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Best Of GDC: BioWare's French On Building Mass Community

Continuing Gamasutra's best of GDC 2008 series, BioWare Live team producer Derek French discusses the nuts and bolts of community building from forums to online patching to mod support, starting with its init
BioWare Live team producer Derek French has been on the team for about five years, and at the 2008 Game Developers conference, he discussed the nuts and bolts of community building for an online team. BioWare's Live team originated with Neverwinter Nights -- Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk felt that having the Live team would work out well, despite the fact that it was a non-traditional format. "The idea was that we'd have the game dev team work on the game itself, and focused on the expansion packs that were going to come out for Neverwinter Nights," he explains. So originally, the Live team was created to let the development team focus better. "One of the first things we really wanted was an integrated login system between our community forums and our game accounts," he explains, wanting to eliminate the need for various player online accounts and forum logins. "A lot of this stuff ended up being a lot of late nights; a lot of good ideas, a lot of bad ideas that had to be shot down." Starbucks was the fuel, he says, for the entire year before the team shipped. The Importance Of Forums A good set of forums is the cornerstone of a good community site, says French. "We ended up going with developing our own system... we also looked at a bunch of different CD key solutions for the multiplayer of Neverwinter Nights." "Ultimately, though, the team decided to develop its own CD key system, too, and there were several benefits: users could register on the forums for any games they purchase, which allowed the Live team to restrict certain discussions to actual game owners. The only problem was when users were allowed to have multiple accounts per email addresses. "It's really been a problem that we're still actually trying to resolve," he says. "You end up running into problems trying to gather statistics for your site -- posting habits, traffic, anything like that." In addition to complicating data mining, "it also screws you up when large international companies come in and try to buy up your company." The Live team decided to balance Live team staff with volunteer moderators. "People who want that kind of power never use it correctly... we look for people who post in a rational manner, are conscientious and polite." Those who ask to be mods, he says, always get denied. Now BioWare has a pool of twenty moderators from various time zones, and French says there haven't been any significant problems. French also knew several other things were needed for the forums. "You do have to have the ability to control how people post," he says, like limiting people from spamming posts or implementing a swear filter. "There were certain words we didn't just want to censor; we wanted to add in exceptions. Where this came into was when we found out that the town of Calimshite, and talking about things like cockatrices, suddenly starts getting you filtered left, right and center." Creating exceptions allowed users to have normal talks -- the swear filter can be used for other things beyond inappropriate language, also, such as spam posts or gold farmer solicitations. Filtered words have point values also -- posts that accumulate over a certain number of points merely get blocked. "So the next idea we had was... if you score ten or more points, we're going to temporarily ban you for the number of hours equal to the number of points you have." A funny story happened surrounding the points system: When the Australian release date for Neverwinter Nights was announced, a furious poster posted a ranting screed that got him banned for about 700 hours -- which just happened to coincide with the release of the game in Australia. Said French, "With a good set of forums, a good set of moderators, a good set of clear and consistent rules, you're going to make a place where your customers and your employees have a place... to have constructive talks about your game. We allow people to disagree with us, to call us crazy, to criticize everything we do -- as long as they do it in a respectful manner." Approaching Patching Given that NN was going to be a multiplayer game, French said the team knew there would have to be some kind of update system in place that didn't force patches onto users and let them control the process themselves. Patch sizes were kept to small, fast downloads geared to make it easier for people to check for and run updates. Even with an automatic patching system, he says, something's going to go wrong. "You always have to have a manual update system for your title," he stressed. "Otherwise you're just going to get people stuck in a situation where they're not able to update their game." Another interesting thing, French says, was the game's launch. "There was screaming, there was ranting, there were cries of outrage -- and that was just happening in my office," he joked. "Actually, in the forums it was about the same." So the staff piled into the forums, rolled up their sleeves and tried to get everybody launched as fast as possible. Then, it was time for the development team to get time off before they get back to working on the expansion packs -- and time for the live team to get to work. The Mac and Linux versions of the game were delayed, so a programmer with experience on those platforms was brought on to finish things up. "We started using the forums and bug reporting emails... then we started putting those bugs back to the dev team." After doing this for a while, he says the Live team programmers became versed enough in the code that they could make builds and fix bugs on their own and release updates synchronized with the dev team. The Mod Community In the early days of Neverwinter Nights, a lot of modules were coming out that were "pretty much entrance, monster, bad guy, treasure, and that was it. Knowing there was more that could be done with the toolset, the team set out to create more complex mods, like a card game, a catapult game, a dice bag with eight pieces of content. "After we started putting out all of these different modules, we started seeing more variety of modules coming out of the community." This example, he said, helped the community get more creative with modules. "With all the plans we had for how people would use our toolset, there were several times we would say something like, 'nah, they won't be able to do that.' And every time we said that, they came and proved us wrong," French added, praising the community. "Someone went out and made a 300-scale Lothlorien tile set placeable. We all just stood around our monitors, staring at this and shaking our heads in amazement. Every time we said they couldn't, they did. That was what caused us to realize that we need to give them even more information." Patches marched on, problems were found and fixed, and some mini-features requested by the community, like a database layer, were implemented. "It was a really good quid pro quo between us and the community," he said. "It worked out really well." One of the things French said the team ran into is that some of the community was finding it difficult to find games to play together in what he said was a "fairly rudimentary" server browser that just didn't work for a lot of people. "What we ended up doing was we used our forums and the software we had already developed, and developed a guild and registry system." This allowed characters to arrange to play together more readily outside of the server browser. Users even created their own matchmaking services. "The issue of community content was also something that caused us to have to deal with a lot of issues that we did not actually schedule for in the start," French continued. Having the community create content called for more error checking than originally planned for. French added that it was a mistake to expect the community would only use BioWare's tools to edit and create data. "From this, our game became more stable, but it was not something that we had allowed for... when allowing for community-made content." From Neverwinter To KOTOR When NN hit its lull and KOTOR was on the horizon, the PC team wanted to get a little more of a jump on the schedule. So they asked the Live team to help out by loaning a couple programmers, who began work on supporting the PC version. One of the first team the team found out was that they could re-use the NN updater for KOTOR. At that point, the team noticed a mistake had been made over the last several titles. "Whenever we had gone to make an autorun or a launcher or an installer... we had basically passed this off to a junior tools programmer sometime in the last 3 months of the project and said, 'here, go create an autorun'. What we'd end up doing is after several titles is we'd get these brand-new programs that made the same mistakes as in previous programs... we would get the same errors every time. We shouldn't have been doing it like this. So the decision was made for the Live team to take over these non-game utilities." Production is now much faster, contains all of the features and bug fixes developed along the way, and ends up producing a more robust set of tools. "This is your customer's first experience with your game title. They get the box, or complete the digital download... the very first thing they do is run into an autorun or a launcher. They haven't even gotten to your game yet. I found a little bit of frustration with other titles... with how these utilities work, how they treat the customer," he said. "It's not something that you want to leave to the last minute or put as a lower priority level in your game. If something goes wrong during that experience, you've already set them up for a bad experience. It's something you have to start earlier on in your project." With KOTOR, there were three updates released in some five languages, and the team moved on to the next project. NN had been running for three years, still had a vibrant community, and the team wondered what to do next. So the KOTOR team moved onto Mass Effect, while the Live team wanted to continue to leverage the NN community. So they conceived the idea of premium modules -- small adventures for users to purchase through the BioWare store. How to secure the content, though? It wouldn't be sold through retail channels or shipping as an executable, so the Live team used the CD keys for multiplayer as well as data encryption. The downside was that users were required to authenticate every time they started a new module or loaded a save game. They began to get modules from the community content creators, and during the process, Atari decided the project would be shut down. At this point, one final module in process by an external group was so close to being finished that the Live team was able to convince Atari to release one last premium module for the NN community. Next came Jade Empire. Already out for the Xbox, it was the team's first time making a PC title using an external developer, LTI Gray Matter, with 2K Games publishing. It was also the first team a BioWare game was completely available digitally, so it was built for sale in the BioWare Store. A midnight release aimed to minimize potential problems, and the Live team was ready. "Couple of bumps along the way... but it was a pretty good experience," said French. The Future Community The Live team is currently working on supporting Mass Effect for PC, being developed externally by Demiurge Studios for an estimated May 2008 release. Again, the team was able to re-use utilities like its autorun, configuration and installer. "In the future, we're planning on changing the current Live team structure," French explains. Currently the group had worked externally from the dev teams, but will look to embed themselves with the dev team as the group begins the Dragon Age project. They aim to continue to developing and expanding tools, and developing even more community features. French feels all developers should have a dedicated Live team, though he admits it's not for everyone -- it's a group of people that don't necessarily generate revenue unless they're doing downloadable content. But he strongly recommends it. It also has to be clear, he continues, what the Live team's mandate is. Areas of responsibility should be evaluated and clearly defined; one of these is support. "If you feel that either your team or your publisher aren't able to provide the quality of support that you want for your title, then this is one of the areas where you can set up a Live team." Another area is patch releases: "If you want to take more control over that, that's another spot... to make that a unified experience for you and your customers."

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