Servers and Dice

This the personal blog of Marc Reyes, Game Support Manager for Level Up! Philippines and avid tabletop Roleplaying game enthusiast. Here you'll find my thoughts about the massively multi-player online games industry and tabletop pen and dice role-playing games.

My Photo
Name:

By day, a Software Test Analyst. By night, a wannabie story game author and genre fiction writer. 

Monday, March 17, 2008

Customer Service

This is a post about Customer Service, but first a bit of background story...

I own a Nintendo DS, and when I was thrilled to find that it could play GBA (Game Boy Advance) cartridges I immediately looked forward to when I could buy the anime strategy game "Super Robot Taisen". There's a GBA English version of that game and I went looking for it.

I found it, sort of, bundled with some other games in a GBA "Combo Cartridge." in an SM Appliance Center outlet in Mall of Asia. It was the first time I bought such a combo cart... and the saleslady didn't tell me about it's inherent weakness... that such carts had a notorious reputation for deleting save games!

And five days later, that's exactly what happened. Five days of strategy and blowing up giant robots, all gone as if I'd never played.

This of course was unacceptable. I stormed back to the store where I bought it and demanded for a refund.

The saleslady first tried to point out that everybody knew that you can't save on a combo cart. I replied: "Well miss, I'm not everybody, that was my first time buying a combo cart, so you should have warned me about that no-save function... if you had, I wouldn't have bought the item in the first place."

I got bumped up to her supervisor, who offered to replace the cartridge with another game. I didn't care for any of their other offerings: I just wanted Super Robot Taisen. And they didn't have one on single cart. Again I demanded a refund.

Now the super bumped me to the store manager. He also offered to replace the item with another item from the store and I said, "I don't want anything else. Give me a refund." At that point he said that it would take two weeks and they would issue me a check for the game cartridge.

Oh well, at least I wouldn't have wasted my money. Waiting two weeks for a game cartridge refund is better then not getting a refund at all. I agreed and signed some papers and gave them the combo cart I bought.

And now my rant:

Why the heck is it so hard to get refunds in this country? There is a law, that makes a no-return no exchange policy illegal. But they still put you through the wringer just to get a refund. I remember buying books and clothes in the US, and you can bring it back to the shop for a refund that day. Why can't it be like that?

Ironic, considering I work for a customer service organization. The experience has made me aware of just how key customer service is in a business, especially an online game business.

I am aware of the other side of the coin. Truly good service does require resources and good management of the support staff. That isn't easy, but it's worth working for.

At least I know the service levels here in the company is better then the one at the store where I bought my cartridge.

Or is it? Hmm...

Labels: ,

Friday, March 14, 2008

What I've been Up To...

Man, it's been a long time since the last update hasn't it?

I think I owe it to everyone to explain just what's been keeping me busy these past few months.

1. Work: Since I last posted here, my department, the Game Operations department has been busy implementing some changes... and busy supporting the other units of Level Up.

Hmm... have I lost you? Maybe I should explain what it is I DO exactly in Level Up.

All of Level Up's online games have GMs. They're the ones you see in the games and on the forums. The GMs are organized into teams called Game Teams. Each game team is headed by a Game Manager. The "Head GM" for each game. The Head GMs in turn, report to me.

Wait, I know what you're thinking. "Holy crap, The G is the uber powerful head GM!" Actually, that's not the case. My job is more regulatory. I make sure the game policies and the promotions are implemented within budget, and the time of the game teams is adequately managed.

Okay to make it simple, it's like this. The company makes a plan for the game team. For example RO. They go "Hey Ragnarok Game team, we want you to summon monsters in Prontera and Lighthaltzen all week!" My job is to make sure that the Game Team summons the correct monsters and executes the summoning plan exactly as what is written down on the plan.

If you've been following the activites of Level Up's games, you know we've been really busy these past few months.

The second thing I've been up to is my tabletop roleplaying game. I play Exalted a high powered fantasy roleplaying game where you take the role of a reincarnated God King to remake the world. I am the GM (that is, I function as a meat server) of one game and I play in another. I have 8 players and we play once a month at my house. Things have gotten really intense, with demons invading the players' home cities and everyone getting ready to fend off the demonic hordes... most of my free time away from work has been spent getting ready for my tabletop sessions!

Anyway that's what I've been upto these past few days. I plan to put up some interesting articles regularly for those who visit. (Now that I have an audience, hehehe, thanks Carlo.) So check back soon!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Time Consumption of Tabletop RPGs

One of the biggest barriers to entry in a tabletop RPG is time.

Given that sessions tend to last anywhere from 5-7 hours each, you really have to set aside time in order to play. Because of RL stuff like work or school, usually those with time to play usually play on a saturday.

Case in point is yours truly. Right now as I write this I'm waiting for the other players to arrive for our Exalted game (in which I am a player rather then GM). Next week I'm GMing for another group of players for MY exalted game... my schedule for the next few weekends is looking like this:

This week: Playing in an Exalted game
Next week: GMing an Exalted game
Week of the 31st: ... well it's either I go run ANOTHER Exalted game or something else...
Holyweek: No gaming. So far.
2nd week of April: AEGIS Open meet, I run my Gundam SEED demo game there.
3rd week of April: Another possible Exalted game where I GM...

I can imagine why MMORPGs are "logically superior", with a computer GM, you can play whenever... wherever. You can even play multiple games at once. Not so with tabletop

Labels:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tabletop Gaming in the age of Computer Games

This is an article I wrote for the AEGIS ezine project a few months back. I'm posting it here since it looks like the ezine is on hold.

Nearly everyone credits tabletop role-playing gaming as the predecessor to today’s modern computer RPG genre and MMORPG genre. The terms “Game Master”, “NPC”, “Level” ,“Class” first had its origins in the tabletop roleplaying game hobby.

Sadly, the tabletop roleplaying industry is in decline, with the same size market of players competing for a glut of tabletop RPG materials, and growth in the market has been very slow. This is directly opposite of the computer RPG industry, which has seen record growth, especially in the MMORPG category. In light of this, some people are saying that Online Computer RPGs are the way to go for the next generation, and tabletop is doomed to be practiced by the same ever-graying market segment that was introduced to it in the mid to late 80s.

This writer believes that this may not necessarily true, hence this article. Here, we’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of a computer RPG, more specifically an MMORPG, and how a tabletop is inferior or superior to a computer MMORPG.

TWO VIRTUAL WORLDS
Table Top roleplaying games are virtual worlds: They exist in the shared imagination of players and the GMs. They have their own internal rules and systems, and they can be explored and experienced in a communal manner.

But they are not the only virtual worlds out there. Computer games can be said to be a kind of virtual world, where one or more players explore and experience the game. This can be seen in “RPG” console games and MMOGs. They too have their own internal rules and systems and are experienced in a communal manner.

SHOW VS TELL

Though both Computer and Tabletop RPGs are virtual worlds, they are vastly different in implementation, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

Computer RPGs and MMOGs are far more immersive then table top RPGs because they don’t tell you what’s going on, they show you, and like the cliché goes, “a picture paints a thousand words.”. This is the core strength of the computer RPG, and in this day and age of instant gratification, most people will want to be shown action then told action.

SCRIPTED VS. INTERACTIVE

Though Computer RPGs strength lies in the visceral, visual presentation of the adventuring material, they do have a weakness, and that is INTERACTIVITY. Computer RPGs are after all computer programs. They are limited in what they can perform. This can be seen in the classic “Interior town map” in many console games, in which players “see” many objects on a dining room table in a house, but find themselves being unable to inspect or cart off the contents of the table unless it was part of the script. Indeed, many console RPGs are little more then interactive novels: Linear, scripted and rigid. However they are executed so well you hardly feel that you are being railroaded or you are confined by the constraints of the computer program. But still they are unable to fully capture the freedom of a virtual world, and thus you have a lot of people writing fanfiction of their favorite console game characters (or MMOG characters).

Tabletop RPGs however, are powered by the ultimate creative processor: the human mind. A good GM is far more flexible and can customize the plot to detail any move the characters in his virtual world make. If a player wanted to cart off a plate from the dinner table, the human GM would allow him to do so. He would also allow the player to insult the host, flirt with the daughter or awe the inhabitants of the house with tales of his adventures… and the world will react appropriately. Tabletop RPGs allow for true interactivity and this is the core strength of the hobby.

ACTION VS DRAMA

With clever programming and split second computing, computer RPGs allow for highly detailed fast paced combats that are very thrilling. Nothing simulates action better then a computer program. This can be seen in the wide variety of action and sports games available for PC and Consoles. However, like any computer program, any action is constrained by the code. The computer program has to be designed to accommodate the action being simulated.

In a tabletop RPG, drama can be taken to its logical conclusions. With true interactivty, and some theatrical skills, the good GM can play out compelling scenes that give players the ultimate freedom in choosing how to respond. In fact many drama scenes are what are remembered by many gamers long after the game has ended. This is the advantage it has over any computer program.

However, because of the limitations of the human GM, action on a tabletop RPG tends to be slower paced then the twitch-speed rapid-fire decisions that a computer RPG is capable of making, since the GM must narrate every bit of the action to form the image in the player’s minds.

A QUESTION OF COST

It is generally speaking more expensive to play a tabletop RPG then it is to play a computer game or MMOG.

How is this so?

To play a tabletop RPG you need a relatively quiet place with tables and chairs, preferably a residence. You have to come together, from wherever you are in the city, spending time to travel there. You sit there at the table for 5-7 hours to play out a scenario, not counting breaks for dinner and snacks. Essentially when you decide to play a tabletop game, you’ve got to devote half or all your day to it. More if you’re the GM as you need to spend maybe 3-4 hours crafting the scenario.

For a computer RPG, all you need is a PC (which you can rent for as low as 30 pesos/hour). You need only your workstation’s space, and noise isn’t usually a factor. You sit there for 5-7 hours, doing quests or hunting with your friends. But you get to do more. Perhaps your character will level up. Perhaps you want to play after just 2 hours. With a tabletop RPG you can’t always bug your GM since he or she has a life and probably at this point a job. But with a computer RPG or MMOG, you can log back into the game at any time at your convenience and continue the adventure.

So in terms of time cost, table top RPGs are far more expensive then computer RPGs. Also in terms of convenience and “hassle” factor, Computer RPGs are far cheaper then tabletop RPGs, even though the peso value of computer RPGs is much more then table top RPGs. In today’s world, you want things to be convenient and available since we all have busy lifestyles.

COMPETING WITH CRPGS

One of the hobby’s biggest potential source for new players are computer RPG players, but in order to tap into this source, we have to compete with computer RPGs. We have to play up the strengths of the hobby while downplaying its weaknesses.:

1. Focus on Interactivity and Drama – Face it, if players wanted action and twinking, they’d just pick up the nearest MMOG. They can twink and powergame all they want. We can’t compete there. Rather we should appeal to players who want total immersion and drama in their games. This they can never get from any computer RPG.

2. Good GM and Player Showmanship – In this day and age where “tell” is boring, we must do our best to put up as much of a “show” as we can during our games. Game Masters should practice good showmanship especially when running demo games, such as changing voice patterns, preparing interesting props or coming up with new and exciting things that take players by surprise. Players can help by being theatric themselves, using mannerisms when they speak or acting in a dramatic fashion.

3. Cut Production Costs – This is more for GMs rather then players, after all you do have a life, a job, school, or whatever. Go for more rules light systems that focus on drama. Cut down on the math. Cut down on your prep time. After all, a human can’t compete with the game system of a computer RPG. Instead of coming up with complex rules, come up with complex NPCs.

Labels:

What I'll be playing in 2008

Aside from Ragnarok Online 2... I most probably will be playing EVE Online, a science fiction MMORPG from CCP Inc.

For those who are abreast of the times in tabletop gaming and MMORPG gaming CCP recently bought White Wolf Game Studios, the publisher of the Exalted RPG that I am currently running.

They recently revealed an expansion to EVE Online which the characters will actually go outside their ships for once!

For me that was the biggest turnoff in EVE Online, I mean essentially you were a brain in a ship... now you can be a person! This is the ultimate in coolness.

Sauce and video here:

Labels:

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The cost of an MMORPG Server - A mental exercise

Note that the following costs listed below are guesses by the blog writer. They should not be construed to be accurate in any way

Many players think it's cheap to set up their own server.

I remember one of the comments that I heard on the Ragnaboards way back in 2003:

"Oi, di ba yung RO tumatakbo lang sa 3pcs Pentium III tapos naka 256kbps na PLDT DSL?"

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ragnarok Online needs 15 servers for all the maps, plus an account server, a character DB server and a billing server... so that's 18 servers.

And they can't be just any servers. They have to be high quality heavy duty servers. Servers so high spec that they can't just be bought anywhere.

My guess is that each server costs around 350-500k EACH.

So 350k x 18 = PHP 6,300,000 for servers alone.

Then what else... oh an internet connection. Let's say you spend PHP 50,000 a month for hosting.

But that's not enough. The servers won't run themselves. You'll need to hire some people to run the servers for you.

You'll need a DB Admin, A systems engineer and an applications development guy to run the whole thing. So let's say you pay them 28k a month, so that's 84,000k monthly... Oh! And you need 3 guys to watch the server 24/7 in shifts... pay them 20k per month... so that's 60,000 monthly additional for a total of 144,000 pesos in salaries.

but wait! You need to take care of the community! You need maybe 10 Customer Support agents at 16,000 pesos each, and 2 managers, so you pay the manager maybe 24,000. Also you need maybe 6 GMs to do patrols and stuff all on one server, so let's pay the GMs 18,000 pesos each... and you need a GM Manager (like me!) so let's pay the GM Manager 25,000 pesos a month.

So your customer care costs are: 341,000 pesos for adequate customer care. That should get you enough field patrols and hacks...

Hmm... but you also need sales people to go around to the internet cafes to promote your game. Let's hire 30 area representatives... at 16,000 pesos each plus 10000 pesos in travel allowances and communications allowances (since they go out to the provinces) plus 6 area managers (24,000 + 10,000 allowances) and a Sales Director (40,000 pesos - he/she has to be good)

So sales would be: 1,034,000 pesos a month.

And hmm... what else... you need a marketing manager (26,000 pesos) to run your PR engine and get your game into the mainstream.

With over 50 people, you'll need a senior manager or COO to run things (give him 45000 pesos).

So let's total everything up.... for ONE server:

Servers: 6,300,000 (fixed cost)
Support PCs and Hardware: 300 PCs at 28,000 pesos per PC: 8,400,000

Monthly costs:
Information Technology: 144,000 pesos
Customer Support and Game Master Team: 341,000 pesos
Sales Salaries and Travel: 1,034,000 pesos
Marketing Manager and COO: 70,000 pesos
Office Rental: 60,000 pesos
Electricity and Water: 15,000 pesos

Fixed Cost Grand Total: 14,700,000
Variable Cost Monthly: 1,664,000

Now some more food for thought.

In the first year of operations with only RO, Level Up made 500,000,000 pesos (USD 10M) that's with 8 servers... so each server could theoretically get you: 62.5m per year... or 5.2 million pesos a month. If your variable cost was only 1.6m a month... you could easily make 3.6 million a month and break even your fixed cost in about 4 months. After that it's all profit....

No wonder there's big money in MMORPGs....

Labels:

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Davao and Partnership

It's the aftermath of Level Up Elevation: Davao. Level Up's "big waves" launch for the updates to the existing pack of seven plus the three incoming games.

The theme of the night was partnership. Level Up and the internet cafe business. The company really heavily relies on the internet cafes out there. Most of the metrics on which the company makes its decisions, such as screen-share, penetration and installed base is taken from internet cafes.

You can really tell that Level Up focuses a lot on the internet cafe gamer. The home gamer is, from my view kinda seen as a secondary market... I don't see any events targeting home gamers specifically... it's all internet cafe players or all players.

But then I'm not in marketing so I wouldn't know what the strategy really is.

So in line with this focus it comes as no surprise that Level Up would throw such a huge party for it's "frontline" partners... the internet cafe owners.

Sometime this year I'm going to go see what kind of gaming culture the internet cafe people have... because it seems to be the predominant kind of culture and shapes ALL of the Philippines online games.

And off topic: If you're going to Davao and want reliable wifi internet service for your DO NOT use the wifi at the Crown Regency Residences, where I am. For 75 pesos an hour they give you a proxy server connection to the internet which only allows you to browse the web... and NO online games! Plus you can't access the internet from your room. You have to go to a mosquito ridden airconless cafe with really loud karaoke singers blaring behind you. If you need a quick and CHEAP internet from the hotel, book yourselves in the Regency Inn Davao... you can use the wireless in their lobby for FREE... and can even play games on it.

Labels:

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sandbox Time!



Just to see how things will go. Currently formatting this blog and stuff... and figuring out how things go.


Hmm... that picture on the right is a bit too big isn't it...

Anyway the REAL blog posts will be coming soon! As soon as I figure out how to use this blasted thingy... hahaha...