Aug 16 2010

Blizzard Wins Big

Slashdot reported on the case of a company running an unauthorised WoW server who got flattened by Blizzard to the tune of 88 million dollars and change. The case was not contested and the judgement boils down to 63K for legal expenses, 3 million as the estimated earnings of the WoW freeshard and the other 85 million is statutory damages. To put that into perspective, that’s about as much money as would be required to build an entirely new game on the scale of World of Warcraft with a team of experienced and motivated veterans.

Freeshards aren’t new of course and neither for that matter is Blizzard’ s itchy legal triggerfinger. When I was working for Dark Age of Camelot, there were many unofficial servers that I was aware of for that game that all changed the game in fundamental ways according to the whims and technical ability of their owners. The usual claim is that the server code is reverse engineered rather than being copied thus there is no copyright infringement, having seen how complex and expansive the code for an AAA MMO is I’m not convinced that this is possible within the timescales that these servers generally begin to pop up. I think there probably is some reverse engineering going on, but I’d be prepared to bet that the first wave of freeshards for a game are accomplished with leaked code. That would be piracy which I am fairly heavily against.

Most of these freehsards of course aren’t making anyone any money Ms Reeves on the other hand netted 3 million dollars or so from her private server which rather changes the terrain a bit and makes it a hard sell to defend her as a figurehead for how code wants to be free.

May 28 2010

How Not To Do Community

I’ve seen this linked around a few forums and blogs that I read. I’ll give the props to Quarter to Three because that’s where I saw it first.

Now what we have here is a policy initiative by the Republican party in the US to collect policy suggestions. They launched the America Speaking Out website where anyone can suggest policy ideas over a wide range of different topics including energy, defence, American values and so forth. Before I go on, I’m going to say that this isn’t a political blog and I have no intention of making it one. I do have deeply held political views but they aren’t relevant here. This is me critiquing the concept as a community guy.

On the surface it appears to be a good idea – engage with the greater public in a big open forum to let people bring forwards ideas for consideration. No arguments there from me. The more that voters are challenged to think through the consequences of their opinions the less likely they are to hold bad ones. Additionally, the more that legislators engage with their electorate the more they should be in tune with their concerns and issues. When it comes to democracy and giving your target audience a stake in the larger process I’m all for that whether we are talking about the players of a game or the voters in a country.

The issue is in the execution (as it so often is). What we have here is basically a huge noise machine. You know that 500 page thread on the main forums that started with a blue response and now players use it as a ‘Will the devs ever do X?’ thread? This is that thread. What the GOP are finding (and as anyone who has ever been a part of any online community ever could have told them) is that there are a whole lot more bored people on the internet who will ride your idea down into terminal, blazing hilarity than there are earnest and conscientious posters who once had a good idea about something and would like you to consider it.  Naturally in this case given the target and the visibility, the site has become a magnet for either actual loons who want to deport the President, go back to using gold for currency and start enslaving black people again, bored trolls who are posting parody worthy of The Onion, or idealogues who want to tell the GOP how much they disagree with their platform and who somehow think that their incisive comment is going to shame the party into a 180º policy reversal.

As a community manager I know that feedback is only as useful as the filters you apply to it. If all you want is static, then this is a great way to generate that. If you want an actual debate and to have honest conversations on various topics then you need to set things up to produce that result. You must frame the question in advance, lay out all the relevant information and then ask your community to participate in that conversation. When it takes off you need to stay with it, keep it on track, prune out derails, unconstructive posts and actual misinformation so that the people who are involved get a higher quality of discourse and you get a higher quality of feedback. It’s like tending a garden – you won’t get much of anything unless you prepare the ground properly and care for your plants as they grow. A big online suggestion box basically fulfils the same purpose as an open field that you can yell in for a bit whenever you feel like yelling. This is why games often run focus tests in the mid beta period and why the best games are often the ones with the most closely managed beta programs. If you only rarely see your community manager on the beta forums and there’s no serious attempt to solicit specific feedback on critical topics then I’d be suspicious of the importance of the beta to the final launch.

I suspect that this will continue to be a theme as we move on.

Nov 26 2009

Everyone’s a Critic

Or at least I wish they were.

Today’s rumblings are inspired by a post made by Gav Thorpe on his blog about criticism. He’s specifically talking about criticism of his work as a writer and how he reacts to that but a lot of what he says is applicable to other fields and especially the field of community management.

In case you don’t know, Gav is a former Games Workshop games developer who is now a freelance author. While he was at GW he wrote Codex: Chaos Space Marines (an army supplement for one of the popular Warhammer 40,000 factions) which launched to mixed reactions amongst the notoriously passionate fans of Warhammer 40k. Nowadays he earns a crust by writing fiction for GW’s publishing imprint Black Library as well as for more mainstream publishers. His post on criticism is clearly a result of the huge amount of feedback readers of his blog decided to give him about the Chaos Space Marines.

So, what does this all have to do with computer games?

Well, firstly criticism is criticism. The kind of things that are useful for an author to hear about his work are also useful to a games designer. Collecting and analysing criticism is also a large part of the job of a community manager (a hat I wore for several years). Generally people are pretty bad at providing criticism for a variety of reasons, many people are also bad at receiving it for entirely different reasons. We’ll address those people later.

Giving criticism is something that a lot of people are not comfortable with. While they may have deeply held opinions, it can be hard to express those opinions without sounding hostile or rude, thus many people prefer to stay silent and keep what would otherwise be useful feedback to themselves. Not all opinions are negative of course, but the ones you hear almost always will be. This is because things that meet your expectations tend not to incite you to write about them. If things are simply ‘ok’ then we smile and move on, things have to be significantly outside of our expectation zone before we are moved to comment on them. This is usually manifested in gaming circles as a rule where, for every person posting in a 200 page threadnaught on your game forums, there are several hundred people playing the game quite happily oblivious to this apparently all consuming issue.

Another problem with criticism is that people are always right when they say what they do or don’t like but are usually almost always wrong when they try to describe it. This is because it’s easy to get hung up on symptoms without thinking through the issues to identify the actual problem causing them. A large part of being a successful community manager is listening to problems that are described by the players and trying to determine what it is that they are actually complaining about rather than what it is that they are saying.

Taking feedback can be difficult for other reasons. Gav mentions confirmation bias and that’s certainly a problem that needs to be confronted. It’s not always so much of a problem in games where a team is responsible rather than an individual but it certainly still exists. A bigger problem is enabling useful feedback at all. Most games companies run forums for fans to discuss the product, most have a community team to filter the useful nuggets from the vast seas of noise and most have some kind of feedback form or CS ticketing system for more direct contact. All of that by itself doesn’t make people want to tell you the things you need them to be saying though. Companies should be training their customers to give feedback effectively, the tools to do so should be seamless and it should be regularly solicited. If spamming customers sounds bad then incentivise it instead, reward those who tell you what they think and encourage quality over quantity. Ask people to think about your product and give you those thoughts, help them to frame them and give them the tools to do so easily.

In all the projects I’ve worked on, getting quality commentary has always been the hardest part of my job. I wish people would express their opinions more.

May 7 2009

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye

The drama du jour is served up by the combination of Darkfall (srs bzns PvP MMO) and (mostly solid games news site). I’d imagine if you’re reading this that you are already likely acquainted with the affair but for those of you who may have missed it, the summary goes as follows:

  • Eurogamer review Darkfall and give it a very unflattering review.
  • Darkfall devs complain publicly about the quality of the review on their forum. Highlights of the complaint are that, according to their logs, the reviewer only spent 2 hours playing the game and most of that was in character creation.
  • Eurogamer responds, standing by their reviewer and his review but offer to re-review it with a different staff member.
  • Darkfall comes right back with another post in which they’re very clear that they don’t want insinuate that Eurogamer are lying but this is somewhat disingenuous as they all but state outright that they believe this to be the case.
  • Finally, the whole event comes to a (temporary?) close when the Darkfall devs categorically refuse a re-review from Eurogamer. Their rationale seems to be a little patchy however, they claim they don’t want the game to be re-reviewed because the old review will stay up until the new review is complete, but of course if the game isn’t re-reviewed then the old review will stand regardless. It’s a puzzle.

The review, is of course very hostile and is apparently factually inaccurate in some areas, what’s interesting is that none of the meatier criticisms of the game are unique to this article. Tasos rails that the reviewer didn’t give it a fair shake of the stick and was clearly biased against the game, but there are no new things being said in this article that haven’t already been pointed out by other reviewers. While Tasos and the Darkfall fans are complaining about the minutiae, the takeaway from the article is hard to dispute. Is it accurate? Possibly not. Does it accurately convey Mr Zitron’s feelings about the game? Very probably.

Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about Darkfall particularly but rather the relationship between the gaming press and the industry they cover.

Continue reading

Apr 24 2009

Who Cares What You Write?

So Cuppycake asked a question that she thought would be controversial, namely ‘Are games designers who blog worth reading?’ Not particularly surprisingly (except to Ms Baribeau apparently), the answer was a resounding ‘depends’.

Now clearly I have a horse in this race as a games designer who blogs and so you should definitely be listening to me. It’s posited that there are 3 kinds of design blog (Scott Jennings adds a fourth in the comments):

  1. Ivory tower theoreticians
  2. Enthusiastic amateurs
  3. Guys who know what they’re doing and show a good example

(Scott’s fourth category was ‘Guys who know what they’re doing but prefer to spew bile becasue it’s more entertaining than playing nicely”).

For what it’s worth the blogs I read regularly are all linked in the sidebar to the right and the vast majority of them are in category 3 with a few of Lum’s category 4s for the slow news days and you should read them too.

Once you’ve visited here of course.

Apr 16 2009

And Lo the Seventh Seal was Opened!

Two updates in three days? Surely the End Times are upon us!

I’ve been toying with the idea for a while and I finally decided that I’d launch a separate blog for my wargaming and miniature painting exploits. If you’re interested in that kind of thing then head on over to Stormy Teacups where you can keep up with my adventures at German and international wargaming tournaments as well as see my collection of painted miniatures grow very slowly indeed (unlike my collection of unpainted miniatures which grows at an alarming rate…).

I’ll still be updating this with all the clockwork regularity that you’ve come to expect but I figure splitting the wargames stuff off from the video games industry waffle was a good move. Comments and feedback are much appreciated on either site!

Apr 14 2009

New Gaff

So here is my new site. Bear with me while I slap some paint over it and fix up some rough edges.

Please update all your bookmarks and RSS feeds to this new URL and make sure you comment if you have something to say. I’m a little busy to make a real post at the moment but I’m always up for suggestions if there’s something you’d really like to talk about here. Leave a comment below if you have feedback, suggestions or just generally want to say hi on the internet.