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News & Features Discussion  » General: Jess Lebow: Design By Bug

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Novice Member

Joined: 1/07/04
Posts: 2425

OP  5/06/09 3:35:56 PM#1

In this Wednesday's column, Jess Lebow presents "Design By Bug," an insider's look at how most MMOs are really assembled. Lebow has worked on Pirates of the Burning Sea and Guild Wars, as well as a being a novelist and writer for Wizards of the Coast and Magic the Gathering.

Each Wednesday, his column appears exclusively on this site.

MMOs regularly take more than five years to develop. (Some even longer.) Creating a fully realized virtual world just takes a long time. Even if you have a big team, there is still so much to do, that it’s not uncommon to have companies with well over a hundred employees working on just that one game.

With that many people, it’s often difficult to get everyone moving in the same direction. Don’t get me wrong. Every company has a core group of creatives whose job it is to create and maintain the vision for the game. But if these people are doing their jobs right, and they are trying to make a game that isn’t just a copy of something else in the marketplace (the serial numbers neatly covered up with a new art style), then they are pushing to break new ground. They are looking for new and interesting ways to innovate, come up with fun interaction types that give players a new experience, or find new ways to enhance old mechanics.

Check out Design By Bug.

Dana Massey
Formerly of
Currently Lead Designer for Bit Trap Studios


Novice Member

Joined: 3/04/04
Posts: 748

That is just my opion and we all know what THAT is good for!

5/06/09 5:19:43 PM#2



Now THAT was freakin hillarious!  Good story.

Say hello, To the things you've left behind. They are more a part of your life now that you can't touch them.


Advanced Member

Joined: 6/22/04
Posts: 117

5/06/09 5:24:51 PM#3

 Good wrte-up.  I'd really love to see this expanded upon in future articles.


An aside to, I like the new columnists you've been adding recently.  Sanya and Jess are nice additions.  I'm going to have to look at some of the other writers now to see if anyone else is new.  Keep it up!




Novice Member

Joined: 6/18/03
Posts: 56

5/06/09 6:01:04 PM#4

Great anecdote!  It exposes a rarely talked about but oft experienced side of the creative process.


Elite Member

Joined: 1/06/05
Posts: 18366

5/06/09 6:02:45 PM#5

I'm assuming that that "window" thing was in Guild Wars as I've witnessed that exact stame story telling mechanic in that game.

Thanks for the article. - S


Elite Member

Joined: 8/27/04
Posts: 8094

Perhaps tomorrow will be better.

5/06/09 7:00:53 PM#6

I wish i could remember the game but i cannot.Just in the last week there was one developer on this site that stated they actually had no vision,they created the game as it went along,and it was a big name title so ,not every game is well thought out before hand.

I tend to feel from my long experience around gaming that MANY developers grasp onto one or two niche ideas and go from there.When i see the mobs out in the world i also get the feel the world was just automated and the mobs scattered around with no planning.

Quests...i see oh so many quests that are just fetch me quests and  the side show ones just make you wander as far as they can to make you waste time.Planning?i don't buy it,most games are just money making ventures,we need true gamers to make games and not these old fashioned MUD geeks or some coder that spends 12 hours a day reading all the different languages.

How many games hire the main manager ,AFTER the game has already been implemented or in progress?I know WOW was looking for a lead direction manager on their secret MMO.So how can they already have a secret MMO thought out before they even have a lead manager?This is probably the BIGGEST reason we see so many poorly constructed games,they are not well thought out by true gamers,but more so started by a lead CEO who is thinking money and marketing.

Time frame? how can a developer put a time frame on developing a game ,if they have a vision?they have no idea how long it can take,they can guesstimate within a year i would say but nothing more.This is again why we see so many incomplete games,because the CEO has put a time limit on development and anything over that costs the developer money.So he has to save face by mis quoting cost of production by forcing early release.
Samoan Diamond

  Pemberton Columnist

Joined: 11/21/06
Posts: 5

5/06/09 7:31:55 PM#7



You have some good points. And we could argue about hiring strategies for all eternity. I could even give you a bunch of really good reasons for why you might hire a lead designer/creative/manager after you've already established funding. But none of those reasons is ideal, and as you say, the person or persons driving the vision of the game should be in place long before you get into real production.


I can't speak for other companies, but when I was working on this particular game (which was correctly guessed as Guild wars), the key visionaries were hired before production ever began. I am a firm believer that this is why the game hangs together so well and does not, as you point out, make players do a lot of unnecessary or mindless questing. Could some of the design or story have been better or tighter? Sure, but my point is the more planning you can do up front the better your game will be. We did a lot, and the game was well-received because of it. 


As far as timeframe, well, as an industry we've made a lot of games. We have a pretty good idea how long it should take at this point. But again, I would acquiesce and say that you are essentially right. There is probably a variation from project to project of about one year. I've never worked on a game that didn't slip at least a year. Again, that was my point. That MMOs just take a long time to make. Usually longer than you expect.




Novice Member

Joined: 1/07/04
Posts: 2425

OP  5/06/09 8:39:20 PM#8
Originally posted by JDexter

 Good wrte-up.  I'd really love to see this expanded upon in future articles.


An aside to, I like the new columnists you've been adding recently.  Sanya and Jess are nice additions.  I'm going to have to look at some of the other writers now to see if anyone else is new.  Keep it up!




Right now we're running with four columnists, but the more you guys read/react the more I will try and bring in. =) All four are listed on the main page just under the square ad.

Dana Massey
Formerly of
Currently Lead Designer for Bit Trap Studios


Novice Member

Joined: 4/16/06
Posts: 897

5/06/09 8:47:36 PM#9

Well then, I will add a vote to bring in more columnists. I find it very interesting to get a glimpse behind the curtain of game development. And these articles have the added bonus of being intelligently written. I'm enjoying them all.


Novice Member

Joined: 9/17/04
Posts: 26

5/06/09 11:46:17 PM#10

Good article.  It's nice to see more news items like this related to MMO's as a whole starting to pop up.


Advanced Member

Joined: 1/19/06
Posts: 460

5/07/09 3:21:21 AM#11

I like to hear about the insights of how games are made.  Stuff like this, I didn't even think that developers even did, running an escort quest.  I just assumed this stuff worked as the code was written haha.

It's funny to see a dev get confused about stuff like this, good read....Also, I too also like this new columns into the insights of MMOs.  There is so much stuff people like me take advantage of and have no real clue of the behind the scene's stuff.  Like, the "Server Stability Blues" article, I just assumed when a server died, it was because the hamster had a heart attack or something!

I Reject your Reality and Substitute it with My Own!


Novice Member

Joined: 8/08/04
Posts: 46

5/07/09 7:30:42 AM#12

Good article.  Now I know more of the story of Prince Rurik's rescue mission.



Advanced Member

Joined: 1/09/08
Posts: 615

5/07/09 8:01:47 AM#13

Originally posted by SoliTear
Good article.  Now I know more of the story of Prince Rurik's rescue mission.

my thoughts exactly
i think its the Ruins of Surmia mission

Have fun storming the castle! - Miracle Max


Hard Core Member

Joined: 2/27/07
Posts: 7154

5/07/09 9:13:15 AM#14

Well Jess, the big problem with game design today is that the developers use existing MMO's as a boilerplate for their ideas.  Hardly original and the reason the industry has not had much glowing success lately with new MMO's.

You can lay the blame for this directly at the feet of Smedley and McQuaid for their design of EQ.  They were the ones who instigated rigid class lines and levels in MMO's. Probably the D&D people are equally to blame as they probably influenced the development of EQ.  Now most developers out there are afraid to break the mold.

So a design meeting today starts out with what is good that we should copy from other MMO's and is there something we should change in the way it works.   That is the problem, there is no originality of thinking any more.  All I see any more is a dumbing down of the genre.  Developers seem to avoid having players work for anything.

So discussing how a game gets designed today is more like how can we copy so and so and avoid making anything challenging.


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Joined: 5/13/06
Posts: 310

There are only 10 kinds of people in the world. Those that understand Binary and those that do not.

5/07/09 11:35:08 AM#15

LOLOL, This article is great and I can defintely attest to some of the same issues while developing Force of Arms. I was working on one quest in which I had to go fetch something from an NPC. Everything spawned just fine the whole quest was working except for the several iterations of re-writing the quest text because it was too long. I got to the part where I had to talk to the NPC and forgot code had called for a Patrol for the npc so that he would continue randomly running along a path. Well as I click on the NPC and go to move the quest to the next stage the NPC runs off and closes my window. So i run after him and try again. He repeats and I try again....5 times just to try to get the quest finished because of one line of code that sends the NPC carreening off at warp speed in a random direction for so many seconds...lolol


Great read...feel your pain brother...oh and I have since fixed that darn quest so he's more stationary ...:D  Now npc's are put in first as static and then later given attributes like patrols...

  Pemberton Columnist

Joined: 11/21/06
Posts: 5

5/07/09 1:20:49 PM#16



While I can't entirely disagree with you, I do believe there is value in knowing the marketplace. There are some mechanics that are taken for granted by the industry, and, well, they should be.


Everybody has gone through a change of operating systems, right? Maybe it was from Windows XP to Vista, or maybe it was Apple OS 9 to OS 10, or whatever. But do you remember how difficult it was to reorganize the way you thought about interacting with your computer? Nevermind if you liked the change or not, there was a period of exploration that was required by you, the user, in order for you to change your habits and learn a new system.


Sometimes that's necessary and good. But if it's done too often or without reason then you should really take a look at why you feel the need to reinvent the system. A good example of this in MMOs is the quest bang. People get it. You click on the guy with the shiny over his head, and he tells you something important. I, personally, have tried to find a system that would take the quest bang out of the equation. My goal was to more fully immerse players in the world, and not break the fourth wall by adding a piece of art that clearly doesn't belong. But do you know what I found? People understand what it means to click on an NPC with a bang. They know if they do they'll be given a mission. I don't have to teach them anything new. I don't have to worry about them getting lost. They don't have to be frustrated by a new, potentially complex set of rules, but can instead focus on the fun parts of game play. If your underlying system is quest based, then why change a delivery device that players all already get?


So there are things, a lot of things, that make sense to copy from previous games. But at the end of the day you are right in that the industry will never grow and we will never get the next generation of games if EVERYTHING is simply copied from the last game. (If the serial numbers are just covered up by a new art style.) I think you are right in that there needs to be more innovation, and that MMOs need to push the genre. Stories need to be better, game mechanics need to be mixed up and improved, and the overall box we are in needs to grow.


However, as far as laying the blame at someone's feet goes, I think you're being unfair. If you don't like a particular game, blame the lead designer or the founders of the company. But those guys aren't responsible for the game the next studio over is making. Saying that one or two high-profile figures are to blame for the lack of creativity in the industry is just wrong. If you don't like EQ or D&D, fine. But if the next game to come out is unimaginative, that's only the fault of the guys who made it.

  Pemberton Columnist

Joined: 11/21/06
Posts: 5

5/07/09 1:22:48 PM#17



Haha! I've had that problem too. NPC patrol routes are another one of those things, like escorts, that make sense but need some extra TLC to really work.




Advanced Member

Joined: 4/03/04
Posts: 359

Assholes and Elbows! Stay frosty people...

5/07/09 2:54:15 PM#18
Originally posted by Dana 

Right now we're running with four columnists, but the more you guys read/react the more I will try and bring in. =) All four are listed on the main page just under the square ad.

I have to agree with the others, these new columns are a really interesting insight to the inner workings of the games we all love to play, most of which normally remains a mystery until we get to try them out ourselves.

Great Stuff!

Nice to meet you Jess!


Novice Member

Joined: 11/22/06
Posts: 1570

5/07/09 4:34:21 PM#19

Good read as always!

I think the reasuring Daniel Jackson face is a cheat tho ;)

Maybe if you had a columist that looked like Jack Oneil or some other favored Character like Jean Luc Picard then I think people would read them no matter what was said xD


Anyway back to the article...

I think the last paragraph was most interesting, because as a developer you clearly stumble upon things which turn out to be great ideas,  but this is also fun for players...  MMO's are by now, known to most people and everyone comes to expect the usual, even in a different guise, but its those unexpected / random things which developers put in games which, for a lack of a better expression 'tickles the excitment'

If a developer could somehow add more of those random, un-expected things then maybe the mmo genré can be given a fresh breath of life.

At the moment, before an MMO is released we have loads of articles about how AMAZING and PERFECT the game is, everyones excitment reaches untold levels of anticipation, only to be completly let down by the usual grind fest. and cut'n'paste quests.

I read so much about AoC before it was released, I was so excited, but what a complete let down.

My only question would be, why dont dev's write more about the way they are developing thier game? not specifics of course but this idea of everyone getting together and brainstorming, instead of this cone of silence and the usual "this game is going to be awesome because x" attitude.


Novice Member

Joined: 12/30/07
Posts: 17

5/08/09 9:00:38 AM#20
Originally posted by Pemberton



Sometimes that's necessary and good. But if it's done too often or without reason then you should really take a look at why you feel the need to reinvent the system. A good example of this in MMOs is the quest bang. People get it. You click on the guy with the shiny over his head, and he tells you something important. I, personally, have tried to find a system that would take the quest bang out of the equation. My goal was to more fully immerse players in the world, and not break the fourth wall by adding a piece of art that clearly doesn't belong. But do you know what I found? People understand what it means to click on an NPC with a bang. They know if they do they'll be given a mission. I don't have to teach them anything new. I don't have to worry about them getting lost. They don't have to be frustrated by a new, potentially complex set of rules, but can instead focus on the fun parts of game play. If your underlying system is quest based, then why change a delivery device that players all already get?


I think you are right in that there needs to be more innovation, and that MMOs need to push the genre. Stories need to be better, game mechanics need to be mixed up and improved, and the overall box we are in needs to grow.


I really liked this article. It reminded me of my very first escort quest, in EQ, CT, following the Gnome, killing spawned raptors. It was difficult and rewarding different and--most importantly--fun. Thanks for that. :)

Certainly knowing the market is good; reinventing the wheel is silly and evolving it or learning from it is not. Starting from scratch just for the sake of it would be hard on resources and probably manifest little gain--though, I don't work in the industry so I'm just making an educated guess. I do program, and Don't Repeat Yourself is a good principle.

I would absolutely love for the quest bang to disappear. I'm a big immersion player though; casual, but I don't want the game to be played for me (I'm looking at you, WoW). I loved "talking" to NPCs in EQ, and I'm really sad that isn't done anywhere else. Combine that with EQ2's voice-overs and it would be a great system--for me--and there's the problem. Every (good?) MMOG is a niche MMOG. I guess there isn't one for me yet. You can't please everyone, certainly not at this scale. I would love it if, instead of a "!" over their head, they said "Hey, come over here!" in their language when I came in proximity. If I hail them, they say something like "I could use some [help]". I get that introducing a new mechanic, like removing bangs for this, is different and scary, but as you said, when you go from PC to Mac you have to learn some new things. The problem I guess is two fold:

1. One needs to define who they're targetting. For me, it would be an RPer I suppose. Someone that enjoys pretending they're in another place, not so much getting to the highest level as fast as possible.

2. Are the changes an improvement? Are you pushing the genre? Innovating? Is it a good innovation? I suppose there could be bad innovations (like, IMHO, instancing).

I don't know of any MMOGs that do this currently, really. Nobody wants to make a difficult game, I guess because nobody thinks a sustainable amount of players want to play a difficult game. I don't count EQ anymore; that's a sad, abandoned, much too large a place nowadays. I'm glad some people are finally experimenting with skill-based games (I loved Shadowbane for this) and even no levels. The levels and classes always seemed (to me) to be a disconnected system that shouldn't be used, but served a purpose for players. I can't help but think that there's a more fitting way to do that, though.

I agree that there needs to be more innovation and experimentation. Maybe with cookie-cutter engines available, we'll see more of this. Unfortunately, we may also see a huge increase in the number of games (we are already), which may just fragment the population and make the games less MM, making experimentation more risky. I'm eagerly awaiting the Trion game, which sounds on paper like it will be more dynamic. Currently, games aren't much more dynamic than EQ was: simple scripts. The NPCs don't interact or react, really, there's very little AI. I think this is an area that could really use some attention. I read that Darkfall has better than usual NPC AI. Lore is sorely lacking also. Not the availability of it, certainly not, but the integration of it. I remember in EQ figuring out the lore as I was playing. Later on I read about some of it. In newer games, it's such a non-important part that it's almost irrelevant. I know almost nothing about WoW's lore, even though I played for years. I know the names of factions, but not their history. In EQ I learned that through reading NPC text (because you had to pay more attention), being KoS, watching NPCs fight each other, rather than clicking Accept and just checking how many Boars to slay.

Maybe it's just me, but I think the changes in questing have gone backwards in overall gameplay. They undermine some aspects of the game, but do make it easier to fly through to the higher levels, and probably ultimately raise subscriptions. I played EQ for over four years, and had fun for all four years. I played WoW since closed beta, but got bored after six months of release. WoW had a much longer tail in terms of my gameplay; it became a glorified chat server much sooner. If I had other things to do, I would've dropped it after those six months. Fortunately (if you're a Blizzard employee) I'm an anti-social nerd.

I do wonder, though, about "living" games. Writing above about EQ being too big and abandoned made me think about something I've thought would be good for the game, though risky, as all changes are. What if the game actually evolved instead of just getting fatter? Why do companies come up with a defined set of mechanics, and not change them later or implement new ideas? As far as I know, people don't patent things like public quests (yet). EQ's world is huge, and mostly empty. Everything post-Velious could be removed, nobody goes to old zones any more. These zones are wasted space and time, yet they keep adding new places. Why not change Blackburrow to a higher-level dungeon (perhaps gradually, perhaps affected by player action)? Put new quests in old cities, make the world more dynamic, integrated, dependent on itself. Sort of designers versus players. Maybe make magic items more rare, introduce damage to help money drain in the economy...there are a lot of things they could do to bring the game up to current gameplay standards and fix some problems, but they don't. The main idea is to make the world and it's mechanics evolutionary. I suppose they are worried about alienating their current players, but really I think EQ could last another 10 years if they did things like this.

Anyway this is probably a good time to stop. :P Thanks again!

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