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New NCsoft Dev Corner

April 16, 2008

New NCsoft Dev Corner

Developing a Support System for MMOGs

John Erskine, Director of Studio Services for NCsoft North America, examines the role of supporting a live product from its inception to launch and beyond, using Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa as the most recent example.

One of the most overlooked and underestimated tasks of launching a successful online game is the support aspect of the live service. After launch, MMOs are as much a “service” as a “game,” yet many do not often consider the service aspect until shortly before launch. Here at NCsoft, we have a long history of providing excellent service for our products. Since we are a multi-product publisher of online games, we’ve learned a few tricks that help us successfully support the games that we publish. We house our entire support process in a department we call “Studio Services,” which includes Quality Assurance, Customer Service, Game Support, and Localization. Each of these teams plays a critical role in the live support and operation of our games.

When planning for the support of a new game, such as our recent launch of Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa, or evaluating the support of an existing game, we must consider three important aspects that are critical to creating a successful service, which I describe below:

Team:
I have the extreme privilege of working with the very best people in the industry, so we have a lot of resources in this respect. Many of our managers and leads have more than a decade of experience in the online game industry! When building a team to support a game such as Tabula Rasa, we start by hand picking a “Lead” for the product, and then work with that Lead to hand select a team for that product. We look for people who are particularly interested in the game, or whose strengths are particularly well suited for that game. We want people to love the game they work on, but not love it “too much.” It is important to maintain a healthy “emotional distance” from the game so we can see the issues clearly and effectively.

Tools:
Having the right tool for the job is very important to a successful service. We start with a centralized ticketing system that controls all customer interactions. When a Tabula Rasa player contacts our company, we manage the inquiry with our system, through various forms of communication, such as emails, web submissions, phone calls, in-game petitions, and bug reports. By having this encapsulating “one view of the customer” system, we can make sure that we handle each question appropriately and by the proper team member, leaving nothing to fall through the cracks.

There are a large number of game related tools that are critical to efficient testing and running a successful service. They include in-game tools and out-of-game tools. It’s important to start working on designing and implementing these tools very early in the development process. Many of the tools used by QA to test the game may eventually become tools used by the support department to support the game. Some of these tools include the ability for support staff to observe the game world unobtrusively, view character data that isn’t visible to players, review chat logs, item transaction logs, and more.

Process:
Four core team processes contribute to a successful support system for Tabula Rasa:

Quality Assurance (QA) Testing:
While QA isn’t normally considered a part of the “support process,” we know that it is an incredibly important component. For most of our games, including Tabula Rasa, the testing process begins years before launch. While it is impossible to test every client configuration in-house no matter when you start, having a QA team that is aware of the live service needs of the game is invaluable to the testing process. We find that having a QA team that can effectively anticipate the support issues that may arise once the game goes live really helps us out when the game launches. One thing we practice is to move team members between processes so that they can better understand the needs of the other department. For example, we moved some people from Tabula Rasa Support to QA before launch to learn the game to the same level of detail as those who have been testing it. Then we moved them back to Support when we went live to utilize that in-depth knowledge for support purposes.

Account and Technical Support:
This team is often the unsung hero of the entire operation. Their job is simply to make sure that everyone can get into the game and play! This job starts very early in the process, as soon as people are able to access the game in the alpha stages. They manage the account access for the game, distribute beta keys, assist with promotions, and more. They also handle complex billing issues and tricky tech issues with customers. It’s easy to underestimate this type of system both in its complexity and in its importance and we haven’t. Instead, we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in making this system work proficiently.

Game Support:
Game Masters (GMs) are the most visible members of the live service for most players. They play a critical role in the overall service experience, and handle many important functions. First, they interact directly with customers who are playing the game. This team handles all game related questions. Therefore, any time you report an issue in Tabula Rasa, a GM figures out how to help! Secondly, the GM team is the “police force” for the game world, so to speak. They handle issues involving harassment, attempts at cheating, and other issues. Finally, they are an important conduit for game issues the development team needs to address; they represent the “voice of the player” to the development team.

Developer Relationship:
This is an integral aspect for every team in Studio Services. Of course, the support team doesn’t actually make or control the game itself, but we have to make sure to catalog, document, organize, and prioritize the issues that we see in a way that makes sense to the development team. Through this relationship, our goal is to address the most severe issues, as determined through our service interactions, in the most efficient manner possible. Our system really does involve cooperation from every team in Studio Services.

The support aspect of the live service is not as simple as it sounds. It takes the cooperation of many groups of dedicated employees across multiple fields of expertise to support a game early in its life, through production, launch, and finally post-launch live service. For Tabula Rasa, we utilized all of our expertise in producing a very smooth launch for Studio Services and hopefully further solidified our processes for many more smooth launches to come.

John Erskine, Director of Studio Services for NCsoft North America

 

John Erskine has been in charge of NCsoft North America’s customer support area since 2001. He came to the company with an extensive background in service and support operations both inside and outside the game industry and has worked on more than a dozen online games in various roles. John’s expertise has been central to both NCsoft’s highly regarded support teams and his expanding role at NCsoft. As Director of Studio Services, he oversees the operation of such organizations as Game Support, Customer Service, Localization, Quality Assurance, and Community Relations.

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