Category Archives: MMOG development

Everything related to MMOG development

Identity theft, exploitation, and Gravatar

There’s a growing problem right now with Facebook Connect: it can silently log you in to websites that you *don’t want* to share your private data with. I saw a funny example last month where a porn website had integrated Facebook Connect … so when you visit the site, one miss-click and you’ll broadcast to all your work colleagues your embarassing love of HardCoreGrannies.

But there’s another example right now that may be worse, and is definitely food for thought. Facebook doesn’t broadcast your data – not to protect your privacy, but to prevent competitors getting access to data they are currently making money out of themselves. By contrast, there’s Gravatar: these guys take your private data and give it away to everyone – and they refuse to stop doing it (I’ve asked, directly, and they refused. They had no reason to refuse – they knew my identity, they knew my request was valid, and I believe under UK / Europe law it would be *illegal* for them to refuse. But … they’re American, and I guess all they care about is money).

So, for instance, I just had one of my online identities ruined by Gravatar. A website that I rarely use recently “upgraded” and implemented the gravatar system – and immediately took a private account and publically broadcast that I was the owner. They didn’t ask me, they just went ahead and did it. Like many web developers, I’m sure they had no idea what they were doing – few seem to be aware of the scam that underlies Gravatar.

Fortunately, I’m not going to lose something massively important, like my job / marriage / life (c.f. the news stories when Google Wave launched), but the website owners had no way of knowing that. They’ve just unleashed this upon their hundreds of thousands of users; what are the chances that one of them will be affected?

(incidentally, if you’re a website owner, I strongly recommend you think twice before adding Gravatar (or any of the clones) to your own site. I don’t know if anyone’s been sued for it yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually)

There are two halves to the problem. Gravatar is fundamentally a violation of privacy: they take your data and give it to *everyone* without you knowing. So what? That’s the whole point of the service! Yes, the Gravatar author is a little incompetent (c.f. OpenID for how he *should* have implemented it), but otherwise there’s no problem, is there? In theory … if you voluntarily sign-up for it, it’s all OK. Isn’t it?

Well … maybe not. They won’t let you (the user / owner) control that flow of data. What happens if you change your mind – can you delete their data? Nope. Why? I’m not sure, but I would guess: If you did that, you’d undermine their ability to make $$$ out of you. You can (theoretically) set your pictures back to empty. But …

…But there’s a second half to this. I believe most people are on Gravatar because WordPress “gave” the user’s private data to Gravatar. That’s a nasty mess right there; what does WordPress’s privacy policy say? Again, when they acquired Gravatar, they apparently didn’t ask their users what they wanted, they just forced this privacy violation on them. Back then, it didn’t have much effect (Gravatar itself was relatively unknown / little used), but as Gravatar gets used more widely, the problem becomes more acute.

And here’s the rub: Gravatar’s staff refuse to adhere to privacy requests because (precising / summarising): “you have to use your wordpress.com account”. What if you don’t have one? “you must have had one in the past and we won’t help you. Go away, and stop bothering us”.

Meanwhile, WordPress refuses to send password details to anyone, ever. A wise security decision in some ways (e.g. many people use the same password on multiple sites. Doh!). Your only choice is to delete the password and recreate it.

Is that a problem? Sadly, yes. Because (due to some very short-sighted / stupid marketing decisions by the WP folks) there are lots of admin systems – e.g. anti-spam – that are run off people’s WordPress accounts. So far as I can tell, no reason exists for this *except* to harvest email addresses and try and lure people onto paid WordPress.com plans. Further, WordPress uses an archaic password-based system (instead of e.g. Yahoo’s permission-based API – which, again, is how WP should have implemented this) – so if you change your password, all those websites will break.

Summary

These services are a nice idea in theory, but when you get terrible implementations like Gravatar, combined with lazy / stupid staff, the user does pretty badly. They get screwed, they get patronised (just look at the Gravatar.com FAQ; they’ve cleaned it up in the last 12 months, it’s no longer so actively offensive as it used to be, but it’s still pretty bad), and many times they don’t even know about it until the violation is widespread.

And, ultimately, any website that uses this system is in danger of losing badly if it goes to a court-case. I’m not a lawyer, but when there are industry standards for user-controlled privacy (OpenID), and specific laws demanding that Gravatar honour the requests it currently refuses (UK Data Protection Act, for instance), I suspect a court is unlikely to look favourably on a website claiming innocence. Ignorance isn’t generally a valid legal defence.

But how much damage do these systems do to themselves? If Automattic were a little less greedy, or a little less selfish, would a lot more people embrace the idea of sharing their identity openly? Will OpenID provide a gravatar-replacement that doesn’t shaft the user, and will that take off much bigger than the original?

Personally, I look at recent events like Google Wave, and Blizzard’s “forum identity = credit-card name” – and the s***storm of angry users in both cases – and I suspect these privacy issues are much more damaging than corporates expect. Which is good news: the world appears to be slowly waking-up to the abuses inflicted upon them in the digital world, and the importance of keeping certain things (passwords, email addresses – and now, finally: identity) sacrosanct. And that is definitely a good thing…

A little game called Minecraft…

I’m an idiot. It only just occured to me today to wonder how common a name “Markus Persson” actually is.

My first reaction on playing with Minecraft was: “Ah, this (much success, this quickly, with this style of game) is what the WurmOnline guys would have loved to achieve, I think”. Oh, the irony. Not that I expect the WO guys are unhappy with what they’ve achieved – WO is an achievement in and of itself, and continues to evolve in beauty and depth – but it’s too slow / too little to become a mainstream success. It’s a technical and personal success, not a business success. Unlike MC.

Now that I know it’s the *same* Markus – Wurm’s Markus_Persson from JavaGaming.org, and the author of Minecraft – I’m revisiting that first impression. Incidentally, in checking out this authorship, I saw I still have the 2nd highest post count on JGO (!), despite almost 5 years of personal absence. Wow. I really did talk a *lot* of crap, I guess ;)…

Simplicity…

There are two things in MC that jumped out at me early on. The first one was pure simplicity. This game/world is bursting with a sense that someone has ended up with nothing left to take away.

Art

The art has a nice style in and of itself. This is something I’ve often talked about with other veterans of making cheap games … mostly, that means indie developers (many of the folks from JGO, for instance – especially look at the 4k Java games contest, and look at the frequent winners such as Kev), but it also includes folks from the big-budget games industry, like Thomas Bidaux and Ken Malcolm. And, of course, Matt Mihaly, whose Earth Eternal started out explicitly using an art-style to keep production costs low.

It’s a trick. It’s the avoidance of the uncanny-valley. Make your art look deliberately cheap, instead of accidentally, and you can achieve the same level of pleasure in your audience as if you’d built photo-realistic graphics. As far as I recall, it’s even been tested (in movies and visual art) and found to be literally true.

Interaction

Here’s one key point where Wurm fell down … there was a vast amount to do, but it was damned hard to know WTF you could do, how, when, why, where.

And at this point, I’m going to pull out and dust off Runescape, circa 2001. Back when it was a few thousand players, and was already taking off, but long before it became famous. RS has changed plenty over the years, and has finessed their interface, but it started off with Andrew’s unrelenting insistence that the UI must have “no menus”. Everything had to be achievable with the LMB or the RMB. There were already examples of places where the interface was crippled and made complex because 3 (or 4) buttons were needed … and eventually Andrew relented and allowed for RMB to be a menu, with LMB being the “most likely option from that menu”.

The point being that if he’d not clung so hard to that desire for ultra simplicity in the GUI, then he’d probably have ended up with a series of rich menus – or more likely a many-button interface. Sure, it had to be modified as the game grew, but IMHO it was one of the greatest attractions to RS, and helped enormously with RS’s growth and success among the school-age market (where RS thrived).

Now back to MC. In MC, your actions are very narrowly limited. Indeed, they reminded me a lot of early RS. Everything relies upon context. In MC’s case, the compromise with game-richness comes in the form of the crafting interface. Here you have to step beyond the LMB/RMB setup, the “purely contextual” actionset, and move to a new UI element. It’s new, it’s extra UI, but … it’s still brutally simple, and yet (so far) proving more than adequate to the enormous demands of variety in MC.

… and logic

This is the second one that struck me, and it took a bit longer, a bit more playing around (and watching other players in their more advanced worlds), for me to spot.

Wurm Online was always one of the richest “physical universe simulators”: there was a huge amount of physical laws implemented and underlying everything you saw on-screen. This is not a good path for a developer to take: it’s a steep slope into exponentially large CPU and content-production costs … and even worse in terms of balancing and game-design.

Oh, you think that a world with “full physics” has no content production cost? Ha! How much time do you think it takes to implement each of the laws of physics? Even with a rigid-body physics engine to start from? May seem like there’s not many of them around, but just try coding it…

But many of WO’s laws were barely noticed by the majority of the players, while others were smack in their faces a large amount of the time. MC very nearly appeared to cherry-pick only the “frequently significant” laws, and focus on those. MC’s world is breaktaking in it’s depth, and yet if you analyse it closely, you quickly notice it’s lacking some very basic essentials of a world-simulator.

And, back to the irony, I felt that last point made MC feel very much like a direct sequel (in spirit) to Wurm Online: a “lessons learned … and acted upon” when it came down to the most addictive and engaging (and unique) part of WO. And yet I was still too dumb to connect the names together. Doh!

PR Agency reveals The Truth about Social Media

(…i.e. “many PR agencies know nothing about social media”)

This miserable story of a crappy PR agency working for Nokia just came to light. I’d give it even odds whether the problem was one incompetent employee, or an overall incompetent agency.

Read the blog post (and the comments – after a hundred or so, the agency pops up to respond. Worth reading as an example of how *not* to respond when you screw-up your PR (and pretty funny to see a *PR* agency write something so weak)).

It might be TL;DR, so … here’s my ultra-quick summary, with wild interpretation and guesswork based on my limited insight into the murky world of agencies:

  1. Big client wants to “do” social media; holds pitch meetings with a variety of swanky agencies who present beautiful powerpoint slides claiming how incredibly smart and trendy they all are. No-one asks for proof of ability; the deal is closed on “OOH! SHINY!” or similar. Client selects the one it thinks best quality or best value (probably the latter).
  2. Agency (Mission) persuades blogger to run a half-marathon and promote their client (Nokia)
  3. Agency gets paid a substantial amount of money (much more than the cost of fulfilling promises to the blogger) for supporting Nokia’s aims to use “social media” in their campaigns
  4. Blogger works ass off for 4 months training to run 13 miles
  5. Agency is too lazy to do … any work whatsoever at all
  6. Agency shafts blogger. Reneges on promises of promotion and goods they’d offered as payment (this is probably illegal, apparently they don’t care)
  7. Blogger nearly misses said half-marathon due to agency miserable incompetence / laziness. Despite spending 4 months training for it.
  8. Blogger goes public with the sorry affair, whilst struggling to remain reasonable and forgiving (does pretty good job of it, IMHO)
  9. Agency gets screamed at by client and posts non-apologetic apology; hopes it’ll all blow-over

Make your own mind up…

Entity Systems for Objective-C (iPhone)…prologue

I’ve just started a new game project for iPad which I hope will end up with a commercial release. At Red Glasses, we’ve got comparitively few projects for the next couple of months. If anything comes in, I’m expecting one of the other coders can pick it up, and I can concentrate on this in-house iPad game.

Schedule: 1. Prototype; 2. Refine

I wrote the first prototype this weekend – it looks like a very basic Flight Control right now (the game design is trying to do something novel with FC mechanics – I like that control system, but I think we can do a lot more with it than people have done so far).

Now it’s time to implement some of the novel mechanics, and prototyping our core game design. This will mean creating a lot of game-logic, lots of behaviours, etc. And so … I’d really like to use an Entity System.

Objective-C: the bad bits of C … without the good bits of C

The thought of building an ES without templating makes me weep.

Unfortunately, Obj-C continues to show it’s age/mediocrity/general-lack-of-usefulness: it’s finally (this year!) acquired an implementation of closures, but it still doesn’t have generic classes.

NB: *I believe* it doesn’t have generics; it might have, but I’ve not noticed them in any ObjC projects, code, libraries, etc. A quick google came up with nothing.

ES without generic classes is like OOP in Perl: techically possible, but liable to contain a lot of painful bugs which a compiler would have spotted for you … and contain a *lot* of boiler-plate code you really shouldn’t need to write in this day and age.

I could fix all this with C++ – it has probably the world’s best implementation of generic classes. It’s not perfect, but IME it’s the best overall balance of functionality.

Unfortunately, unlike C, Obj-C is incompatible with C++.

What next?

Ideas and suggestions are *very* welcome…

Assuming I can get an ES to work on iPhone, I’ll be blogging it. I’ll aim to open-source the ES I build.

I’ve had a quick look at using C++ classes and objects in ObjC. Using the objects has a lot of boilerplate code from Apple, that looks pretty good (but painfully verbose :( ).

…but using the *classes* appears pretty horrific. Since ObjC doesn’t have any kind of generics (that’s how we got to this point :)), it can’t handle those parts of C++ in a meaningful way.

Then again, since Obj-C is *very* dynamic as a language, I might be able to do something cunning with passing around NSClass instances / references. Combine that with runtime method dispatch / message-passing, and *maybe* I can code a decent C++ ES … while using ObjC to write logic that acts on the data from that ES, without having to write so many extra lines of code that the “saving” is lost.

As I said … ideas welcomed!

Startups: measure your attention-marketing (download)

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll have read my thoughts on the Science part of Marketing, and how much money this makes you.

As I explained recently to an Accountant, we don’t have a “business plan” for my current company, we only have a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet – done correctly – *is* a business plan, and a better plan than any you’ll ever see written down.

(NB: I’m not an accountant. I’m not a Finance Director – and never have been. I don’t even like spreadsheets; normally they bore me to death. But this is an exception. It is the only way to effectively plan and run a startup)

So I was delighted to see that Dave Stone has posted a spreadsheet to track and measure the effectiveness of your “attention” campaign – how much exposure did you get from TechCrunch et al? Was it worth it?

One Hundred MEELLEON Dollar! (…wasted, on RTW/APB)

18 months ago, Scott and I described our perspectives on the fall of Tabula Rasa. I said that if you’re going to spend $100m on an MMO, you’d better be aware of MMO history and not repeat those mistakes.

It would seem that Real Time Worlds wasn’t listening – coincidentally, $100m is how much *publically announced* money just went down the pan, now they’ve gone into administration.

No-one in this industry likes to talk openly about their enormous fuck-ups – and the few that do tend to become pariahs, sued by their employers or shunned by future investors. No major company openly documents – or “allows to be documented” – anything of import. It’s a system that punishes progress in the professional field.

There’s a single public analysis on RTW/APB right now. It’s an anonymous source (oh, for god’s sake! When will we stop shooting the messengers?), but some non-anonymous sources have backed it up. So, let’s take a look…

Anonymous: ExRTW on RPS

(source is here)

APB:

“lead you to think it’s going to come right by release … You end up in this situation where you’re heads down working your ass off”

Me, 18 months ago:

“The implication being that they didn’t do anything wrong, perhaps, but that they stood by and watched the train rolling slowly towards the brick wall and didn’t try (hard enough) to stop the collision.”

APB:

“APB … came together… relatively late in its development cycle … leaving too little time for content production and polish … lacking any real quality in some of its core mechanics”

Me, 18 months ago:

It wasn’t ready for beta. I said so. Many others said so.

APB:

“it was pretty clear to me that the game was going to get a kicking at review – the gap between expectation and the reality was huge.”

Me, 18 months ago:

A survey was taken, internally, asking what people thought. The results were never published – so no-one (apart from the survey takers) knows exactly what the results were, but we were told that the *company* knew.

Incidentally … I was afraid to come clean at the time (and upset individuals), but that survey of all staff was EXTREMELY negative about the project, and I have been told (but you’ll have to take this as unsubstantiated rumour) that the reaction of the top-level execs on seeing the results was simple:

“Bury it”

APB:

“I wasn’t on the APB team, so I played it infrequently, during internal test days etc. I was genuinely shocked when I played the release candidate – I couldn’t believe Dave J would be willing to release this.”

Me, 18 months ago:

[I wasn’t on the TR dev team, but] given my position I had the luxury of a lot of insights that other people wouldn’t have had.

I played TR in the alpha, and I actually enjoyed it

it was a good pre-production prototype [but – at best – YEARS away from being a finished project – and they went to beta only 6 months later]

APB:

“The real purpose of beta is publicity, not bug fixing. We never took that lesson on board.”

[I didn’t cover this, but Scott’s post did, IIRC]

And, finally…

“MyWorld is an innocent bystander caught up in the demise of APB. Which is a real shame, because it is genuinely ground breaking, though not aimed at the traditional gamer audience. ”

…which sounds an awful lot like Scott’s team and Steve Nichols team (the former very basic playable but unreleased, the latter Dungeon Runners)

Major differences

EDIT: it’s 100k sales, not 10k.

APB:

“the real killer, IMO, is the business model. This was out of the team’s hands. The game has issues, but I think if you separate the business model from the game itself, it holds up at least a little better.”

I originally (mis-)understood
the figures that Nicholas Lovell has dug out, but apparently sales were over 100k (presumably that means practically zero sales in USA?).

By comparison, the previous big-failure MMO which went down because of the “bad business model” was Hellgate: London.

Hellgate sold 500,000 units, and estimated that even if they’d made their subscription compulsory, they’d still have sold 250,000.

So, not as strongly as I originally put it, but I’m still dubious about the business model being the cause. This stinks to me of a marketing/sales failure (unless those 100k sales are spread equally across territories)

APB:

“we should have kept our powder dry. Our PR felt tired and dragged on and on, rather than building a short, sharp crescendo of excitement pre-release.”

IMHO this is a really bad idea – unless you remove the entire “MMO” part of the game. Big Bang Marketing doesn’t work for MMOs; this is the old-school of game-marketing.

Although, given how ineffective RTW’s marketing seems to have been, I doubt a big-bank-marketing-campaign could have done any worse.

Conclusions … and “moving forwards from here”

Two parts of this industry need to talk, one part doesn’t. As I said in 2009: “We need to talk [about failure]; when will we talk [about failure]?”

The professionals: you’re getting burned out, chewed up, and spat out. Your lives are being wasted.

The investors: you’re getting screwed. You write it off as random failure, and you can afford it, but you’re shying away from “games” as a result, leaving good profits behind on the table.

The inexperienced, the mediocre, and all those people who don’t actually MAKE the game, but do get to ruin the process (rockstar-designers, producers, marketers, directors, managers, etc) : you’re doing great. Your lack of skill hasn’t held you back, and the company will often go bankrupt before anyone gets around to firing you for incompetence.

…Can we actually move forwards, though?

When I left NCsoft, I was cold-contacted with some new job offers.

A typical example: “make a success of” a project that had already spent several years and many millions of dollars and was about to launch. But I wasn’t allowed to move said launch, and they had “infinite” funding (I kid you not).

There was a fat salary for anyone willing to shepherd that disaster (and, I suspect, become the public fall-guy). The game itself launched as they insisted, and was a laughable failure. I doubted it could have been fixed without another 12-18 months of development.

And me, personally? Nowadays, I run a freeform studio developing mobile apps and games for corporate clients. Each employee is responsible for themself and for their own decisions. If you need a project-manager to mollycoddle you every day, you can’t work here.

Personal responsibility, and personal authority; so far, it’s working pretty well…

How not to market an MMO: EA/Mythic Entertainment

Mythic Entertainment – End of Subscription

(subtitle: EA/Mythic forces themselves into commercial failure)

8 months ago, I tried to play Warhammer Online.

Tried, and failed, because EA Mythic told me – in no uncertain terms – that it was completely impossible for me to play.

This was after releasing press announcements and running a big campaign trying to get people like me to play. They’d been too lazy / stupid to remove the “you cannot play this game” message from their own website, even several days after the marketing campaign started.

Net result: I never got around to playing. They made it such a pain in the ass that even when offered this *for free*, I never got that far.

So, I got this message today. And this just double-underlines my previous point. Read this message, and ask yourself: does it entice me into the game?

Throwing away money, one customer at a time

End of Subscription Notification

Your subscription for Mythic Entertainment Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning for Game Account [username] has ended for the following reason:

* Subscription is not set to renew

If you did not authorize this, please contact support at (650) 628-1001. Phone support hours are 10:00 am – 10:00 pm eastern time, Monday through Friday. You can find further information on account security at http://help.warhammeronline.com.

Thank you!

This is an automated email from the Account Management site for Mythic Entertainment.

Games Workshop, Warhammer, Warhammer Online, Age of Reckoning, and all associated marks, names, races, race insignia, characters, vehicles, locations, units, illustrations and images from the Warhammer world are either ®, ™ and/or © Games Workshop Ltd 2000-2009. Used under license by Electronic Arts Inc

Let’s do a quick analysis. Here you have a DIRECT contact with the consumer – moreover a consumer who isn’t yet paying you any money, and who you know has NEVER logged-in to the game.

  1. 36% of the message is an IRRELEVANT copyright notice that shouldn’t be there
  2. 30% of the message is an INCORRECT security advisory
  3. 12% of the message is “this is an automated email”
  4. …leaving a mere 22% of actual content

Let’s look at the content, as any good marketing person would.

  1. What’s the Call To Action? (we’re talking to a customer; what are we asking them to do?)
  2. How easy do we make it to respond to the CTA? (the easier we make it, the more people will do it)
  3. Where’s the Appeal – a.k.a. what do we do to make the CTA attractive? (the more attractive it is, NOT ONLY will more people do it, but a great percentage will follow-through by paying money / engaging after the CTA)

Hmm. Respectively:

  1. None
  2. Make a international phone call – at cost! – to an unrelated department
  3. Technical language with no hint of “game”, or welcome. Wording is both appallingly bad English ( “is not set to renew”), and also fundamentally negative (implies that I *shouldn’t* want to renew, even if I do want to)

As I said 8 months ago, someone ought to deploy the PlayFish folks onto the smoking remains of Mythic. I very much doubt they’d allow such terrible excuse for marketing to go on…

Assasin’s Creed 2: Understatement of the Century

From the IGN walkthrough:

“If you have trouble grabbing the beam, just keep trying—we promise it works, but lots of readers have told us it’s not always easy.”

I’m a pretty good AC player, but after 10 minutes of trying to do that one standing jump, I gave up and stopped playing for a long time in frustration.

When game developers talk about “games should be so easy that all players can complete them; no-one should ever have to give up / fail to complete a game because something is too hard”, I usually disagree.

But in this instance, where the game is extremely, excessively difficult on something that the designer obviously intended to be extremely simple – and where the player has spent hours being taught that this will be easy – you have something different going on. It’s a failure of the control scheme; in fact, it’s a bug.

It’s a side-effect of the heuristics that AC uses to decide “what the player is trying to do” – heuristics that are far from perfect, while being very good.

In the first game, it took me a long time to get past the intro – no, really – because if you *try* to jump over gaps, then you fail. The heuristics were so heavily weighted towards “allowing” you to jump off buildings that running over a small gap became very difficult – until you learnt that the character “automatically” jumps small distances.

On the whole, I’m very impressed by the AC2 heuristics – compare it to Mirror’s Edge (a beautiful game, but feels a lot less fluid). I find them a bit too simplistic – I would love another 25% or so of user-control, and another 50% of precision on directional control – but (as ME shows) they got closer to perfect than any other game so far.

BUT … what do you do about a bug like this, one severe enough to make me stop playing the game entirely?

They had a huge QA team already (this is Ubisoft, after all), and such a vast amount of content in this game (multiple entire cities, modelled in fine detail), that there’s no way they could be sure to catch this bug.

Or is there?

This is the raison d’etre for a whole segment of in-game analytics / metrics: data-mining to discover undiscovered bugs.

Good metrics for game designers are VERY hard to describe, and IME the vast majority of the industry doesn’t know how to carefully hand-pick the few numbers they really need out of the millions of stats availalbe. Here’s a good example of how to pick well.

If the game reported

“the quest-point at which people stopped playing”

…then you *might* discover this bug. But it’s too coarse-grained.

If the game reported either/both:

“the segment on the map where people stopped playing”
“the segment on the map where people spent most-time during a mission”

…then you’d quickly and easily discover this bug. By “segment” I mean, essentially, a small patch of polygons approximately 6’x6′. This is relatively easy to measure algorithmically using greedy-polygon grabbing and hashing – although it would take a little care to make sure the measurement of the value didn’t take much CPU time (it could easily be pre-compiled for any given map, of course).

I’m not 100% of the “stopped playing” part – this is a console game, and while that info would be useful, it would mostly stop evenly distributed over quest-end points. Where it was more / less likely, it would be obvious just from knowledge of the story. ALTHOUGH: still well worth doing *in case* there were anomalies there – that should set off alarm bells.

However, the “spent most time during a mission” is more cut-and-dried.

This probe gives you a set of local maxima. It’s categoriesed by mission, making it one level finer than doing it over the entire world-map (which is too much, too uncategorised info), and it’s also coarse enough to correlate closely with user-behaviour (it merges results mission-by-mission; recurring bugs are very likely to show up by people doing the same mission and getting stuck at the same point).

The mission-based merge of results also has a nice side-effect: it tends to iron-out any anomalous results due to people wandering around the open-world game.

So. With a little bit of probing, using probes that you could/should have invented at the start of development (i.e. without knowledge of exact bugs that would occur) this bug could be ironed out. The three remaining questions are:

  1. does Ubisoft do this level of automated-bug-detection,
  2. do their designers bother to look at the anomaly-date,
  3. and if so … why hasn’t the game been patched?

2010 and the Browser MMO

What’s a browser MMO? Today, not 5 years ago?

In the previous post I poked Earth Eternal for claiming to be the “*REAL* MMO for your browser”, and disappointing on that front (although it could be awesome on all other fronts). I finished with:

So … EE may be a great game … and it may be launchable from within a browser … but it’s a long way from a poster-child for browser-based MMOs. It’s still fighting the browser as much as it’s complementing it.

It’s 2010. I know a lot of people in the industry still haven’t accepted even the concept of a “browser-based” MMO, let alone realise where they’ve got to now.

I’m not in the loop on this stuff any more, but it set me to wondering what I’d be chasing if I weren’t doing iPhone exclusively right now.

What about you? Are you fighting the browser?

The Executive’s impression

Game developers aren’t stupid. Executives aren’t clueless. But some are.

In the minds of those who make games but “don’t do” browser games on principle, I’ve found “a browser MMO” often means some or all of:

  1. A text-only game running off a single Perl webpage, where each action causes the whole page to be refreshed.
  2. Non-real-time interaction (because, you know … web-servers aren’t powerful enough to run anything in real-time)
  3. High-latency, jerky, shallow movement of characters and objects
  4. Weak 3D graphics – 5 years or more behind the curve of Console graphics
  5. Fat client downloads that “no-one” can be bothered to wait for, and would be better-off distributed on a DVD

What’s reality? Well, here’s a few observations…

Drop-dead gorgeous graphics … are the norm

For a look at today, go browse some of the Unity demos. Unity is *not* the “best” 3D engine, the fastest, the best language – but it’s nicely balanced towards ease of adoption. It’s very easy for new developers to get into. And so it’s setting a very achievable base standard that’s higher than many people would believe. With anyone able to produce 3D to this level, and embed it in the browser almost as an afterthought, the use of plugins becomes a new landscape.

Right now, crappy Flash MMO’s are still re-treading the ground of Dragon Fable (which is coming up to it’s 4th birthday) et al – albeit that’s now the “standard” and there is better and better appearing. But just as it only took a few games to adopt this approach and show how good it could look, widespread adoption of Unity, and a few high-profile innovative products, will drag forwards the rest of us.

(by “us” I don’t mean professional developers, I mean primarily the amateur and semi-pro teams who don’t yet work for a living – the students etc)

2 years ago I wouldn’t have thought it would be necessary to say this (I assumed that FB would have kicked everyone’s butts) but maybe it’s still relevant: going forwards, I suspect “browser MMOs” still need to be a lot more “browser” and a lot less “traditional MMO” if they wish to stand out.

The facebook question

Browser MMO, huh? So … Why is there no option to use Facebook Connect to login? In 2010, I think that’s what browser-MMO probably means to most people: “it works from Facebook”.

The massive, fundamental changes to Facebook that are coming in this year may push a lot of content-providers off FB, and back to the web – but users will continue to demand single-sign-on access, and shared access to friends lists. This already works, off-site, thanks to Facebook Connect (both for websites and for other hardware platforms, e.g. iPhone).

I may be completely wrong, but my suspicion is that many developers still want to “use Facebook”, by which they mean:

“use (the large number of accounts on) Facebook (to get lots of users in our game without having to do so much advertising)”.

…while (again, merely a suspicion) users want their games to “use Facebook”, by which they mean:

“use (the apps, data, and list of friends I already have on) Facebook (to reduce the effort I go through to play the game)”

The problem here is the developer is chasing more signups, and the user is chasing ease-of-access. IMHO, the FB changes are going to cut off most of the former, leaving the question: who will do best at fulfilling the latter?

The Glottal-Stops and Square Pegs of User Experience

When people surf to your MMO direct from the Web, do they get a feeling akin to the glottal-stop? Do they feel like they mentally “stumbled”, as the paradigms and user-interface go through a sudden change?

Embedded within an ordinary web-browser, does your MMO look like a square peg forced into a round hole?

The effects are subtle, but they decrease virality, decrease engagement. The effects are tiny, but with millions of web-users out there, they can be cumulative. Each time a user experiences this, you marginally shrink your maximum user-base, and you push your conversion rate down.

Why was I so shocked that Earth Eternal is (silently) Windows-only? (as is/was Free Realms, for that matter)

Well, largely because it reminded me of years ago, when you’d occasionally go to a website only to see:

“This site is only valid in Internet Explorer; you are not running that browser, so you are seeing this special page instead of the site. Please download IE now and then come back.” (or Netscape, or “desktop, but you are using a mobile phone”, etc)

History suggests that this is not a viable strategy when you’re fighting it out on the web…

I’ll know it when I see it

I’m waiting for one feature in a major MMO. I’ve seen it in a few “amateur” MMOs, and you get it on Facebook apps etc. It’s a fundamental expectation from the Web, and it is incredibly powerful:

Each piece of interesting content is *named* … it has a unique URL … so that I can directly tweet places, events, people, and things. I can bookmark conversations I’ve had. I can archive, I can cite, save, and return.

Bonus points for incorporating a bit.ly service in the client, so I can literally copy/paste direct into twitter

I’m hoping it’s out there already, and I just haven’t spotted it yet. When it comes, someone let me know; until then, I’ll be spending more time in flash games, and less in mainstream MMO’s. I prefer my gaming to be Web-compatible, thanks…

Farewell, Metaplace

I got this in my inbox a few days ago, and it’s been forwarded to me by a few people since:

(NB: the fact that you still have to login MERELY TO READ THE DAMN FAQ linked from the PR statement is IMHO symptomatic of some of MP’s problems :( )

metaplace.com is closing on january 1, 2010

We will be closing down our service on January 1, 2010 at 11:59pm Pacific. The official announcement is here, and you can read a FAQ guide here. We will be having a goodbye celebration party on January 1st at 12:00noon Pacific Time.

Some of the correspondence I’ve seen on this – what went wrong? what should they have done differently? – has been interesting. Personally, I’m in two minds about it. I think there were some great things about and within MP, but from the very start I felt it had no direction and too little real purpose (and if you ask around, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of people who’ll confirm I said that at the time).

I’ll hilight a couple of things that haven’t come up so much in conversations:

Bad

  1. On the face of it, MP was “the bad bits of Second Life…” (poor content tools, poor client, no direction, no purpose)
  2. “… without the good bits of Second Life” (no sex, no mainstream publicity, wrong target audience to charge millions of dollars in land-rental to)
  3. Poor discoverability (how do you find something cool in Metaplace? Go to site, login, download client, wait a lot, browse a weak index, wait for more downloads, wait for content to stream in … etc)

Discoverability was IMHO the killer: this is something that so many “hopeful” social sites and systems get wrong, and only a few get right. The best examples are still simple: browsing your friends’ friends on Facebook by looking at photos of their faces (hmm; who do I fancy?), or using Google to find things you’re looking for (the gold standard in tech, but also the base *expectation* of the modern web surfer).

The history of SLURLs in Second Life should probably be required reading for people interested in this – if you can find ways to experience / re-live life pre-SLURLs, and read through some of the trials and tribulations that Linden went through in getting them to work.

And even then, of course, SL still had no browsability – but it least it had “open” bookmarks and copy/paste references you could share with people, and embed in webpages. That was barely acceptable (and still “awful”) back when SL was in its prime; the equivalent “minimum acceptable” is probably Faceboook Connect with full Facebook integration (i.e. not just FC-login, but having a bona fide FB app too that acts as an alternate access-path for your virtual world).

Good

  1. Well, obviously, there was a lot of great content in there. I only skimmed it, but apart from the problems above, I saw a lot of interesting stuff
  2. The AJAX/CSS/HTML GUI … it was really easy for me to mess about gaining and browsing badges (both mine and other peoples).

Early on, I found the AJAX vs Flash part particularly interesting. The former showed up how weak the latter (the world-client) was: sometimes I went to the site, all happy about the badges, the popovers, etc, and as soon as I got into the Flash client, my mood would drop noticeably. Eventually, I stopped bothering visiting at all; I dreaded the slow, unwieldy, “clicking all over the place to move fractionally”, Flash experience.

One question I had was how much this was to do with the languages / platforms involved: did AJAX/CSS inspire the people working in it to make lighter-weight, faster, more abstracted core experience? Or is this just coincidence? There should be literally no reason why either of those platforms forced the designers to provide the experiences that way (Flash is capable of a much faster, snappier, fluid usability experience – it’s been excelling at this for years).

What’s wrong with EA: EA Mythic, and the FAIL of WAR

I’ll do a follow-up post in a minute with the anecdote that lead me to this. But here’s the general opinion/analysis first.

Project history (skip if you know all about Warhammer Online and Mythic already)

Huge project (cost in excess of $50 million to develop), based on a 20-year-old IP that is known and loved around the world, the game launched last year to a big marketing campaign.

Initial sales figures were excellent.

First-month renewals were dire, the company lost large amounts of money, they laid off large numbers of staff, and the CEO quit/resigned. They are now (late 2009) into the key point in such a product’s lifecycle where it has one last chance to succeed.

The parent company has recently laid off 1500 staff across different countries and products, but also just bought a small studio for $400 million.

The problem with Mythic/WAR today

Here’s what’s going on right now (based on observation, guesswork, and personal experience of similar situations at other companies):

They are spending large amounts of money to acquire new customers, while simultaneously erecting artificial barriers to turn away those new customers.

They are running loud marketing campaigns to attract those who’ve already rejected the product, while simultaneously creating powerful negative publicity for their own product.

In other words, this is a company that has a failing product AND has a non-unified product strategy, and yet is continuing to spend heavily. This strategy is known as “pure, blind, Hope”. It looks extremely similar to what happened with TR towards the end of it’s (brief, painful) lifetime:

“let’s work harder, do more, spend more! Cross your fingers, chant the secret mantra, and hope it all turns out for the best!”

Hope is not a strategy. All that can happen is that they might get lucky despite all the mistakes; there might be enough good left that they can survive this foolishness long enough to ditch the deadweight and pull themeslves out of the mire.

The inevitable PlayFish comment…

Maybe this would be a good project for the new hires from PlayFish to start work on? The essentials are there – and if the product could be made to succeed, it is a huge cash-cow. It could single-handedly pay-off a lot of the debt on that $400 million…

Speaker Evaluations – GDC Austin 2009

Conferences don’t make these public.

But they should.

So … here are the evaluations (from the audience) for our panel session at AGDC 09.

Judge for yourself whether you want to attend any future sessions featuring us again (Adam Martin, Bill Dalton, Rick Lambright, Joe Ludwig, Marty Poulin).

Head Count: 74; Evaluations: 32 (43% response rate)

  • Overall rating of the presentation – 88% (AVG: 86%)
  • How relevant was the topic to you? – 86% (AVG: 84%)
  • How well did this class meet your expectations? – 94% (AVG: 84%)
  • Would you recommend this session to a colleague? – 90% (AVG: 84%)
  • Evaluate the speakers’ ability to communicate – 94% (AVG: 86%)
  • If there were visual aids (slides) how were they? – 74% (AVG: 60%)

All of those are above average, and I’m glad that a particularly high number would recommend the session to their colleagues.

It seems that we did particularly well on fulfilling the remit (very high number for “met expectations”), and that our speakers had an awesome ability to communicate (almost 10% higher than average for the other speakers at the conference).

Audience Comments

  1. The most entertaining session I attended, but didn’t sacrifice information value.
  2. Interesting format, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of this, but it is time consuming
  3. Good stuff
  4. Slow, confused start lost valuable time for Q&A
  5. Should have done middleware
  6. Only 3 topics covered. Expected others

Comment 4 – yeah, something I’m unhappy about too, (it wasn’t our fault, it was the people running the conference), but there was nothing for it but to grin and carry on. Someone screwed-up the radio microphones, and we lost a lot of time at the start waiting for them to fix it. There was nothing we could do – they had connected the mics from a different room to *our* speakers. We didn’t find out until the person in the other room started talking, and it all came out through our speakers :(.

Comment 6 – we covered 4 topics (oops, audience can’t count :P). We all wanted to do more, but at GDC conferences, the organizers only give us 1-hour slots. With 4 speakers + moderator, I think that was pretty good, especially considering the time we lost at the start.

Perhaps someone will clone this format for a future conference (seems a good idea), and try to get a 2-hour slot for it?

How to FAIL, from the world of Open Source: Eclipse

The problem

It’s a great piece of openness to put your bug lists in the public domain. It makes it easier for your customers and partners to make decisions that save you time because they can see what’s coming and when (and save you money in reduced support requests). It saves you money in that you get free QA / testing from your users.

The downside is that it exposes to the world the places where you are especially incompetent, lazy, or just plain self-centred.

This is a recurring theme I’ve seen with corporates looking at both Open Source and also Web 2.0:

We say we’re the best, but secretly I believe we’re the worst; if we expose ourselves to the public, people will ridicule our mediocrity, and refuse to do business with us.

Also … I will probably get fired because my colleagues and my boss will finally realise what a clusterfuck I preside over on a daily basis

Eclipse, and a tale of two bugs

I was going to log two high-impact bugs that Eclipse has had for several years. Then I did a search on that area of Eclipse, and realised that the current Eclipse maintainers don’t give a **** about this whole section of the IDE – some of the core bugs we see every day were logged in 2001, and are still open:

https://bugs.eclipse.org/bugs/buglist.cgi?query_format=specific&order=relevance+desc&bug_status=__open__&product=&content=syntax+coloring

What you find when you do some basic research

If you go looking through the bug history for some of the more “obvious” bugs there, you often find little gems of passive-aggressiveness from maintainers. That’s an exceptionally effective way of making sure people stop helping and supporting any Open-Source project…

You’ll also find endless re-logging of the same old bugs from 10 years ago, revolving around the basic problem that Eclipse lets you set everything you could possibly imagine … EXCEPT the colours that it prints text in.

(all IDEs let you set the colours; most dont give you enough control over the other parts; Eclipse fails on the basic challenge, and succeeds on the advanced challenge)

This wouldn’t be so bad, except that its default is very bright with low-contrast – i.e. very hard to read on laptops when outside, and bad to read for long periods of time. As of about 5 years ago, you are finally “allowed” to set the colours yourself – except that the app breaks if you do, because they “didn’t bother” to allow you to change the colours on 20% or so of things.

Final thoughts

The next time someone – especially at a corporate – resists openness and transparency … in any form … ask yourself this:

What have they got to hide?

Often, once you ask yourself that question of the right person at the right time, it very quickly becomes obvious what they’re hiding (if not why). A little more digging, and you can pry open the can of worms, and see what trouble they’ve been up to…

(Incidentally (and unsurprisingly), in the face of the point-blank refusal of Eclipse developers to make basic usability concessions across the board, I didn’t bother logging either of the two bugs I’d found)

Entity Systems are the Future of MMOs Part 5

(Start by reading Entity Systems are the Future of MMOs Part 1)

It’s been a long time since my last post on this topic. Last year, I stopped working for a big MMO publisher, and since then I’ve been having fun doing MMO Consultancy (helping other teams write their games), and iPhone development (learning how to design and write great iPhone apps).

Previously, I posed some questions and said I’d answer them later:

  • how do you define the archetypes for your entities?
  • how do you instantiate multiple new entities from a single archetype?
  • how do you STORE in-memory entities so that they can be re-instantiated later on?

Let’s answer those first.
Continue reading

AGDC-2009: Killing the Sacred Cows of MMO Technology

Slides for our panel arehere: “Killing mmo tech sacred cows.pdf”.

Final panel was myself (moderating) and speakers: Bill Dalton (Bioware), Rick Lambright (Gazillion), Joe Ludwig (Valve), Marty Poulin (Shady Logic).

PLEASE NOTE: WE DON’T REALLY ADVOCATE EXTREMIST RESPONSES TO TECHNICAL QUESTIONS; THIS WAS JUST A BIT OF FUN. (Mostly).

Dungeon Master Clone for iPhone – Concept GUI

(c.f. my original post here: http://t-machine.org/index.php/2009/06/28/want-to-help-write-a-simple-rpg-for-iphone/)

I’ve been playing around with GUI setups for DM / EOTB / Wizardry clones on iPhone, and thought I’d post some of the more interesting results here – I’m interested to see what other people think of each of them.

The first three are all assuming a single-character RPG, the fourth is something more like DM / Wizardry (could be 6 chars, could be 3).

Everything is clickable – small maps become full screen map, blue buttons fire spells, character portraits go to the inventory screens.

Screens with no arrow buttons require you to drag your finger forwards/backwards/left/right to move, and allow 360 degree movement. Screens with arrow buttons assume you can only turn 90 degrees at a time (like the original games), although they smoothly animate the rotations (UN-like the original games – because I have access to OpenGL to do the 3D for me).

What do you think?

concept-ss-1

concept-ss-2

concept-ss-3concept-ss-4

Indie developers and gaming sites: stop breaking the web

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at a lot of independent developers’ websites. It’s quite surprising how many of them go out of their way to make their site unusable – clearly thinking that they’re achieving the opposite. But also, today, Wikipedia started actively doing a very minor (but no less irritating) content-block on mobile users. And last week, I found one of the main games-news sites is also actively *hard*-blocking mobile users.

This was annoying (and stupid!) 5 years ago, when sites added the “smartphones” to their content-blocking, even though smartphones could (and happily would) render full-fat webpages perfectly (tabbed browsing worked fine in Opera on Windows Mobile back in 2005 – I used it a lot).

Now, with the iPhone added to the list of clients that these sites are blocking, it’s a bit worse: Apple won’t allow you to purchase any web browser other than their version of Safari, and Safari won’t allow you to lie to the website and tell it you’re not using a cell phone (this was the standard workaround on windows mobile/opera for stupid web design teams: tell Opera to claim your cell phone was a Windows desktop). The iPhone, with a better quality web-browser than many desktops currently run? That’s just insane…

Wikipedia: mobile users, go away

Until/unless they decide to fix it, it’s now too much hassle to read WP pages unless I do it on my laptop. Since I’ve probably just followed a link from google, that would mean emailing myself the link from my iPhone, and going to WP via my desktop. More wasted time. I’ll just stop using wikipedia, thanks.

So far this morning I haven’t been able to access WP short of manually changing the URL to go to a country-specific Wikipedia mirror, switching to a “slow” (non-broadband) internet connection, reloading the page, and hitting the stop button before they redirect me to a “cut down” version, and no link to escape from it. There’s a link for you to “comment” on the new “feature”; my commentary would have been unprintable, so I declined.

Gamespot: we don’t want money, money is for wimps

The other week I noticed that Gamespot – one of the big ad-driven news + reviews/cheats/etc websites for games – is still locking-out all mobile users. That’s probably a fairly substantial load of ad revenue they are literally throwing away every day.

The web, HTTP, and HTML…

Why do people do this? I don’t know. But here’s a few points you should bear in mind:

  • No website should ever block content based on the user’s device
  • No website should ever have a flash-only front page
  • Since the very first versions of HTTP and HTML in the mid-1990’s, the web has been designed to avoid these problems; this shouldn’t be happening

Content Blocking

Gamespot checks your web browser when you fetch any article, review, etc. If it finds you’re coming from an iPhone, then it refuses to let you view the content. Instead, it serves up a custom “news page” that is identical no matter which link you came in on. There is no way for you to see the actual content you tried to view – literally: they do an auto-redirect that wipes it from the URL.

I can see no reason for this other than the bizarre assumption that an iPhone was launched 10 years ago with a tiny black-and-white screen and an inability to scroll and render web pages. I would love to ask the Gamespot web design team: have you ever seen an iPhone? You do realise it has a better web browser than most desktop PCs, yes? So … why are you manually blocking them from your website?

Amazon has for a long time done a similar thing with any mobile device (again, sadly, the stupid bit is that they apply it to devices where it’s completely unnecessary) – except that Amazon has three essential features which Gamespot lacks.

Firstly, they do actually show you some of the content you were trying to view (not all of it. ARGH!)

Secondly, there’s always a link on the page to view the real version of the page. If you click that, it gives you a warning something like: “YOUR MOBILE PHONE MAY NOT RENDER THIS PAGE … ARE YOU SURE!!!!????!”. Of course, this is somewhat inappropritate when applied to most smartphones, especially iPhones. But hey – at least the option is there.

Finally, they have a link something along the lines of: “Do you want to permanently stop seeing the broken, cut-down version of pages on amazon.com? You can re-enable them whenever you want”.

Irritating, patronising, and foolish (the default should be “view the website normally”, not “don’t view the website”) – but at least you only have to fix it once, and you never again get problems. Gamespot et al offer no such option – they just block you, dead.

Flash-only front pages

About 50% of indie studios have decided to put a massive flash on their front page, most of them with *no* link to “skip intro” or “go to website” or any kind of navbar. About 50% of them (in my sampling over the past few weeks) have made that flash NON clickable: you cannot (you are “not allowed to” ?) view the “real” website until the flash has loaded, you have seen the self-promoting advert for the studio embedded in it, and clicked some internal link at the end. This was foolish, unnecessarily slow, and contrary to the spirit and standards that drive the web even 10 years ago when it first started happening.

Games industry companies please take note:

The 1990’s phoned – they want their web-designers back.

(real web companies don’t do this kind of thing any more)

But now, with the iphone, it’s particularly dumb: it is de-facto content blocking – because the iPhone cannot / will not run Flash. If the Flash is clickable, you can at least (if you know what the studio did – which many people won’t guess) access the site anyway. I’m amazed how many sites don’t even give you that small fillip.

If this post persuades JUST ONE web designer, somewhere, to wake up and smell the roses, and spares us yet another self-blocked website, then I shall be happy.

Of course, maybe I should be grateful that we’re even this far “ahead” … I heard from someone the other day that he still has to explain to web design teams that websites don’t need to be hardcoded for rendering at 800×600 any more (i.e. that – OMGWTFBBQ! – everyone has rather larger desktop screen resolutions than that these days; or else so much smaller that hardcoding to 800×600 isn’t going to help at all).

Want to help write a simple RPG for iPhone?

Now I’ve recovered from GDC illness, I’ve got a little free time again, and I’m starting one of the iPhone games I wanted to write. This is a “for fun and learning” project, so it’s deliberately chosen to be low maintenance / easy to make a first version / easy to extend later / etc. I need artists, designers, quest-writers, and programmers.

Well, I don’t *need* anyone; I can do this all myself. But I’d rather do it with other people, and I thought there might be some hobbyists reading this who’d like to do something similar.

EDIT: there’s now a googlegroup for people working on this. You *must* contact me first via email (see below) or your request to join will be automatically rejected. http://groups.google.com/group/dmclone
Continue reading

Everything you need to know about being an awesome MMO Tech Director

Really? O, RLY?

Well, no, probably not – but this is the kind of opening statement I often make at industry-conference parties. In this rare case, at LOGIN this year, I was showing something on my laptop at the time and happened to *type* my opening salvo, rather than just say it.
Continue reading

Bartle explains himself

Richard has often been accused of being “arrogant”, “insane”, and even, simply, “wrong” for his comments along the lines of:

  1. He hasn’t “played” an MMO in decades (possibly “ever”) … because he can’t stop himself from interpreting as he uses them
  2. Surprisingly many MMOs are just WoW by another name
  3. He only needs to play the first few levels of a new MMO to see if it’s really new; he needn’t bother with the rest of it

He’s explained before, in abstract terms, why this is all true *to him*, and pretty much left people to stew if they don’t understand that (while always actively engaging them in conversation to try and explain further).

Now he’s blogged a concrete example of what goes through his head when playing a particular quest-chain / zone: WoW’s STV. If you’ve ever wondered, and/or been confused/horrified/dismayed/insulted by Richard’s statements online and haven’t had the chance to speak to him about it all in person, then I’d highly recommend reading it. I suspect that this concrete analysis will elucidate to a lot more people most of the meaning that the abstract explanations failed to convey. Well, we’ll see…