Gordon Walton is best left with the last word at this year's Austin Game Conference MMO Rant session. He'll want to have it, might as well give it to him.
"... You're all a bunch of whiny little b----es," he said. "'We're all victims of the guys with the money!' No. Guess who signs up to make the game. Guess who along the way decides to change things. ... Guess who won't stand up and lose their job rather than ship s--t. I put myself in there. I've done that. I've made bad decisions ... many more times than most people here in this room ... I think the challenge here is, are we agents of our lives, or are we victims? We're talking about, oh, it's going to come from the top down. Well guess what, if nobody will work for those schmucks, it'll come from the bottom up. ... What are they going to do? They don't know how to put it on a disc. ...
"The other thing is, we're not holding up our end. Somewhere along the way we caved and promised something we couldn't deliver. So you can't say it's the other guy, it's some other motherf---er. No, it's not. Everybody in this thing is responsible for what happens. Every single person on the team had a opportunity to do better. And I'd like to see more people think about how they're going to make it happen rather than sit up and rant and b---- about it."
"Your time's up."
That last comment was panel moderator Jessica Mulligan at the discussion entitled "MMO Rant" at the Austin Game Conference. Walton had briefly taken a spot on the panel, in place of Mythic Entertainment general manager Marc Jacobs, who was scheduled to attend but was reportedly too sick to travel to Austin, and gave up his speech for the recently independent Matt Firor, formerly employed by Mythic as producer of Dark Age of Camelot
. Walton's partner at Bioware Austin, Rich Vogel, stayed on the panel, as did Lorin Jameson, technical director for Sony Online's Austin studio, and Scott Jennings, senior designer at NCSoft and longtime Web site critic of massively-multiplayer games.
This panel, offered twice before at the conference, was the professionals' chance to seem a little less than professional in their complaints about their jobs. None of them talked about their own projects or offered much in the way of solutions to what ailed them, or even to be entirely original in their complaints – that wasn't the point. Rather, if there was just one beyond catharsis, it was to illustrate that the same concerns persist year after year. Laughter followed most of the time, despite the pointy verbal barbs.
Jennings, first on the panel to rant, was most topical. Focusing on "service after the sale," he defined it as including in-game customer service and back-end support that enable the most basic things necessary for a MMO experience – a successful Internet connection to the game server and patches for the software. Picking on conference keynote speaker Rob Pardo of Blizzard, whose World of Warcraft
is currently the largest in the market, he praised the amount of money Blizzard has reportedly spent on in-game customer support but criticized its patch system.
Players are like "ravenous locusts," Jennings said, and while Blizzard releases patches with updates to the game regularly, he said they're not as accessible as they ought to be. The system "is best described as, 'Let's make something so frustrating, people will just post the damned patches for me,'" he said, adding that he had a FilePlanet account just to download new WoW patches.
"Part of our primary service of an MMO provider is providing the damned MMO." The second part, said Jennings, is just being there – letting customers play when they want, as expected, instead of waiting in line – something else WoW
doesn't always provide. Further, MMO services should provide respect in the form of competent relations with its players, treating them as people rather than piggy banks.
Of particular annoyance to Jennings was the announcement by the remade Acclaim Games, now a MMO publisher, to use in-game advertising in a novel way, tying character advancement to how long the player views an ad and patenting the process with apparent disregard to how it might affect gameplay, immersion or story. "Dave Perry," Scott said, "If you're here, run."
As Vogel expressed, Jennings was a hard act to follow. He, Jameson and Firor (who admittedly had only minutes to prepare comments) made more free-form comments about the production processes of MMOs. Vogel praised Pardo for his emphasis on not being in a rush to release a game, but lamented the lack of innovation in the genre, at least outside of Asia. WoW
's success seems to have pushed many business-types to look for ways to copy or re-skin WoW
, Vogel said, rather than focus on innovation, which could reach the mass market that no game, not even WoW
, has reached. "Looking out at E3 this year, there is nothing innovative coming out in the next three years, and that's pretty sad."
Jameson took the counterpoint to Vogel, declaring that "copying" was fine in design, so long as the right lessons were learned. Game designers have often deconstructed the game and come up with bare feature lists which often aren't applicable to all other sorts of games. Execution is the real challenge, Jameson said, and a large part of WoW
's success is that it wasn't a broken game when it shipped. "That's the lesson to be learned, and yet that's the one that the industry refuses to learn."
"So we're not only thieves," Mulligan quipped, "we're bad thieves." Jameson conceded the point, adding that lackluster approaches to game development used to be something developers could get away with, but not anymore.
Mulligan's rant was a "Stephen Colbert"-style slideshow meant to parody the typical pitches by game developers, some of which she hears as a consultant, complete with the title "DarkAge of the WarcraftStrike
." Prefacing her rant as a plea to venture capitalists and angel investors to "stop funding crappy games," she warned that the MMO genre might be mirroring what happened between the years of 1994 and 1997. Then, more than 100 MMO projects were allegedly in production, though only a handful made it to release. "Three hundred million dollars down a rathole," she said.
Firor started his rant by taking Jennings' comments to task. Is WoW
really a failure, he asked, just because it can't push patches to all of its 7 million-plus customers, a problem he called "enviable" to have to solve. Blizzard will no doubt solve the problem all on its own, he said. Further, he asserted that even creations now considered classic, like the works of Shakespeare, could seem derivative if seen through the right eyes. So what if games made in the past few years don't seem innovative, he said, if players still want to get in the game. Later, during a question and answer period, Firor responded to a question with the warning that a game's innovation can't take the place of it being fun. "Games that try to be innovative and not fun, usually end up being neither."
"Traitor," Mulligan answered.