Series Info...#2: Keeping up with the Joneses

by Shannon Appelcline

September 28, 2000 - We're now at M-day + 7. It's been seven days since we released Castle Marrach – seven days since the world turned upside down, going from mad, hopeless prerelease frenzy to the mad, hopeful postrelease frenzy.

Things have slowed down for us a tiny bit. I got to take a day off on Tuesday and our lead programmer, Zell, has headed out of town for vacation (more on that later). However, with the exception of our two off days – Monday and Tuesday – life has continued at the same hectic pace.

Our goal for Castle Marrach at launch was three Customer Experience staff members. These were to be the folks who moved plots forward, hosted NPCs, and also answered everyone's questions – via assist, email, and through the forums.

However, we knew that in these first days, as we were trying to develop a community, that it would take a lot more work on our part to get things moving. So last Thursday our whole company was given the task of helping on assists and running characters. And last Friday. And last Saturday. And last Sunday.

It was a busy four days for all of us. Counting in a number of contractors who helped us out, we had about a dozen people supporting the games in those first four days. It was a number that was totally unsustainable, but one that we felt was needed for launch.

It seemed to work out pretty well.

Now that we're back into the customer support portion of the week, we've revving up again – not nearly as high as before, but we're still above the 3-person team that we'd originally planned on. As we get players more involved (which is a topic for a future column), we'll be dropping down to that 3-person CE team.

Some lessons learned this week:

  • When you launch a game, it'll take a considerable amount of work to create the initial community.
  • The support requirements are always higher than you think.

When we had that large mass of hosts on for our first four days, it was partially about helping the first players to feel welcome and to understand that there was already a community and background in the castle. But we were also trying to help cement the initial culture of the castle. We knew that what happened on those first four days would have repercussions a year down the road, even if the castle population grew tenfold.

It was a very important weekend.

More on Programmers and Vacations

I noted earlier that our head engineer headed out of town on Tuesday. It's a badly needed and well deserved break. On Monday, before he left, he slaved over our computers for long hours, working to complete a few tasks that were still waiting on that "must-do-before-release" list we wrote up on September 20.

One of these tasks was to move our live Marrach server over to, the high-powered machine that we'd purchased for this task. We tried to do it right before the launch, but it didn't work out, and we ended up almost missing our release date while we were fooling with it. So, it got put off till late Monday night, with Zell slaving over it on vacation eve.

There's a moral to this, another lesson learned, and I'll share it with you before I get to the punchline: Never, never, never do a major modification to a live system and then promptly send the modifier out of town.

When the live Marrach server got moved over, it also got upgraded. The next morning, while our lead engineer was on his way to Santa Fe, the new, upgraded system started crashing. It crashed four times within the span of a few minutes at one point.

This was really, really not good. Fortunately, we had other heroes here at Skotos who were able to step into the breach. It looks like things have mostly stabilized now. We've also got the frequency of our backups dramatically increased.

We'll keep our fingers crossed.

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