The Tragic Story of The Cussing NPCs

(The following story is an imagining of what may have led to the sad tale of the cussing NPCs in Champions Online. It is all conjecture based on past experiences with very similar issues.)

As far as the Champions CSR team was concerned, the game had been doing really well in beta. Sure, they were collecting 1200 bug reports a day but that’s pretty normal. In fact, it suggests a very efficient CSR pipeline if they actually managed to process all those reports. But once the game launched, the number of complaints about bad behavior skyrocketed.

It turns out that — get this — juvenile males are attracted to the superhero MMO genre in large number. They cuss. They insult. They cuss with insults whenever possible. This bothered the CSR leads a lot. Perhaps they were new to the MMO business… let’s suppose the CSR leads came from running a phone bank for a major publisher. If 100+ people care enough to call in about an issue with an EA game, that gets their attention really, really fast. Or worse yet, perhaps the CSR leads came from running a call center for a non-game product. 100+ calls about the same topic would cause an overnight hotfix in most software houses.

So they raised the alarm. “Our players,” they said, “are making other players uncomfortable with language. We need to fix it.”

Now any MMO producer can tell you that you don’t piss off the CSR leads. Aside from the forums, which are extremely unreliable for data gathering, CSR is the only way you hear what’s really broken in your game. A good CSR team is way better at bug-hunting than the QA team. That’s because they hear every bug every player finds, instead of just the bugs a handful of testers find. You piss these guys off and suddenly you stop hearing what’s going on in the game. Your ears go deaf and you start losing players without being able to tell why. This is not a mistake a good producer makes more than once.

So maybe the producer jumped right on this. If he’s done this before, he probably rolled his eyes when he got the request, because he knew it wouldn’t help much, but he prioritized it anyway. He sent it to the engineering lead. “Make the CSR team happy. Add a profanity filter to the game. Make this a high priority.” Now remember, the engineering lead has TENS of THOUSANDS of bugs to triage, plus new feature requests coming in every day. So he no doubt rolled his eyes at this suddenly-important tech request.

He then handed the request to his fastest engineer. “Marty, I’m going to take you off the rewrite of the generators for half a day. You’ve got four hours to get a profanity filter in the game.” The CSR team helpfully created a massive list of cuss words (in many languages), drug references, references to sex acts, and hundreds of other things that might be even slightly icky.

Marty’s a smart engineer, and he works really fast. He gets the profanity filter working in two hours. Hell, there’s time left over to polish this feature before he breaks for lunch! So Marty adds some heuristics to detect slight cussing deviations. His algorithm assumes that if a word is one character away from being a cussword, it’s actually a cussword in disguise. He submits his fix for QA approval by lunchtime, and heads off to get his caffeine and grease fix.

Now, the QA team is almost useless. Two reasons: the experienced QA folks got shipped off to Star Trek Online the week after Champions launched. None of the remaining guys knows how to make a test plan. The best they can do is load up the new feature and poke at it for a few minutes. Worse still, these guys are demoralized, overworked, and busy looking for their next job. They may not be good QA (yet) but they aren’t stupid. They know who gets fired first when an MMO game doesn’t have a spectacular launch. Yeah, that’d be QA. Every damned time. So these guys are hardly motivated, barely trained, and tired as all hell from the double overtime they’ve been forced to work.

Jim in QA gets tasked with testing the new profanity filter. He doesn’t know how to make a test plan, and Marty the engineer didn’t have time to make one for him, so Jim just loads up the game and starts typing in cuss words. It seems to work. But he knows that he needs to file a bug on the feature. When QA is in trouble, they always file a token bug on each feature if they can. That way they look like they’re working. (In fact, you can tell if a QA department is borked by how many token bugs they submit versus the number of serious issues they find.) It takes a while but Jim finds something to complain about.

The bug gets sent back to Marty the next day. “You missed cuntsuckler” says the bug report. “I say that all time so it should be in the list.” Marty the engineer adds it to the list, grumbling all the while about QA wasting his time, and then the feature is certified as done! It goes live two days later.

The *!&^%(* Feature Is Live

Cut to me playing the game. There wasn’t any mention of a cuss filter in the patch notes, so I was quite surprised when I saw a random NPC run by, saying:

Cussing NPCs!

Clearly this NPC was trying to cuss me out in Spanish. Whew, thanks profanity filter!

(I’m not named Templar, by the way… the NPC’s just spout off about whoever is nearby.)

It took a while to figure out what happened. The poor NPC tried to say “put a stop to the Qularr” but the cuss filter interpreted it as “put a“, which is just one letter off from “puta“, which is a cussword in Spanish.

So it’s not bad enough that I can’t say “put a” in Champions Online anymore… the NPCs can’t say it either!

The next day it’s even worse: an evil villain tries to tell his henchmen to “put that hero in a pine box”, a reference to murdering me. But alas, he said “hero in“, which of course is a misspelled reference to drug use. A reference to murder? That’s fine. Using drugs? Whoa there! So It comes out as “put that $#@*^!& a pine box“. What a foul mouth these NPCs have!

It’s ironic, perhaps, that cussing continues unabated. I can’t say “put a” but I can still say “p-u-t-a”. Turns out 13 year olds figured this out pretty quickly too.

What’s going on here? Why did this feature get out the door like this? It’s an embarrassment; it does more harm than help.

This is just a symptom of Champions’ painful death throes.

Death By Resource Atrophy

Even before they got their first months’ numbers back, Cryptic knew the game wasn’t going to be a big chart buster. Now they’re just hoping to break even: if they can keep enough players around to keep the bill collectors away and the lights on, then the company can try again with Star Trek Online. And hey, maybe in a year or two they can launch Champions for the XBox 360 and it will be a mild success.

This is very bad news for Champions players. Champions has been relegated to the role of red-headed stepchild… it’s that crappy failure of a game that keeps stealing resources from Star Trek Online, which is the game that’s going to save the company. (The same fate befell Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online when it became obvious the game wasn’t going to recover its development costs quickly… its team was rapidly stripped of resources so that Lord of the Rings Online could be a success instead.)

So now Champions has a tiny, bedraggled, demoralized team. If they’re lucky, the team has taken on that grim, “we’ll die trying” mentality that desperate live teams get. I think some of the team has that now. A few people are clearly trying hard. But there’s no support, so every few steps forward also makes them stumble backwards a step.

I’m rooting for you, guys. Yes, I’m pointing out how you’re making tons of mistakes, but I also think you’re doing the right thing. At this point, you’re not going to get a reasonable amount of QA support, so you’re best off cramming in the fixes, new bugs be damned. If you fix 20 bugs and add 3 more, that’s still better than fixing 10 bugs and adding 0. Desperate times call for desperate work.

This is also the time when the live team’s producer must shine. If Champions is around two years from now, it’s because the producer made the right calls during these first three months of the game. My suggestion: pick your goals with QA. Insist on actual test plans (that you review) for the handful of features that are really important. Having QA working closely with the engineers is ideal but not realistic now. So have your lead engineer make test plans for important features (or, if your lead engineer writes the feature, have a different engineer make the test plan.) Don’t worry about seriously testing the small features. There’s no way you can get all your new stuff covered by QA. It sucks, but it’s the facts. Focus on a feature barrage instead. (For all I know, that’s exactly what Champions is doing now. But if so, they aren’t adding the important features nearly fast enough.)

Yes, I will laugh at your embarrassing bugs, but if you address the serious issues (like useless crafting, wildly arbitrary quest difficulties and rewards, and a cruel newbie experience for people who don’t research the right build on the forums), I’ll keep playing. I think you’ve got another month to show significant progress. After that, even folks like me, who really want to play this game, will give up and quit for a while. So show us what you’ve got! Your next month’s effort can have a major impact on your population numbers. It’s do or die time for Champions.

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29 Responses to The Tragic Story of The Cussing NPCs

  1. Pingback: Reverse Ad-Libs | Kill Ten Rats

  2. Longasc says:

    Very funny insights into the workings and makings of profanity filters! ;)

    While I fear the worst for everything regarding Star Trek Online, Cryptic and Champion’s Online, you are even more pessimist than I am. I won’t play Champions, and they might lose even more people, but I still do not see them pulling a Tabula Rasa. Maybe for the simple reason they have nothing else yet.

  3. Pingback: You’ve Got To Curse At ALL The Players! « Broken Toys

  4. Groovymarlin says:

    I have a unique perspective on this story since I work in QA (not in games though) AND I’m a CO player and lifetime subscriber.

    I think your suggested chain of events is quite plausible. However, I hope things at Cryptic aren’t quite as grim as you theorize. Even when I signed up for my lifetime sub, I was aware that there was a certain shadow over this game (*cough* Roper *cough* Flagshipped *cough*) and I keep hoping against hope that they’ll be able to defy expectations and make a go of it. There’s some good stuff there, but certainly taking away all of the best resources (dev, QA, or what have you) isn’t going to help.

    This wasn’t the first time that I think they introduced a horrible bug by trying to implement “features.” Just a few patches ago, remember how they introduced new “targeting enhancements” that succeeded in making it so you couldn’t display anyone’s names overhead for a while? I remember thinking, “My God, doesn’t ANYONE test this stuff?” But I’ve had moments like that in almost every MMO I’ve ever played (and I’ve played a bunch of them), so I don’t think Cryptic and CO are unique in this respect. It would be nice for them to commit some serious QA resources and get a handle on this, though.

  5. It’s funny ’cause it’s true.

    Profanity filters are one of those things where you think they’re trivial but they’re really not. In a text MUD I played, the profanity dragon (who would disconnect you for swearing) used to go after people who said things like, “yellowankle”.

    In Meridian 59 there was a client-side and a server-side profanity filter. On the server side, you could actually use the profanity filter to crash the server. The problem was that the profanity filter tried to check for symbols, too, so that the paragraph symbol (¶) could be considered a ‘P’. A flaw in the programming made it so that if you filled up your personal bio/description with a bunch of symbols like the paragraph symbol, you could overwork the profanity filter and crash the server.

    Fun times, fun times.

  6. Sara Jensen Schubert says:

    If it went down that way, it’s not QA’s fault that the producer didn’t ask a designer to write up a spec. Experienced MMO designers have certainly seen bad profanity filters before. (Or, maybe it’s not the producer’s fault that design team leadership can’t retain experienced designers, or they didn’t think to hire any in the first place, ’cause come on, they’re all failures anyway, right?)

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  8. Cameron says:

    The sad fact they spent even four hours (probably a lot more considering everything) on this falls into the bozo bit category. Every change in the system at this point should equate to subscriber numbers and be sorted as such. How many subscribers will they gain with this “feature”: zero. How many would they loose if they kept it… near zero. Waste of effort that could have been spent fixing the numerous broken powers or quests that STILL don’t work and never have. CONTENT should be the focus. The more there is to do and the more there is to earn the longer players will stay and play. At this point when a game (or any app really) is struggling it is sadly a common practice to implement the easiest bug fixes/features first rather than the ones with the biggest positive impact. Lastly, the fact that dev items like this are still making it into live without going into patch notes shows exactly how badly managed a development shop is. It is atrocious and is a sign that mid and/or upper management should be changed.

  9. Kelsey says:

    You might want to read this. http://champions-online.com/node/522831 The GM leads of Champions Online actually are very experienced with MMOs, and they state here that the playerbase are far better than the ones from the game they came from. That perhaps blows your theory out of the water. I quote: “The three of us came from another large MMO company, where we were used to seeing hundreds and hundreds of harassment reports per day. While here, we see maybe three or four.”

  10. Kelsey, Eric provided that same link himself in the article, and pointed out it was written during and about BETA players. Beta participants are far better behaved and far more understanding than live gamets for reasons that are hopefully obvious.

    One of the great failings in current MMO development practice is that almost nobody “test markets” their product with a small group of ACTUAL PAYING CUSTOMERS prior to launch. If, in addition to beta testing, an MMO operator set up enough hardware to support 500 customers, then randomly invited 500 pre-order purchasers to play a couple months before the game went live (under whatever legal conditions were felt necessary), the whole development and operating organization would see in microcosm what to expect at launch.

    Yes, I know that the desire to cram in extra features and promised features up to the last moment is strong. Especially in a struggling MMO studio. However, you’d think that after the disasters of Hellgate, Bill Roper would understand the importance of cutting back on features and polishing the core game well before launch/live. Perhaps he forgot about in the last year (see http://www.1up.com/do/newsStory?cId=3169387 )? Or maybe it would have been much worse without him. Hard to say. But regardless, it’s very unfortunate that the Flagship lessons weren’t applied with greator vigor to Champions Online.

  11. Pingback: Champions Online: Filters in games « Exploring War Like Worlds.

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  14. Atnor says:

    Nice post. Good industry feel and funny too :)

    It’s amazing to me how so much of what you described parallels my feelings about what the behind-the-scene thinking must have been at SOE with Vanguard, since I’ve played that game as my primary game for quite awhile.

    I too find CO to be a real “fun” game, but I agree with a lot of your sentiment about their deficiencies.

  15. Cat says:

    Brilliant. :)

    I know the QA-death-march feeling well. You’re trying to keep the whole thing afloat with two testers. You skip lunch or eat it at your desk. You come in ten minutes early, you leave twenty minutes late, but you put 8 hours on your time card with a half hour for lunch so you don’t get in trouble for working overtime. When you’re at home, you’re combing the forums looking for disasters in progress.

    You’re being so productive that management feels they can take yet another tester from your team and put him on The New Game three days a week. /facepalm

  16. Rolaran says:

    Out of curiosity, do you happen to remember what “Templar” looked like? I ask because I have a character named Templar, and that would be just too spooky if it was the same one…

  17. Eric says:

    Rolaran – nope, I was glued to the captions appearing on screen waiting for the NPCs to cuss again, so didn’t really get a good look, sorry. But it was taken at around this time a night (2-4 am EST) so if that’s when you play, it may well have been you! Not a lot of people on at that time of night.

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  20. HZero says:

    I’ll never forget my first run in with a profanity filter. I was introducing my brother to EQOA and we were running around the dark elf starter area, maybe a year after launch. “What next?” he says to me, and I say “Lets go kill some of those giants @#$%roaches.” My brother laughs until we round the bend, and for the first time, he sees the giant cockroaches. It was in the game, the NPC’s could say it…but we couldn’t. Profanity filters are just another step in a long range war of escalation between game industry regs, developers, and players. Guess who wins that fight in the end.

  21. BoomingEchoes says:

    Other then pointing out that the filter is funny I’m trying to figure out what your getting at here. A chat filter that can be turned off is hardly going to break a game at all even if the game has many other more important issues.

    CO came out and almost instantly got trampled by Aion later in the month, but Aion’s filter (which I experienced during the open beta and I can’t imagine changed much a week later at launch) seemed much worse then whats described in CO. I’d take full word blockage, even from my NPCs, over fragmented words that force you to really try to figure out whats under the “#&#^@” before the “ed” at the end. Needless to say it gave me the headache when I fought through and came to understand that most of the words being said in Aion’s channels were perfectly clean words. But Aion is selling better, so does that make it OK? Or is this a blanket comment for all new MMO’s?

    People seem to forget that all MMO’s have their issues when they’re launched, and you might be no different. No game is perfect out of the box, and that statement is becoming more and more true even on the console market now. CO is no different. WoW was a crashing wreck when it was launched (I know, I’ve played since launch) and it took the team a little more then 6 months to wrangle in the problems and get the game moving towards staying a success and there’s still plenty of problems they’re working through 5 years later. The Matrix Online, which I was a closed beta tester from the first round of testing, never cleaned up its act, retaining the bugs it had in beta even after Sony bought it from Warner Brothers all the way up till the servers shut down this past July.

    I think what matters, and what you maybe getting at, is whether the team behind the game can fix the problems that are there. If they can’t, or get trapped under the same tarp that you say Asheron’s Call was stuck under politically, then I think its safer to recount why the game was a failure then, rather then do it now while the team seems to be genuinely trying to make things right. Unless of course your point is aimed at lighting a fire under the the developers of the game and not to incite the general public, in which case your forum choice seems a little odd.

    I’m sorry sir, but to see you currently working on Star Trek Online as a systems designer when we all know Cryptic is making that game also just seems like your biting the hand that feeds. It just seems a little wrong.

    (as a note, I play neither Aion or CO but I do keep up with news related to both games as I’m looking for the right game to jump to and get away from WoW permanently. I have played many games That have been Either minor successes (FFXI, SWG)and ones that have down right failed (The Matrix Online, Neocron)

  22. Eric says:

    Just to clarify (yet again): I am not working on Star Trek Online in any capacity. The company that previously owned the project, Perpetual Entertainment, went bankrupt; the assets and license were sold to Cryptic.

    The main point of this article is that there are quite severe issues that need addressing in Champions Online, and due to mismanagement, the team has failed to address them, but added a perfectly useless chat filter instead. This is all too common in the MMO industry; I hope that pointing these things out will get developers to think about what they’re doing a little more carefully. This blog’s audience is fellow MMO developers, not gamers — so it is perhaps understandable that gamers who read it often miss the intent.

  23. Kalt says:

    I’m fairly certain I saw “put a” filtered in closed beta. Are you certain you saw that NPC text before, or your profanity filter was on when you did last time? I see what you’re getting at, but a profanity filter might not be the best example of poorly tested, shoehorned features.

    Another funny unintentional “cuss word” (I forget which NPC says it) is “Hero in,” as in, “There’s a hero in my lair.”

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  26. nugget says:

    Haha! This reminds me of what happened about a week ago while I was playing Jade Dynasty. Jade Dynasty has a profanity filter (woohoo!) And obscenity. And even vaguely offensivity I guess. But it IS localised from Mandarin so I give them a bit more leeway, nonetheless…

    *Nugget enters shiny new area.*
    *Nugget sees beautiful peacocks walking around.*
    *Nugget is EXCITED!*
    *Nugget chats to Nugget’s alliance: OOOH! PEACOCKS! THEY HAVE PEACOCKS!*

    or rather, after the filter’s done with it…

    *Nugget chats to Nugget’s alliance: OOH! PEA*&#$#! THEY HAVE PEA@&*^#!*
    *Nugget’s Alliance: Huh?!*
    *Nugget: -_- What I mean to say is, they have peafowl of the male variety here.*
    *Nugget’s Alliance: lol*

    *Deepnuggetsigh*

    …at least I got a story out of it. XD

  27. Rapewaffle says:

    >This is just a symptom of Champions’ painful death throes.

    Hyperbole much?

    Your whole scenario in the first half of the article was pulled out of your ass. Another commenter has already pointed out that it didn’t happen, in fact the reverse was true, and my experience in the game backs this up – people are generally very well behaved toward one another.

    The profanity filter was hilariously broken, but I’ve seen similar things in half a dozen other MMOs. It’s just not a serious problem – since you can always turn the filter off – and it’s usually fixed quickly, because it’s an amazingly simple piece of code.

    Meanwhile, the game is a lot of fun to play, gives you more freedom to tailor your character than any other MMO, ‘boring’ tasks such as healing and buffing are actually fun because of the endurance building/spending synergies it takes to pull them off well, and the zones are huge yet have a lot of character, with each area themed and forming almost a mini-zone in its own right. There are regular patches delivering substantial improvements.

    There are some weak points – the graphics rely too heavily on bump mapping and often lack proper textures (though this hasn’t killed EQ2 yet), the level of freedom in character creation makes it easy to create a far weaker character than people who know what they’re doing, PvP is a bit of an inferior ripoff of WAR’s scenarios, defensive abilities are strong enough to make one effectively invulnerable in PvP, and so forth.

    But going on about its ‘death throes’ and making up little stories to justify your bullshit assessment smacks of having an axe to grind.

  28. A Man In Black says:

    “Rapewaffle says: …people are generally very well behaved toward one another.”

    Am I the only one who can’t stop laughing at that?

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