Customer feedback: What we can learn from game developers

Online game companies are frequently on the forefront of technology, both the technology of the games, as well as how they are developed. For example, IMVU, a 3D online chat website, has been a leader in continuous deployment, deploying as many as 50 changes a day.

Another development leader is Cmune, a Chinese company that produces the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) first-person shooter game, UberStrike.

In case you are not familiar with first-person-shooter games, there are various levels in a game, each one more difficult than the previous. As a player proceeds through the game, gaining more points (however this is achieved in the mechanics of the particular game), the player ascends to harder and harder levels.

Each level has a map, which defines the terrain and buildings that the player has to negotiate while playing the level. Designing a map is a two-pronged affair. First the terrain and buildings have to be defined in such a way as to be fun to play. Next they have to be modeled and textured, so they look realistic.

Traditionally, both steps are completed before the level is made available to players. If the majority of players decide that the level is too easy or too difficult, then all of the effort in modeling and texturing it is wasted.

Cmune has decoupled these two steps for UberStrike with their Bluebox Maps program. Proposed level maps are made available to interested customers. They are not textured (they have a uniform blue color, thus the name of the program), and high-quality modeling has not been completed. Also, game mechanics, such as shooting, are not implemented. Here is an example of a Bluebox map.

Participating customers can download a Bluebox map and try it out, in order to determine whether it will be fun to play. Based on the feedback Cmune receives on a map, they either continue with the high-quality modeling and texturing, or they discard the map.

Developers outside of the game world can learn from the Bluebox program. When we think about getting feedback from customers, we usually think of showing them completed features. Since we break even large epics down into sprint-sized pieces, the feature we are demonstrating to the customer may be a small, incremental change, but it is generally complete.

In some cases, it may be beneficial to break changes into even smaller pieces, large enough that the customer can see if we are going in the right direction, but not polished enough to actually release.

This must be done with caution, particularly if we are using continuous integration, or other SCM methodologies where everything gets checked into the main branch. (For some hints, see my previous post, Small Stories, Legacy Code, and Scaffolding.) Perhaps a feature flag can be added, so when it is turned on, it lets the customer go as far as the part being demonstrated, and then stops.

One of the buzzwords of Agile development is failing fast. The sooner you can find out that what you are developing is not what the customer wants, the sooner you can change course, without a lot of wasted development time.

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