Thursday, August 6, 2009

Barriers to MMO Entry, Part 1: Account Management and Subscription

Recent events and developments have impressed upon me the need to write about something that isn't normally talked about when it comes to MMO games. That is, defining some barriers to entry in the MMO world.

This is the first in a short series of articles that aims to discuss certain aspects of MMOs that would, unfortunately, keep people from being a part of that game they want to be in.

The first barrier to entry in an MMO must certainly come not from the game itself, but from the means by which one enters the game they wish to play. That is, the account management and subscription page, or its equivalent.

Basically, I see two potential barriers to entry here: one is when you can't sign up for or subscribe to the game you want to play, and the other is when you have to jump through technical hoops to make the system work for you in the first place.

The first is easy to describe, as my previous entries on LOTRO may have shown. Essentially, when one is unable to create even a trial account for a game, or is unable to subscribe to it, that places undue stress on the person who wants to play.

Now, downtimes for account registration and subscription are not uncommon. Even the giant we call World of Warcraft must have issues at times. When the only way to find out, however, is to attempt to create an account, then we have an issue that needs rectifying.

First off, a means by which the company in charge of account creation and subscription can test the system should be implemented in order to keep a close watch on it. This is doubly important when you're offering free trials, as you turn away potential revenue when someone who wants to try your game can't do so.

Second, making sure that any issues are visibly seen by the public would be much appreciated. It might annoy some people, but knowing that the system is down and that the company is acknowledging the issue on the main site rather than in some obscure part of the forums would be useful as well because, at the very least, subscribers and non-subscribers would immediately know that the issue is there, it is being addressed and there is an estimated time for a fix. Besides, most sites won't even let non-subscribers post in their forums to ask if the account management page is down to begin with.

Now we come to what I feel is the more daunting barrier to entry when it comes to account management and subscription: jumping through technical hoops to get the job done.

Allow me to explain: imagine that you are an average gamer with the usual knowledge of technical information regarding browsing, gaming, and other sorts of esoteric techie knowledge. Now, imagine trying to get into the game you want to play for the first time, only to be greeted by a screen that prompts you to update your computer's browser and allow for javascript and cookies to be enabled.

We're not done yet. Imagine that you checked those settings and already set them to the appropriate levels to allow for the game to initiate the account setup process. Yes, this is still the part where you register for an account.

Imagine it still doesn't work, and you contact their support center for assistance, and a day and a half after sending your email, you get a response from them telling you to update your service packs as well and basically bring everything, including their specific browser of choice (let's say Internet Explorer for kicks), to the latest upgrades.

And it still doesn't work.

And you have to send them an email again explaining the issue in detail once again so that there's no miscommunication.

Are you annoyed yet?

You probably are, and the above-mentioned experience actually happened to me for the beta of an up-and-coming game which I won't disclose. Now, seeing as this is beta, I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, but imagine if that were a newly-released game, and you had to go through that, and the support agent who emailed you didn't explain how to enable cookies or javascript or upgrade the system and you had no idea how to do it yourself. Wouldn't your patience wear a little thin by that time?

Mine would.

Unfortunately, this second one doesn't have any clear-cut answers to alleviate it, other than additional tweaking of the most basic of systems to ensure it doesn't happen to people. Heck, I'd even recommend additional further training of support folk or the creation of special technical templates so they can explain their answers fully and in detail to help the customer, but that's just a suggestion and not a flat-out solution to a glaring issue.

All in all, these two barriers to entry are the most fundamental, for they are barriers that keep one from even experiencing the game to begin with. They definitely need solutions, but at the very least, someone needs to be paying attention to these issues so that they can be remedied to begin with.


Alcasm said...

I think most designers in the game industry need to learn how to account for usability of their products and not just playability. One of the main things you learn when you program is that you have to account for the lowest common denominator in the population when developing software. It seems, however, that most developers seem concerned only with pushing the boundaries of technology without any thought to different levels of user skill and experience. If veteran gamers or computer gurus run into problems with your game what kind of frustration do you figure that average joe is going to run into.

I know they must put a great deal of effort into these pursuits, but they always seem to fumble with it, and many of the problems recur with alarming frequency. It certainly speaks to a need for some standardization in the industry if anything.

Victor Stillwater said...

I doubt the industry would like standardization though, unless there were some company that made a business of producing the front-end programs that enabled account creation and management.

Alcasm said...

Well, I'm not talking about developers being forced to follow certain procedures in order to make their games, I'm talking more of the kind of standardization that exists within the film industry where there are certain conventions that people follow that allow for them to create their content without having to worry so much about little technical details. Obviously games are a much more fluid medium than films in terms of their evolution but even films continue to innovate, all while having an extensive catalogue of cinematic techniques.

Fortunately there are people in the game industry working very hard at instituting these changes, whether they conventions for developer tools or scripting outlines, and it does help the creators to focus more on the creative side of game development. Unfortunately, many people seem to think they have to create everything from scratch when that simply isn't the case and it ultimately results in buggy, unpolished products more often than not. And that's without saying anything about prospective game developers/students looking to work in the industry who have no common basis with which to work from with their peers because of the haphazard nature of the industry.

After all, you wouldn't want some guy with visions of grandeur and some home teaching to build a bridge, you want a certified engineer who will follow code. And because that engineer knows the ins and outs of his field and all of the necessary protocols he will be all the more able to produce something grand and inspiring. Why can't the same standards be held to game development? Especially with game budgets being what they are.

Victor Stillwater said...

Hmm... good point there. I don't know much about code myself, so it's probably best if I don't stick my nose into that area of games production.

I'd just be happy if things work properly when they're supposed to and I could take that service for granted again. At this rate, I can't even take logging into a game for granted anymore. LOL. :D

mbp said...

MMO's have always been atrociously bad at "letting the customer play". I remeber getting World of Warcraft as a Christmas present. I was eager to install and get playing but by the time I had waded through dozens of registration screens and waited out gigabytes of patching it was past midnight before I actually got into the game.

I notice you are in the Philippines Victor. Do you play on US servers with Turbine or the European servers with Codemasters?

Victor Stillwater said...


I play on the US servers, with Turbine. Been talking to their Community Manager actually, because I can't find a copy of the game and my credit card won't come in for another two weeks or so.

What race/class combo do you play?

mbp said...

Have played a Dwarf Champion up to lvl 60 and am now levelling up a human LM. I love the Dwarf Champion from a role play point of view. He's a feisty character who thinks every problem can be solved by hitting it hard with an axe. The LM is lot more flexible though and at the moment I am finding it more interesting to play.