Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #73:

There's No Such Thing as a Free Launch

by Shannon Appelcline

May 16, 2002 - A week ago Monday Skotos Tech launched its fifth game. Grendel's Revenge. And, this launch was a big deal, the biggest since Marrach. Grendel's Revenge didn't have a pre-existing community, like The Eternal City when it joined the Skotos community. It wasn't a strategic game like any of the Galactic Emperor game, whose community would ebb and flow from session to session.

Instead, Grendel's Revenge was a totally new roleplaying game, subject to all the problems which make such games hard to get going. It was built largely on the pre-existing TEC engine, but still getting it rolling would be a test of whether we knew what we were doing (or not).

And, thus far, it seems to be doing well. The first week saw something more than 400 players try the beta out. Every time I stop by there seem to be 20-40 people in a game. Plenty to get things started, and a bit of a relief.

Critical Mass

You see, there's a central issue to getting online games started called the critical mass problem. It's a really big deal. Basically, online games are interesting, at least in part, because other people are playing them. However these games are part of a global Internet. That means that if two people try out your game, it's extremely possible that they'll be on at totally different times.

Actually, you can increase your number of players fairly dramatically and still have issues. Say your game and world is interesting enough that a person will poke around for thirty minutes before getting bored and leaving, if other people are absent. Say, also, that you need at least ten people playing simultaneously for your game to be truly interesting. And then, do the math.

Assuming totally random distribution of players into the 48 30-minute sections of a day, you need 480(!) players to try out your game within a one-day time for your game to hit critical mass.


Fortunately, things aren't quite that bad. Usually a half-dozen or so players can get things rolling, and usually players will gravitate toward certain times (7pm PT we find is the Skotos hotspot). But still, you need a good 50-200 people to suddenly appear to get a game started.

There are lots of potential solutions to that, many revolving around providing players with semi-independent tasks and with juggling administration in such a way as to encourage people to play at the same time. At some point I may chat about those.

At Skotos, however, we had a different plan: Build lots of games. When Grendel's Revenge came out we had two other textual games at our site — Marrach and TEC — and just as we had always dreamed, some players from each of those games headed over to Grendel's Revenge to try it out.

Instant community. Instant critical mass.

To say we're pleased is an understatement, because this is, an many ways, a reminder that the dream we have for Skotos has real basis. If Grendel's Revenge helps our community to grow then hopefully the next game will be even easier to populate, and the next and the next and the next. And that's darned important because as we go forward we expect many of our Skotos players to be creating games. They won't have quite the same pull that we do when putting out an official Skotos release, but if the community size is large enough by that point, there should be enough players looking for exactly the type of game a player is producing to instantly populate it too.

Here's to dreams and to beginnings.

Pros & Cons

What feels like about a hundred years ago, I wrote Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #1, First-Date Jitters wherein I discussed some of the lessons we had learned in releasing Castle Marrach. Now, a year and a half later, I'd like to return to that topic by discussing some things learned in the release of Grendel's Revenge.

In writing these lessons learned I should note that the production and release of Grendel's Revenge has primarily been the work of the engineering team over at Worlds Apart. But, I still get to kibitz.

Some of what I have to offer has to do with what was done clearly right in the release, and some of what I discuss has to do with problems that I saw. Don't take the latter as criticism of the Grendel's Revenge release, but rather as thoughts about how to do even better next time. Any minor issues aside, the bottom line is that Worlds Apart released a game and immediately generated a community that I'm confident will sustain the game. In other words, they were successful.

But, onward, to lessons learned...

Seed Your Community in Advance. As already discussed this time around, the hardest problem for any online game is invariably going to be critical mass. We partially counter that thanks to the Skotos meta-community, but if you just turn on a game one day, no one's going to know it's there. So, you have to seed your community.

We did three things for Grendel's Revenge: (1) we put out a press release a few months beforehand; (2) we discussed it a bit in the general forums -and- (3) we created forums specifically for Grendel's Revenge a few days before launch. It all worked great. Skotos community members got excited about the game, and even began to speculate about what it might contain. The forums were already brimming over before the release, and last Monday evening totally filled with people waiting for the announcement that the game had been turned on.

We'd considered doing more, including ads and a second press release announcing the beta, but ultimately decided the community size we'd generate from these primarily internal methods would be enough — and that existing Skotos customers would be kinder to us during a beta than the larger world.

Release on Time. This is a rule that I offered way back in TT&T #1. My point then was that you'd start losing your community seed if you didn't release when you'd promised to. Since we were pretty low-key about when the game was coming out, we could have slid our release date without anyone noticing... but we didn't. When Worlds Apart and Skotos first talked about Grendel's Revenge we set a date of May 6, 2002. And, that's when we released the character creation system and would have released the rest of the game if not for joint memory and client bugs which set as back 24 hours.

The reason it's important to get your game out on time, even if not doing so wouldn't cost you your community is: fiddling. You could literally fiddle with a game forever before putting it out. Worse, you'll be doing so without feedback from your community. Imbalances and play issues within Grendel's Revenge are now becoming obvious thanks to hundreds of players whacking at it. If it were still on test machines in an in-hour computer lab, engineers might be instead walking down incorrect paths, not knowing what was actually broken.

Be Ready for Disaster. As I've already mentioned, there were problems on our release day. Maybe 60-70% of users couldn't initially get into the game because of a client bug we hadn't been aware of. In addition, a memory corruption error zapped the game just as we tried to put it up. If we'd backed off at that point, and said we were going to release a day later after all, I think we would have lost a lot of momentum and enthusiasm.

Instead, Worlds Apart cranked to allow players access to the character creation system, while blocking access to the actual game. It let players play around and see what was to come, while keeping them away from the major trouble areas. Once announcing a date, any developer should try and figure out what to do if the date falls through, either due to schedule slowdowns or due to major last-minute bugs. Even scheduling a chat about the game to stand-in for the game release would probably be sufficient. Or, as with Castle Marrach so long ago, opening up a smaller game area than originally planned.

Try and Plan for the Players. If anything went wrong with the initial Grendel's Revenge release, I'd say it was simply that once the players got into the game things quickly descended into chaos. Gamemasters tried to hold a meeting, but people were so busy trying out the combat and magic and movement systems that no one could get a word in edgewise. The gamemasters finally (and quite correctly) took to stunning masses of players in order to talk.

I remember feeling a somewhat similar sense of loss when the first Marrach players wandered into our Castle. We StoryHosts in NPC bodies hung out and greeted them and hoped we were making the Castle interesting.

As a StoryBuilder you need to try and figure out what your players will want to do once they get into a game. In Marrach we suspected people would want to roleplay, and thus we offered people to roleplay with. In Grendel's Revenge people clearly wanted to fight and explore; thus offering up a mini-fighting and exploring scenario would probably have worked well, saving the background information for board postings or other calmer venues.

Actually the stunning discussion in Grendel's Revenge was pretty funny to see, but it did get me thinking about other ways releases could be managed.

Document, Document, Document. As a player I think I found the most frustrating aspect of Grendel's Revenge to be that major systems, such as the lair building and clan building systems, weren't clearly documented on day one. They're getting better very quickly, and I'm actually going to be helping out on some docs very soon, but this is the only other improvement I could have suggested on day one.

As a StoryBuilder you should consider the major systems that people will want to use, but be unfamiliar with, and make sure those are described. You don't have to write perfect docs the first time out, but you need to at least list the commands that people will need to use.

Release a Good Game. Looking at the Grendel's Revenge release, I have to say that it ultimately succeeded because of this last criteria. It's a damned good game. There are interesting and fun things to do and it's unique and cool.

Although I laud meeting your release date, I'd also like to offer up the cliche, "you only get one chance to make a first impression." If you release a game that's boring, and then take it back to the drawing board, every one's going to remember that boring first release. Even if your game is a million times better the second time out, that stigma may still kill you.

So, be careful.

Next Week

And those are my newest thoughts on game release.

Next time, back to mythology.

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