So what, you may ask, has got my panties all in a wad? Why am I going off about easy steps to game development. Well I’ll tell you and this won’t be pretty. Thomas K.A. “Dreadflame” Stitch is a programmer for Wolfpack Studios. Before he worked on Shadowbane he was a programmer for Alzheimer’s research. A noble and worthwhile endeavor. It doesn’t exactly make one an expert on MMOGs. In any case he’s published two of his “Five Keys to a Successful MMOG.” I respectfully submit he doesn’t know. He’s got some good ideas. No doubt about it.

Hell, everyone has good ideas. But no one knows what the keys to a successful MMOG are. If they did — they’d be churning them out like wildfire going through dry brush. If they did — Shadowbane would, no doubt, not be over a year behind their first projected beta date (which, by the way, starts today). If they did, we wouldn’t have to keep revising the expected release date of every MMOG in development today. Making MMOGs is HARD and EXPENSIVE. Good ideas, when actually put into development, turn out to be a game developer’s worst nightmare. “It seemed like a good idea at the time” never applied so aptly to any genre like it does to MMOG design.

So what are some of my specific objections? I thought you’d never ask. Lets start at the beginning.

Dreadflame sez: “Give the players what they want.”

OK. Hedron wants to PVP. These people want to PK. These people just want to make other people unhappy. LOH wants to build player cities. I could go for a good loaf of bread myself. My man Arcadian just wants to play with his hat. Reconcile these playstyles.

Player races are all very well and good. But UO doesn’t have player races and its a very successful MMOG. Player strongholds are good too. But AC doesn’t even have bank boxes and it is a successful MMOG. You can’t please everyone. You can’t! To think you can is madness. You can try to create some sort of happy medium but that’s about the best one can achieve in this field.

Dreadflame sez: “Underlying this is good customer service. Any intense roleplaying situation will have people high-strung, and you do not want to ban somebody just because they were cutting people down as their evil armies rode into town. A world needs its villains, so long as they exist within a reasonable framework of the game and its fiction.

“Because of grief players, designers must exercise great caution in creating checks and balances on player ability to influence the world. If something can be exploited or used to needlessly aggravate other players, somebody is probably going to try it.”

Players in UO have been mostly banned for exploiting. Players in EQ have been banned for everything under the sun EXCEPT player killing — given that you can’t, you know, PK in EQ. Players in AC have been banned for — you guessed it — exploiting (despite Turbine’s comments to the contrary). I suppose if someone makes enough of a nuisance out of player killing that s/he causes many others to quit then that player has been banned. Somehow I can’t really feel sorry for that player. But really, PKing is not the cause of most banning. Exploiting bugs are. So lets talk about bugs in MMOGs.

You can’t put out a bug-free MMOG. You can’t. It hasn’t been done yet and it never will be. A 20-person QA department simply cannot match the destructive power of two-hundred-thousand players. All major software releases have large amounts of bugs in it. Air traffic control systems have large amounts of bugs. What they don’t have are two hundred thousand people trying to break or exploit it. Lest you doubt me consider this quote from First Monday “Computer systems that are vital to public safety and welfare are operating with closed, commercial code, which is loaded with unknown (and unknowable) bugs. Consider the USS Norfolk lying dead in the water for two hours after the failure of its onboard NT systems, and you’ll get the idea.” Or this one from SD Times “Today, our primary defense against buggy software is testing. And therein lies the fundamental problem: Testing takes too long, is too manual-intensive, doesn\’e2\’80\’99t find all the bugs, and is typically only performed at the end of the development cycle. A study by Capers Jones reports that even the best software development organizations are only 85 percent effective in removing bugs. A report by The Standish Group is even more dismal: The \’e2\’80\’9ctypical\’e2\’80\’9d testing effort identifies only 30 to 40 percent of defects present.”

To expect any MMOG to put out a bug-free product is setting yourself up for failure. The very best a game company can do is fix the bugs quickly and deal swiftly and harshly with exploiters. Making statements that exploiters should not be banned is as irresponsible as not fixing them swiftly. It encourages exploitation.

Never mind that this is the exact demographic that Shadowbane marketed itself to for the first year of its existence. Consider this quote from Ronald MacDonald’s website from about a year ago: “I looked at your sites, actually. No conventional game company would ever consider including you as a part of their marketing campaign. For this reason alone, we’re excited to work with you. I firmly believe that we have the opportunity to make our own mistakes, while at the same time introducing the net to an entirely new breed of asshole… if you guys want to cover us, lemme know what I can do to help. — Warden, Wolfpack”

I know the story has changed somewhat but revisionist history irritates me. Wolfpack’s attitude now is that pointing at the huge hulking beast called “Dewdicus Rex” waiting to enter the game is impolite. Or bad marketing. Or they need more players than Dewdicus Rex can provide. Or something. I refer you to my key #1 — The game must be profitable.

I look forward to the rest of Dreadflame’s Keys to Success. However he may want to consider the words of someone with just a little bit more experience in the field. Someone like this gal.