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Managing An Online Game Post-Launch


May 21, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Now the real work begins.

Okay, you've launched; now what? It may surprise you to learn that, if you're to be a success, 90% of the work to be done on this game is still ahead of you. Anyone can build a persistent world (PW); maintaining technical stability and managing it effectively are the hard tasks. Just ask any developer who has launched a game since 1996 which was harder - development or post-launch management.

If you ask most developers with experience on an online game about launch and game management scenarios, you're likely to hear about a scenario similar to the following:

  • Millions of dollars of development money have been flowing out of the company coffers for two, three, or four years.
  • The announced launch date has come and gone between one and three times meaning the game is already six months to a year overdue.
  • The people who write the checks and would like to see a return on their money are putting pressure on the development team to get the damn thing out the door already.
  • The developers decide to cut a bunch of features that have been promised to the players, including features already listed on the back or inside cover of the retail box.
  • Even by cutting a bunch of features, there are hundreds of bugs still to be fixed, but the money guys order the box shipped and the game launched.
  • The game is hugely unstable, the servers and client crash constantly, features are missing or don't work as promised, and the team is working 20-hour days to try to catch up.
  • The players are up in arms and ready to hand the developers in effigy.
  • Bad word of mouth circulates about the game, killing subscriptions and sales.
  • The development team members start printing resumes on the company printers and faxing them to the competition on the company fax machines.

Once the launch period has come and gone, it is time to settle in for the long haul of managing the game. That starts with understanding the players.

Barbarians, Tribesmen, and Citizens

One of the biggest issues you'll have to contend with is the players or, rather your relationship with them. This issue is unavoidable. You must manage player expectations, have respect for your players, and listen to them as well. You can and should care deeply about them, too. After all, these are your customers. Every time they log into your game, they make a decision. With a few clicks of the mouse, they choose to continue supporting you.

The player issue will cause an unsuspecting developer more grief than anything else he or she can imagine. This is definitely not for the faint of heart. You may pay for, design, and create a world, but at the end of the day, if you want people to pay you their dollars, yen, and francs to play in it, sear this fact into your brain:

It isn't your game; it's the player's game.

Developers spend years focused on making a game. If they're not careful, this will breed certain assumptions, such as the world they created will remain their world and the players will play the game the way the creators want it played.

That will not happen. Players have their own motivations and objectives. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people with different personalities-yet there are only 30 or so people who make a game. When a game goes live, the developers have to view it as a new game and a partnership with the players to make that world thrive. To do this, the developers need to understand who the players are, why they show up, and what makes them stay.

Who Am I?

The psychological makeup of hundreds of thousands of players could be broken down into any number of groupings and categories to help explain behavior and objectives.
For the purposes of this book, we'll simplify and break it into three broad categories.

Players who don't fall into one of these three areas are usually considered "general" players. General players are fairly neutral. They obey the rules, play the game, and might help out when they see someone who needs help. They aren't nasty and they aren't pillars of your community. They're regular "Joes." It's important to note that there is gray area between these types. The categories that follow are generalizations. Please don't expect all your players to neatly line up into the areas we've listed. It won't happen that neatly, we promise.

Barbarians

The barbarians are the "problem children" of online gaming. Their objectives vary, but one thing is consistent: They don't care what you or anyone else thinks.

Barbarians don't care about your intricately conceived game mechanics or your well thought-out player justice and accountability systems, or whether or not exploiting a bug is cheating. These are the "griefers," players who love the anonymity of the Internet and whose main enjoyment comes from ruining other players' experiences.

They are the bug exploiters who don't care if duplicating gold, weapons, armor, or whatever requires them to flood attack your routers and crash a server. It doesn't bother them that thousands of others have their game interrupted.

Barbarians are the cheaters, script kiddies, account hackers, client hackers, and "k&wl d00ds," whose objectives are not socialization with friends in a game, but making sure they and their small group of other social misfits can giggle behind their hands as they stare at the monitor, happy to have caused heartache and pain to someone else.

Identifying barbarians is a critical task, one easier said than done. PWs, or those with servers under company control, have the advantage of logging activity. Problems can be verified and dealt with at a later time. In free-play peer-to-peer games, such as Diablo II or Age of Empires, it is almost impossible. The collective intelligence of client hackers and the anonymity of the Internet make it difficult for a developer to take action. This is why peer-to-peer games have such poor attendance online compared to sales; when the client hacks show up, the honest players give up in disgust. The same is true for PWs when bad behavior goes unchecked.

For some, the raw intensity of the "virtual psychopath" that many barbarians represent can be refreshing in its novelty. At first, some who encounter them react as though they are cute online versions of Hannibal Lecter. Soon after meeting barbarians, they notice what is missing from the comparison: education, erudition, and the ability to function in society. In fiction, Dr. Lecter's victims had some reason for becoming his entrees. Barbarians will eat your customers without any provocation or remorse. They are more akin to the mass murderer in the Richard Pryor movie who, when asked why he murdered all those people, replied, "They was home." Barbarians are a statistically small group. However, they do a lot of damage to games.

Reroute them or get them out of the game. It's that simple. The only players who will shed a tear at the banishment of griefers are other griefers.

The bottom line: Barbarians will drive customers away faster than Attila could jump on his horse.

Tribesmen

The objective of the tribesmen is to ensure that they and their personal micro-community (guild, team, squadron, clan, or Saturday morning coffee and killing club) have a great time. They are very team-oriented; it is not unusual for them to call each other in the early morning hours to get the tribe online for some objective. They help each other out, and at times, are pillars of the community, helping new players and generally trying to be a resource.

They can still cause problems in-game. For example, tribesmen have no trouble organizing "camping" parties. This is much like the big kids staking out the basketball court and not letting anyone else play. They put groups of players in an area and prevent others from utilizing it. This way, only the tribe reaps the benefits.

If another tribe or player annoys them, they can organize quickly and for long periods to attempt to drive that tribe or player out of the game. The tribe may use a variety of intimidation tactics. The goal: Make the game unplayable for the group or person they are angry with; in other words, drive them out.

Group dynamics can cause people to view rules differently. What players might not think is acceptable as individuals can change when it's for the good of the tribe. There can be a bit of mob mentality. If something is seen as an affront to the tribe, you could wind up with an entire group retaliating against the game, breaking rules as a way of fighting back, or the whole group may decide to pack up and move to another game.

There is beneficial power to the tribe as well. When happy, the entire tribe stays where it is. Listen to your tribes. Give them tools to facilitate group management and communication.

Keep in mind that your tribe leaders are your political lifeblood in the game. They influence large groups. If you disrespect them, you can turn entire tribes into barbarians.

Citizens

The citizen is the crown jewel of any online game. Think of these players as the good people you know in the real world. In a game setting, these are the people most likely to take new players under their wing, take part in role-playing events, lend their in-game cash and resources to a greater cause, and always have a civil word for passersby.

Moreover, they are willing to obey the rules and play the game "realistically" (according to your vision) and in-character and encourage others to do so as well. Their objectives are to create a legend for themselves, but not at the expense of the game or other players. They want the whole game and all the players to survive and thrive within the world you've created.

The citizen usually strives to become a community leader. If there is no political or diplomatic portion to the game, they'll create one from whole cloth and convince others to participate. They become player advocates, game advocates, and at times, can create around themselves a cult of personality that becomes more vibrant and important than the game itself.

Citizens are pure gold. They keep others in the game. Please remember that the citizens deserve your attention. They aren't your squeaky wheels (like your problem children), and it's easy to overlook them. Attention given to the citizens has a huge impact on the world. It benefits the entire community. Do not fall into the trap we've faced before where you spend so much time responding to the fires caused by your problem players that your good players feel neglected. Over time, the neglected good players become barbarians themselves.

We've been there and we've done it. It hurts the game. Learn from our mistakes.

Now What?

Now that you know the three broad categories, what do you do about them? When it comes to barbarians and upstart tribes, two words are key: logs and reports.

Create logs for everything you can. Log player transactions and transfers above a certain size, character traveling speeds, player inventories, you name it. This is the best method you have for catching cheaters, dupers, speed hackers, and other exploiters.

As an illustration of how this can save you plenty of time and heartache, Damion Schubert, former lead designer for the groundbreaking M59, tells this story from his 1996 experiences:

"I had coded guilds into M59 over the weekend, shortly before we were supposed to go gold. It was a rush job, but I took uncommon care and felt pretty confident that I had implemented something that was fairly bug-free. So imagine my consternation when a group of players told me something was totally broken."

"One aspect of guilds was the guild halls. Players could conquer another player's guild hall by sneaking into the guild hall and flipping a switch. If it wasn't unflipped inside of 10 minutes, that guild hall was considered conquered. The key - the only way to sneak in was if you snuck in the front door behind a player who belonged to the guild. Once inside, it was trivial to open the door, allowing the rest of your guild in. This simple design was such to ensure that players could only conquer guild halls while the defenders were actually online."

"Except that the guild members yelling at me were swearing up and down that no one was online when their hall was taken over."

"The way they figured it, the math was simple. They had 10 members; all 10 of them swore up and down that they hadn't entered the hall in the last day, nor had they gotten the ominous "Your guild hall is being raided!" message. I began to crack open code, pore over logs, and try to calm them down. Unfortunately, none of them showed me anything wrong."

"Until one of the guild members, one who had been quiet up until this point, took pity on me. She sent me a private message saying, "It's not broken." She went on to explain that she had waited until the rest of the guild was offline, then she opened the door for another guild. I understand she got 30 pieces of silver for her trouble."

"With that news, I coughed and told the assembled angry mob that I had explored all available information and discerned that the takeover was in fact legal and that there was no bug. I refused to give more information than that. I never found out if they discovered the Judas in their ranks."

"As for me, I learned my lesson: LOG EVERYTHING, and offer a robust system for reviewing the logs. When hunting down bugs and/or reviewing player cries of foul, nothing makes the job of the GM easier than knowing that he/she has perfect information and can state with 100% accuracy when a player isn't telling the whole truth."


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