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Interview:  Forumwarz ' Robin Ward On Launching A Net.Culture Game
Interview: Forumwarz' Robin Ward On Launching A Net.Culture Game
April 8, 2008 | By Alistair Wallis

April 8, 2008 | By Alistair Wallis
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More: Console/PC



Browser based game Forumwarz has done a pretty good job of drawing the attention of those who spend their time wallowing in Net culture.

Small wonder, really: it's a sharp parody of the many negatives and positives out there, from furries to Boing Boing and 4chan, all wrapped up in a slick self-contained imitation of the web.

There's Sentrillion, the Google-alike search engine, sTalk and Tubmail, the Gmail and Gmail Chat equivalents. Kind of like a more sophisticated version of the front-end to PS2 RPG .hack, except that it's actually fun to play. Oh, and it's all rather funny too.

Then there's the gameplay, a sort of turn-based RPG style that sees players using various methods of annoyance to take down forums, depending on their class. It's bra shots and descriptions of sexual experiences for Camwhores, whining about parents and self-mutilation for Emo Kids and spoilers and “yo momma” jokes for Trolls. Maybe it's just an instilled obsession with level grinding, but it really is quite addictive.

Sister site GameSetWatch posted an interview with Robin “Evil Trout” Ward – developer Zombie Crotch Productions' only full time employee – a few weeks after the game's release.

With a little water under the bridge, and the second episode of story content on the way, we figured that now would be a good time to catch up with him and see what the reaction to the game has been like, and how it's affected the way the game's development is continuing:

Gamasutra: What kinds of figures are you collecting about the site's use?

Robin Ward: For game balancing reasons we collect all sorts of information, like what attacks are the most popular for a given class, what the average level of a particular class for beating a forum is and pretty much anything we can think of under the sun.

We also record how long it takes people to finish our introduction sequence so we can tune it accordingly, and we do A/B testing on our homepage. The idea is by collecting lots of statistics, we can tune things in such a way that we create a larger and better user base.

Anything surprising?

RW: In terms of figures that surprised me, there are tons of those! I was quite surprised to see early on that the Camwhore class was the least popular. I somehow assumed that one would be much more popular. Those numbers have changed now, but it was interesting.

What are the user numbers at the moment?

RW: We've got 33,000 user accounts, and we get over 10,000 visits a day.

What kinds of numbers were you expecting at this point? Did you have projections?

RW: I looked around for data on the Internet about how many users games sites get at various times and I found it very difficult to find. So we really had no idea what to expect.

I'm pretty happy with the results do far.

What kind of feedback are you getting from users about the daily forum limit?

RW: It's what I call "noob complaint”. People come to the site, play for a couple of hours on their first day - which is how long it typically takes to go through all the fun stuff until you've been limited on day one - and bitch because they can't play more.

After a few days, people tend to get why it works that way. The game was designed to be played over several days, and we've timed certain events to happen on certain days.

By the time you reach the Domination end game, the forum visits become strategic moves against other players. Having a limit guarantees that your opponents can't just grind all day to beat you; they have to use the same amount of moves but in a smarter way.

Finally, for the players who don't care about competition, they can throw us a few of bucks and cheat their way right through that limit. Since the cheating has been in place, I've heard very few complaints about the visits.

Are many people taking advantage of that?

RW: Absolutely. The cheats are very popular as far as our "products" go!

Are you getting a lot of negative feedback from users regarding the content of Forumwarz? Does any of it surprise you, given the fact that you make it clear that the game is offensive from the outset?

RW: Almost none. One blogger started to review the game, then decided to stop because we spelled “Clans” with a K, as “Klans”. I frankly expected more, even with the whole typing in "I am not
offended easily" thing.

Creating a game on the Internet on our own gave us the liberty to make lots of low brow jokes and we definitely exercised it.

We did squeeze in a couple of very offensive things. The junk item "Mary Magdalene" is one such example. After Drach and I wrote that, I told him it was the most offensive thing we'd ever written. I did some litmus testing with friends as to whether they thought it was too much for us with mixed results, so we just published it in the game to see what would happen.

We've received nothing but praise for it! There's our surprise: our users want more offensive content.

fbook.jpg So that's what you'll be giving them in Episode 2?

RW: I don't think it's our mission statement for Episode 2, but we certainly won't hold back if we come up with something hilarious. It's more important to us to be funny than it is offensive.

What is the positive feedback generally commenting on?

RW: The things people seem to point out often are: our clever writing, our slick AJAX interface and our dedication to improving it over time.

Are you surprised by the level of attention you're getting from blogs and other media outlets?

RW: Yes, but not in the way you might think. I actually thought it would be much easier to get the word out about Forumwarz than it was. We created a spreadsheet of 70-odd blogs, news sites, reviewers that we thought would be interested in the game, and painstakingly went through the entire list emailing every single one.

I hate to admit it, but we receive maybe two responses from that effort, none very high profile. We were basically ignored by everyone.

We continued to hustle though, and with the help of our users we managed to get picked up by a high profile blogger, and then things spiralled from there.

You know the thing is, I don't blame the bloggers. They must receive so much spam from people saying "Look at my awesome product!”. I'm not surprised the majority of those emails are worth deleting.

And I know it wasn't our content, because we were in a situation where one of the high profile sites that featured us previously ignored two emails from us, and then posted it the second another blogger did.

There's probably a whole other discussion there about the issues raised by the blogging scene. How stable is the back-end proving? Have you had many issues on the technical side of things?

RW: Yes we've had many issues. I think every day we get slightly better at dealing with them. Our game was very stable in development and even during our beta phase, but once we started dealing with 50+ concurrent requests all sorts of new problems popped up related to that. It was also very hard to test for that given the small size of our team and resources.

Less than 1% of all requests to Forumwarz fail, so the majority of players can play through it without any problems. But we're still committed to making things better.

Is the option for users to generate their own content proving popular?

RW: Very much. Our biggest problem with ForumBuildr v2.0 Beta is that people were creating too MUCH content, to the point where it was overwhelming for others to go through it all. We've just started a new system where each player is scored based on the quality of the content they provide, so good players are encouraged to submit more and players with many bad submissions are encouraged to submit less.

We're only on our second week of this new system so it will be interesting to see how it works in the long term. I imagine further tweaks will always be necessary.

Do you think the user generated content is going to prove an important factor in the longevity of the game?

RW: Absolutely. Unfortunately it takes us a really long time to create content. Our users will always be able to play through it faster than we can create it. So we need to have ways for them to have fun even while we're not adding much to the Forumwarz universe.

forumwarz.jpg How is the development of Episode 2 coming along? Have you had to speed it up at all, given the response from users?

RW: It's coming along. We've definitely created some great content for it and I think people will really like it if we can deliver everything we want to. Having said that, if anything it's been slowed down due to our huge response from our users.

You mean you feel pressure to take on board everything you're hearing?

RW: Well, actually I disregard the majority of what I hear. I get hundreds of emails a day, and there's no way I could get to everything. In terms of supporting Episode 1, I try to address the areas that are causing users the most pain. Also, I try to add the features that I think will bolster the community.

It's very important that the current Forumwarz build runs smoothly and that people continue to have fun. As the only full time developer I've been spending a lot of time enhancing that aspect of things and so far I think people really appreciate it.

Is there a date that you're working at hitting?

RW: No comment!

Have you had commercial interest in the game?

RW: In what respect?

Well, I guess in terms of people showing an interest in the workings of the game, and in terms of using the model for something commercial. I think the game model would work pretty well on something like the DS or PSP - especially in terms of the way the story progresses.

RW: I think that there is a lot of room for big publishers to create web games. If we can create a game on a shoestring budget with a tiny team and get 30k users, imagine what a publisher could do with a decent sized team and their marketing resources.

There's a reason why downloadable games like Xbox Live, PSN and WiiWare are so popular with developers: the games don't cost $10M+ to develop. The barrier of entry for commercial games these days is so huge, it's no wonder that big publishers are looking for some way to alleviate that risk.

Also consider this: there is no certification process for web games, and a huge installed user base - think about how many web browsers there are in the world. Patches can be deployed within minutes. Sure, your interface is a lot more primitive, but there's a lot that can be done.

I wouldn't be surprised if some major companies started looking at web games seriously. Then again, predicting the future is a dangerous thing to do...

Could you see yourself licensing the technology to other companies or developers?

RW: I feel that the Forumwarz game engine is very specific to the game we've built in it. Having said that, if someone had a good idea for how to implement a different sort of game using it I'd love to hear it.

We do have at least one upcoming feature for Episode 2 that will be purposely more "licensable." So it's something we're considering on the side, but not actively.

I'm guessing that's something you're not going to expand upon, huh?

RW: It's not our goal to be a licensing company, but we'll certainly think about it as we go on!


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