The key to success in building any game is how quickly a team can see a game in action, quickly evaluate the state of the players and the state of the game, and quickly react to the new information.
The key to success in online games is to quickly repeat the above evolutionary cycle, over and over again, without significantly damaging what attracted and retained your existing customers, or significantly damaging your platform and brand, while adding material to attract and retain new customers and finding new ways to make money, all while players continuously do the unexpected and vultures show up to pick at your established customer base. All of these constraints are difficult individual problems. Combined, they present an incredibly difficult problem.
The barrier to success is achieving the required development speed, visibility and flexibility in the multiple-dimension complexity of online games. New, continually shifting problems require more than just new solutions, they need a new way to solve them, over and over again. And with the development speed, scale, complexity and longevity of online games, your business needs game production tools, metrics and agility more than ever before.
Introduction, 1.1: A Darwinian shift in what games are requires a similar shift in how we build them.
Online games are the most intriguing shift in media since we first learned to scratch on cave walls. A product oriented industry is migrating to service business models that rent persistent, continually evolving virtual worlds, populated by studios and customers alike. You’re trying to attract and retain long-term customers, not point-of-sale customers. A service-oriented business has different cost and revenue models than packaged goods. Further, players require the flexibility to explore their own paths, build relationships and expand the shared virtual world. The more bonds players have to your game and to your quality of service, the longer you retain customers and the greater your revenue and the better your chances of expanding your customer base. These shifts in the relationship between the players of games and the producers of games change how we think, what our business goals and priorities are, and how we build software.
Online games are a combination of long-term experiments that seek and field innovative approaches to solve complex, continually changing problems:
• expanding the virtual world and the supporting infrastructure;
• exploring new types of fun;
• improving how you attract and retain players;
• improving your revenue models and lowering your recurring expenses.
That’s a lot of stuff to get right, quickly, over and over again, especially with the high quality of service required to attract and retain long-term customers.
• Your software and your processes must be designed for a continual, incremental, cost-effective growth pattern, with rapid prototyping to continually shape the growth direction and continual pushes of new content to paying customers.
• The heart of an iterative development process is the pace of iterations and your ability to see actionable results of iterations.
• Adding metrics to your incremental development cycle provides guidance in your experiments, visibility into your sources/sinks of money, visibility/predictability into your schedules and visibility into the speed, agility and stability of your platform and your processes.
Metrics are not a silver bullet in and of themselves [reference: Frederick Brooks, “No Silver Bullet”]. To meet the demanding requirements of online games, you need an integrated set of development approaches that, in aggregate, lower the cost and risk of fielding an online game service.
• Metrics point out anomalies for you to investigate or find high level, aggregated patterns of data too complex to absorb individually. Automating this triage / aggregation phase is essential to a rapid experimentation/reaction model: finding the problem area is the slowest part of debugging large, complex systems, such as gameplay, player behavior or nondeterministic servers. You need speed of analysis.
• If you can’t quickly react to what you’ve observed, you’ll be more frustrated than successful. You need speed of execution.
• To achieve these levels of agility and speed, a backlog and burn down charts just won’t do: you need your software, your tools and your processes to have ease of observation and ease of change built-in at the genetic level. You need more than process agility, you need system agility.
• Breaking things slows you down and complex, continually evolving software is easy to break. Your experimentation capacity is effectively zero when your software doesn’t work. You’re also forced to squander resources and time on something that worked just fine yesterday and you risk burning your customers with unreliable service. You need production and operational stability.
• Incorporating your long-term business success metrics into your day-to-day decision-making keeps you on the right track, and helps decide which answer to a complex question pushes the ball forward: a completely reaction driven process tends to thrash, not advance. Similarly, critical but less visible infrastructure features fall by the wayside until they are very visibly in the way of forward progress. You need simultaneous focus on both long-term goals and short-term milestones.
• Finally, continual process improvement is a hard people problem. Once the basic infrastructure and processes are in place, people tend to focus on other, more visible problems, such as gameplay. Unless infrastructure is measured and tracked against at least at least at least timeshifting up a short-term needs and long-term business goals, the quality, speed and stability of your infrastructure tends to fall below the radar, until it is visibly and painfully in the way of production and/or customers. In fact, QOS and speed of content refresh are critical game features in your online service business; they need the same level of attention and resources as any other feature, if not more so. And even then, human nature is unwilling to change how work is done in the middle of a project. You must be able to measure reality and adapt your software, your development processes over and over again. You need facts and willpower.
Purple’s Three Laws of Analytics
1. What gets measured, gets done. Getting the right thing done is an entirely separate problem.
2. Individual metrics aren’t worth spit. Context is everything.
3. Change is tough. Without willpower and a continual, evolving path that is easier to use than not to use, you won’t change.