Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Taking MMORPG Customer Service Seriously

I read the following article: The Cost of Insecurity: Griefing, from Anonymity to Accountability by Steven B. Davis on Skotos today. It was also posted on the Mud-Dev email thread. I started to give a short reply and wound up jumping off the deep end and just going on and on. Here is my rambled response:

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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 'naming section' of the Rules and Policies on the SWG web site HERE 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. 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.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Good points. Here's hoping someone out there is listening.

Jeff Rawlings
www.gamergod.com