Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Interactions with and by the community, Part 2

Let's look at a couple of representative interaction with the fanbase.

Love it or hate it, PvP, like PvE is large part of why people play MMOs. Currently PvPers in SWTOR are pretty unhappy with the state of PvP. (See http://www.xamxamsays.com/?p=1473 for an excellent post about why folks are unhappy with PvP).

The combat team has been trying to interact with the PvP community and explain what they are doing. Recently they explained their thoughts http://www.swtor.com/community/showthread.php?p=8122355#edit8122355 on the success of Sentinels/Marauders. They followed up with http://www.swtor.com/community/showthread.php?p=8127209#edit8127209.

Reading these after the fact it looks like a reasonable position. The problem is that the second post is two days later. If combat team had posted those two items as a single post with a sentence saying something to the effect 'That's where we aim our balance efforts (win/loss ratio), but we understand many of you look to the leaderboards for evidence of overall class balance…' they would have headed off much of the two days of vitriol.

Bioware has to be the ones who connect the dots from how they view things to how the fans view things. By saying, yes, we see that issue too and are working to change it for the better Bioware acknowledges the concerns of the fanbase (and demonstrates they are listening to the fans, to boot!) No fanbase is going to like every answer, but when you are listened to you have a reason as a fan to stay engaged with the communication instead of just grumping about everything.

And, yes, talking about the leaderboard situation might be a bit Captain Obvious and repetitious for the combat team, but repetition is crucial in communicating with your fanbase. You never know when any particular fan is paying attention so you want to make sure you keep your messages out there.

The Cantina
Depending on your point of view, the cantina event at Star Wars Celebration was either a success or just another Bioware screwup. Given the event was designed to promote the game, Bioware did a poor job of communicating what they would be talking about[1] to they most-engaged fans.

It would have been much better if they had stated something like, 'The SWC cantina event is for us to promote the coming patch (3.2) to the wider Star Wars, non-SWTOR-playing audience. There will be a few new things, but don't expect to see any huge reveals at this time.' That alone would have helped set expectations properly for the engaged fans. (The fans that read the forums, follow blogs and websites, listen to podcasts, watch the videocasts and Twitch/Hitbox streams. Basically, your front line influencers/tastemakers.) Knowing that Bioware was using the event to try to expand the player base would have given the engage fans a chance to help out. As it was, the lack of knowledge simple stirred the dregs of disappointment as Bioware 'failed' to wow the existing involved player base with a cool roadmap.

That disappointment then bred cynicism with the Q&A portion of the event. While the questions weren't supposed to be vetted, they certainly gave the appearance of vetting. Vetting to the point of hearing the same questions asked once again (playable Wookies, anyone -.-). Whether or not the questions were vetted, Bioware should have announced that they did vette the questions. Vette them to add hard questions. If you are going to be accused of something, make it work for you.

Here's a couple of questions the fanbase perceived as hard and that were vetted out of being answered. I've included hypothetical answers;

[Hard question]: PvPers haven't had anything new in over a year. Could we at least get a new map? We've shied away from new maps because we didn't want to reduce the chance of you getting your favorite map. Until we can implement a solution for faster queue pops we don't want to mess with PvP in a possibly negative manner. If you want more maps with the risk of seeing the ones you like less, please sound off in our forums on the issue.

[Hard question]: Why are we getting an Outfit Designer when we have adaptive gear? Why not make everything adaptive and just give us a real Gear Manage instead? First, making everything adaptive would require us to go back and redo the rewards for all of the old quests. That's a non-trivial amount of development time that we prefer spend elsewhere. Secondly, we want to do a Gear Manager. If you considered the Outfit Designer as a first step to seeing what kind of load such a system might put on our databases then you might be thinking like we're thinking. That said, we've had many requests for the ability to use non-adaptive gear for cosmetic purposes. While recognize this adds yet another cosmetic system, this was the easiest way for us to go, development-wise.

Again, dealing with questions the fanbase thinks you are going to just ignore is a great way to start building credibility again.


From the fan base, a goal should be to continue to talk about improvements fans want in the game including possible solutions. While folks are frustrated at many parts of the state of the game, being constantly negative just gives the developers and the community team the excuse to tune you out. Be fair, if they get it right, say so. If they make a mistake, say why it is a mistake without being person. There are enough trolls in the forums, don't be one. A critical, but fair fan is more likely to rise above the noise of the trolls and have their signal heard.

Suggest solutions to problems you see. Bonus points if you explain why the solution is a win-win for both sides. Bioware is going to expect any solution a fan makes to be a win for the fan – it takes an unusual fan to suggest a needed nerf – but a fan that can show how the solution helps Bioware gives ammunition to the community team and developers to push through changes. Yes, Bioware may have already considered the change themselves, but when can point to community support and acceptance of a possible solution the effort needed to 'sell' the resources required to implement a change becomes that much less.

From Bioware, more openness. Let us know if a cantina is going to reveal new, major information, or if it is going to be aimed more at casual player. (Engaged fans tend to seriously underestimate the lack of knowledge the casual player has about upcoming changes.) Explain why you do things from a developer perspective, but always, always, ground those explanations in what the player base is looking at.

If you want an example of what can be done, just look at what Greg Street (Ghostcrawler) did for Blizzard. His willingness and tenacity at engaging in a much larger, more vocal fan base changed the tone and amount of interactions Blizzard has with its fanbase. It wasn't easy, it took a lot of time, but engaging with your community pays huge dividends. Dividends a smaller MMO can't afford to miss out on.

[1] Remember the basics you learned in Speech class where a simple speech should be in three parts? The first being about what you are going to talk about, the second being the talk, and the third summarizing what you talked about. The idea is to be redundant with your communications because you can't tell when someone will be paying specific attention to what you are saying.

Interactions with and by the community, Part 1

First, a bit of history

Bioware built a strong PR hype machine based on the strength of their games. The Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic, and the first two Mass Effects are all strong RPG games. They delivered content that their fans loved. Bioware could be cocky and swagger because they had shown they could deliver results.

The first crack in the Bioware PR machine came with Dragon Age 2. While the developers naturally wanted to do something different to stretch themselves and expand their new franchise, the fans generally wanted Dragon Age: Origins, only better.

The second crack was the launch of SWTOR. While it wasn't said explicitly, you could see that the Bioware devs were gunning for World of Warcraft. Wow was on a slow decline at the time and Bioware was touting their Fourth Pillar (storytelling), while building a game that hewed closely to the Wow MMO model[1]. The problem was that folks expected a game that was Wow, only better with more or, at least, equal content. The endgame content wasn't there and Bioware didn't grasp just how fast folks would level to get to endgame. After all, Wow has conditioned people to sprint to endgame, that leveling is a nuisance designed to reset gear/teach new skills, that the endgame is the 'real' game. Try as they might, Bioware's PR couldn't keep people paying a monthly subscription, The game crashed from a high of 1.7 million paying subscriber down to roughly 500,000 paying subscribers. The Wow challenger had basically dropped to EQ1 (at it's height) numbers.

When Bioware had to consolidate servers – the initial rush caused them to create too many new ones – it couldn't be PRed in the mind of the larger potential playerbase as anything other than a failure of the game. And who wants to commit serious time to playing a failed game? Which was terribly ironic given that EA continues to support Ultima Online after two failed attempts at a sequel.

Then we have the Mass Effect 3 ending major fracture. From a developer being quoted in a magazine as saying Bioware wasn't going to have 'A, B, and C' endings to the trilogy, to their continued statement of how many awards they had received, Bioware had a real disconnect with their paying customers and fan base. The majority of normally silent customers displayed they annoyance with the endgame as it existed. These customers sat on the normal forum trolls and gagged the white knights. Most of them are working adults so they dismantled and explained all the stock PR steps Bioware tried to use to shut up their customers.

In the end, the bulk of the fans 'won' as they forced Bioware to create a new ending. (Whether you liked the new endings is a different issue). Bioware's PR machine was not only de-fanged, but ME3 became a target for studies on how to screw up a major franchise right at the finish line. That hubris is still alive today.

The consequences of these PR mistakes would be pretty strong. After a face-saving amount of time, Bioware's two founders left. While these events may not be the sole cause, they certainly had to be a factor. After all, it is common for American CEOs of subsidiaries to resign after a series of bad events. It is also common for the parent company to pull a broken department (perceived or otherwise) back into the corporate structure.

Hopefully, this (wordy ^_^) reprise of Bioware's PR gaffes shows some of the reasons why their current SWTOR PR is lacking. Some of it is from them being gun-shy with their PR because of self-inflicted wounds. Some of it may just be the fact they have to work through more levels of corporate management to say things. Certainly any Star Wars related property is going to have to get the blessing of Lucasfilm and Disney.

[1] That was actually a good idea. Many of Wow's systems work well for an MMO shooting to be a major, mass-market game. Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't need to, when that wheel is successful.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A modest suggestion for 8-man ranked and Huttball League

(I originally submitted this as an email to the podcast Star Wars: Beyond the Stars. They read it on episode 28, but I thought it would be nice to memorialize it here it case it sparked any additional discussions.)

I would like to see Bioware take two fan requested pvp features and combine them into one marquee item: a ranked eight-man Huttball league.

Because Huttball is closer to what a non-gamer sees as a sport – taking possession of a ball, running the ball, passing the ball, scoring at an endzone, etc – I think a ranked Huttball league would make an excellent esport to promote the game. With the new Appearance Designer you could even have the players dressed as Rotworms or Frogdogs.

If Bioware added three more Huttball maps they could start running tournaments where the best 3 out of 5 matches won. Each server could have a ladder to win the pvp rewards Bioware already creates for ranked pvp play. Instead of a rating teams would win based on their winning ratio.

Add in a tournament server and you are ready for something worth promoting on a large scale, prize- and publicity-wise. Let teams register for the tournament, have a season of play to set a ranking / seeding chart and then let the best 8 / 16 / 32 / etc. teams duke it out for the top prizes. If they set the prize rewards to something equivalent to what you would get at a major esport tournament I can guarantee they will get plenty of teams.

The reason I suggest a tournament server is that would fix the issue of cross-server queues with the least amount of effort from Bioware. It would also give them complete control over what the players had access to before and during the matches.

A side benefit to three more Huttball maps would be that for unranked games Bioware could have the option to queue for A) Any pvp map, B) Any Huttball map, and C) Any non-Huttball map. This would handle the issue of people preferring one type of game map over another. It would also allow informal player run Huttball or Warzone tournaments.

A possible downside could be longer queues, but if Bioware made the pvp Daily and Weekly quests be only doable with the “Any pvp map” option it should mitigate most any possible queue time issues. I'd suggest leave the normal, participation-based, warzone commendation rewards alone. That way folks could still get the comms their preferred way once the daily and/or weekly quest was finished.

 Well, these are some of the thoughts I've had about making pvp something that helps promote the game to a wider audience for Bioware. I don't think either an eight-man ranked or a Huttball league by itself is going to happen, but if we combined them and showed Bioware how that can make the game appealing to people not currently playing we have a chance at seeing something new and cool. Heck, if ranked eight-man Huttball were to be a good publicity boost for Bioware to the larger gamer community they might even consider bringing back the old eight man ranked.