The Yearly Rant
by Sandra Powers
The column today is a bit different than usual. I normally try to keep my articles useful, if not particularly entertaining. But a scant few days ago the Austin Game Conference hosted the annual (and now traditional) MMO Rant session. I missed the rant this year – I was unfortunately unable to make it to the AGC at all – and so in honor of the rant I missed I have a minor rant of my own. Like all rants it's disjointed and wanders a bit. Enjoy!
There seems to have been a lot of talk about World of Warcraft this year at the AGC. Not surprising, really – WoW dominates our industry right now, and almost two years after launching it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. A perennial favorite topic of conversation among the non-Blizzard folks I know is: "What's so great about WoW? What did they do right, and how do we copy it?" Rob Pardo of Blizzard appears to have answered this question in his AGC keynote, but the reaction I've heard so far from the industry is: "Well that's just obvious. We already do that! So what are they doing really?" This is just one of the many reasons I sometimes despise our industry.
Of course, I had previously developed my own answer to this question of what WoW does so right, which is: "Polish." But in talking to other developers I’ve realized that my answer is useless, largely because as an industry we don't have a solid notion of what polish is, much less why we should want it or how to accomplish it. I even got into a rather heated debate this morning with my partner in crime, Eric Heimburg, about the definition of polish. (Most couples argue about money, I hear. We argue about game design. I wish we would argue about money. Sleeping on the couch because you don't agree on the benefits of a skill-based system is excessively geeky.)
When Eric says polish, he means the stuff you do after the game is done. You spend a lot of time and effort finishing the game, making everything work the way a player expects it to work – and then you spend even more time and effort getting every little detail perfect, putting all the great little extras in place. That's the polish.
What I mean by polish for MMO games is much more basic than that. I just mean the first part – getting the game done, making everything work the way a player expects it to work. In all honesty, this is so exceedingly rare for any MMO game that I've played that I don't think we can even begin to talk about what comes after this. Perhaps that means that I should use a different word for this, something that sounds more essential and less like the icing on the cake. But I point back at the dictionary definition of polish (v): to render (an object) finished. A game without polish is, literally, a game that isn't yet done.
I've also sometimes described this in the negative. With each new MMO game I play, I keep track of how many times the game makes me really angry in the first play session: how many times some counter-intuitive UI causes me to die, or how many times the game makes me feel stupid because I trusted its directions, or how many times some very basic functionality or information that I expected to be available wasn't. The fewer instances of intense rage, the more polished I consider the game. Of all the MMO games I've played, WoW is the most polished with less than five put-my-fist-through-the-monitor moments in my first play session. Some games have exceeded that in the first five minutes! (Yes, yes, I am a very angry person. But you measure with the ruler you're given.)
My point, if I have one, is that whether we call it polish or quality or basic functionality, we keep building games without it. We expect to build games without it, and lots of time it doesn't even bother us. I mean, come on, how important is it really if there are some typos and misspellings in quest descriptions? Not at all important, right? A typo is a low priority bug. There are more important things to worry about, like high-level PvP balance. And when you get right down to it, making sure that the quest giver NPC tells you the exact name of the mob you have to kill, that’s not a big deal either, right? I mean, it's pretty close – smart players will figure it out and they'll share it with other players who ask. In fact, we're building community by encouraging interaction! And yeah, some of the NPCs don't give exactly correct directions to the dungeon, but they point you basically in the right direction and there are maps on the web if you get lost. (There's that community-building again!) And the help file on housing sorta doesn't mention the new garden system we added because we didn't have time to go back and change everything, but gardening is an advanced feature anyway and by the time you get there you know better than to trust what the in-game help says.
So am I saying that fixing all the typos in your game is going to somehow magically bring in hundreds of thousands of new players to your barren and languishing wallflower of a game? Not at all. But thinking about what polish means and how to accommodate it instead of giving it mere lip service is important, damn it!
(Sometimes I walk around smacking people and shouting, "It's important, damn it!" Unfortunately, this isn't terribly productive. But this is a rant, after all, not a solution.)
Of course, because I am a live MMO developer at heart, I have to bring this back around to post-launch development. You think polish is hard to achieve when you're pushing to launch your brand-new behemoth before your publisher pulls the plug? Well try it with a team that's only a fraction the size of your pre-launch team while also trying to juggle the bugs dumped on you from before launch, enough new content to keep retention up, a marketing-driven expansion, and several really stupid fringe ideas mandated by your executive producer or CEO because he or she has seen Blizzard do it and thinks it might help.
It's a mess. It can't be solved by crunching, it can't be solved by clever producering – it can only be solved by a company culture of polish. Not saying that you have a commitment to quality, but doing quality. And for some reason that's hard. I know it's hard because we rant about it every year, and yet it never changes. So here’s this year's rant. In a perfect world I'd hope to never rant about this again. But I know I will, over and over. Cheers!