[MUD-Dev] Guest Voices #2: Griefing in Online Games

Joseph Hewitt joseph at hewitt.org
Wed May 11 22:32:07 New Zealand Standard Time 2005


Verifying who said what is a lot easier than implementing a system
of digital signatures. You simply keep a good number of lines of
each user’s chat log in a buffer on the server. When a user puts in
a customer service ticket (any CS ticket) that buffer is attached to
the ticket. The CSR should then be able to view that record from
within his CS tool. Since it is all done server side it is already
secure. A side effect of this system is that the player can have the
scroll back buffer of his previous play session available the next
time he logs on even if he is on a different machine, a big factor
in Asian PC Bangs.

This is nothing new, Earth and Beyond used this sort of system. Star
Wars Galaxies uses something similar but not quite right, for
example the text buffer isn’t automatically appended to any CS
Ticket but rather the user has to issue a /report command and then a
copy of the chat log is saved elsewhere the server. The CSR has to
manually go through the logs to find the player’s report.  Many
older games even had the basic /report command that would snapshot
the last few lines of text and save them server side, but many times
the amount of text saved wasn’t enough to see the whole issue.

An ever better system would allow the player to specifically enter
which player he is accusing of harassment and attach that users chat
log as well.  Many times the CSR will find both players are guilty
of goading and escalating the incident.

But all is a minor detail to what should be the main point which is
that developers need to take customer service more seriously. I am
sure every one of you is thinking, “Yeah like my company does.” But
you don’t.  Everybody says the words but nobody backs them up with
the deeds. Customer service tools are given a very low importance
during development, they are underdeveloped, and don’t address many
of the CSR’s basic needs. CSR personal are in many cases underpaid
temp labor that don’t have anywhere near the knowledge of the game
they are providing support for.  Other departments treat the CS
department as the black sheep of the family.

For example for the launch of one of the biggest and most
anticipated MMORPGs ever (no I am not talking about WoW) was the
poster child for this.  The CSR staff hired from a temp agency has
had just over a week of training which consisted of allowing them to
play in the beta and practicing going through the check lists when
the servers were brought up. They were given their CS tool the day
before launch, which did nothing but show the player’s CS tickets
and allow them to respond without having to log into the game. The
load of tickets broke the tool in short order.

The CSRs had absolutely no power or tools to investigate anything
and didn’t get any such power till much later. Even nominal CS
command like the ability to change an offensive player name required
the CSR to find the player while he was online, issue the name
change command, and then wait for up to 30 minutes to see if the
name change went through. The head of the CS department for the
title had written up a very detailed list of commands and powers he
wanted for the team over a year before launch and none of them were
implemented. Why? Because when the game that so much money is riding
on, is heading down that final stretch to completion nobody wants to
take any people off making sure the game is ready to launch to work
on something like CS tools that won’t even be needed till after the
game comes out.

Communication between the design department and the CS department
was non-existent.  The only way CS could get a response from Dev was
to send the message to the department head that would bring it up in
their weekly meeting and then wait for the head of dev to have
somebody investigate it and report back in the next dev meeting.

Nothing was done to give the CSRs any real game knowledge; they were
given free copies of the game but not free accounts.  Since they
were all hired from temp agency and not making much money, most of
them couldn’t really afford to pay for their own accounts.  If it
wasn’t for the ability to alt-tab over to a spoiler site 90% of the
CSR staff at any company probably couldn’t answer issues about high
end content.

And this isn’t an isolated incident.  This is par for the course. I
don’t want to name the company responsible for the above problems
because it’s what every company is doing.  It isn’t like they didn’t
spend money on their CS department, they may have hired temps but
they hired a lot of them.  They had a wonderful work area with
decent computers. They paid for overtime and included them in almost
all full-time employee benefit type events (staff picnics, movie
premiers, holiday presents, etc.)  But without the actual work and
effort before that point it didn’t matter and as a result their
launch was a PR nightmare and they lost a lot of customers.

So what needs to be done?  The game needs to have a customer service
tool and CSR abilities designed and built along side the
game. You’ll need to plan ahead of time how you’ll CS staff will be
able to monitor the game and investigate issues even if you are sure
those issues will never come up. An actual quote from a lead
designer to the CS department, “There is no need for a reimbursement
system for items because they designed it in such a way that items
would never disappear.” Sorry, I’m still laughing at that one.

The game should have built in systems that monitor the rate of exp
and money earned damage per second done, travel speed. It should
have some system to know when mobs are stuck or under the world or
are being attacked and cannot attack back. It should also monitor
CSR behavior, logging all CSR level commands. These things should be
automatically flagged when they fall outside the expected parameters
so they can be investigated.  There should be a way for a CSR to
track an item to find out where it came from and view those
transactions in their entirety IE be able to see the whole trade
such as players Abe traded items A, B, C and X gold to Bob for items
X, Y, Z and X gold at time/date stamp. The CSR should be able to
search for items and find where they are, sounds simple enough but
most database programmers don’t think like this. The container knows
what items are in it, but the items have no idea what containers
they are in. Etc.

Player characters and every single game item needs to have a unique
identifier that will never be changed or reused. Makes sense, but
I’ve seen this not be the case time and time again. The system
should even check IDs to make sure duplicates don’t exist. There was
a case in UO where a bug or dupe would create an item with the same
ID as an existing item. Guess what happened when somebody deleted a
sword with the same ID as your house?

Finally you need to make sure you players understand your game’s
policies.  I can tell you they aren’t reading that 4 page ELUA, and
aren’t going through the rules on the web site before playing.  Pull
out the original manual for Star Wars Galaxies and turn to the
Naming Rules on page 34. Note that of the 4 points listed only 2 are
policy rules and the other two just tell you your name has to be
unique and can’t have special characters like hyphens or
apostrophes. Then go to the SWG web site at

  http://starwarsgalaxies.station.sony.com/content.jsp?page=Policies%20Character%20Naming

and read the full 11 point Naming Policy that is much longer and
detailed as the one in the manual.  Guess how many players through a
fit when they were told their character name violated policy and
that the full rules weren’t in the manual but rather on the web
site.  Why aren’t these rules presented to the character on the
screen where they have to type in the name?

Okay, this soapbox is starting to get uncomfortable and I’ve spent
far too much time typing away when I could be playing. When I
started I had no intention of going on this long. I get enough of
this at work and I’m sure you do to… oh wait one more thing.  You
should make your design staff work in the customer service
department at least 1 week every 2-3 months.  You’d be surprised at
the things they learn about their game and how much it will benefit
both departments. I know it did wonders for me.

Joseph B. Hewitt IV
Senior Game Designer
www.working-as-designed.blogspot.com
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