Portmortem: Etilica – Management Lessons

I took away some management lessons from Etilica.

A world needs a “vision” that everyone on the team signs onto – That vision needs to include technical standards and accepted approaches to problems. In short, there needed to be a design document. Amateur hobbyists don’t usually write design documents, but among hobbyist teams, it is very common for the initial builders to pass the torch, even when the admins remain the same. ETI was built by multiple generations. The people working on the server when it left beta were not those who did the initial work and they were also not the ones who took over as the live team. Every builder that ever worked on the server had his own way of doing things. The one before me who called himself a “lazy scripter” in his comments made me want to poke my eyes out with a fork. Sometimes, those ways did not mesh and sometimes they actively undermine the vision.

Selling builders on the vision is a marketing task.

Know when to ignore the forums – Also in the face of player whining. If you want your world to be about cute fluffy bunnies that also happen to be demon worshipping undead, then stick to that vision. Somewhere out there, there are players looking for exactly your vision. If you are constantly modifying it to the whims ofthose for whom your vision does not coincide with their idea of perfection, then you’ll turn your world into something that you no longer love; and those players will still leave. Unless it fits their idea of perfection, or they have a social anchor, they will be fickle and leave sometime.

This requires discipline. The temptation to change the server to fit the players that it has is strong; especially in a genre or platform that is on the wane and difficult to find players for. I was severely guilty of this. On more than one occasion, I put the server into a gyration because of what the players were saying on the forums. This lack of an anchor inadvertently helped its downfall I think.

Changing the nature of the server overnight – The admins and builders who brought the server through beta started a new server plot shortly after the end of beta. A far away undead nation ruled by a lich emperor took over the main city and started a war. Overnight, the server turned very dark. It was a good server plot and gave the players a “reason” for their characters actions. Unfortunately, it was too dark for many players. There was loud protest and the playerbase rapidly dwindled. The leads lent on hiatus shortly afterwards, probably due to a feeling of discouragement, and there was a complete turnover of the live team. Generic D&D fantasy and goth undead lovers are two distinct crowds. You can’t gear populate the server with one and then gear it towards the other. This means that if you do have large, overreaching, server plots, they have to be consistent with the types of players that you are attracting to the server in the first place.

Wait! Is this not contradictory to the “know when to ignore players” rule? Not really. Just as selling your vision to the team is a marketing task, so is selling it to the players. BUT… you can’t bait and switch.

No PW builder/dev should ever say “I can’t script/program”. They should say “I’m going to learn how to script/program” – Too many people who tended to say the former worked on Etilica. NWN has a nice add on tool created by Lilac Soul. It is a script generator. It greatly helps builders who lack the skills and are not willing to learn them to build modules quickly. The problem is that persistent worlds are complex enough that if you have to use a script generator, then you are going to end up with a buggy, Frankenstein monster.

Thrym is an excellent example of how to do it right. He knew nothing about NWN’s scripting language (or modding that engine in general) when he started building Markshire. He had a vision and the drive to learn the necessary skills and became very competent.

The Managers need to be technically competent enough to have a clue – What I said above for builders hold especially true for the management. You need to be prepared to wear all hats. Yes, this might mean learning to code or animate. Everyone has a dream that they would like to build. The difference between a lead and a builder is that the latter has decided that his vision is too big to build himself and that he’d rather work on something else that sees the light of day rather than his own project that might never do this. A manager who is not willing to learn the requisite skills is entirely dependent on others; finding those builders who don’t want to waste time on their own visions. In doing so, he is making his world less attractive. Seriously, who wants to do all the gruntwork for someone else’s vision if they are not willing to do it themselves? It also makes the world vulnerable to being altered by a builder who does not share that vision.

Communication is like oxygen to the live team– It should be so obvious that it does not need to be said, but there needs to be a central communications hub. The builders, including and especially myself, were very active on Etilica’s forums; but used IM very little. The head admin was rarely on the forums, but held court on IM. Some of the DMs used IM to varying degrees. This was a recipe for non-communication among the live team. It actually surprised me on more than one occasion when someone who was not active on the forums or in development was made acting lead.

I’m strongly partial to forums for their asynchronous nature. This keeps the whole team in the loop regardless of time zone or the hours they keep. Even when IRC and IM chat logs are archived for those not present, the signal to noise ratio usually makes them so painful to read that nothing is gained.

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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One Response to Portmortem: Etilica – Management Lessons

  1. Pingback: Design Documents – Yes, you need them! « Dancing Elephants

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