The Soapbox: Accessibility and customer service

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I was originally pulled into World of Warcraft by two real-life friends of mine. They liked the game, played for a year or so, and then quit playing. They never got sucked into the world of MMOs like I did. I don't think they ever will either. It's not that they aren't gamers or that they don't fit into the culture. Maybe for their own reasons, they'd never play an MMO again... life and all that. But one interesting thing they told me makes me think they really will never play an MMO again: imperfect games.

Now, besides the fact that no game -- online or off -- is perfect, there appears to me to be a great disparity in the functionality between MMOs and single-player games. It's easy to see how someone similar to me can work his way past a few speed bumps to get an MMO up and running, but what about a computer-illiterate person? Before there's even talk of bugs in the game or of the game being fun or not, there's an issue of accessibility and customer service. I want to talk about accessibility and customer service in this round of the Soapbox.

I'm not an analyst or expert in any business fields, but I have talked extensively with friends and players online over the years about the issue of accessibility. I personally don't think it takes a person with a degree to see a difference between many existing MMOs and offline games. A couple years before I even started playing MMOs, I asked a long-time player and friend how many players he thought played WoW while not even liking the game. While his answer of millions is arbitrary and based on his personal feelings, I think it really gets a person thinking. How much of an effect does the accessibility and ease of operation of a game have on the number of players an MMO could have?

Sometimes I forget and take for granted the computer skills and determination I have when I'm willing to put up with problems while getting an MMO to run. It's gotten even easier for me to personally trouble-shoot familiar problems after I've done it a few times in the past. However, there exists a multitude of gamers who are not equally computer literate. There are also payers who maintain a zero-patience policy like a couple of my friends. They may have the skills, but they aren't going to waste time working before they can enjoy a game.

I've tried to make a case. I've told my friends the games are worth it. They fix things with every patch. They really do, but my buddies are very stern. They said no-way no-how, they will not play a game that doesn't work. If they are paying for a game, it had better work in the same way they expect a Playstation game to work. I've come close a couple of times in getting them to try a F2P MMO, but even those are a very hard sell.

Here's the point. These friends of mine are not all obstinate snobs. They are average players who play a lot. How many of these potential MMO players are out there right now only playing because the first time they tried an MMO it happened to work, while the subsequent MMO gave them a roadblock somewhere? There could be people playing Lord of the Rings Online because they tried it first, and the next MMO's error turned them off from even trying any other ones. I've had problems with many MMOs, even WoW, but this brings me to the second part of this equation: customer service.

I don't just mean a person you call when you have a problem. I'm talking about how any problems are handled while getting signed-up to a website through downloading and installing the game. If there's a mistake while signing up online, is everything really clearly understood about what to do when the mistake happens? Does it only cater to experienced internet or MMO users? What happens if any number of errors occur during download of the client? At every step of the way through the process of getting an MMO running, is there help that could actually help anyone of any age without the need to be technically inclined?

I first started playing download-only MMOs, so I had a little experience the first time I bought a box. But it was still a new experience for me. When I took the plunge into WoW, I followed all the box rules. There were many. Some instructions and tutelage sounded like they were geared towards babies, while other tips actually helped me. There were also some parts I didn't ever need to read. I was extremely impressed with how easy it was to get WoW up and running. I never felt confused or lost through any of the setup process. Even if I felt I typed something wrong and was waiting to see the result, I felt calm knowing that WoW already had a plan in case any errors occurred. In short, WoW was very much like popping in a Playstation game and turning it on. Nothing was ambiguous or confusing, and anything I didn't understand gave way to numbers to call, a website that handled many problems -- clearly -- or trouble-shooting guides.

Before I get dinged for being biased or one-sided, WoW is not my MMO of choice. On top of having a different favorite, I also have been jumping around between many different MMOs lately. WoW is also definitely not perfect. I've had my share of problems with it -- but they actually were handled fairly quickly. I'm trying to point to what seems obvious to me. WoW's game is very accessible. Anyone of any age or computer experience level can throw the disc in and start playing. If there are any problems, Blizzard holds your hand every step of the way.

Now how many WoW players do you think are playing because it was the only game they could get to work? I'm talking regardless of whether they are only familiar with consoles or are totally computer-illiterate? How many are playing other MMOs because the first time happened to be a lucky and smooth set-up? MMOs will have different business infrastructures, but they all can formulate trouble-shooting guidelines for the websites and client download applications. At the very least, many clearly written instructions could be provided for players at every stage of set-up.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.