Sunday, August 31, 2008

Behind The Scene

I originally planned for my next blog entry to be about one of the many nightmares one can have when relocating to a new country, but I decided to keep that self-pitying post to another time (sorry, you won't avoid it!!). Instead, I felt I needed to acknowledge some pretty awesome people who all too often get no recognition from the player base, except for flames when things don't work out. And these folks are the QA Testers.

When the first video game studio opened in Montreal, having no experience I told myself if I could get a job as a QA Tester, it would be my way into the industry. But now that I am in the business, I can tell you that I'm not so sure I would have cut it. It takes a certain type of person to do a good job of it and a hell of a lot of passion and commitment. People often romanticize what a Tester's job is like. Yes, you're running around in a game all day, but you're not actually "playing". You are testing, trying all the crazy stuff players could do and event try to think about stuff no one in their right mind would deliberately do because you know that some way, somehow, some dude WILL do it.

Granted, some of the testing can be fun. I mean, who wouldn't want to be the first to try fighting this cool new monster or riding this cool new mount? But then take the case of the latest gardening additions. Started off with just the cocoa tree. No biggy right? But then I decided to add new plants. For each new plant, we're talking new seeds. Then I decided they would spawn at a certain rate on a certain number of monsters. Then I decided, you know what? lets add a few more seeds and a few more monsters and play around with the drop rate. Then oh wait, after a quick design meeting, taking player feedback into consideration, I make some more changes. Lets instead divide the seeds in smaller spawn groups and monsters in various groups also to make it less frustrating for players to hunt the seeds. By the time I've reached the final design QA has gone in and tested, retested and retested how many times?

Now keep in mind whenever we talk about drop rates, as a designer I provide QA with a chart of expected results. So guess what? They go in and kill every single designated monsters hundreds of times and draw up a chart of the results to see if they meet expectation. And that's how they found out certain seeds weren't spawning at all. Some were spawning on the wrong mobs, etc. And then they grow each plant making sure every label is right, the growth rate is appropriate, the grown plant meets requirements, and so on. And each time we change our minds, they start all over again.

And to thank them for their awesome work, I went ahead and designed something else for factions which needs some thorough testing on damage output. To give you an idea, imagine if I was talking about an explosion potion. Now it's straight forward enough right? Toss a pot and the total damage from the pot will be divided by the enemies within range. So QA comes along, create the pot, makes sure the pots can be used stack and unstacked, that it doesn't lose it's properties when unstacked, that it can properly be thrown, that it does the damage expected, that the bottle is then destroyed, etc. But then here comes the crappier part, he then needs to layout what the damage received was on various characters: with or without armor, under curses such as corpse skin, if the thrower has alchemy and the impact of the alchemy level, if the player uses potion enhance, and so on. And test under the various combinations of these factors and whatever else the designer didn't think about. Now we, the designers, look at the results and decide ok, is this overpowered or not? If yes, then we change the base damage and who gets to retest all over again? That's right...

I don't think I would have the patience and thoroughness for this. Personally, I think if I had just fully tested something such as the purple potions just to have it come right back a couple hours later for retesting, I would be banging my head on the walls. But our guys are so awesome. Never a complaint, quite the opposite. In fact, on a few occasions, I had one of them walk into my office to get a bit more info about something he was testing for me or pointing out some of the game mechanic issues which could be circumvented with a slight design adjustment. And some of those resulted in a lot more work for them and that was not an issue. It was all about trying to get things out as right as possible.

Truth is, QA Testers keep the Devs honest. They will not let us cut corners. I hate getting a bunch of DevTracks about bugs found, but I am grateful for QA catching my screw ups and often thinking for me about stuff that never would have crossed my mind. And you know, mistakes will still happen and things will manage slip by, but without QA we would be in serious trouble. So when I see people criticizing our QA, I'm like you guys don't know a good thing when you see it because our guys are awesome. (Yes, I'm sucking up right now because the next things I have in store for testing will be quite painful!)

But kidding aside, I just wanted to say to the UO QA team, much love and many thanks!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Reality Check

I recently joined the Game Developers Group on Linkedin and while browsing through the various articles, I stumbled on a link to an "ambitious MMO" plan. That definitely got me curious, and I decided to check it out. By the time I finished reading the post, I was wondering if the guy who wrote it 1) had balls of brass, 2) was on crack or 3) needed a serious reality check.

His very long post didn't actually detail what the game would about, it was more of a recruiting spiel. He first states that a new revolutionary MMO is required because all others that have been done before have miserably failed to meet players expectations and new MMOs are nothing but a reheated version of existing ones. While I think this is an easy generalized statement, I don't disagree that MMOs still have ways to go and that there is too much of the same out there.

The problem was more with the second part where he introduces himself. Essentially, he states he has no design training or experience of any kind (not even fiddling with map editors), has no programming skills either, but that his extensive gaming experience made him an authority in what players seek in a game. His team was still very small (only 2 other people who I seem to recall also had no professional experience) but they would welcome anyone reading the article who were daring, creative and willing to embark on that wild journey. My immediate reaction was "you're joking, right?" but I knew he wasn't.

I'm always a little baffled when I read stuff like that because I wonder why he feels HIS extensive gaming experience makes him a greater authority than other gamers. It's not like game developers aren't gamers themselves. But beyond that, being a great driver doesn't make you a great mechanic, just like being a straight A student doesn't make you a good teacher.

It takes so much more than a few cool ideas to put a game together. Even coming out of school, I didn't realize just how many different talents were required to make a game until I actually started working in the industry. Despite that, I'm still discovering new things today I didn't realize needed to be done because other departments of the team are handling them. And creating a MMO is even more ambitious and demanding.

Generally speaking, I love the idea of an independent developer and there's nothing greater than an unlikely success story. But you also need to douse your ambitions with a bit of a reality check. When the Wright brothers tried creating an aircraft they didn't start on a spaceship, they started with kites, then gliders and then included an engine, etc. If he had talked about making a flash game or a DS kind of game to wet his feet, he would have had more credibility and a better response. It would be a good learning experience and help him develop some tools, build relationships and expand his professional network in a fairly short period of time. And if the game is successful, it would also help him build the financial means to achieve his end goal: a MMO.

But a MMO takes years to create with a large full-time team. If you've got too small a team or only work part-time because your team has to work elsewhere to make a living, by the time your game will be done it will already be dated. In truth, if making independent games was so easy, don't you think a majority of game developers would just go rogue and have their own start up so they can enjoy true creative freedom? And for those who have, how many such start ups have failed?

Even though he's biting way more than he can chew, I hope he won't choke to death on it. And once the piece that got stuck goes down, if he's smart he'll take a step back, take smaller bites and get to live to enjoy his dessert.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Duping Woes

Duping is such a nightmare for everyone, not just the players, but as much if not worse for the Devs. It's like a cancer that just keeps eating away at you. And just when you thought you had gone into remission, boom, there it is again.

Players cannot begin to understand how much time and energy we devote to tracking down and banning dupers, removing illegal items for the game and finding ways to fill the holes that allowed the dupes to occur in the first place. But dupers are like cockroaches. You kill one, 10 more come out. Some of them are easy to catch. They're amateurs spotting a pot of gold and in their greed allow themselves to be caught red handed. Those are my favorite as they're not only easily disposed of, but they also usually cause the least damage to the community.

The Dons, the Master Minds, those are the ones that suck. They are hard to get. They are speedhacking little roaches, that only come out in the dead of night and are pretty much immune to most pesticide you can throw their way. You will never catch them alive. They will throw their minions under the bus, but you won't get your hands on them. They're the ones that really hurt the community and the Dev team and the game. And just like the Godfather, you often have to resort to nailing them on tax evasion. And yes, sometimes this means you need to let the minions run around unhindered a little longer just so you can work the trail back up to the leaders.

Each time, we have to divert development time to track down dupers / exploiters, fix the loopholes, remove the offensive items and investigate their accounts to gather sufficient proof to proceed with a ban. This translate as delayed publishes, canceled new content, lesser bug fixes. For the players, it means their legitimately acquired items losing value while inflation rises. For new players it means a tougher barrier to entry. For the game in general, it means serious imbalances between the haves and haves not, accelerated depreciation of entire game systems because the reward that gave them their purpose is now flooding the market.

So make no mistake: Devs have NOTHING to gain by allowing dupers to run rampant. We don't spam how many people were banned or when we are banning people. That doesn't mean it's not happening on a regular basis.

You would be surprised to know how many people were actually banned in the last wave. What boggles my mind is how eager players are to believe someone claiming innocence. We also have nothing to gain by banning innocent players, quite the opposite. Do mistakes occur from time to time? Sure, no one is perfect. But you shouldn't assume that because someone says "I didn't do it" means they really didn't. Anyone who gets caught speeding will likely try to sweet talk their way out of a ticket. If it works, WOOT! If it doesn't, oh well, was worth the try. That doesn't make them any less guilty. Difference is, the guy who crashed into a tree because he was speeding won't make a fuss, because clearly there's no getting out of that one. Both as guilty, just one more obvious than the other.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Troll Alert!

Since I gave the Cheerleaders some TLC, it's only fair I give Trolls some attention too. But while the previous post was a nod to Cheerleaders, this is more a question mark. I honestly fail to understand why Trolls act the way they do. We often hear the cliché statement that Trolls are just sad people, angry at the world that bullied them, venting their personal failures in real life, (insert other lame excuse here) and who are trying to make others feel as miserable as they do themselves. But fact is, I've known a number of Trolls (and griefers for that matter) who are everything BUT losers or depressive in real life. So why?

I read the forums and it's the same people going on and on about this or that, throwing every insult they can come up with, whining and complaining about everything and anything. It doesn't matter how much you go out of your way to please them, they will find something to be disgruntled about and stir the pot over.

Sometimes, they have grounds to be unhappy but they voice their displeasure so viciously that whatever valid point they were trying to make gets losts in the rant. And the truth of the matter is, once you establish yourself as a Troll, we (the Devs) eventually just stop reading you. So who really gets hurt in the end?

When I read a post and the first line is "Devs, I demand an answer now!!", the first thought that crosses my mind is "I hope you're not holding your breath irl!" That alone pretty much guarantees you will NOT get a reply. And then the posts where some dude is popping a vein over the fact that we're not customizing the game to his specifications. It's like what?! And then they are offended that we don't post or reply to them. But what do they expect? We know they will twist our words and hold everything we say against us. So why put ourselves in the line of fire?

On another forum, this guy was talking about shutting down accounts and randomly ranting about how the Devs' shortcomings had pushed him to this. But reading the thread further, he actually posted how he's really just closing accounts because rl makes it impossible for him to continue playing as much as he used to. And I couldn't help but wonder why he had felt the need to unfairly bash us when in fact it was the changes in his life (that we have absolutely no control over) that impacted his ability to play.

I dont know the English equivalent (and I'm too lazy to look it up!) but in French we have this saying: "you can't catch a fly with vinegar". I will be more enclined to stay after hours to fix a bug or add a feature that wasn't planned in the schedule to make someone pleasant happy. Trolling is the best way to ensure you probably won't be read and that your concerns, however valid they may be, are less likely to be addressed in a timely fashion.

With that said, I would really appreciate if a Troll would hit me up and give me some insight on what's the deal! And not just the trolling against Devs but also the trolling against other players. I would REALLY love to know what's the kicker.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Making certain design decisions can be difficult. When you do your job right, you put a lot of thought into it. It's not just a coin toss or taking shortcuts, it's about what makes the most sense in both the short and long term. Sometimes, these decisions aren't overly popular and make things a bit more difficult for the players, but it's also for their own good.

As a player, I often used to say "wth do they do it that way? Why isn't the drop rate higher? Why can't we just get straight to (insert wish here)?" And today, as a designer I read the boards and get the same questions from players regarding decisions I or the other members of the team made.

I cannot go into the specific case that prompted this but I will give a different example. People have often complained about the artifact drop rate in Doom. It took too long. The same people always seemed to be getting the arties, etc. After a while, players got discouraged and most people stop camping Doom. A number of months ago, that drop rate was notably increased and people flocked back in droves to Doom. Within a month, the value of artifacts had collapsed. Within another month, a majority of people had once again abandoned Doom and mostly didn't care for artifacts anymore as they were now too common. Same thing with the Planar Swords and Shields. The minute people had a dozen, they lost interest in the event.

Finding the right balance where something is attainable with reasonable time and effort is never easy. But you have to do it in a way to maximize the longevity of your design without making it frustrating to the players. If players can get mass amounts of a new item you introduced within 2 weeks of it becoming available, that item will immediately lose its appeal and people will no longer bother with it. And that translates as days, weeks and maybe even months of designing and testing down the drain.

Randomization really serves both the player and the designers. It creates rarity which causes demand, which translates as higher resale value, which makes it desirable and therefore something players will actively hunt (Doom Arties, Crimson Cintures...). For the designer, that means more bang per buck.

So unless an object is highly consumable with default sustained demand (PoF, Potions, Petals...) , you shouldn't expect to have them easily available. Sure it would maybe make your life easier, but you would be bored with it within weeks/days.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Cheerleaders

In my humble opinion, there are 5 kinds of people who posts on forums: the Lurkers (that's me!), the Chatters, the Trolls, the Groupies and the Cheerleaders.

The Lurkers read most threads but don't post all that often. The Chatters are babbling machines with multiple posts in almost in every thread. Most of their posts have little substance but when you trim the fat, they're actually a good barometer to measure the community's general state of mind. The Trolls will simply hate on everything and anything. They will dissect every word you've said and interpret what you haven't said in a way that will enable them to spill as much venom and bile as they possibly can. The only positive comment to come out of them will be to praise someone being even more vicious than they were. The Groupies (in the case of UO) are either sucking up to the Devs or sucking up to the "in crowd" in one of the other 4 groups and occasionally to someone in their own group. They're annoying little things that have no thoughts of their own. They'll just shout a Hallelujah! Amen! to anything their idol says even if it makes no sense.

Then you have the Cheerleaders...

These guys really get a bad rap and I think it's mostly because people tend to confuse them with the Groupies. To me, a Cheerleader is a more contained, healthy mix of Chatters and Groupies. The non-extremist opposite of the Trolls. The optimist that enjoys the fact that the bottle is still half full instead of obsessing about it eventually being empty. It's the person that doesn't sugarcoat things but who gives you that much needed pat on the back when you screwed up.

I mean seriously, when you screw up, you know it. You don't need anyone to tell you or rub your face in it. You KNOW! And when your blunder negatively impacts others, it sucks all the more. The Trolls will make sure to remind you every day until Kingdom come. Getting up when someone is kicking you while you're down can be quite the challenge.

But then the Cheerleader bitchslaps the Trolls and tells them to piss off. Grabs you by collar and pulls you back up on your feet. Looks you straight in the eyes and says "You messed up, you Noob! I know you had good intentions, but you didn't deliver. Curling up in a corner licking your wounds will do no good. So dust that dirt off your shirt, get back in formation and lets play ball! We still got a game to win. I believe in you so you better make me proud!"

And it is that voice that makes you want to try harder, do better and go the whole nine yards.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Culture Shock

When I was at the Ubisoft Campus, my teachers often talked about political correctness and moral issues with video games. Be it violence, sex, religion, racism, these are many of the factors that will affect the potential success/failure of our games and may limit its distribution in certain regions of the world or impact the rating from General to Mature. But just as important is the cultural background of your target audience and the language barrier.

A few weeks ago, when I was asked to write the Death of the Council event, I was pretty psyched at the opportunity to do an event that would stray from the invasion/monster bashing type and go with something a bit more interactive. But I quickly realized I really needed to rein myself in because some of my puzzles, though they seemed pretty obvious to me, turned out not to be that easy for others. And while I may be a big mystery fan, the event still needs to cater to the players that aren't.

But the biggest shock came when I was asked if the event text was ready to be sent to Japan for translation.

It suddenly hit me that the Rebus puzzles I put in the quest can prove to be a significant challenge for non-anglophones. French is my first language and though I consider myself fluent in English, it's still tricky to me at times. So I'm thinking about the Japanese players and wondering how they will fare with English word plays. In the end, the Japanese team had to change the rebus passwords to something more culturally accessible to their players.

It reminded me of when I used to work as a sound engineer in movie dubbing. We were recording the French version of the movie Sphere and there was this scene where the crew is going down to the space craft that landed in the ocean and they are breathing helium. They were making all kinds of silly comments with that funny helium voice and one of them said "follow the yellow brick road". I was surprised when the director asked me if I knew what that meant or referred to. And I said yeah, and explained how the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz had spoken those specific words with an helium kind of voice. To me, having been extensively exposed to the American culture, the Wizard of Oz is a classic known to all. But to the director and actors who were more versed in the French Canadian culture, this was not common knowledge. Unfortunately for them, they had to try to convey the same message (or at least intention) as the original movie, in the same lapse of time and make the actors' words fit with the lips movement on screen. Synch 4tw!

So this little reminder has given me a greater appreciation of the work done by the localization team. It will also likely impact the kind of puzzles I come up with in the future.