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Weekly Column by Dan Fortier

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fotier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

It looks like it's about that time for me to drag my sorry carcass to the keyboard and plug out another uninspired eyesore. What shall we talk about this week? Customer Service you say? Sounds good. I'll go first and tell you what I think, then you guys all chime in and tell me why I'm wrong.

It seems like designers are so focused on creating the game content, making it playable, and wowing us with their features that customer support not only takes a backseat, but was left at the last rest stop. They fill their staff with qualified artists, writers and coders and whoever can't do anything else gets stuck listening to us cry about how some guy is using speed hax. Like the lead singers in a band they are the ones the audience sees the most, but are usually the least skilled. The paying customers get the really short end when they have to wait days for a legitimate petition to get answered.

Instead of providing a skilled group of professionals to thoroughly address customer concerns, the status quo is to pawn the job off on 'Customer Service Specialists' whose last job was Burger King's drive-through. Most successful companies that have large amount of clients who pay to use their service every month have huge centers full of agents to fix any problem they might have within minutes, so how are MMO players any different?

Anyone who took third grade math or has played EVE can tell you those ten to fifteen dollars a month is an awful lot of money to pay just to be treated like a kid with pink-eye. With the fat paychecks the top dogs in the industry take home they can definitely afford to put some more of that back into their Support teams who deal with their customer's issues and raise, not just the quantity of the support, but the quality too.

Now that I got you all misty eyed and swaying your lighters, let's change the focus a bit. How does this affect the smaller budget studios that work out of condos and eat Top Ramen every day? The biggest challenge for a team with light pockets is to make sure the people that play their games don't regret throwing their money in the Blizzard/SOE pit while still providing the ongoing fixes and content to keep the game interesting. The problem is that, on small staffs, many of the team members have to do several jobs at once. Juggling class balancing, quest design and skinning models for an expansion while trying to plow through a pile of CS reports is not a fate I would wish on anyone.

There are lots of interesting projects that are going to have to address this issue if they are lucky enough to get that far into development. Infinity: The Quest of Earth is good example of a game that has a lot of interesting concepts, but will the Dev team be able to handle all the bug reports and player issues for such an ambitious game while keeping the server up and running? I hope so, but generally most small teams realize they need a bit of help to solve all their players' problems.

Some games attempt to relieve this burden somewhat by turning their ultra-fans into Game-Masters and Assistant GMs 3rd class and let them police the populace to a certain extent. The problem with this is that, while dedicated, most players don't have the tact or neutrality to arbitrate all the millions of conflicts and problems so typical for the genre. They generally favor their friends or ignore repeated complaints about issues they don't see as important. All in all, it will generally drive away the people not willing to submit to their policies. Its sad when mass-reporting of your enemies for nonexistent or trivial violations just to get away with murder later on is considered a valid tactic.

Choosing to go the outsourcing route has its own pitfalls. At first glance an outside group of Customer Service professionals for hire to work as a buffer between you and your rabid customers might seem like a dream come true, but just like commercials with Fabio, it can turn into a nightmare. While you generally have to watch them less and get better results, not all companies can afford to take on a group of contractors to do their bidding. If you don't give them the tools to properly moderate your game or run events you might as well be doing it yourself, but having to get strangers acclimated to your game and style is also a distraction.

The best solution is to actually have your Customer Support team in your employ. Sure it requires more cash than the other two methods since you actually have to pay the buggers a livable wage and throw in some perks to keep them happy, but at least you have direct control on their performance and work habits. Making sure they have something resembling people skills and didn't come off the street would be a good policy. It would be a least several steps up from the current batch of circus monkeys and weekly article writers they are currently using. Throwing money and gaggle of middle management at a problem is so 1980's, but at least we, the customers, would be happier.

The sheer amount of fraudulent and bogus tickets that get thrown at designers every day further complicates things. From faked loss reports to the aforementioned pre-emptive spam to cloud exploits, it takes a truly competent team with strong organizational skills to sift the wheat from the chaff in a reasonable time frame. Strong props to the guys in the trenches who will brave that backlog every day and come away with their minds intact.

Now I don't want to play a violin for the Devs who are crazy brave enough to try to make a successful MMO, they knew the job was dangerous when they took it, or at least they do now. Overall the customer support is a thankless and under funded part of all game staffs and I'd hope to see more of our hard earned cash going to the people solving our problems every day instead of building shiny new instanced dungeons. Next time you see a man or woman in a GM avatar say thanks and drop 'em a copper.

That it for this week boys and girls and don't forget to drop me a line in the forums with any snide comments or suggestions.


Dan Fortier