Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

13 May, 2005

Why customer service doesn’t matter
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:14 AM
(This post has been viewed 5934 times.)

Scott Jennings posted a link and discussion about CS in online games. Being the assho... er, vigorous discussion enthusiast I am, I decided to be contrarian.

That's right, you heard me: CS in online games doesn't matter as much as people say it does. I encourage you to read my whole post before you fly into uncontrollable rage, though.

Quick glossary for the uninitiated:

CS = Customer Service. This is the part of the game players deal with when they have a problem that can't be resolved within the game.
CSR = Customer Service Representative. This is the person that works in the CS department, interacting with the customers.

The usual argument supporting better CS in online RPGs is: these things are services, not just games. We need to offer good customer service in order to offer a good service. If we don't offer good service, then people will leave because they expect good service.

The problem is as I posted in the discussion on Scott's blog:

Jessica Mulligan wrote:

And I do believe that, all other things being equal, a top-notch customer service organization is a key differentiator.

The problem is: all things aren't equal. Some game is going to be newer. Or it'll have more of your friends playing it, and be more popular and therefore more '"cool". Or it'll be the "only game available" in most people's eyes. All these things far, FAR outweigh the considerations of CS; if they didn't then no one would play the games out there, and the industry would have died in the "I cannot help thee" era of CS.

For those of you that aren't up on your ancient online RPG history, "I cannot help thee with that" was a common phrase used by the CS representatives in the early days of UO. The CS reps were severely limited in what they could do, largely due to lack of effective tools. Yet, UO managed to survive for many years, and even grew while the CS was generally accepted as being absolutely terrible. After UO managed to improve their CS by hiring some smart, experienced people, the game grew faster but then declined rapidly. Good CS didn't spare UO its current fate as a shadow of its former self.

Even my own game, Meridian 59 has put a lot of stock in providing the best CS we can. More than half of our monthly expenses are attributed to CS wages; our representatives make just as much as I do. We're a small game with a small budget, but we spend a lot of our money in making sure the customers have good service. Yet, we aren't well-known for that and I don't think it has done much for our retention figures. Nostalgia and gameplay not available anywhere else are much more potent forces in keeping M59's players in the game.

The article Scott pointed to talked about having designers working as CSRs on occasion for them to "learn the game". Usually these discussions paint the developers as the bad guys, the people that turn an uncaring ear to the CSRs and by extension the players.

The reality is much different. When I was hired by 3DO to work on Meridian 59 way back when, one of the first things I did was go talk to the CSRs. It seem logical to me that these people would know a lot about the game. In fact, they did. They were good people and I think they did a great job overall.

But, these people were not developers.

Here's one example of what happened while I was at 3DO. I had developed a good relationship with the CS department. When I became the lead developer by attrition, I became very important in their eyes. The thing to remember is that CSRs do their job perfectly when the customer stops complaining. Unfortunately, there are some customers that won't stop complaining until the game is redesigned according to their whim.

So, the CSRs ran into one of these people. In order to do their jobs and to try to get this customer to stop complaining, they brought his ideas to the developers in meetings. "He thinks we should implement long-range spells for all the spell schools," one of the CSRs told me in a meeting. "But, the Faren school of spells has bolts, and that's unique to the school," I would reply, keeping an eye on game balance. "Well, yes, but Faren isn't popular," they'd respond. "So, we should make it even less popular by taking away a unique aspect of the school?" was the obvious response. I've shortened and paraphrased the exchange a bit, but you should get the idea.

So, we wasted company time discussing a player's suggestions that were merely made to make his character more powerful. Now, I don't fault the CSRs for doing this; as I explained, they were doing their job to the best of their ability. But, they were preventing me from doing my job by taking up my limited time. And I'm the one that had to explain to my manager how attending these CSR meetings was worthwhile for me.

Allow me to give a second example. There was one customer that was very lonely in her offline life. I was told that she was morbidly obese and limited in mobility. She had an M59 account, but she preferred to talk to people on the phone. So, like clockwork, she would call our CS department to talk to one of the CSRs. She usually asked for one CSR in particular because she liked his voice. She usually took at least an hour of the CSR's time to talk about almost nothing game-related. She was using 3DO's CS as $30/month therapy. We were almost certainly not making a profit off of this customer; eventually, we had to ignore her calls.

Obviously, you can't ignore CS entirely. Running a game without a CS department is not as profitable as running a game with one: people will have troubles and if you can spend a bit of money to avoid them giving up in frustration then you will make money. But, the goal really is to provide the minimum amount of CS necessary to keep people playing your game. Any more than that might make people feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it is likely just a waste of money.

And that is, honestly, why CS in online RPGs "sucks".

--







12 Comments »

  1. And, honestly, CS in many industries sucks. As mentioned before, I've had problems with the components I bought to put together a new computer system. In the past, most hardware manufacturers allowed you to send parts back to them directly. These days, however, you have to send the parts back to the point of purchase. This includes big hardware companies like Western Digital and Asus. I have to call up and twist the arms of the computer dealers at the computer show I went to in order get them to take the items back. Just not fun.

    Customers will put up with a lot of abuse, as we've seen repeatedly as the largest online RPGs seem to consistently have the worst CS.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 May, 2005 @ 2:50 AM

  2. CS is a retention tool.

    People won't buy your game because you have great CS.

    People WILL quit your game because you have lousy CS.

    Comment by Scott Jennings — 13 May, 2005 @ 6:56 AM

  3. The problem is, Scott, I've seen nothing to indicate this. As I posted on your site, the top games have had what is generally considered to be poor CS yet have done just as good a job of retaining customers as the rest. Games with superb CS haven't always dodged the bullet, either.

    Understand me, I'm not saying that CS is completely unimportant. But CS honestly does not appear to be as crucial as people think it is. Other aspects play a much more important role in retaining customers, such as the age of the game, the relative popularity, etc.

    It's time we start being honest with ourselves.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 May, 2005 @ 3:54 PM

  4. Customer Service Is A Waste Of Time
    Brian kicked out the notion that customer service doesn't matter. I thought I'd respond with an even more modest proposal: Customer service as we know it is a waste of money. Consider:

    CSR payrolls can easily suck up just as much money as ongoin...

    Trackback by Feet of Clay — 13 May, 2005 @ 7:14 PM

  5. I have played DAoC off and on since release. I played Shadowbane, and WoW, both at release.

    I have seen many people quit these games. Not a dang one quit because CS sucked.

    Did people quit because of bugged ToA quests? Yes.
    Did people quit because of SB.exe errors? Yes.
    Did people quit because WoW end game is boring? Yes.

    The thing is - every now and then someone will claim they quit because of CS. The problem is, this frequently falls into one of two categories:

    #1. It wasn't really CS - it was a game breaking issue, that CS couldn't do anything about.

    #2. It is the last straw. THe straw that broke the camel's back. The person was on there way out the door, and it gave them the final tug.

    Maybe it is just the type of gamer I am - and the people that I am around. But CS just isn't what decides whether we play or not.

    Comment by Wasse — 13 May, 2005 @ 8:54 PM

  6. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here in that I don't really know what I'm talking about, not having worked on an MMO, although I have written software and helped run a call center. However, I've never let ignorance shut me up before.

    I think that what CSRs need to do their jobs is already needed in MMOs. You need to log people and their possessions. You need to track what is said and done. You need to be able to confirm that your software actually performs as designed and written. And you need to be able to do that without being a programmer or spending hours playing.

    In other words, you need data and you need a way to quickly analyse that data. You need it for debugging, you need it for testing, you need it for QA/QC, you need it for design, and you need it for CS. So the hardest part, designing data collection systems, needs to be done anyway. If you do that right, then the biggest remaining task is putting practical front ends on it.

    And that is where you can actually save money on CS. If you can appropriately integrate your CS tools into your player client, you have the ability to help players resolve their own problems. That will help retention and cut CS costs.

    As I say, I don't actually know what I'm talking about, but from what I can see, MMOs are still generally being built as games, independant of the other functions of the business. We need to start building systems, which service customers, not just players.

    Comment by Evangolis — 14 May, 2005 @ 12:24 AM

  7. Greetings, Psychochild, and much love! As one of the aforementioned M59 CSRs, I fully appreciate the points you make and thank you for the kindness. Evangolis makes a strong point about the availablility of CS tools within the client as well. I'd like to mention to Scott that in my extensive experience CSRs are not the direct cause of player attrition. Griefers that eat up disproportionate CS resources are going to be your biggest CS cost. The 'good' players will leave if the griefers cannot be reigned in, and this circles back to effective CS tools.

    Comment by GuardianKana — 14 May, 2005 @ 11:13 AM

  8. As one of Meridian 59's CURRENT CSR's, I tend to walk on both sides of the fence. I generally think that CS is a large waste of time, about 90% of the time. Most of it could be handled through email and take up about 1-2 hours a day. However, when it IS needed in game, you better not be without.

    I think the best way around this issue is multitasking. If you don't have a huge game which needs a 24 hours CS team of 30 people, take the few people you do have, and train them on other things to do during the off time. I started off doing CS most of the time, but just the other day when I had a few hours of downtime I fixed some lingering problems on our website, set up an event, and worked out some kinks in a new referral system we have.

    Comment by NPC2 — 20 May, 2005 @ 7:13 PM

  9. Well, to be fair all small companies have to multitask. I can't just say "I'm a writer" and leave it at that. I have to do business stuff, I have to do taxes, I have to work with the lawyers, I have to do CS when required.

    Again, I didn't say that you can do away with CS entirely; I think that's a foolish attitude to have. But, I think that CS as we currently have it costs too much. How much is an appropriate amount? How can you work smarter instead of more expensively? These are the interesting questions.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 May, 2005 @ 3:25 PM

  10. Being newly free'd from the MMP industry, let me just say that I think you're completely correct. CS does not matter. I've heard the rants from Jessica and co, I've heard the fans screem, but I simply don't buy it. Every shred of proff points to this:

    1. Your biggest complainer will never actually quit your game. He'll threaten, tell you how much it sucks, how much your CS sucks, and how he's going to quit and take his guild of 7,000 people with him. But he'll never actually leave. He'll even quit, post a screenshot of himself quiting, and then reactivate his account.

    I remember trying to tell one of our customers to leave during the AC1 years. He kept threatening, and I kept responding "Go ahead, I really don't need your $10 a month, none of it goes to me anyway". I don't think MS really liked hearing me say that in a public forum, but generally these people cost you far more money than you'll ever make of them, and hurt your game much more than they help it.

    2. The games with the worst CS reputation are the largest games. This points to the true nature of the beast, that the causes of people leaving become more obviscated with the scale of these games. The resentment curve becomes longer (ie: They play longer because thier friend are there, and generally hate the developers more for it), you're less likely to have any kind of community cohesion, and the community attitude quickly moves from small town -> mall -> ny city as the population grows. I generally find the community in these games is best during beta, or after the popularity of the game begins to drop and then stabalize.

    3. The only CS that really helps the community is the CS done by the community. During the early years of AC1 we had an excellent player CS layer, and only one or two actual staff members providing CS. Players love the game and want to help run it, we should let them, and find some legal way to protect ourselves in the process. The UO lawsuit put an end to much of this, but I was glad to see DAOC bring some aspects of it back. It's much harder for the players to turn CS into the enemy when the players are the CS, and generally players have the time to spend on some of the more expensive CS issues.

    4. Most customers don't even use the CS anyway. Unless your game is filled with annoying bugs (hey, I'm stuck) which must be handled by a CS representative, the majority of players won't have significant use for CS.

    5. CS is really only an asset when there is little difference between two products. If the thing I'm buying is the same from either place, good CS will be a much larger factor in the choice of providers. However, if I want to play Puzzle Pirates, I only have one place to go. Of course, with this risk adverse industry, it's not like the games are that different anyway; I can get the basic graphical Diku mud gameplay in, oh, a dozen places now.

    Comment by Jason Booth — 22 May, 2005 @ 7:42 PM

  11. Voices through time

    Stumbling around doing some research last night, I came across a very interesting article:
    Online Gaming: Why Won't They Come? (http://www.gamasutra.com/features/business_and_legal/19980227/online_gaming_why_intro.htm) by the infamous Jessica Mullig...

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 13 March, 2006 @ 3:22 AM

  12. Customer Service still does not matter...

    Matt Mihaly posted a blog entry about poor CS on an airline (http://forge.ironrealms.com/2007/02/26/the-nature-of-customer-service/). The airline basically screwed over a vacation he was looking forward to because the airline couldn't find a crew for...

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 27 February, 2007 @ 10:19 PM

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