This Is My Rant. There Are Many Rants Like It. This One Is Mine.

A dirty little secret I have is that I am a really poor public speaker. It’s hard sometimes for me to justify free tickets to trade shows when my speaking style usually consists of muttering softly at a table. I’m trying to get better, but one benefit (for you anyway) is that I actually script out pretty closely what I’m going to say to keep myself on topic.

So, then, this is the talk (with a few improvisations) I gave this afternoon. I’m told it was somewhat popular.

Huh, so now I get to rant about MMOs, hm? This is so against my personality type, so bear with me.

My rant today is on I call “Service after the Sale” – the work of an MMO provider after the game has shipped. Traditionally this has been an afterthought, which is strange, considering that monthly fees are where MMOs make their profit. Many of my examples here will use World of Warcraft, because, honestly, it’s the game most of you are playing, and I have to marshal my limited energy for reminding clueless mass media reporters that other MMOs exist.

The first component in successful service is a good GM staff. Customer service reps, the thin blue line. Your game’s technical support staff, police force, early warning system, and on call psychologists. All rolled into one. Also usually the lowest paid people at your company, assuming you haven’t just completely given up and farmed the whole problem off to an outsourcing company in India. World of Warcraft scores high marks here through hiring an absolutely astounding number of GMs. They were recently quoted as having 1,300 CSRs… a 1/5000 CSR to customer ratio. You’re never going to hear anyone in WoW complaining “Gosh, it took 12 hours to get to my ticket.” Unless it’s patch day.

Which leads us into patches. Content released after the game has shipped. You absolutely have to introduce regular content as part of the game’s monthly subscription fee. It’s part of why you get to charge a monthly subscription fee. And if you don’t, you WILL regret it. Players\’e2\’80\’a6 sorry, customers are like ravenous locusts. Without enough to eat, they will do whatever angry locusts do. My guess: very angry MySpace pages with MP3s of loud buzzing.

However, all the patching in the world won’t help if you can’t download them. WoW just had a patch a few weeks ago, and as usual their patch distribution system failed. This may be because their patch distribution system is best described as “let’s make something so frustrating people will just host the patches for us.” This is unacceptable. In fact it amazes me that WoW’s peer-to-peer patch distribution system has become accepted practice. Part of our core business as an MMO provider is providing the MMO. Patches are a part of this. In essentially abdicating this responsibility, Blizzard has created a dangerous precedent. The fact is, this speaks to the strength of WoW’s game design, that people will go to great lengths to work past this horrendous level of service. I personally have a fileplanet subscription, solely so I can reliably download WoW patches for my family and friends. This speaks for itself, both in WoW’s failure to deliver this core component, and in my sad, sad addiction as a player. The primary task of an MMO provider is, again, to provide the MMO.

Another part of “providing the MMO” is just being there, if your server is available to accept connections, if I can play without waiting in line, or being locked in place while trying to pick up loot bags. This is as core a competency as you can get. If you can’t keep a server up, perhaps you should consider another vocation, such as bowling or politics. There are many things customers will put up with, but not being able to play is fairly important. Plus it makes you look like an idiot to your customers. Believe me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to look like an idiot in front of your customers. You don’t need to build in that feature.

The last part of MMO service is quite simple: respect. Respect for your customers. This is communicated in many ways; by the tone your community relations people set when trying to put out the latest fire set by your designer who thought posting on the official boards would be cool and keep up his street cred. By the CSRs that manage to convince the customer that they’re not just punching keyboard macros instead of talking to them. And by the management when they manage not to mine the customers for every dollar they can through “special services” or “unique servers” or “item sales” or “premade characters” or my favorite, sticking in-game advertising in the game the customers are already paying YOU for. Because, you know, I’m not sure what soda I drink, so I had better see a reminder when I log into my favorite MMO.

So the worst example of this I’ve seen is from an announcement earlier this week from Dave Perry and Acclaim. They’ve recently announced that they’re going to change the MMO business model through this key, great concept: (pause) tiny classified ads. Or the Web 2.0 equivalent: ad banners on screen all the time, that you can turn off, except then you gain experience at half speed. This is so brilliant, Dave Perry has patented it. Really. Because irritating ad banners are something the market’s just going to be all over.. but he beat you to them first! But wait! That’s not all! Perry also stated that if you buy an item online – because games are just all over gold farmers in their games, you know – they’ll check to see if Coca Cola will buy it for you! Then you can get a magic sword made by Coca Cola! Won’t that be cool! Won’t that be totally immersive and not break with the story you’ve created at all! Let’s not stop there! Let’s just make it so every time you loot a kobold, you can loot Skittles! And then you can follow them to a rainbow of fruit flavor enjoyment for all, and the dragons of JetBlue will fly you there! It’s a magical wonderland of consumerism!

When you totally disrespect your customers like that, I can assure you of one thing: your project will fail. And deservedly so. And that’s my rant.