13 May, 2005
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".