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Jess Lebow's MMO Story Hour: Got Game... Demo?

A tale from the tenches of a high stakes whirlwind press tour through Manhattan. This week, Lebow's column gives us a first hand account of the press demo from the developer's perspective.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there is actually a lot more to developing an MMO than simply sitting around, playing games, and bullshitting about what would be cool. Okay, so we do a fair amount of that, but designers and writers have other duties as well. We have meetings. We create and update internal wikis. We proofread. We put together design documents. You get the picture…

And, things go wrong in these arenas as well.

One of those other duties (which I must admit I really quite enjoy) is showing off your game for prospective publishers, potential investors, and interested (and sometimes not-so-interested) press.

While I was working on Pirates of the Burning Sea, we did a one-day whirlwind tour of some of the major press in New York. These were serious new outlets—AOL, CNN, Newsweek, Playboy, etc… Big players who reach millions of viewers/readers/players—and they only give space to the top handful of games.

I can think of two other meetings over the course of that development cycle that were as big as this trip. One wouldn’t happen for another four months—a surprise pitch to the head of Sony Pictures at E3, back before SOE became part of SCEA. The other was almost a year earlier, when we were shopping the game to prospective publishers, before we had agreed to work with Sony.

In other words, this press tour was important for us, and we knew it.

By “us” I mean Rusty William—the CEO of Flying Lab Software and my stalwart demoing partner through every one of these tough meetings—and Susan Lusty, our PR juggernaut. (Yes, that is her real name. And yes, she is a juggernaut in that she is very, very good at her job.)

In order to actually demo an MMO, you have to run both a client and a server. You can do this with a dual-core machine (and we do a lot of developing this way, so we can test our changes before we check them in to the real game), but with a laptop this often produces less-than-ideal results. Oftentimes there is a lot of lag, so to remedy this, we bring two laptops and run one as the server and the other as the client. On this particular trip, to save space, instead of bringing two full-fledged laptops, we brought one bad-ass machine and this tiny little UMPC, a 9-inch touch screen laptop that has most of the functionality of a regular laptop. We used the UMPC as the server, and it worked like a charm.

Inside MTV, we set up in a conference room overlooking the Hudson River. Posters of Sting and Madonna looked down on us as we began our pitch. Everything seemed to be going fine. The guy was an avid gamer and pirate fan, so we were all getting along well. Everyone was smiling and having a good time, when suddenly the screen started to wobble.

The video card had gone out, right in the middle of our pitch. If you’re old enough to remember what it was like to try to tune your television with rabbit ears and having a difficult time getting your favorite channel to come in clearly, then you have a pretty good idea what our game looked like. We had managed to get through character creation without a problem, then this. If we’d had another laptop, we could have just swapped the two and run the client on the other one, but the UMPC didn’t have a keyboard and Pirates hadn’t been developed as a touch-screen game.

We had scheduled some time for lunch between meetings, which we instead used to run to the local electronics store and buy a new laptop. That accomplished, we still needed to put the client on the new machine, which was going to take some time.

Our next appointment was with Newsweek, so we made our way to the tiny, stark marble lobby of their high-rise building, sat down on the floor, and got to work. Now remember, this was only a few years after September 11th, and New York was still on high alert. They didn’t really take too kindly to a couple of guys with a bunch of high-tech equipment camping out in their lobby and poking wires into things. And we were asked, politely but firmly, to “please leave.”

That’s when Susan “juggernaut” Lusty got on the phone. With a bunch of quick talking and a fair amount of effort trying to calm the security team in the lobby, we were eventually escorted to a storage closet inside the Newsweek offices, where we were allowed to finish our file transfers. While Rusty was busy doing the technical work, Susan and I made conversation with the columnist we had barged in on nearly an hour early.

This is the part of game development that they never list in a job description. How to entertain someone—whom you’ve just met, who knows you’re stalling, and in this case was one of the smartest people I had ever encountered—long enough to let your boss, who’s in the storage closet, fix the laptop so you can give a successful demo and hopefully get an article written about your game.

Try summarizing that for your resume.

The final appointment of the day was supposed to be at AOL. But the person we were meeting had a lunch appointment that went long. Our options were to cancel the meeting, or come find her in downtown Manhattan.

We met her at the restaurant, and I actually had to get on my belly and slide under a table in order to plug the laptop in, which was only slightly more fun than having a cavity filled.

The woman we were demoing for didn’t seem at all interested in the game. She barely raised an eyebrow at character creation (something that had received a great reaction from nearly everyone we’d shown the game to), and to be honest I wouldn’t have pegged her as someone who knew the difference between an Xbox and a Playstation, let alone someone who would be interested in an MMO.

But other than having to rub my body all over the high-traffic floor of a New York restaurant, covered in who knows what, the demo went off without another hitch. And to our surprise, she wrote a terrific preview piece. I guess you can’t judge a gamer by her cover, eh?

All told, I think we gave eight pitches that day. A couple of them went off perfectly. Most of them had some sort of minor emergency we had to overcome. In the end, we did all right. These sorts of things happen all the time in this industry, but it’s difficult to translate the skills necessary for survival into line items in a job posting. Then again, how do you know you’re going to have to ask someone to climb around on the floor to plug in a demo machine? Or, perhaps fend off a surly security guard who thinks your bundle of wires may be a bomb?

I guess you don’t. So instead, you advertise for people to come play games and bullshit about cool design ideas, and you hope they don’t mind getting their hands dirty.

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Jess Lebow's MMO Story Hour
Jess Lebow is a veteran story teller, game writer, and novelist. He’s been in the game industry for over 10 years, working on titles ranging from Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons to Guild Wars and Pirates of the Burning Sea. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
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