I felt this article relates well to the current happenings in KO's world atm, read it and tell me what you think.
For the lazy ones: He's talking about how you could look after the 'service' that a provider (e.g k2) gives.
It’s a Service—Not a Product
I’m stealing the line from Gordon Walton, formerly of Kesmai and now of Origin: Online games are a service, not a product.
What does that mean? And why?
The Conventional Computer Game Mindset
Here’s how a conventional computer game works: You find the funding. You work like the dickens for 18 months, the last few weeks or months of that with little sleep. The product goes gold master, you celebrate. At that point, the marketing and production weasels have work to do, but you go onto the next product (or get laid off, like as not). Your job is over.
Customer support? Oh, maybe you spend a little time working with the customer support people, or coding a patch for some problem that arises. But that’s about it.
The product is 99% development, and 1% customer support.
Here’s how a well-run online game works: You find the funding. You work like the dickens for 18 months, the last few weeks or months with little sleep. And finally, you go live.
That’s when the real work begins.
It does? Yes. Because when you go live, suddenly hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people descend on your servers. Never mind the fact that even your stress-tests haven’t tested for this much of a load.
Think of this: When you ship a CD-ROM product, and a user has a problem—he can’t figure out some aspect of the interface, or something doesn’t work, or he can’t figure out what to do next—he’ll look at the manual. Or download a walkthrough. Calling a phone number for customer support is a last choice, because he knows he’ll spend a long time on hold and probably get a moron when he finally gets through.
But when you’re online, and you have a problem, you want help online. Immediately. Particularly if you’re spending money on a monthly subscription, and you know it’s your due. And if you don’t get help, you’re likely to conclude that the game is poorly run.
When you buy a CD-ROM product, and it has problems, and you ultimately decide it sucks, you shrug and throw it away, or stick it in a dusty pile of moldering old games. It happens, all the time. Most games suck. You have to be really motivated to write or email or call to complain.
[color=red]But if you’re online, and there’s something about the game you don’t like, you have a direct line to the game operators. You can complain.
And they well. Oh, they will. They’ll drive you nuts. And if you want to retain them as customers, you need to respond *to their complaints. You can’t just ignore them, or pass them off with corporate waffle. You need to explain how you’re going to improve the game, and satisfy them.
The Customer is Always Right
That’s not a sentiment from a packaged goods industry; that’s a sentiment from retail. We’re not in retail, but we *are in a service industry; we have direct, everyday contact with our customers, our future income stream depends on keeping them happy, content, and enjoying the game. To be sure, not everyone can be satisfied—but the point is, you must provide support.
What does that mean?
The Welcome Wagon
Some months ago, I downloaded ChronX, a game provided by The [email protected]. It is, in many ways, a fine game; well implemented, pretty, fun to play. The soloplay ‘training’ scenarios are engaging and fun. It has its flaws, of course, but it is an admirable effort.
I went online to attempt my first game.
There were a dozen or so players in the chat area, chatting and potentially available for play. There was no one from the game operator online, no one to answer my questions, no one to show me the ropes.
The players there didn’t want to bother with me, because I was a newbie, and beating me would do nothing for their player ranking. I didn’t stay long.
Getting someone to buy the software and try the game is only the start; you need to transform them from an experimenter into a customer. You need to make their first experience an enjoyable one.
Someone should have been there to greet me.
Try this on Gamestorm, and someone will be there. Kesmai has been running online games for more than a decade, and they know the score. There will always be a sysop online.
Where do you get sysops? Most of them are volunteers, who love the game so much that they’re willing to spend time assisting in community management and helping newbies, helping to maintain the community they love, helping to introduce new people to the joys of the game.
But sysops must always be managed by trained professionals—and must receive training themselves. Sysops are not your employees, but they are representing you, your company, your game, to the public, and the last thing you want is for them to abuse their power, or annoy your customers.
And it will happen. Often, the people who volunteer to be sysops are on a power trip; they want access to the sysoply tools that let them kick off other players, change things in the game, accrue prestige (or free time in the game) because of their status. As Jessica Mulligan says, “The people who most want to be sysops are the people you least want to have that power.” That’s not always true, but it’s true often enough.
So while you can limit your costs by recruiting volunteers, you can’t let the inmates run the asylum. There has to be another layer of management, directly accountable to the company because employed by the company, to limit abuses by your sysop staff. Abuses will still occur, and must be corrected when discovered, but intelligent management can minimize them.
Your sysops must be prepared to show newbies the rope, to sit down and play with them for a while, to answer questions. That’s not their only role.
Dealing With Assholes
Not long ago, I signed onto Battle.net to play a game of *StarCraft. Someone was sitting in the chat room—a chat room for new players—spewing obscenities. Not merely using an occasional ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’, but flooding the room with the same line of obscenities, over and over, making it virtually impossible to hold a conversation.
You can limit this kind of abuse with automated systems—for example, The [email protected] has a chat filter that filters out bad words, and it’s certainly possible to autokick somebody who floods a chat room—but you can’t police it adequately without sysops online.
Most of the time, there are no sysops on Battle.net. It probably hasn’t hurt them much; you don’t spend much time on Battle.net directly, you just go there to find a game, then go away and play head-to-head. But in a massively-multiplayer game, it hurts a great deal. If somebody shows up, and finds that a large fraction of the community is acting like dorks, he’s likely to go away and never return.
Obscenity isn’t the only problem, of course. There are people who get really upset, and flame others, or attack them repeatedly in the game, or badmouth them to others. There are people who cheat, or find a bug and exploit it without informing the game operators. There’s sexual harassment. There are any number of possible problems, not all of which you can anticipate.
Only sysops can police an online community adequately. There must always be someone to whom the players can complain.
And there must be clear, well-established rules for behavior in the community. Those rules should be imposed consistently and impartially. And the sysops must have the ability to enforce those rules.
Ten years ago, I worked briefly as community manager for Prodigy’s science fiction and gaming bulletin boards. I had tools that allowed me to manage the boards to a very limited degree; I could rename topics, move or delete posts, and the like. On a number of occasions, users violated the community standards by, for instance, repeatedly flaming another user, or starting topics with non-alphabetical characters so they’d start up higher on the topic list. I could delete the posts, I could rename the topics, I could chastise the violators—but I was not empowered to do anything about it.
In one case, a member of the community complained that she was being sexually harassed by another Prodigy member—he had, in fact, threatened to rape her. I passed the complaint (and the email she had sent me as evidence) on to higher-ups at Prodigy—but there was nothing I could do personally.
I was a sysop, but I had no real power. I had no ability to kick anyone off the bulletin boards, or off Prodigy—not for a day, not for an hour, not for a minute. I wasn’t merely a cop without a gun; I was a cop without the power to arrest.
Sysops must have the power to lock abusers out of the game—ideally, a flexible power, allowing them to impose a short cooling off time, or a longer punishment, or complete removal from the game for eternity.
And you need to have a database, to keep track of consistent abusers, as well as to track fixes and bugs and player problems. Equally importantly, all sysop actions must be logged, with the logs accessible to the managers—so sysop abuses can be detected and dealt with.
Wide-open anarchy is appropriate for IRC or UseNet; it is not appropriate to a community. A community has standards, and it must have the means to impose its standards on those who would violate them. A commercially-operated community—which is what any online game is—must be policed, consistently and fairly, by the company that operates it.
An Online Game is a Community
In the Design section, we talked about games as a means of socialization, and building the tools for community formation into a game. That’s a necessity, that’s one of the main things that sets online games apart from soloplay computer games. But it has implications for how games are managed, too.
Community is more important than the game. People come to your game initially, in order to play, but they stay for the friends they make. They stay because they feel comfortable there, they enjoy the others they meet. They’ll stay for years.
That’s no exaggeration. There are Air Warrior players who have been in the game since the year it launched, in 1986. There are *Air Warrior players who hardly ever play, who hang out in the chat rooms and talk with their buddies. They’re paying $9.95 a month, just like everyone else.
There are communities that aren’t even tied to a particular game—clans who search out new games, descend en masse, and play together, until they decide to check out a new game. Attracting them means attracting a whole group of fee-paying customers—and retaining them means a continuous income stream into the future.
Community is your greatest strength, and your greatest problem. Community builds loyalty; the loyalty of the community is to the community, not to you, but if you support the community, they’ll stick around, and they’ll pay your fees, and they’ll act as unpaid sysops, and they’ll help you in myriad ways.
But piss them off, and watch out.
Support is the key. Building community and micro-community tools into your game is part of that. So is policing the community, providing a safe space in which people can play and socialize. But at least as important is this: You must treat your players with respect, not with contempt.
Case Study: How Ultima Online Defined Its Customers as Cheaters
Here’s an example. Ultima Online is designed in such a way that new characters are unskilled and weak. In order to obtain decent stats and skills, they must practice. They must perform the same task over and over and over and over. It is repetitive. It is dull. It is dumb game design. But it is what you must do.
Naturally, soon after the game launched, people programmed tools—macros—to help characters get better. Essentially, you record the task you wish to accomplish in the macro, and leave it running. Your character practices and practices and practices while you go off and sleep, or read the newspaper, or get some work done. It’s a perfectly reasonable and natural reaction to the incentives imposed by the game.
But macros presented a problem for Origin, for two reasons. First, they gave people who used macros an advantage over those who did not. By using a macro, you can acquire a decent character fairly quickly, with minimal real effort; it takes a lot of actual play time to acquire a character of comparable power through continuous play, as Origin had originally planned. This skewed the playing field; it was unfair.
Second, macros encouraged people to be online for long periods, consuming bandwidth and time on Origin’s servers—time they weren’t actively playing, but simply running an automated routine. This increased Origin’s costs, without actually delivering continuous playtime to customers, and without generating any additional income, since Origin charges a flat monthly fee for access to *UO.
Let’s consider what Origin could have done:
• They could have concluded that the skill-progression system was ill designed and needed to be modified in future releases of the game, since it was so tedious that it inspired people to look for technical fixes.
• They could have decided to incorporate macros in the next release of the game, levelling the playing field by giving everyone access to the same tools (and swallowed the bullet on the costs this entailed in terms of server usage).
• They could have redesigned the server end so that players offline were automatically considered to be practicing their skills daily (with time off for meals and sleep), so there would be no need to maintain a continuous connection and so that characters would automatically improve over time, both levelling the playing field and solving the server-overload problem (at the cost of more powerful average characters in the gameworld).
• They could have tried to limit excess server usage, by instituting server-side routines to detect this kind of repetitive activity, and query the player from time to time, making sure a live person was on the other end, and logging the player out if not. After all, they log people out automatically for inactivity; why not for repetitive activity over a similar period of time?
What did they do instead? They defined the use of macros as cheating. They said anyone caught cheating would be punished, possibly by having his or her account deleted. They set the gamemasters to prowling the game, looking for cheaters to punish.
People respond to incentives. If Origin didn’t want players automating repetitive tasks, they shouldn’t have created a system that rewarded them for doing so. Having designed such a system, they were stuck with the consequences—but the last *thing they should have done is chosen a response that defined many of their own customers as cheaters, required them to punish their own customers, set up a situation of antipathy between the sysop staff and the customer base.
They didn’t solve the problem; the rewards for “cheating” are too high, there is nothing that feels wrong or unfair or unethical or immoral about running a simple macro, and there’s a smarmy pleasure to be had in outwitting the gamemasters. Plenty of UO players continue to use macros—and others resent them, because the playing field now genuinely is *unfair. You must violate the terms of service to use macros, and so ‘responsible citizens’ are at a disadvantage.
This isn’t the only way in which Origin has mismanaged its customer relations; look at alt.games.ultima-online sometime, and see the enormous volume of complaints.
Origin just didn’t get it.
They have now, it seems, gotten it that they didn’t get it; they recently hired Gordon Walton, formerly of Kesmai, as Vice President of Online Services, and Jessica Mulligan, long-time games manager for GEnie and one of the founders of Engage, as director of online external relations. They’re hiring people who know how to manage game communities, because they have long-standing experience in doing so.
Sometimes, people do learn from their mistakes.
Managing the Community
How do you build and maintain a loyal, contented community?
First, the prerequisites must exist. A community can only form if people have a way to find and interact with each other. Any and everything you can do to support that is helpful: Bulletin boards, email, chat, instant messaging, buddy lists, all the things we talk about in design.
You must police the community, sensitively and fairly, working from well established guidelines, with staff managing volunteers.
You must be open and accessible to the community. Ideally, there should be someone online, at all times, whom they may contact. They should be able to contact the staff who manages the volunteers, if they have a complaint about how the volunteers operate. They should be able to contact the company’s managers, if they have complaints or suggestions about how to better run the game and community.
They should have access to the development team, not merely to report bugs, but to suggest new features and changes and fixes to problems.
In short, you must run the business in a very different way from the traditional closed, corporate, secretive world of PC gaming, with its non-disclosure agreements and defensive software contracts, all contact with management funnelled through public relations dweebs.
You must give the community the impression that you hear what they say, that you consider what they say, that you are influenced by what they say—and that even when you decide otherwise, you’re not doing so arbitrarily, or purely from greed, but have serious, well-conceived, justifiable reasons for not doing as they ask.
You must be up-front, honest, and open with them.
Because if you aren’t, they’ll take their custom elsewhere.
You’re in the job of satisfying them, keeping them happy, * every hour of every day.
And if that strikes you as a nightmare—don’t do online games.
Is This True for Games That Are Not Massively Multiplayer?
Yes—but to a more limited degree.
If you’re running a service like Battle.net, it is less vital to maintain the loyalty and good will of your customers. You get no income from them for continued play; they paid their bucks at retail, and that’s what you wanted.
But there are reasons to keep them happy, too. If they have continued fun playing your game on your service over long periods of time, they will almost automatically buy the next version of the game, or the next expansion pack, or another product from your company, when it comes out.
And by retaining their interest and loyalty, you will tap directly into your customers. They will tell you what they want. They will tell you what games they’d buy. They will tell you what features they liked, and what they didn’t like; what they consider important, and what they don’t.
Is that so important? It’s vital.
At the moment, CD-ROM publishers are three tiers removed from the market. They have no, or little, direct contact with gamers. They talk to distributors, who talk to retailers, who talk to customers. And even the retailers, who largely employ badly-trained, low-wage sales personnel, have only the sales figures to go on, no ability to track on the conversations their sales people have with customers, no ability to tell what their customers really *want.
A well-managed community, even for games that are played in short, pick-up sessions, like StarCraft, gives a publisher a tight connection with its customers. It lets a publisher develop games much more intelligently, games that are virtually guaranteed of success—because it knows what its customers want.
It’s too bad nobody is really taking advantage of this, yet. But surely Bungie or Blizzard or some other smart operation will figure it out soon.