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Anatomy of a Launch - Part Two

Mathew Reuther Posted:
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Anatomy of a Launch - Part Two

New MMORPG.com writer Mathew Reuther pens this look back at the Age of Conan launch from his perspective.

Early Bird Gets the Shaft

With the logistical delays a new problem has arisen. There is a substantial group of pre-order customers who have been involved in the Early Access program yet did not receive a retail key in a timely manner. This has culminated in the freezing of an untold number of accounts on the 27th. Despite red flags going up two days prior to the end of the Early Access period (when people knew their copies would not arrive in time) it took until after access was actually denied before a single word was heard from Funcom. By the time European Early Access customers received word that they would be given until the end of May to enter retail keys many had already canceled their orders through their credit card companies (which can have an impact on future dealings with the pre-order retailers in question), some picking up retail games and others simply deciding not to play the game.

In point of fact as of the 31st when the grace period expired many pre-order customers lost access because the copies of the game had still not arrived. In my case both accounts in my household were shut down and we spent the weekend watching House M.D. season four. Even worse, in order to keep my pre-order items I have been forced to spend thirty minutes on the phone internationally and pay for an additional two copies of the game to be mailed to a guildmate who resides in the United Kingdom where my reseller is located. While some people would question my decision to order from a UK reseller it is important to note that the prices in my country are much higher per copy, and there are in general more issues with short supplies here. Half of the people I know who reside in my country chose to pre-order from international resellers due to price (which is literally King in this nation's culture) and supply issues.

(As of 11 days after my order was shipped I still do not have it. Our accounts have been activated via the two new keys I paid for to be shipped on Friday. I now get to wait 17 days to claim my original order as “lost” and will end up paying a second cycle of interest on my credit card as a result.)

This is just an example of how companies often fail to be proactive in dealing with issues, and it is particularly disruptive during a launch. Funcom is by no means the only guilty party here. The majority of MMO releases have been plagued by issues which it was possible to see approaching or where the players themselves sent up smoke signals. In general MMO developers need to begin to take a much more proactive role in solving problems. While it may be very difficult to avoid every issue which crops up, it become impossible to handle issues with a high quality of service if all you do is react to things which have already happened. Fallout is reduced massively if problems are nipped in the bud instead of letting them fester. Players can and will sit on top of an issue which is of personal import. Because of this the customer relations staff of an MMO needs to be prepared to react accordingly Communication and flexibility were the key in this situation, and both were a bit slow to arrive on scene.

Hello? Can Anybody Hear Me?

The current state of communication is pretty abysmal. The only thing the playerbase hears from Funcom are server downtime announcements, reports of banning exploiters, a short list (which accounts for a fraction of the problems in the game) of known issues, (incomplete) patch notes, and what amount to seemingly canned, PR-approved statements.

If Funcom took the time to properly document patches the notes would be three times as long as they are currently and the playerbase would not feel as if they were being stealth nerfed. If company representatives took two minutes to post when a topic on the forums was obviously of great interest to the userbase the players would feel as if they were at least not being shoved into a corner and ignored. A single line posted from the Senior Community Manager on the European forums was sufficient to reassure the players that one of the hottest post-launch issues (Early Access expiration) was being taken seriously. Unfortunately the general rule is silence, and only rare exceptions give the players any hope of being treated appropriately.

As if the main medium for mass communication (the forums) being underutilized were not enough, the situation with account support and in-game support is perhaps even more dire. Using the mail ticket system to contact Funcom's accounting department is futile. The vast majority of tickets go completely unanswered. Though in-game petitions are handled eventually the wait time for assistance is exceptionally long. In fact during American “night” petition handing slows to an absolute crawl, not resuming any speed at all until morning. It seems as if Funcom has staffed the support department with the majority of coverage outside of night in the US. When petition lines are hundreds of issues long and advancement is at most five petitions in an hour there is a serious problem with the amount of support being dedicated to the title.

In addition while it is well-documented that Funcom has a “no reimbursements” policy regarding lost items, one particularly major bug has been affecting entire guilds. The answer from Funcom's support department has been the standard hard line of “nothing we can do” up until now. But what needs to be realized is that entire guilds have put all of their available coin towards building up cities that mysteriously fail to build. This is not an issue of one player losing a quest reward or having destroyed their weapon. This is many people losing every resource and (most importantly) coin they have available due to a bug in a system which is a cornerstone of the game. While the hardened gamer in me can respect drawing a line in the sand as regards item replacements, the gamer who took every penny he had earned and handed it over to his guild leader only to see nothing in return believes that there are exceptions to every rule. In lieu of saving for a horse many people have backed their guilds and seen their dreams of cities turn to ashes. To date Funcom has remained utterly silent as regards the reimbursement of lost materials while whole guilds grumble in discontent. These are the kinds of issues which make a huge difference when a large portion of your playerbase are “trying out” your game while waiting for a major expansion from World of Warcraft. Good customer service even if it is an exception to your rule may prove the winning blow in retaining many of those customers.

While all MMO releases can be expected to fall short in terms of support, the truth of the matter is it is possible to hire short term support teams to cover launch needs. This was either not done, or it was done in insufficient numbers. Funcom is not the only game to ever release with seriously deficient customer support. It is, however, yet another thing holding the game back at this early stage. It remains to be seen how long this problem lasts. With how robust the customer self-help arm of Anarchy Online (ARK) has been over the years there is certainly hope for improvement if such an organization is introduced into Age of Conan.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

With all the negative things said in this piece I think it is vital something be made perfectly clear. Age of Conan is absolutely not a game for every gamer. In particular it is less female-friendly than other games on the market, it is a game aimed at (and rated for) adults, and it offers a different kind of gameplay which may in some cases simply not appeal to certain gamers.

BUT . . . (notice the big but) Age of Conan is a game which plays relatively well. It is fairly stable and performs adequately assuming a relatively modern machine. With a cutting edge machine it runs amazingly well, something many past MMO releases still cannot claim due to poor optimization and code reliance on CPU instead of GPU. Crashes are to be expected in a new MMO but in general AoC is able to remain stable for a longer period than the average MMO I've played at launch. In addition it is obvious that the crash bugs are high on Funcom's list as almost every patch addresses fixing some.

In terms of gameplay and fun factor the game is a winner. It may take some players a bit of time to come to grips with the combat system, or to find the class which suits them, but once that has been accomplished it is truly a pleasure to play. Seldom have I enjoyed simply killing my way through a world more. Combat (as a melee class at least) is visceral and satisfying.

There are of course the issues which seem to plague all MMO releases. Classes with missing or broken skills, content which seems to dry up as you advance, and various irritating bugs. But all things considered Age of Conan is in fairly good shape. It is without a doubt on the way to becoming a success. The frequency of patching (which is often enough) and obvious attention to discovering the source of serious bugs shows that Funcom is on the right path.

One more thing of note is the attitude which Funcom has towards cheating. While not all gamers (or even a sizable number of them to be honest) have experience with Anarchy Online, it can be said that Funcom has absolutely one of the hardest lines against cheating in the industry. Their Bugs, Abuse and Exploits team for AO is a no-nonsense organization staffed by people who make Judge Judy look like Mother Theresa. The fact that Funcom banned a number of accounts and penalized others within the first week of play is proof that the company is well on the way to taking enforcement seriously in Age of Conan. The message was clear: don't cheat, we're watching.

What remains to be seen is how much Funcom can improve. Improvement is needed more in how and how fast they handle customer issues and communicate with the playerbase than anything else. Granted fixing bugs in the game is very important, but for the vast majority of players who seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, being treated better when they have a concern is paramount. The lines of communication need to be opened up wide and support needs to improve. If these things can be done in a rapid time frame then Age of Conan my just exceed anyone's expectations.

As it stands now I can think of no reason not to go out and buy Age of Conan assuming your PC is fairly modern. The game is well worth the price of admission, and within the first month you should have a fairly good idea if the game is something you personally will enjoy continuing to play.

This is the End (My Friend)

MMO gamers have perhaps allowed companies to treat them poorly in the past. (For this we have nobody to blame but our MMO-addict selves.) As a result it seems that companies believe no matter how badly things go wrong in the beginning there are always more customers where the ones who got away came from. While this is true to a point it is worth noting that when a game comes along which truly caters to a need that gamers have, more of them will play it and the market of gamers in this genre will grow. World of Warcraft is the largest example of a game which truly pushed the boundaries of the market of course but other titles have contributed to the growth as well. Age of Conan is a game that could truly help the market expand if Funcom can manage to rapidly address that ever-growing pile of issues that has stacked up in the inbox. If they can't the game will wind up being another Anarchy Online: wasted potential due to a flawed release and mismanagement of the customer base.

In closing I'd like to note that many MMO gamers would gladly pay more to get more. If there is simply not enough money to pay sufficient staff the retail or subscription prices of MMOs should be adjusted. If part of what we are paying for is service, then many of us are perfectly happy to choose eating at a restaurant with waiters instead of going through the drive thru. We accept that it costs more, but we like the quality that we get. I'd like to see a company start to hire good staff in sufficient numbers from day one. That's something I'd pay for.

I'm rooting for you Funcom. Keep those heads rolling.

Read Part One here.


Mathew Reuther