Our playgrounds and virtual worlds are getting larger. This isn’t something that catches people by surprise; it’s pretty much commonly agreed. And they will only get larger and larger.
Donning my prophet hat on, I’d say that at some point -not really far away into the future- these games will become so massive, in terms of their own virtual expanse and number of subscribers, that “business as usual” as it relates to the way these games are managed, just won’t cut it anymore.
Perhaps in 10 or 15 years (no further than that, I’d say) we’re going to see the emergence into the mainstream of two very important things which will shape that generation of games. No, it won’t be the number of polys they cram in there, or how many gigs of VRAM you need on your card to hold all the textures properly, or anything like that. It’ll be something much less technical: The adoption into the mainstream of user-created content and the emergence of the Police Department.
The first one, user content, will fall from the tree pretty much by itself so ripe it’ll be by then. We’ve been hinting at it for quite a while, and developers are just now really dipping their feet into that cold water (see: Pirates of the Burning Sea and their user-created flags). Understand that I don’t mean simply the ability for users to create content for their games; we’ve had that for well over a decade now. What I mean is the adoption, by publishers and developers, of dedicated user content groups whose sole task is to overview and manage user content. There’s a difference.
If you think this is outlandish and extremely costly for developers, well, you’re right of course. But there’s another way to think about it. Think back, maybe 15 or 20 years back. Set your sights there, that period of gaming let’s say between 1990 and 1995. Remember what you got there when you bought a game (online or not, it doesn’t matter). You got your box, a set of floppys or a CD, in the best of cases a decent manual. Customer service, as we understand it today, was basically limited to a 1-800 number that you called. Half the time, that 1-800 number doubled as a “call here for game hints” number as well. But that was about it. Patching existed, but it was uncommon. Very few devs could afford to have a decent customer service group on that new inter-net thing for people to use. Pretty bleak, all in all.
Let’s come back to today, 2008. With all that in mind, tell me now -just 15 years later- which developer or publisher can afford to put out a game and attempt to manage it with no dedicated customer service whatsoever. Or with just a 1-800 that you call if you have a problem, and that’s it. The answer is easy: No one. Nobody would be insane enough to launch a game with no dedicated customer service group. It’d sink as soon as it leaves the drydock, and everybody knows it. Would you get a game with no customer service whatsoever? Yes, yes, I understand that some customer services out there are basically indistinguishable from no customer service at all. Granted. But it’s still there, and even if it couldn’t help you, it might have helped someone else.
There is a reason why now we have games with dedicated customer service and technical support groups tending to them, and we didn’t have them fifteen years ago. It’s because in those fifteen years platforms of hardware and software evolved, and have gotten much more complex. It’s because there are however many numbers of different platform configurations now than fifteen years ago. It’s because the games have gotten larger, and more difficult to manage, coupled with the fact that the market itself has grown incredibly and any given online game, now, today, pulls many more subscribers than any given online game did fifteen years ago.
It was a business decision, to create these dedicated groups. And make no mistake, it wasn’t a decision based on foresight and planning because that is rare in business. Business decisions are primarily motivated by need, and at some point in these 15 years someone realized that they needed to have dedicated customer service and technical support teams in place if they didn’t want to, well, get their asses kicked on the press and in the pocket by the guys who did have them. Simple as that. Competition at its finest, and where it works best: to ultimately benefit the consumer. Someone, somewhere, finally realized that yes, maintaining those dedicated groups is truly expensive… but it’ll be even more expensive in the long run not to have them.
I imagine we’ll see something in this vein in the future. Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. We’ll see the emergence of dedicated, in-house or outsourced, User Content Teams. Why? For the same reasons. Because someone will do it first, and then everybody else will realize they better start doing it too. We’ll reach a point where nobody will be able to afford not to have them, as expensive as they might be. It will become as common as customer service is for us today.
If you don’t think this will ever happen, just think that not too far back, in a galaxy not too far away, we didn’t have any meaningful customer service or technical support for our games.
Next part we’ll take a look at the Police Department. That’s a fun one. :)