Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Maybe we aren't complaining about the right thing

Over the last few weeks I've read a lot of blog posts on The Elder Scrolls Online in my newsreader. I've repeatedly seen mentioned that the game cost $200 million to make, a number that I consider to be unconfirmed. I've seen multiple people complaining about the monetization of the game, for example the collector's edition, or having both a subscription and an item shop. And from some people breaking the NDA I've read comments that the game isn't actually all that good, or at least nothing special. Overall all those comments don't affect me at all, other than reminding me that pretty much the same was said about many other MMORPGs before: They cost too much to make, are too expensive for the players, and aren't all that good. And I was wondering if there isn't a common link behind all those complaints, other than that this is the internet and people always rant on the internet.

As I mentioned before, a game needs to create revenue which is greater than the sum of the development cost and the running cost. And while pretty much every number you've ever read about the development cost of a MMORPG is disputed, we do know that making MMORPGs is rather expensive. If you make a game that costs over $100 million to make in development cost alone, and add the cost to run the game and do customer support, you need a lot of players paying a lot of money for a long time before that pays out economically.

Now I never ran a game studio or developed a game myself, and I am well aware that it isn't easy. But from various stories one hears, especially when a studio goes belly-up, there is a lot of bad project management going on in game development. There is feature creep, stuff being added to the game before the core is even finished. There are sudden changes of direction, with lots of work being thrown away. And there is a lot of bad communication, turning potential customers off from the game before it is released.

I wonder if we should start complaining about bad project management instead of complaining about the symptoms of bad project management. If a game isn't all that good, but did cost so much to make that the devs are forced to squeeze the last nickel and dime out of every player, that to me appears to be just a consequence of bad project management. If games were better planned and made, they result would be better games that cost less to make and can thus be cheaper. Maybe competence is more important in a game developer than just passion.

It's easier to look at what lead to a failure and see all the problems. Success isn't as closely scrutinized.

Always tricky for me, with a regular salary based on billable hours to a contract, to put myself in the shoes of someone who earns money by going deep into debt and then hoping your final product will make enough money to overcome that debt. It seems a risk/reward ratio worse than I'd be comfortable with.

Can't help but think that game design that aims per feature for best return on time/money invested will end up as a horribly bland game. Like the next Madden or whatever.

The things that attract me most to a game are when developers go out on a limb and try something weird. Often that doesn't work out, but sometimes it does.

We hear the stories of 'bad' management in cases where it fails and shake our heads, but I'd bet you the same things happen when a game succeeds, we just don't pay as much attention.

Imagine being in the room when your lead developer announces that your mmo is getting rid of all traditional questing, and instead everything will be handled by dynamic events. Half of your team thinks it's crazy. Do people like dynamic events more than questing? No idea. Will this screw up people's sense of progression? No idea. How much should we budget for developing the events, compared to what we had planned for the quests? No idea. What if it doesn't work? Then we'll have to switch and do something else.

I think for many games this exact conversation happens, just with their own features. When it works out, well all's well and good. When it fails, well obviously look at the crazy that was going on.
I have multiple thoughts on that.

First, as with hit movies that never end up making a profit (according to the accountants), a business might have a motivation to exaggerate expenses, bundle expenses from smaller projects in with the MMO for tax purposes, and whatever. So I'm not entirely sure that any MMO has cost that much. Hell, I partially suspect the reason companies have continued to produce MMOs that they know have a more or less 100% chance of flopping is for some obscure accounting or tax purposes. I mean, how dumb do you have to be? WoW's put every competitor out to pasture for ten years now, and even it's in decline. Not exactly a growth market.

What I mean by that is say that you spend 100 million on an MMO but through various accounting tricks run the bill up to 200 million. You make 100 million on the game. So you broke even in reality, but then you get a 34 million dollar tax break because you can use the fictional 100 million loss to avoid paying taxes on other income. So you made 34 million by breaking even. You could even take a real loss and still come out better off.

Second, an MMO is kind of like a writing some massive novel. If you change something about PVP, then all of sudden class A's ability to do B is overpowered. So you nerf it. But then the third raid boss in this instance was designed around Ability B as it used to be, so you have to retune that and maybe the whole game. So every little decision made down the road leads to having to readjust the entire game. Obviously that gets expensive. I don't think you can expect more competent project management to avoid that kind of thing, since not only do you have a tremendous number of elements that can interact in unexpected ways, you then get players who will try all kinds of stuff you couldn't really anticipate.

My thoughts exactly but put in better words. Great post and something to seriously think about.
I've said this for years. Game developers stink at project management. They are absolutely horrible at it.

Any other company who ran a business this way would be out of business. Oh wait.. they do go out of business all the time.

So why are we or they shocked?
sid67 totally has it here. Game development is still pretty nascent as far as industries go, so best practices haven't been settled on yet. In fact, terrible practices which lead to a high turnover rate and burnout seem to be "working", so management has yet to have any sort of impetus to get better at it.

If it weren't for the fact that there are an immense number of starry-eyed kids willing to work for peanuts to constantly replace the more experienced developers, I'd argue game development is the perfect industry to unionize to prevent this sort of management abuse, but alas, when the replacement workforce is large enough that it doesn't matter, that would just enforce the status quo.
But if they unionize I'd have to stop buying games in protest. I'd rather not have to do that. :(
I'm far from having a statistically significant sample, but from the gigs I had I suspect bad project management might be endemic in the programming world as a whole.

I'm pretty sure my project manager right now only is a project manager because he was quantifiably bad at sales and hopeless at programming. They also couldn't really fire him because he's a founding member and has equity.

One of my project managers at my last job was so bad that his job basically was reduced to "make calls with the customer, tell them what the developers said, return with feedback". All the other tasks of project management were done by the (incredibly good) lead developer on the side.

A good project manager is a present from god. But a bad project manager can be mitigated by just working kind of around him. He will still mess things up, but the damage can be contained on a survivable level. And I fear that happens all too often..
As much as I agree, it does not make any difference. We are already clamouring about everything when we criticise a game. We rant about design, art, lagg, community, developers, everything. We already criticise all and every aspect pertaining to the games.

It is hard to point out the game that is being developed and suffers from bad management, and it is pointless to point out a bad game that suffered because of that. The first scenario is very hard to notice if you are looking from the outside, while the second is not worth the bother since the damage is already done. And even if you do that, the respons you will probably recieve from the rest of developers is "we certainly would not do something like that."

We must also differ from passion and business. There is no reason for a good developer to lower the price of his game, even if it is top quality. In the same breath, the bad developer does not have any incentive beyond some additional sales to lower the price of his bad game, since only a few, lest I say a fool, would buy its game.

Game development I imagine is a business that demands a lot of iteration. What seems to be the problem, is the fact that some people, do not realise when time to stop iterating has come, and they need to finish up their project. At least I hope this is a problem. The alternative would mean that the developers do not actually care what the game they spent months or years working on will look like, and just want their paycheck. Which is still fine, as long as they released finished product and not some broken abomination that requires half a year, ten hotfixes and four patches before it starts to work as intended. If they even bother with fixing it.
The famous example of good project management in recent MMO history is Rift. Now, Rift was fine in its way, but given a choice between a series of on-budget, on-time, staid and stable Riftlikes or the usual slew of half-baked, half-finished visionary semi-disasters, I'd definitely prefer the latter. Heroic failures are a lot more interesting than stodgy successes.
It's not that hard to design a CERTAIN game. You draw the features on a piece of paper and implement them.

The problem comes from the fact that the management has zero vision about how the game should look like. Nor they care. The only thing they care about is revenues. So every time some competitor makes something popular, they order the developers to put it into the game, regardless if it fits even a bit. See also: marketplace in Diablo III.

This create chimeras that doesn't have any particular shape and often can't even be classified as a game (you know, having goals, rules, challenge, and interaction).

Imagine that you are building a chess table and the manager comes in and tells you that the recent trends are about social gaming, so please implement a feature into your chessboard that posts on your Facebook page whenever you take a piece of an opponent. When you're almost done, another manager comes and demands action elements that demands hand-eye coordination. Then the next comes and wants to change it to "accessible", where no one can be checkmated, because that's not fun. And it's just a small project with only 3 managers. Imagine a $200M MMO!
I’ll add my small anecdotal sample to Kiseran. It’s not just game developers. Software development in general is subject to bad project management.

"A full 66 percent of large-scale projects fail to achieve their stated business objectives, are delivered late, or are substantially over budget." Gartner, 2007
I love ES but ESO always felt like a cash grab rather than something build out of love of ES. ESO's pricing (front loading the prices for people who are checking out the game and will not continue with a sub) and their NDA shows to me that they don't believe in their game. That's enough for me to pass until I hear better things. The most exciting game on the horizon is Star Citizen for exactly the opposite reason, this looks like a game entirely created out of love for Chris Roberts style of games. SC is aimed at me - middle aged, largish disposable income, 90's nerd who loved flight/space sims, powerful PC. And looking at their crowd funding it's a good demo to target.
The only mmo capable of being produced with no feature creep or wasted assets would be unoriginal and bland.

All the things that you said were signs of bad management are actually desirable in limited quantities. Good management means knowing when it is time to cut an idea or a feature and when to double-down and put that bit more effort into getting it right.

You can't make something new and innovative without taking some risks, some of which fail.
Giving developers a free hand to play around with some features boosts their moral and can generate great features.
Let's wait and see. Personally I hope ESO is a success. It's NOT going to be ESO - it can't be - but ES was never to me about being the Neverarine, but about wandering in a relatively open world, and this seems translatable to an MMO. And there's a lot of 'lore', even if a fair bit of it is kind of impressionistic, and a coherent but extensible world map.

One can at least see why ESO is something that ought to be tried. It's very possible that on the back of the success of Skyrim, the devs got more money than they should have had access to. But time will tell.

Note that ES itself has moved with the times too, with changes that many see as dumbing down but which do seem to have delivered something that appeals to a wide range of players without entirely losing the vision.

Maybe they will pull this off.

I agree with the idea that game companies do horrible Project management. (They also do bad rocess management; the idea that a programmer can update the code without changing the tooltip is very immature on the CMM)

I also agree with the idea this tends to be true for software development in general. E.g. Microsoft with nearly unlimited funds, using some of the brightest talent, thousands of which were given millions of dollars in stock options delivered a bad Vista several years late.

To add to the discussion, I would point out that how much an MMO *should* take to develop is irrelevant to the discussion. Even if we can prove a MMO should cost $100mm, if it in fact will take $200mm to develop, then it will take $200mm and that is what the customers will have to pay back to the investors.
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