Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Downtime Doesn’t Matter

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 1, 2009

I was listening to this week’s episode of the Stack Overflow Podcast, and there was a bit about Twitter. Jeff Atwood mentioned how if you didn’t design your database properly, you could end up a reliability laughingstock, like Twitter. Joel Spolsky then sarcastically replied “Right, and now Twitter has disappeared and we all use Pownce.” According to conventional knowledge, the massive downtime problems Twitter had throughout 2008 should have killed the service and made people leave in droves. That obviously has not happened, and Twitter has crystallized as the leader in persistent-IM (to the point where I broke down and got an account). Why didn’t everyone stop using it?

The key is that Twitter isn’t a product, it isn’t an endpoint. Twitter is a communication medium, and is something you use to reach a community. This means that it’s hard to switch services once you’ve gotten a bunch of friends, because you’re locked in. However, I think there’s more to it than that because this kind of “lock in” tends to inspire way less hatred than say a 2 year contract. Because you become emotionally attached to who you’re communicating with, when the service works you’re greatful for it and see it as a facilitator. Also, unlike say a phone, you never rely on Twitter for critical life-changing communication, so it’s ONLY used to build communities and much less for purely practical communication.

What else matches the profile of a service that connects you to a community, but is not used for strictly practical communication? That’s right, MMOs and other online games. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that subscription-based MMOs are uniquely good at building communities, so I think the Twitter phenonom goes a long way to explain something that has mystified me for years: Why did no one quit when WoW ran like shit? When I originally joined WoW, and to a lesser degree now, there were very long queues and heavy server lag when doing things like picking up items or trading on the auction house. But it just became even MORE popular during that time. You could argue that the awesomeness of WoW overruled the horrible effects of lag and downtime, but I think it’s more likely that the lag and downtime just wasn’t that big a deal. People were willing to stick around and work through it, because the community, and their characters, were worth it.

So, the question is: Can downtime and crash bugs ever significantly hurt an MMO? I think technical design can kill an MMO (for instance, if you were to build an MMO that didn’t have chat… that would be a problem), but my hypothesis is that as long as your client is functional enough to perform the basics of community building, downtime just doesn’t matter. I do think tech issues hurt Anarchy Online (they all happened at launch, before people could build communities), but that game still makes money. Age of Conan had a wide variety of code bugs, but they aren’t why the game is dying. The MMOs that have failed have all failed due to business (no market, most often) or design decisions, and as long as a game gets good enough to actually SHIP, the quality of the code behind it really doesn’t seem to matter.

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3 Responses to “Downtime Doesn’t Matter”

  1. I think it’s also worth considering the skinner-box aspect, where people end up more addicted to something with unpredictable results. I think there may actually be a factor that downtime helps a service grow – both because people don’t have as much time to get sick of broken features, and because people find themselves thinking “ooh, I wonder if it’s on now, if it is I better use it, I might not get a chance later!”

    And on top of that, with any system that has strong network effects – like WoW, like Twitter – you’d much, much rather have twice as many people online at a time for half as much uptime.

  2. slab said

    Yep. The network effect is the same reason I keep my LJ account around– I could go set up something on my website, but then I don’t get the ‘friends list’ stuff quite so easily.

  3. Wolfe said

    I might argue that code is protected by engineering practice which makes sure it is not totally and utterly worthless. Design is not guarded by such principles and often design efforts have a negative production value without anyone understanding the situation until it shows up as bad business.

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