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Matt Miller: Prioritizing Bugs

Column By Matthew Miller on March 05, 2013

When players see a new patch for their favorite MMO, the first thing many do is scour the bug list to see if their pet-peeve bug has finally been addressed. Especially if the patch is big, and there are a ton of fixes. More often than not, their “game-breaking” bug goes ignored for yet another cycle.

I put “game-breaking” in quotes because it’s very subjective. Some players put immersion-breaking into the same category as game-breaking because a bug is ruining their experience with the game, thus breaking it for them. A true game breaking bug is what we call a “progression stopper” (at one point in my career they were called Class A bugs, but that nomenclature has gone out of fashion about 10 years ago.) These bugs literally stop a player from progressing in the game and are the absolute highest priority to fix.

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Next highest priority is bugs that cause a lot of Customer Service complaints. A valued reward not dropping, a popular griefing tactic, not getting credit for a side-quest, etc. Anything that causes a player to bring up the “file ticket” box and submit a problem they want to see CS resolve favorably for them.

Next in line are player-facing ugly bugs that everyone gets exposed to. Invisible costume pieces, UI elements not displaying correctly, etc. I’m not talking ugly for just you on your client, I am talking every player in the game can and will see this bug during normal gameplay. As you can imagine, a lot of these are bugs on the art department, whereas the majority of bugs above this are code and/or design bugs. So in essence these types of bugs become the highest priority for Art to fix, simply because they can’t likely help with the other two.

Now I’ll talk about a hidden tier of bugs. This can occur anywhere in the prioritization list and can change priority over time. These are exploit bugs. If you ever read a patch note and wonder why an excruciatingly simple bug was fixed when far more egregious ones continued to slip by this is likely the case. Someone, somewhere, found an exploit that threatened to ruin the game’s economy if left unchecked. A patch note like “Unicorns no longer have a 100% drop rate for Unicorn Horn Marrow” is indicative of an exploit being fixed. Patch notes will very rarely tell you how Unicorn Horn Marrow was being exploited just that it was fixed. A very easy way to spot an exploit fix is to compare the patch notes that were on the game’s test server vs. what is on the live server on patch day. Most game companies do NOT put exploit fix notes onto their test server, because as soon as it hit test it would be advertising to the entire world that on live, Unicorn Horn Marrow is dropping at a rate not intended by the developers, so you better get in on that action before the patch gets promoted.

Finally there is the lowest tier of bugs, and that is stuff that happens rarely or to only a few characters. Unless your MMO of choice has an army of people developing for it, there is only a finite amount of time that can be devoted to fixing bugs AND making new content. Since some bugs only affect a small number of players, and making new content affects a large number of players, those bugs lose the priority war and go another round of patching being unfixed.

Is there a solution? Is there something you can do to get your pet-peeve bug fixed? Possibly. Sometimes a forum post (where the dev responsible for fixing that bug might be reading it) can get that dev to realize it exists and is a two-second fix on their end. A better way is to get more people to complain about it.

Customer Service is not an easy job. GMs deal with a lot of complaints each and every day, and they have a very big voice into the ears of the developers. If they are seeing a steady stream of complaints (from a lot of different users), they will ask that the cause of those complaints go away, and quickly. You might notice that bugs in large group raids get fixed faster than normal gameplay bugs, even seemingly trivial ones. The reason for this can be that when something breaks for a large group, CS gets twenty complaints as opposed to just one, and they need to respond to twenty-times the number of players than a simple one-off ticket.

This is a very high-level insight into the bug-fixing process that games go through, and MMOs have special needs in having to constantly fix a game that is in live-operations mode for the duration. Because of this prioritization becomes a necessary tool, so before you get out the pitchforks as to why bug A was fixed over bug B in the latest patch, just ask yourself how would you prioritize it, looking at the big picture of the entire game as a whole?


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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