UO lawsuit settled

It looks like the Ultima Online Counselors lawsuit has reached some sort of settlement. While I can't track down any official info at EA, the main link everyone seems to be pointing to is over at Gamerifts (2 April entry) where they have an image of a purported check sent out to former counselors (if anyone finds other info, please do post it). The amount given to at least one volunteer - $1,267.21. Just a little background - a group of former UO volunteer helpers filed a class action lawsuit against EA in 2000 (they'd been previously hit with a suit about their quality of service but that was dismissed as far as I can tell). The main claim was for minimum wages and overtime compensation per the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). You can hit the Lum the Mad archives search for some additional background, an old Salon article for more past coverage, or an always entertaining Tweety Rant archive entry on the subject. The judge's order certifying the group as a class (issued 24 September 2002) is particularly interesting in the way they restate and consider the claimants case, trying to put into context the notion of wages and labor alongside stuff like shards.

I mentioned to Scott Moore (who has a lot of experience/hands-on knowledge with VEs) I was going to do a blurb about the matter here and he wisely suggested I try to pitch the discussion away from simple rehash to what this might mean for the future of volunteer usage in these kinds of spaces. I've certainly long thought the issue of "free labor" (be it via helper programs, content producers, or unpaid testers) remains one of most underexplored - but critically important - aspects facing games (and online communities more generally). So, is there anything new we can learn from this apparent settlement? Are there interesting related stories emerging in other places worth discussing? Are there good non-VE/game spaces who confront this same problem that we can learn something from?

(Thanks btw to Scott, Julian, and Dan's leads for this entry.)


Comments on UO lawsuit settled:

Korak says:

Didn't bother looking over at Divlin's site, but wtfman.com had a check up as well with a minor rant.

Posted Apr 19, 2004 12:25:10 PM | link

Luca Girardo says:

I think since 2001 many companies were confronted with the issue and decided to handle it in different ways. The game industry especially the one related to MMOGs tried to define different approaches to the problem soon after the UO lawsuit even if the problem was already clear after the AOL volunteers lawsuit that I think it is still going on (anyone having any news about it) and in terms of volunteers involved it will have a larger impact then the UO lawsuit (supposing they did not settle it).
In any case we saw 3 different approaches:
1. Removing all volunteers from the Customer Support, Community Rel. and related (Microsoft with AC for example)
2. Removing all the volunteers from countries where the labor legislation could represent a problem (Ultima Online with their still alive Asian volunteer department for example)
3. Ignoring the problem as the game company is not located in the United States (for example Anarchy Online or Eve Online)
4. Being aware of the problem and taking long term steps to solve the problem (SOE for example with the absence of volunteers in SWG and the long term closure of their Volunteers dept. in EQ)
It is clear that in the future game companies will have to find different solutions how to handle CSs, CR, IC. I found very encouraging the tantatives like the of Mythic to get players helping other players but to achieve that ingame with the support of ingame mechanisms and still letting players the freedom of choose when they want to help other players answering questions.
Also interesting is what was tested in UO with contracted Event Moderators.
The use of volunteers was a cheap solution for some big problems. It was sometimes a good solution sometimes it was just a remedy for larger organizational or system problems.
The key is to find new ways to involve players and have ingame mechanisms that can support the creation of content (from normal story reporters to indirect content producers), with the ingame support ( creating places and mechanisms where players can find advice and help from veterans) etc. Is it simple? Nope. But the reward could be greater then having a group of volunteers with the risk of a lawsuit.

Posted Apr 19, 2004 1:01:10 PM | link

Bart says:

Are there good non-VE/game spaces who confront this same problem that we can learn something from?

I'm not sure if we can learn anything from this approach, but I know we utilize students in our courses to pilot test many of our technology-driven applications. We have students conduct usability tests on nearly every application before we publicly release it.

In some instances this is volunteer work (for bonus points in a class), other times it is actually part of a class assignment. No matter how you look at it though, it's free labor. As opposed to taking time out of my day (or those who work in my unit), we have students doing a lot of our testing for us...with no compensation.

In terms of UO (and other game spaces), couldn't the company make the volunteers sign some sort of contract outlining what they will/will not be responsible for, guidelines for their volunterr services, etc? My legal knowledge is limited, so I don't know what all the specifics are, or if the UO volunteers ever signed anything outlining their work for EA/UO.

Posted Apr 19, 2004 2:02:11 PM | link

Will Leverett says:

I think it also wise to reiterate why volunteers are ever used in the first place.

Game Masters for UO were originally hired mostly to run events, not to act as support or field questions. The general consensus was that each GM would be able to spend 75% of their time on events and 25% answering any support questions.

Certainly no one expected the massive volume of calls generated on a nightly basis. How could anyone project that there would be a need to cover 80,000 customer questions in a week, half of which were simple queries like how to make bread or how to build a halberd? Moreover, how can a game afford such a support staff?

Think of it in these terms. Each player pays $10 a month. About six dollars goes straight to overhead costs - the other four is for the company to use. Out of that four dollars comes the funding for development and support. Should a GM have to spend 10 min one night showing a player how to tailor shirts, they have lost money on that player for that month.

It was all too easy a decision and a win-win situation to use volunteers just as they worked in MUDs, earlier MMOs, and various Internet services. GMs would still be swamped, but they could at least handle the more critical issues. Players would get the answers they needed. And the volunteers thoroughly enjoyed and took pride in helping the community.

Only the player base suffers because of this. The developers certainly will not be. No bottom line is impacted because they will find new ways to get players the information (using the RightNow web interface is such an example and is used in many services). They cannot afford to field that volume of calls and still be profitable.

But then again there was never any real intent of the original plaintiff's lawsuit other than to "get back" at EA and its volunteer coordinators. This lawsuit certainly was never about seeking compensation for past work - this person is quite wealthy. Rather it is due to personal spite and bitterness of this person because they were removed from the volunteer program; the lawsuit is nothing more than throwing a tantrum.

And now all players will suffer because of it.

Posted Apr 19, 2004 3:27:45 PM | link

Scott Moore says:

Here's a 25 cent recap on the AOL cases: in 2001 the US Department of Labor dropped the their investigation of the class-action complaint filed with them. There are two civil cases still "in court", one in California (Johnson -Vs-America Online Inc.) and another in New York (America Online, Inc., Community Leaders Litigation). As far as I can tell from the respective dockets, there are filings that strike me as wrangling for position so neither seems to be up for trial yet.

"couldn't the company make the volunteers sign some sort of contract outlining what they will/will not be responsible for, guidelines for their volunteer services, etc?"

Bart, my legal knowledge is also limited, but then, this seems to be an evolving point of law. As far as I can tell, the Colorado court in this case cited another labor suit where it was ruled that the US Fair Labor Standards Act (the law used in this case) required that the law be applied even to people who claim they are not employees. So, it seems some courts are already thinking along your lines and answering, "no, companies can't protect themselves with a waiver". The implication I read is that it's the behavior that tripped EA up.

It seems that in the absence of throwing bodies on the problem, there is incentives on the developers to work on such tools. Certainly, the successful implementation of tools and incentives would have a postive effect on the bottom line as they have a better chance at scaling to player population and expectations than a centrally controlled organization of bodies.

Luca, you mention that Mythic (do you mean Mythica or Dark Ages of Camelot by Mythic Entertainment?) has implemented some incentives or tools for supporting other players. Could you summarize what they are doing?

Posted Apr 19, 2004 7:11:13 PM | link

Kevin Klinemeier says:

As far as future impacts go, I think it's obvious that developers and publishers will need to be a lot more careful about how they construct their volunteer program. Personally, I don't think it's all a bad thing.

One of the mantras I try to remember is, "If the players want something, try not to give it to them. Give them a good way to make it themselves."

This is most apparent when you consider game manuals for MMORPGs. I think the same thing will be true for 'player support volunteers' in future worlds. Rather than the volunteer being a special position arbited by the parent company, the system will include a method allowing players to mark themselves as available, and for those helped to rate the helpers.

This has to some extent been discussed elsewhere, but I'll re-iterate it here. This approach is an improvement on all accounts except control. Players who want to become volunteers can do so more easily. Bad volunteers are weeded out more quickly. And since your company did not make these decisions, you're protected from this kind of lawsuit, and to some extent other situations like when your hand-picked person goes awry.

Posted Apr 19, 2004 7:23:22 PM | link

Agent Smith says:

Has anyone considered that as time marches on it's becoming more obvious that Virtual Items hold a momentary value and therefore how long until we have volunteers of a sort that are paid with virtual items?

Is it feasible to say in EA's case with UO, they reinstate the volunteer program, however your pay in this virtual world will be virtual gold?

Not having a great legal understanding I can't understand the hurdles to what I have proposed. It just seem logical that you will never fully automate CS in MMOGs as people are lazy and want someone to tell them the answer.

Posted Apr 19, 2004 9:25:54 PM | link

Dr. Cat says:

We still work with a LOT of volunteers on Furcadia, and don't intend to let the screwups of AOL and EA keep us from doing something that seems in many ways like the most appropriate solution to a problem.

One of the things that became clear to me in dealing with this issue is that it's NOT as simple as "volunteers provide value to company, company doesn't give money to volunteers, company therefore is bad". A more accurate analysis of te "value flow" would be "volunteers provide value to company and to community of fellow players, company provides value to volunteers and to community of players, community of players provides value to volunteers and to company". EVERY member of the equation is providing one or more things of value to all of the others. Legislating an obligation for one party to pay the others and/or claiming a moral obligation to so pay is a little more complex to justify, given that reality. Especially making a blanket claim of that type.

I do believe that AOL and EA have treated volunteers badly in some cases, which is what leads to people wanting to file lawsuits. We try not to treat people badly or unfairly, and to provide a system where what volunteers get out of the system is as much or more as they wanted to get out of it, or if it's not then it should become quickly clear to them so they can just quit, and it should be clear to them up front that we haven't promised them anything we couldn't or didn't deliver - and perhaps more importantly, clear to them that whatever unrealistic expectations people have about volunteering, we did our best to warn them about and clear up before they disappointed themselves.

There's one particular class of volunteers that're always a potential problem... The ones that insist on expecting way too much despite being told not to, and working way too hard despite being encouraged to take it a lot easier. We had one volunteer early on who was spending as much as 20 hours online every day, and who seemed to have strong expectations of eventually turning his work into something he made a living from, in spite of the fact that the creators of the game weren't charging or making a penny from it yet (and didn't for several years after that). He eventually left, disgruntled, but didn't file any lawsuits or anything. Such volunteers can be worrisome and can disrupt the community some, but I think they can be kept from being a serious legal danger - IF you treat your volunteers reasonably well, don't try to hold them to schedules or make other demands that are only fair to make if you're paying someone, etc. That's the kinf of behavior that makes the few lawsuit minded types find a fertile ground of fellow disgruntled volunteers to put together a class action suit with. The one time anyone even mentioned the possibility of legal action (not a lawsuit, but notifying a body responsible for investigating corporations and enforcing labor laws), there was not one single other person on our web forums that supported the idea, and a number that felt it would only be harmful to the game and therefore was a bad idea.

What the future will hold, only time will tell. But it's clear that a lot of people WANT to volunteer to help each other, very much. And a lot of people want simple questions answered, to an extent that cannot be provided in any way that involves paying people to do it that would be economically feasible on a game like ours, where it's free to play & only a tiny percentage of people pay for the optional extras. I think economic and social pressures for there to be a volunteer system are strongly present. Does our society want to say totally non-commercial ventures can have volunteer systems, hugely profitable commercial ventures cannot, and small or modestly profitable ventures cannot either? Or can even the highly profitable ventures have volunteer systems, if only they learn not to treat the volunteers too badly or selfishly? Time will tell.

-- Dr. Cat, Dragon's Eye Productions

Posted Apr 20, 2004 1:18:40 AM | link

Luca Girardo says:

Scott wrote: Luca, you mention that Mythic (do you mean Mythica or Dark Ages of Camelot by Mythic Entertainment?) has implemented some incentives or tools for supporting other players. Could you summarize what they are doing?

Let me first note one thing: Mythic European publisher GOA has a volunteer CS and Event Program too. Just for got about that.

The incentives and tools I was speaking about are several. The most important to me seems the Advisor system:

From DAOC Release Notes Version 1.32:
"The Advisor System:

If you would like to help your realm-mates with common questions that they may have, try becoming an Advisor! The Advisor System is setup so that players with more than 15 hours of played time, can choose to help others in their realm. Simply type /Advisor, and you will be flagged so that others know you are willing to help.
"

And from the DAOC Support System:

"ADVICE - By clicking on the advice topic an advisor list will pop up on the main view screen. To ask for advice, use "/advice (name) message" This is just like using the /send command."

It seems a simple system. Still it goes in an interesting direction.

Luca Girardo
aka Khefri

Posted Apr 20, 2004 8:36:39 AM | link

Luca Girardo says:

Dr. Cat:The ones that insist on expecting way too much despite being told not to, and working way too hard despite being encouraged to take it a lot easier.

I think that is connected to the fact that several game companies used the volunteer system also to select and recruit staff for CS, CR and IC. Something that makes sense from the company point of view as you can recruit people that you have already seen in action and you know what they can do. On the other side that has a terrible impact on the volunteer group as it is a cause of rivalry among volunteers and it is a morale killer for the one not selected. And a morale boost for the one who hope to be selected in the future.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 8:49:33 AM | link

luca girardo says:

Another example of a simple ingame mechanism to involve players but avoid the use of volunteers is/was the Net-/ Reporter system of Earth and Beyond.
From their Support System FAQ:

Question
What's NET-7?

Answer
NET-7 is the only communications, media and virtual network that spans the whole of civilized space. Linked by a series of relay stations, its signals are sent through the gate network. Effectively, NET-7 is the major news network for the Earth & Beyond universe, and it strives to present as impartial a view of events as possible. Other news services allied with various factions compete with NET-7 to present news and put their own particular spin on situations. You may view Net-7 News through the Intergalactic Net terminals in some starbases. Soon, those players who enjoy the challenges of serving as a galactic reporter might opt to undertake missions for NET-7 and earn the opportunity to submit stories for broadcast on the NET-7 network. We’ll announce more about how to do this as soon as it’s available.

and

Question
How can I become a Net-7 Reporter and submit news?

Answer
Net-7 is recruiting correspondents to assist with their award-winning broadcasts. If you are interested, please look for and contact the NPC Jan Blather at Net-7 SOL in Saturn sector for more information on joining Net-7.

Once you have been hired on by Jan Blather, you can file your news using the Net-7 submission page found at any Intergalactic Net terminal (usually found in the Lounge of any space station).

Use the option "Submit News" to submit your articles. If you need assistance with the submission page or guidelines for submissions, you can use the "Submit Help" option


-----

Again a simple system but it gives an idea in what direction things are moving.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 8:53:56 AM | link

greglas says:

LG quotes> NET-7 is the only communications, media and virtual network that spans the whole of civilized space.

That's fascinating. I assume the voice news reports at the stations were not from Net-7, though, right? (Unfortunately, I only had time to explore E&B for 12 hours or so -- about half of those with my son piloting).

Posted Apr 20, 2004 9:04:36 AM | link

Staarkhand says:

In playing DAoC from a month after release until present day (well, let's be honest, until a month ago - burnout, and Raph finally hooked me) and interacting with thousands of players on four different servers, never did I ever see or hear about anyone using the advisor system. For what it's worth. I'm sure some do, but it certainly doesn't seem to be the norm. I would guess it doesn't cut back on their calls, but then I can't understand seeking help beyond doing a /who 50 or /who legendary and talking to a real expert.

Conversely, in SWG the [helper] tag seems to be used a bit more as intended. But maybe that perception reflects my n00bness.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 9:53:31 AM | link

DivineShadow says:

Perhaps the RIGHT WAY to do this is the approach City of Heroes is taking with their Sidekick system. An excerpt from http://www.gamezone.com/news/02_26_04_11_31AM.htm

"The game also has a sidekick system to allow for friends of varying levels to work together. If one player is a constant in the world and has leveled beyond their more-casual playing friend, CoH has taken into consideration and actuated a system to allow them to still partner in the battle against crime. The lower level player becomes the sidekick of the upper level player. That means the lower level character, while not getting the skills and abilities they would have earned working up, is elevated to within one level of the mentor, and gets the hit points for that level.

Should the mentor die, or the sidekick get too far away from the mentor, the sidekick will revert back to his or her natural level. And, of course, when the playtime is over, everything reverts back to where it was. This is not geared for power-leveling players, but rather to allow friends to journey together and help each other on quests."

Call it Sidekick, Padawan, Page, Mentor, Guide, Dweeb system or whatever, this is excellent and I wish it were there on every game.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 10:55:00 AM | link

Luca Girardo says:

Well many games have tried to introduce a sort of "mentoring" program, so ideally having newbies joining a veteran group to be bound to the game. For example in AC or also in UO a try with one of the virtues.
The problem I see is that each MMOG tries a small solution and no one tries to resue the past experience gathered with what has been already tried within different MMOGs.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 12:05:14 PM | link

Callista says:

Will Wrote: They cannot afford to field that volume of calls and still be profitable.

Sure they can - they outsource to INDIA and have their UNPAID volunteers train the PAID India replacements - which is EXACTLY what UO did - and was the nail in the coffin of this lawsuit.

Will Wrote: And the volunteers thoroughly enjoyed and took pride in helping the community.

They certainly did - and look at what they got. Luckily for UO, most people don't realize that they were training their replacements or they'd realize exactly how badly they were being betrayed and more would have joined the suit - and UO had the convienent excuse of the lawsuit for ending the volunteer program - which it was planning all along - as soon as the PAID help in India was up to speed.

Will Wrote: This lawsuit certainly was never about seeking compensation for past work - this person is quite wealthy.

Wow - I happen to know the plaintiffs in this suit - and they are only 'wealthy' if you use the yardstick of rupees.

Just as you were a head GM Will (Ironwill) I was in the volunteer program but was not a party to the suit, although I commended them for having the guts to stand up and say - This is not right.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 5:33:34 PM | link

Will Leverett says:

Callista: Sure they can - they outsource to INDIA and have their UNPAID volunteers train the PAID India replacements - which is EXACTLY what UO did - and was the nail in the coffin of this lawsuit.

Callista: They certainly did - and look at what they got. Luckily for UO, most people don't realize that they were training their replacements or they'd realize exactly how badly they were being betrayed and more would have joined the suit - and UO had the convienent excuse of the lawsuit for ending the volunteer program - which it was planning all along - as soon as the PAID help in India was up to speed.

That's what the lawyers contended and is only partially true. Volunteers were never "replaced" by anyone in India - EA decided to shut down the volunteer effort because of its and AOL's pending lawsuit.

A primary reason for winning the lawsuit was by showing how both GMs and iEnergizer staff in India go through about a week of being a counselor.

The iEnergizer team in India was considered for a first level support and would pass more critical issues to GMs. Simple game questions were always fielded by volunteers - there was no need to change this.

The truth is once the volunteers were disbanded, the bulk of the calls were (this was the case 18 months ago at least) being routed to the support web page. Training for India was partially done by ex-volunteers that were contracted and by EA staff (several trips were made out there). Part of the training of the iEnergizer includes being a counselor (and that was the legal snafu).

Callista: Wow - I happen to know the plaintiffs in this suit - and they are only 'wealthy' if you use the yardstick of rupees.

I only refer to the original plaintiff, who apparently during the 3+ years they were in the volunteer program and as a contractor never saw any of this to be a problem. Only after they were relieved from their duties after a long history of problems did this suit originate.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 6:55:04 PM | link

DivineShadow says:

"Well many games have tried to introduce a sort of "mentoring" program, so ideally having newbies joining a veteran group to be bound to the game. For example in AC or also in UO a try with one of the virtues."

I know nothing of the AC system. The planned UO system (was never released and is not on the radar) involving the virtues was just sick and borked.

The UO planned system, succinctly:
There is a very meaningful character statistic bonus you can obtain. The bonus decays over time. The amount of bonus statistics you obtain scales directly to the amount of an attribute (the virtue), this attibute value increases only for the *mentor* of a mentor-apprentice relationship and it increases as a direct function of the increase in *skill* levels the *apprentice* experiences while under the mentor-apprentice relationship.

Posted Apr 20, 2004 7:27:04 PM | link

Callista says:

Will Wrote: A primary reason for winning the lawsuit was by showing how both GMs and iEnergizer staff in India go through about a week of being a counselor.

Actually - it was more like 5 months - with India help working side by side, indistinguisable by either customers or volunteers as anything BUT volunteers - albeit with a substantial deficit in English.

Will Wrote: The iEnergizer team in India was considered for a first level support and would pass more critical issues to GMs. Simple game questions were always fielded by volunteers - there was no need to change this.

Will - I was there for global que. India was WHY powers and global que was given to volunteers, we just didn't know it at the time. We had the powers Will - on ALL the servers with global que - and were expected to use them. Don't even add insult to injury by intimating volunteers weren't doing 'real work' - indeed - the SAME substantial job.

Will Wrote: I only refer to the original plaintiff, who apparently during the 3+ years they were in the volunteer program and as a contractor never saw any of this to be a problem.

Uhhh - it was only after digging this little secret was revealed. The other substantiated charges launched the lawsuit, principle launched the lawsuit, India was what UO was afraid the volunteers would find out about. Which makes what happened later make sense in hindsight, but certainly seemed odd at the time. And I still call you on her "wealth" - although both sides of this argument have been used. You say she's wealthy and got PO'd - which is actually half right - she did indeed get PO'd, she's not wealthy. The other side is - It's all about money and greed,(this was the position encouraged before the program disbanded) and it was NEVER about the money. But in the longrun you really can't hold up both sides of the argument at the same time.

Will wrote: Only after they were relieved from their duties after a long history of problems did this suit originate.

OK, quick timeline for those that don't know anything about UO (or probably care except as a textbook case of what NOT to do with volunteers).

Once upon a time this wonderful game called Ultima Online had a volunteer program. Volunteers got a comp'd account (eventually) and robes of pretty colors. They could work whenever they liked - no reports, no timesheets, and everything was fairly good. Folks actually put in more time BEFORE schedules than after they HAD to be there X hours between X and X.

First rule: It's probably not a good thing to demand set schedules from volunteers. And it's ESPECIALLY not a good thing to refer to them in internal memos as "free labor", call being a volunteer a 'job' nor write anything that can come back and haunt you about how no more GMs were needed to be hired because you had volunteers to do that work for free.

Then came the schedules which no one liked but put up with. Meanwhile, this entire time volunteers were steadily getting fed up with being ignored when they needed questions answered in the designated IRC channel setup for that express purpose, to help them - help the customer.

Many GMs were decent folk - others well, I'm not even going to get into that here. All the volunteers asked for was just a tiny tiny bit of appreciation for doing a very tough job, unpaid - and ultimately unthanked. I have a pretty tough hide - but even I felt the contempt and resentment oozing from the pores. It almost felt like we were being treated as scabs crossing a union picket line.

Most GMs were very young and making very low wages - I felt for them. Most volunteers were NOT very young - we had professionals from nearly every field I could think of that did this in their spair time. That was the most amazing group of folks I'd ever seen gathered under one umbrella and they were neither treated as adults or recognized for their worth.

Lesson #2: If you have people, paid - or unpaid - saving accounts for you by dealing with unhappy customers on a regular basis, they aren't worthless - they are priceless.

Meanwhile petty internal politics continued to escalate with little parties forming up against other parties jockeying for position and favor from GMs who lapped it up like no tommorrow and actually encouraged such behavior from the younger volunteers - generally making working conditions unbearable for anyone else.

Lesson #3: Watch the watchers. Don't allow those OVER a volunteer program to form their own little fan clubs for favors.

Will Wrote: Only after they were relieved from their duties after a long history of problems did this suit originate.

Those 'long term problems' were making waves by standing up for the way volunteers were being abused. It's funny that EXACTLY one day before termination the main plaintiff got a glowing letter of commendation for a job well done.

Even then - no lawsuit was filed. I got a phone call from this person asking my advice - I said, call them. Well she tried - several times, her call was never put thru or returned.

Lesson #4: Sometimes returning one phone call can save you a LOT of money.

Even then - no lawsuit. Then one day the plaintiff logs on - or tries to - and finds out her PLAY account was banned. Ummm, why?

Still no lawsuit - even over this petty action.

Then the straw that broke the camel's back. People that knew her were summarily terminated and THEIR play accounts canceled as well, all for the unforgiveable offense of being her friend.

Final Lesson: People that are likely to be GOOD volunteers care for others a LOT. You might be able to push them around - but don't mess with their friends on their account.

Both Dark Age of Camelot and Star Wars Galaxies use a method, that although it may not be as dependable as a 'program', is helpful - and avoids the above mentioned pitfalls - including getting sued.

They both have helper flags that any player can turn on and off - at any time they choose. Players that enjoy helping others will use a system like this quite successfully, those that won't without 'official' perks and recognition from the man behind the curtain - you don't want in a volunteer program anyway.

Posted Apr 21, 2004 9:26:23 AM | link

Will Leverett says:

My point was not to defend EA's actions over time nor to claim they were innocent nor make accusations. I only wished to show why it is volunteers were used in the first place.

As for everything said, we could argue these points all day - but this is not the forum or site to do so. I would rather not further debate the specifics of the UO issue. It has all been covered elsewhere and we can agree to disagree on the points.

That said, I certainly agree with you about the way that DAoC and SWG handle their volunteer staffs. It certainly can work if done the right way.

What's often overlooked is that any volunteer is always going to be doing work in some form of another for their respective companies. But that's the nature of volunteering, is it not?

Posted Apr 21, 2004 2:36:55 PM | link

Luca Girardo says:

DivineShadow wrote:
I know nothing of the AC system.

It is the allegiance system. Here an interesting description:
http://ac.turbinegames.com/index.php?page_id=157

Posted Apr 22, 2004 1:06:52 AM | link

Brian 'Psychochild' Green says:

My company, Near Death Studios, Inc., has chosen not to use player volunteers in the traditional sense for multiple reasons. One reason certainly is the AOL/UO lawsuit uncertainties raised.

Back when Meridian 59 was owned by 3DO, we did have player volunteers that acted as front-line CS people as well as event runners. We had very little problems beyond the usual. And, while volunteers were supposed to be over 18, a few people younger than that got in. However, given the small period of downtime between 3DO shutting M59 down and us repurchasing the game, there was a clean break with the former volunteers.

About waivers: Thinking logically, this would not work. If it did, then every fast food restaurant would just get their employees to sign waivers to be paid less than minimum wage.

One thing some people mention in response to this is internships. Intern positions traditionally are unpaid. What's the legal situation of treating "volunteers" similar to interns?

My thoughts on the matter,

Posted Apr 22, 2004 6:27:50 AM | link

Callista says:

Volunteers have historically been used in three main areas. CS, information and content generation.

Customer Service is vital to any MMO and although the first games of this genre may not have realized how much demand it would put on staff - by now most have come to realize that's it's a central staffing issue. "Bugs" have to be addressed by paid personnel. CS tools are critical for this staff to be able to carry out their tasks effectively and quick resolution of bugs will lighten the load - and therefore the staff requiements considerably. All this should be a given since a MMO is more of a service industry than it is a product - but in many cases to this day, is not given the priority it deserves.

Information is actually best given by other players that deal with issues on a constant day to day basis and is handled quite well by systems such as Camelot and SWG - but a knowledge database is also extrememly useful, if it's up to date and accurate. In MMOs the rules are constantly in flux so printed material isn't nearly as useful - and indeed in some cases, harmful - as games of other genres. Databases fall into this trap as well if they aren't constantly reevaluated with change.

The final area is content generation, i.e., events - quests and so forth. This is actually the area that attracts a lot of 'volunteers' from a playerbase because there is a huge desire in MMOs to affect the world and be creative from ALL players.

This is also an area which developers are loathe to give tools to players. Well, what if their 'content' is bad? This is a very legitimate question because ultimately some player created content IS going to be 'bad'. This is probably best addressed by defining bad. Two main areas - inappropriate/obscene and just poor quality.

Inappropriate/obscene is already dealt with in many areas with filters and so forth. Depending on the tools given, filters or even a vetting process could be used. Vetting obviously ultimately requires personnel to deal with - but systems could be devised that again depend on player involvement for much of the weeding. Clear concise rules - or simply limiting the available toolset (which does limit creativity somewhat - but more than currently exists) is another viable option. An alternative to this would be to 'vet' the players that these tools are given to from the population at large, thereby limiting potential problems/damage. Not a volunteer system per se - more of a added perk to veteran/mature/trusted players open to anyone limiting the scope of the vetting content process.

"Bad" content as in poor quality, well, it's not poor to the creator. This is likely to be the bigger objection to most developers that see games as THEIRS instead of being the player's once launched with their role changing to that of steward. Again, the more freedom given players the more appealing it will be to them, but the greater the danger of poor outcomes. Limiting the toolset players have will guarantee better outcomes - but limit creativity. An agreeable answer can be found somewhere between the two.

If you look at the biggest overcall complaints players of MMOs have - they all boil down to - I can't be as creative as I want to be - this isn't MY world, I'm visiting someone else's. The player that views MMOs as entertainment instead of INTERACTIVE entertainment complains there is never enough to do. No matter how bright your quest staff is, no matter how many people you throw at a problem, a handful of staffers will NEVER be able to keep up with consumption when there are 200k ravenous consumers of content. Indeed - this is even a problem - and was one of the larger problems - of a 'volunteer' system leading to (false) accusations of favoritism from the have-nots.

Allowing user generated content not only relieves the pressure on the paid content staff - but fills a very real player need for immersion and creativity, I've always been of the opinion it's a beast worth tackling.

Pure Customer Service falls squarely in the companies lap, information has already been shown to have successfully worked with other methods than a volunteer system, so we come down ultimately to what to do about content generation.

It's been my contention for awhile that this is going to be the dividing line of what qualifies as a true 'next gen' in MMOs. Ironically - with MMOs having their roots in MUDs and MUSHs where this WAS an ability of users - everything old is new again.

Deal with these 3 areas - and the question of volunteers becomes moot.


Posted Apr 22, 2004 11:09:19 AM | link

Greg Elsbernd says:

If anyone runs across this, I was Senior Counselor EvenFire, I was also Wyrmschlacter on Sonoma, drop me an email sometime.

Posted Nov 4, 2005 8:23:23 PM | link