has had a rough time of managing customer expectations. Customers expect their particular problem in a game to be fixed immediately, if not sooner; they have unrealistic ideas as to how long something should take as well as how complex it might be to undertake. The brightest and best of them cite their experience in software development and design as if they know what the conditions are in all companies, and use their expertise to batter down assertions from a company that certain things are possible, and certain things are not. Most of the time, these folks dont have the foggiest idea about how the internal mechanisms of the specific environment theyre criticizing work, even if they have similar experiences elsewhere.
I cant speak with authority on matters touching engineering and development in MMORPGs, but I can talk about how customer service works. It is not, though it may seem so to the customers, a simple matter of clicking "reply" on every thread that contains a gripe (or even threads that contain dozens of gripes on the same subject) to provide the players with feedback on their issues. Most players of MMORPGs have more time to spend in the game than the people who provide customer service for them. While your customers are out there playing the game and finding rare bugs, or compiling lengthy websites chock-full of statistics and percentages weighing different balance issues in support of their arguments, the customer service representatives are simultaneously responding to user emails about software conflict issues, graphics card errors, credit card issues, billing issues; having meetings within the company; sorting through the posts on the boards that keep piling up; dealing with in-game and out-of-game conflicts between players; monitoring GM programs; and handling live assists.
Perhaps they might occasionally get some time to play the game in fact Im sure they do. But they dont have the many, many concentrated hours that the players who are doing the complaining have in-game to be certain of every single element that the player is complaining about, and neither do they have the ability or authority to take their complaining customers 100% at their word. It would be a nice world if everyone who asked for a nerf or complained about a bug was honest and not seeking any personal gain, but thats not the case; players arent objective and for the most part, the complaints they raise must be investigated and tested before being added to the lengthy pile of requests that the engineering team has on its plate.
The sheer complexity of most MMORPGs, one of the things that draws people to them variety in character choices, item choices, and locations aggravates the situation even more. While a player of Warrior-Class-A might be perfectly justified in requesting a balance issue be addressed with a particular item, that same player may not have any idea how the fix (or existence) of that issue affects Spellcasting-Class-B. Customer service and quality assurance folks must, therefore, analyze and test these things before they make such recommendations to the engineering team. All of this takes time, and time, as they say, is money.
Which brings us back to the original point of this column. One of the most powerful complaints used against the MMORPG industry by the customers who play in it is that theyre giant moneymaking corporations who dont care about the customer. Now, Im certain that there are people like that in the world, but for the most part, it seems to me that there are many easier ways to fleece folks out of their money (with less headaches) than making online games. Considering the failure rate of online gaming companies (and the software industry in general), its a crapshoot when releasing these games for even the most popular titles.
Even if you dont buy the argument that the money thats being made is relatively small potatoes, consider this. By and large, MMORPGs deliver good value for the dollar. You can log in most any time, 24x7x365. They do their best to avoid downtime like the plague. There are often many comparatively minor annoyances in the game the things that people complain about but by and large, for $20 a month or so even in the most high-priced games, youre getting more entertainment hours for your buck than from most any other sort of entertainment form out there (aside, perhaps, from television; but theres no advertisements). Some games, like World War II Online, have major, crippling problems; but the people behind them work to fix them ardently.
Even the most "unplayable" (a subjective judgment) classes and races the ones where people complain about them because they arent "effective" compared to others offer a different experience, often with a variety of graphics and special abilities, than other types of characters. They may not be able to do as much damage, or be as efficient, as other character types, but they certainly do provide roleplaying opportunities and a switch from the usual for those players who are interested in that sort of thing.
This concludes this week's article on money and customer service in MMORPGs. Next week, I'll be returning back to my roots in online prose games. I do welcome any feedback on the forums, though!