February 24, 2010

Grizzled Advice from Business & Legal Primer for Game Development

[Two years ago, I wrote up  a few lessons for inclusion in Business & Legal Primer for Game Development. I’d always meant to cross-post it here and was surprised to see I hadn’t already when I went looking for it to share with the folks over at PlayNoEvil in reply to a recent post. – Randy]

Here are three top-line lessons for those considering designing their own MMORG or latest Facebook game for that matter…

1.  Design Hubris Wastes Millions

Read all the papers/books/blogs written by your predecessors that you can – multi-user game designers are pretty chatty about their successes and failures. Pay close attention to their failures – try not to duplicate those. Believe it or not, several documented failures have been repeated over and over in multiple games, despite these freely available resources.

If you are going to ignore one of the lessons of those who went before, presumably because you think you know a better way, do it with your eyes wide open and be ready to change to plan B if your innovation doesn’t work out the way you expected. If you want to hash your idea out before committing it to code, consider consulting with the more experienced designers – they post on Terra Nova (http://blogs.terranova.com/) and talk to budding designers on the Mud-Dev (http://www.kanga.nu/) mailing list, amongst other places. Many of them respond pretty positively to direct contact via email – just be polite and ask your question clearly – after all, they are busy building their own worlds.

2.  Beta Testers != Paying Customers

One recurring error in multi-user game testing is the problem of assuming that Beta users of a product will behave like real customers would. They don’t, for several reasons:

A.  Beta testing is a status symbol amongst their peers

“I’m in the ZYXWorld Limited Beta!” is a bragging right. Since it has street-cred value, this leads the user to be on their best behavior. They will grief much less. They will share EULA breaking hacks with each other much less. They will harass much less. They won’t report duping bugs. The eBay aftermarket for goods won’t exist. In short, anything that would get them kicked out of the beta won’t happen anywhere near as often as when the product is released.

B.  Beta testers aren’t paying.

Paying changes everything. During the Beta, the users work for you. When you release the game, you are working for them. Now some users will expect to be allowed to do all sorts of nasty things that they would never had done during the Beta. Those who were Beta users (and behaved then) will start to exploit bugs they found during the test period, but never reported. Bad beta users save up bugs, so they could use them after your product’s release to gain an edge over the new users, to dupe gold, or to just crash your server to show off to a friend.

So, you’re probably wondering; How do I get my Beta testers to show me what life on my service will really be like and to help me find the important bugs/exploits/crashes before I ship? Here are some strategies that worked for projects I worked on:

Crash Our World: Own up to the fact that Beta testers work for you and they do it for the status – incentivize the finding of crash/dup/exploit bugs that you want them to find. Give them a t-shirt for finding one. Put their portrait on the Beta Hall Of Fame page. Give them a rare in-world item that they can carry on into general release. Drop a monument in the world, listing the names of the testers that submitted the most heinous bugs. Turn it into a contest. Make it more valuable to report a bug than to keep it secret.

Pay-ta: Run a Paid Beta phase (after Crash Our World) to find out how users will interact with each other socially (or using your in-game social/communications features.) During this phase of testing you will get better results about which social features to prioritize/fix for release. Encourage and/or track the creation of fan communities, content databases, and add-ons – it will help you understand what to prepare for, as well as build word-of-mouth marketing.  But, keep in mind that there is one thing you can never really test in advance: How your user community will socially scale. As the number of users grows, the type of user will diversify. For most games, the hard-core gamers come first and the casual players come later. Be sure to have a community manager whose job it is to track customer sentiment and understand the main player groups. How your community scales will challenge your development priorities and the choices you make will have you trading off new-customer acquisition vs. veteran player retention.

3.  There Are No Game Secrets, Period

Thanks to the internet – in-game puzzles are solved for everyone at the speed of the fastest solver. Read about “The D’nalsi Island” adventure in Lucasfilm’s Habitat where the players consumed hundreds of development hours in only tens of minutes.

The Lesson? Don’t count on secrets to hold up for long. Instead, treat game walk-thru websites as a feature to be embraced instead of the bane of your existence. “But,” you’ll say, “I could create a version of my puzzle that is customized (randomized) for every user! That will slow them down!”  Don’t bother; it will only upset your users.

The Tragedy of the Tapers

Consider the example of the per-player customized spell system in the original Asheron’s Call (by Turbine, Inc.): Each magic spell was designed to consume various types of several resources: scarabs, herbs, powders, potions, and colored tapers. The designers thought it would be great to have the users actually learn the spells by having to discover them through experimentation. The formula was different for every spell and the tapers were different for every user.

One can just hear the designer saying “That’ll fix those Internet spoilers! With this system, they each have to learn their own spells!” But, instead of feeling enjoyment, the players became frustrated with what seemed to be nothing other than a waste of their time and resources burning spell components as they were compelled to try the complete set of exponential combinations of tapers for no good reason.

What was interesting is that the users got frustrated enough to actually figure out the exact method of generating the random seed to determine the tapers for each user as follows:

Second Taper = (SEED * [ Talisman + (Herb + 3) + ((Powder + Potion) * 2) + (Scarab – 2) ] ) mod 12

[Modified from Jon Krueger’s web page on the subject.]

The players put this all into a client plug-in to remove the calculation overhead, and were now able to correctly formulate the spells the very first time they tried. Unfortunately, this meant that new users (who didn’t know about the plug-in) were likely to have a significantly poorer experience than veterans.

To Turbine’s credit, they revised the game in its second year to remove the need for most of the spell components and created rainbow tapers, which worked for all users in all spells, completely canceling the original per-player design.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into that spell system. The users made a large chunk of that effort obsolete very quickly, and Turbine then had to pay for more development and testing to undo their design.

Learn from Turbine’s mistake; Focus on making your game fun even if the player can look up all the answers in a database or a plug-in.

Don’t start a secrecy arms-war with your user. You’ll lose. Remember: There are more of them than you and collectively they have more time to work on your product than you do.

One Comment

The “I Wish I Knew” chapter was definitely one of my favorites from my book. I think in the long term it’s probably the one that’s the most useful, as business and legal details certainly change over time. Advice like this, however, lasts much longer.

Anyone interested in the book can see more details over on my blog.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, your comment may need to be approved by the site owners before it will appear. Thanks for waiting.)