(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:
(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.