Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Fall is here, and so is a wealth of new computer games! My significant other has just finished Uncharted II and is currently engrossed in Borderlands, and I've been playing with the superhero themed Champions Online, and the beautiful Asian influenced Aion.

Both games have surprised me in different ways, both good and bad. I'll leave comments about Aion to a different post, just noting that I'm actually enjoying it very much, and finding it surprisingly more captivating than I had expected. And I'll restrain myself from talking too much about Champions Online too, various existing reviews and blogs pretty much sum up my experiences. But I did want to comment on one thing about Champions Online that I haven't seen anybody else mention, and that's the population ratio.

What do I mean by the population ratio? In this case, I'm specifically referring to the ratio of males to females in the NPC population of the world. (Obviously, the ratio of male to female player characters is much harder for the dev team to influence.) Yes, it took me about 2 weeks to notice it, but there are almost no women NPCs in Champions Online's earlier zones at all. (Possibly there aren't any in the higher level zones either, but as the game was so broken that I gave up before getting there, I won't comment on those.)

Champions Online has a little newbie tutorial that takes you through the very basics, and then spits you out in one of two huge overland destinations: an arid American desert, or a snowy wasteland in Canada. In the desert, old nuclear tests have created a population of ferocious mutants who recently seem to be organizing for a concerted attack on the defending US soldiers' base. And in Canada, the Canadian soldiers are defending the area against an uprising of hunter-patriot revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the current power structures (or, in fact, killing anything in sight). Both zones are enormous and have enough content to carry you through a dozen or more levels.

What I eventually came to notice, however, was that none of the forces on either side of these fights were female. Despite the fact that there are no restrictions on what roles women can fill in the Canadian military, not a single soldier NPC in the Canada zone is female -- and the one single supervillain who seemed to be assisting the hunter-patriot rebels was written as a ditzy valley-girl with voiceover lines including "I never wanted to be a supervillain. But surgeries to turn someone into a cat-girl don't come cheap!" and "I'm not really a supervillain, I'm just a 'furry'who fell in with the wrong crowd." Likewise, not a single member of the US forces in the desert zone is a female, and nor is a single one of the mutants they are fighting, nor are any of the ghosts in the nearby ghost town.

Delving further into this mystery, I discovered that not only are none of the military NPCs female, but female players are actually not even given the military chest costume options in the character creator. Males get a couple of options called "military"; they're totally missing from the available female options.

Although there are a few token female NPCs such as questgivers and trainers, and a grand total of two female supervillains that I saw, overall the attackable NPC population in the first 20+ levels of the game has got to be over 95% male. Females are mainly 'flavour' type NPCs, background characters or victims asking for help or questgivers/trainers. It struck me as extremely strange when I noticed this, and it makes me speculate on how this could have happened. I could think of two possibilities:
  • It's possible that this was a deliberate design decision, mandated during the planning. "Let's make the world population heavily male." Why they would do this, I have no idea, but it could have been a case of "we're not happy with allowing our players to slaughter women, even if they are NPCs". It could even have been a case of "there's something horribly wrong with the art for our female models, so let's just populate all our zones with the males for now so we can test it, and we can switch in some females later" (which nobody then remembered to do later). Whatever the reason though, it could have been a decision mandated from On High.
  • It could be a coincidence. Perhaps two different designers (or teams of designers) were told to create the two big overland zones, and they independently failed to include any women. It wasn't a grand design decision from on high, but maybe both designers, being male, just thoughtlessly assumed that all soldiers are male and populated their zones accordingly, and nobody even noticed.
Either way, it seems to be a rather unfortunate outcome. As a female player, I feel that the lack of 'military' costume options (and yes, I did want to create a character using one, which is how I noticed the lack) is very disappointing. And more importantly, unintentional or not, I feel that the game's population is sending a rather negative message about how the dev team perceives the role of women in their world. Sure, the majority of their players are probably male, and sure, the majority of soldiers, rebels, and (theoretically) mutants in the real world may be male, but there are still female players (like me) and there are many female soldiers (and rebels) who have made unimaginable sacrifices throughout history for the causes they believe in, and in my view it seems the game is simply ignoring this entirely, which seems somewhat belittling, at best. And specific to the uniforms, correct me if I'm wrong here, but it seems the simplest design decision would be to just make a standard set of chest uniform options and then apply them to both genders unless there was a specific reason not to. And with most of the costume options it seems this is indeed the case. The military chest option is definitely not a graphically complex choice. It would therefore seem to have required a conscious decision to remove the military options from the female gender, and this makes me curious. Specifically, it makes me want to ask, "why are you intentionally limiting me?"

Since noticing this about Champions Online I've been extra aware of what I'm doing with my own population in EverQuest II; I'm currently creating some tradeskill quest lines, and I find myself checking that I haven't made too many females compared to males, or the reverse. On the whole I can't think of any great imbalance in EverQuest II, but it's easy to be influenced by your own prejudices without even realizing it.

I wonder how many other games suffer a similar bias, and nobody's even noticed?

Friday, October 16, 2009

G.I.R.L. blog: Adventures in D&D

Another G.I.R.L. blog is up, this time it's my aged maundering about the trials of being a girl with a D&D Players Handbook.

Adventures in Dungeons and Dragons

Yeah, this is the cover I remember! =)

Friday, October 09, 2009

Community Management

"Wait a minute," I hear you say, "why did are you talking about community management when that's not your job?"

Actually, the blog title may be deceiving. Since I don't work in community management, I certainly don't actually presume to blog about how or why to do it. However, it's on my mind because Cuppycake does do it, and very well, and she recently linked the following article which I found was a very interesting read:

Although I don't work in community management (unless you count a brief stint as a volunteer moderator on the SOE EQII forums, before I was hired as a designer), as a game designer I do work with our community team and at times I can be affected by the effects of their work on a near daily basis. I therefore know very well that a good community team is hugely helpful to a game's design team, and I have definitely learned to appreciate the rare value of a good community manager.

Not all game companies even allow their developers to post on public forums; in some companies nobody is allowed to post except the community team. SOE is a company that does allow it, and I do appreciate that as I find it really useful to interact directly with the game community. (Scott Hartsman, my former boss and he who hired me into this industry, has talked elsewhere about some common sense guidelines that he gives to dev teams who interact directly with players and potential future customers; there are other suggestions elsewhere too.) However, precisely because I'm allowed to interact directly with our customers, I do have to be careful about what I say and how, even though my posting may be infrequent and very topic focused. As a result, I'm extra interested in reading about how the real community management professionals go about it and what kind of issues they face doing this all day, every day.

While the whole article is interesting (assuming you have the least bit of interest about community management), this bit in particular really rang a bell for me and is something that I am going to take very much to heart:

In fact, I used to have the urge to argue with customers who gave feedback like “hey, idiot, you’re missing feature X.” I used to respond with something like, “I know, but it’s on our road map and we’re already working on it and we don’t really want feedback about that right now and so please get off my back.” You can imagine the field day the trolls had with that.

Eventually, we learned a better way. Feedback that tells you something you already know is still quite valuable. It gives you a hint that you are on the right track, but it also tells you quite a lot about the person giving you the feedback – that they believe in the path that you are on. For an early adopter, having this insight acknowledged and validated is a powerful experience. So we learned to take the time to say “thank you for your suggestion. Thanks to you, we’re going to prioritize feature X.” Then, when feature X finally did come out, every early adopter who suggested it feels an earned sense of ownership over it.

This is such an easy trap to fall into; in fact, I know I've fallen into it myself in the past when I didn't know better. Like most of my co-workers, I have an enormous list of things that I want to do, things I plan to do, things that are even already in progress, that will improve this game I love and work on.

Yet, when I know something is a good idea and really needs doing, and particularly when I'm already in the process of fixing it, there's nothing more annoying than someone coming up and telling you how stupid you are for not fixing it. The kneejerk reaction is of course "yes I know it needs fixing, in fact, I already fixed it this week, just calm down and it'll reach live servers with the next update" or something similar. Or even a new feature suggestion: "OMG, the one thing this game absolutely needs is flying fish mounts, I can't believe you haven't done this, it's so obvious!" when you know that you have, in fact, already thought of flying fish mounts long ago and are just waiting on art assets to implement them. It's so tempting to say "Duh, I know, already in the plan and half done."

But no. What do I win by proving how smart I am, or the team is? Nothing. Besides, just because I've thought of something already, doesn't mean the customer isn't still equally right when they think of the same thing. Whether we had already planned to implement the customer's suggestion months ago or whether it really was something we hadn't thought of isn't really important; the most important thing is that it's a good suggestion, and the game will be better for adding it. This is a great piece of advice (and a great article in general) and I suspect I will be rereading it again in the future.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A week of customer service

Ah, customer service and the consumer experience in general, how powerful you are. A good experience can win a customer for life, and a bad one lose one just as fast. And I'm not just referring to customer service within computer games, although that's just one example of how important the experience is in general. No, I've had a week of the most mixed experiences in very diverse areas.

The first experience was by far the best - in fact, possibly among the best customer service I've ever experienced anywhere. My sandals were wearing out; great sandals, but I'd been wearing them all summer and the leather was starting to crack and rub my toe raw, so I decided it was time to replace them. Alas, at the end of September, all the shops around San Diego have moved their stock to winter inventory and the selection of sandals is very limited. So, I tried searching online for the brand name of my current sandals (Umberto Raffini) in hopes I could just buy a new pair exactly the same. Unfortunately, I couldn't find them. However, Google did bring up a site called Zappos, which I'd heard of before; in fact, Tracy "Owlchick" Seamster had mentioned it on the G.I.R.L. Blog. What can I say? I was impressed. Nice clean, clear site design, and their search options help you narrow your search down lots. Each item has no less than 6 photos showing it from every angle and close up. Customer reviews give more information and opinions. I went through all the sandals of the colour and style I wanted and added about 5 to my shopping basket, then went through the reviews of those and narrowed it down to just one, Softsoles brand "Cammy" style in black. Not too scruffy to wear to work, yet very comfortable, and had excellent customer reviews. And look, free 3-4 day shipping, and Zappos has a free return policy if they don't fit, so why not?

Order placed, I randomly tweeted on my personal twitter account that I had just bought some sandals from Zappos and was impressed by the site so far. Within minutes, someone from @zappos_service had replied saying the sandals look great and suggesting that I direct message my order number to them so they could expedite the shipping. Which I did; and within an hour I got an email update saying that my sandals would now arrive the next day, instead of the normal 3-4 day wait. Not only that, but in order to send them the next day, they actually had to cancel the original order (which had shipped already) and send out a new order via overnight UPS so it would arrive the next day, and all of this at their expense. And not only that, but they also upgraded me to their "VIP" service so that if I order anything in the future, I'll automatically get free overnight delivery. Hmm. Am I likely to use Zappos.com again after this? Heck yes. In fact, I'll soon need some sandals for my hallowe'en costume and I know where I'll be going. The sandals did arrive the next day as promised and are indeed super comfortable, and I've been wearing them since. Now that's a great customer service experience. (Their order map that Tracy's blog post mentions is also so cool that I caught my boyfriend playing with it for at least 10 minutes, watching shoe orders and voting them "good" or "bad".)

If only I could say the same about the next few...

My grandmother, wonderful woman that she is, lives in England and for the last 10 years or so I've occasionally sent her chocolates and fudge for special occasions. I used Thornton's with no problems for all the years I was living in Australia; they're a great chocolatier with little shops all over England and I never come back from visiting without a bag or two of their champagne truffles. Unfortunately, when I moved to the US I discovered a serious problem with their web site: it doesn't accept American credit cards. I have no explanation of why this might be the case; both my Australian and my US credit cards are visa cards, and I've never encountered any other site that has trouble with US credit cards. However, for the past 2 years every time I've wanted to send something via Thornton's to a family member in the UK, I've had to phone up to place the order. And since their telephone support is only available during UK working hours, this requires me to remember to place the order before 9am in my time zone (5pm in the UK), which is not exactly convenient even aside from the international call charge.

Every time I go through this ridiculous process I ask why their web site can't accept US credit cards, and every time the person I'm talking to tells me that it's not their fault, it's an issue with the credit card companies and they can't do anything about it. Which is clearly a ridiculous answer. The issue apparently affects Thornton's and no other web site I've encountered, and that means it's clearly something specific to Thornton's. And while it may ultimately be something that the credit card companies need to fix, there's no chance in hell that it's ever going to be fixed unless Thornton's takes the initiative and chases those companies down. Is Visa ever going to phone up Thornton's and say "hey, we notice that your US based customers can't use their visa cards on your site, but don't worry, we fixed it for you?" Yeah, just about the time pigs fly. Thornton's has the responsibility to fix the issue and Thornton's has failed to do so for over 2 years now (probably more). Last Christmas I sent my grandmother chocolate, and I ended up speaking to a completely new phone operator on her very first day. It took a 45 minute long distance call, she got the order wrong, got the address wrong, and got the delivery date wrong, and my grandmother ended up with her Christmas present delivered around the 5th of December instead of at Christmas. When I complained to Thornton's they sent an additional small box of chocolates to her at the correct time, but basically said they were sorry but couldn't do anything about it.

So I had already pretty much resolved never to use Thornton's again, but my grandmother is very ill and I wanted to send something quickly. I decided to give their web site one last try to send her some fudge, and lo and behold, the same problem appeared and my credit card wasn't accepted. I tried 2 credit cards and my debit card and got the same error. With no way to reach their customer service team without waiting till the following morning, and keeping in mind my last absolutely awful experience with phoning them, I decided to just try another site. Sorry Thornton's, you've lost my business after 10 years of regular orders.

A friend in the UK recommended Montezumas and they looked good, but when I tried to actually place the order, web site fail! It was impossible to enter a billing address that was not based in the UK, even though the delivery address was in the UK, which should be all they need to be concerned about. The billing address only offered a drop-down box for the country, and the options only included countries within the UK, which would mean that my credit card could not be properly billed as the addresses would not match. Too bad, Montezumas, you could have had all my business that Thornton's just lost, but your web site failed.

Next attempt, Rococo Chocolates, also recommended by the same friend. Ok, I want to buy fudge. I might settle for some liqueur truffles. But look, there's no search box and no site map. My only choices are by category. Where would fudge be? Gift boxes, chocolate bars, gift bags, chocolate art, hampers, confectionary, sugar-free, kids, and accessories are the only category options. Under confectionery perhaps? No, that appears to contain only "gift cubes and boxes", "nougat", and "sugar crafts". 5 minutes of poking around the site's incredibly unhelpful categories and failing to find any way to search for either fudge or alcohol chocolates, and I gave up on that site before even getting to the check out.

A desperate google search for fudge delivery in the UK finally pointed me to Not Just Balloons, where I managed to locate fudge and even place an order. This seemed like an OK experience, until I got an email the next day saying my order had been placed too late for overnight delivery and please contact them before 3pm to confirm if Monday delivery was acceptable. Since they are based in England, of course, the email was sent at 12:50am when I was fast asleep, and 3pm their time was 7am my time, when I was also asleep. A good customer service representative might have considered the billing address of the credit card a clue here, but apparently not. I replied at 9am when I got the email, which should still have been during work hours, but I still haven't received a response so I have no idea if my grandmother got the fudge on Friday, will get it on Monday, or if the entire thing is on hold. The most annoying thing about this is that their order page helpfully shows a clock and says "you have 1 hour 15 minutes to place your order for next day delivery". The time it displays ticks down, but when I placed my order, it said I still had 1 hour and 15 minutes for next day delivery so the fact that I even got the email was a failure on their part.

So, my final customer service frustration this week ... Dell. On Tuesday the graphics card in my Dell XPS desktop inexplicably died. I was trying to log in to Test server on Tuesday night to do some work, as I normally try to spend a couple hours hanging out there hearing what out players are experiencing and thinking, as I've mentioned previously. I barely had time to say hello though when my computer suddenly said "entering power saver mode" and shut down. I rebooted, logged in again, and suddenly the screen was giving me odd colours, then froze up entirely and gave me a blue screen listing display drivers as a cause. So, reinstalled my graphics drivers, tried again, and ... crash. Tried Aion to make sure it wasn't EQII related, and couldn't even get to the character select screen before it locked up. Gah! Fortunately, my boyfriend had a similar graphics card in his desktop that we could use to test, and after swapping that card in, everything worked just fine. Now, I worked for 9 years in IT support and while I'm not a total hardware expert, I'm confident to say that this is pretty definitively a graphics card issue. And look, my desktop's still under full warranty with Dell. No problem, right? Oh so wrong ...

The first time I phoned customer support, I was put through to a very unhelpful lady who insisted that before she could do anything for me, I had to update the bios of my desktop and run a diagnostic on the graphics card using the Dell diagnostics CD. Both of which were clearly unnecessary in my opinion, but as she refused to do anything else until I did this, I hung up, swapped the old card back in, and tried it. Obviously, nothing changed. I called back and went through to a switchboard, since I couldn't find my express service code. The operator put me through to someone else, and after lengthy holding that person put me through to a great guy called Jonathan who completely agreed it was a graphics card issue, but unfortunately he was part of the premium service team and apparently I shouldn't have been transferred there at all. He updated my records to show he agreed I needed a new card, and transferred me to what he said was the XPS department. They read his notes, agreed I needed a new graphics card, and helpfully explained that they weren't the people I needed to talk to, and transferred me again. By this time, I'd been on the phone for an entire hour and still wasn't any closer to getting a new graphics card than before.

By the time I finally I got through to someone who could arrange to send out a new card, I had been on the phone for 1 hour and 7 minutes, not counting the original 15 minutes with the "update your bios" lady in the original call. An hour and a half of my time just to get a replacement graphics card under warranty when I had already fully diagnosed the problem myself? Not good customer service. In fact, a waste of everybody's time. When you consider the hourly cost of my time, the cost of the time of all 5 people that I completely unnecessarily spoke to, and the phone call cost, I could probably have just bought a new graphics card for not much more, and I'd be up and running now instead of waiting for the new part to arrive. Although I eventually got what I needed, Dell was the worst customer experience of all since it was such an unnecessary waste of both my time and everyone else's.

All of which is probably a much longer rant than anybody has bothered to read, but goes to show what a huge difference there can be between a fabulous customer experience (Zappos) and a horrible one (Thornton's and Dell). Will I use and recommend Zappos again? Definitely. Will I use or recommend Thornton's again? Highly unlikely. Will I use Dell again? Unfortunately, since I still have a system under warranty with them, I may be forced to. I certainly won't recommend them though. Next time I want to upgrade my desktop I'll certainly be taking a good hard look around at other options, and my old Dell Inspiron laptop is being replaced with a Toshiba netbook, not a Dell.

What's really odd when you think about it is that all of us experience customer service and know how important it is. Everybody at Dell who could influence the customer service experience there has had their own share of customer service wins and fails. Yet when it comes to their own company, they expect their customers to forgive far more than I'm sure they would ever put up with as a customer of another company. How is it that so many companies have such enormous blind spots? How can it be that Thornton's has been well aware that their website is failing to allow an entire continent to give them money, and haven't bothered to fix it for over 2 years? In theory the capitalist system should weed out failures like these companies, but it just doesn't seem to be happening, or at least, not happening fast. Thornton's undoubtedly still turns the bulk of their profit from in-store sales and can apparently afford to ignore their internet market. Dell has a huge market from corporate sales (to whom they provide much better support) and can apparently therefore afford to be inefficient with the small individual customers. I'd like to believe that eventually these companies will shape up or fold, but perhaps I'm being too optimistic about the power of market forces. At any rate, as a consumer I can still control my own actions, and today they will be taking me to Zappos, not Thornton's.

Anybody know a good chocolatier in England that would like to accept international orders? :p