Archive for the ‘MMORPGs vs Agile’ Category

When massive multiplayer online gamers work together as a team (called “Raids”) to defeat fantasy targets (called “Bosses”) they are repeatedly performing the steps of a Lean Startup – Build, Measure and Learn.

For raiders, “build” is working together to achieve the desired outcome of defeating the boss. They have a meta hypothesis – that the boss can in fact be killed and that once killed an item of superior value will be earned by one or more of the raid members. In the Lean Startup world there is also a meta hypothesis – that you can make a revenue generating business. In both cases it is possible to fail at this meta-hypothesis and disband the team never to try again.

But the incremental hypotheses is where it gets really interesting. Raid teams generally know how to operate together as a group. They have their own specialised roles. Additionally some people are able to be multi-disciplinary and can take on the roles of others. When first placed against a boss (who in business terms is a potential revenue generating customer) they will be armed with an initial hypothesis. It may be something as simple as what is called “tank and spank”. In a gaming world this means taking a standard stance of having one person taking the bosses attention, a few healers helping top him up and the rest of the team doing damage to take the boss down. In a Lean Startup world this would be starting off with a homepage and seeing who rocks up to the site and seeing what areas of interest they click on. For a very easy boss (or customer who has infinite time and interests) this might be a suitable strategy, but for a majority it will fail. What it will tell you though is some very basic information, potentially enough to start a new hypothesis.

You may have learnt that it will require another specialised “tank” role or that you need to reposition the team. In Lean Startup terms this would be a feature potentially being searched for very often but not implemented yet. This new hypothesis is then implemented. The team look at the results of their work. They use observation and actual data to determine where to improve and what to try next. Actual data for raids is obtained through tools such as combat logs and parsers that aggregate and display graphs of what is happening as the fight, or user experience across multiple customers for Lean Startups, is occurring.

For raiding teams it can take dozens of hypotheses before they defeat a boss. It takes a lot of analysing the data and re-execution of the fight in order to know whether you are on the right track or not. Teams may have a strategy built on multiple hypotheses that will consistently get the boss to 10 or 15% but never go past that amount. Ultimately they haven’t crossed the chasm. It is at this point in time that the team will need to pivot, drop their strategy and a large number of hypotheses and take a completely different tack. Only then is it possible to succeed. This is a very hard thing for a raid team to do. They have been pushing this set of hypotheses now for several hours. There is emotional attachment to the strategy. There is blame. There is tiredness. To change is hard when so much has been invested.

But if they do change, and they do succeed the rewards are sweet. There is a pride in having achieved the outcome and finally getting the hypotheses realised.

Interestingly raiding isn’t for everyone who games. The effort of having to work together as a team, of almost constantly being defeated, of looking at the metrics and not having a clue what tactic to take next – these are things that a lot of people just don’t have the guts for. They would rather sit on easy street and take on items that are immediately achievable, they don’t have an element of failure. That is fine, small risk reveals small rewards. For those that want to take risks there is the chance of bigger rewards.

Thinking you are suited to kickoff a Lean Startup? Maybe you should take on raiding within online multiple games and see whether you have the drive, committment and guts to keep failing before succeeding.

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In a previous post I shared my wonderment of how teams work hard to reach peak performance when they cannot see each other in the gaming world.

I see great synergies here with Agile – how different is it when software development is done in a distributed or offshore manner? Let’s take a look at the techniques gaming guilds use to reach peak performance.

ALWAYS use voice communications

Lucky you didn't see my avatar handle!

I know of no guilds that have any degree of moderate success without using either Teamspeak or Ventrilo. For those of you unfamiliar with these programs they are like Skype, but allow whole teams to be together in the same chat channel (or in various channels on the same server) without the video input/output but with amazing audio input/output. The reliability and quality of people’s voices is incredibly high. I would recommend that everyone in the team stays in the channel together as they work throughout the day. If you need to ask someone a question they are only a single button (microphone on) away.  Setup your channels something like the following:

  • Team (the default channel which everyone should be in)
  • Private meeting 1 (only if the meeting really has to be private – what is wrong with having the discussion whilst in the default channel?)
  • Private meeting 2 (see above, contingency channel)
  • Quiet Time (for when you really have to concentrate and not be interrupted by someone’s voice)
  • AFK (on lunch or bio break)
Basically you use these tools as an open-ended, incredibly cheap (both on bandwidth and cost of an instance), high quality conference call. What’s to lose?
Now I know with a 100% certainty that verbal imaging would make this even better, but the above solution has no end timeframe on the communication and is not heavy on a computer’s bandwidth. I have found Skype to be unreliable and questionable on quality and so for the moment prefer the audio.

Be present in time together

 This is going to be the hardest thing for offshore teams. I am going to put this out there: If you are doing offshoring to save money (which is a fallacy, but that is a different debate) then your partner must come to the table and provide optimal customer service. To do this they must work the same hours as the onshore team. This should not be a choice – this should be your requirement.

To put this into context – if someone from Australia wants to raid with an American guild they need to change their sleeping patterns and inconvenience themselves for the benefits that they perceive they will get out of it.

Fail often, reflect and adapt often

Who would have thought that gamers did this better than Agilists? In the gaming world, working together the feedback loop is incredibly tight. From failure to reflection of what went wrong is minutes, if that. Teams question what went wrong, search out the root cause and devise a plan to solve or mitigate the problem. The time from failure to another attempt is usually only another few minutes. The cycle continues with more information until the objective is met.

Use visual cues

Agilists do this somewhat better but probably more due to opportunity of the environment then anything else. In the gaming world special icons or symbols are used to indicate assignments, zones to move to, or behaviours to be aware of. This maps to some degree to story walls where tokens and avatars are used to denote particular significance – ie blocked cards, allocations, risks, expedites, etc. Unfortunately for distributed teams a number of tools out there don’t support tokens very well, but avatars are generally a standard feature.

Keep informed on best practice and alternative approaches

Gamers definitely do this considerably better. Because everyone is not together and because their objectives are difficult it is not uncommon for gamers to be given assignments to watch videos of similar people tackling the same issues, to seek out alternative approaches to reach objectives and to orient yourself to what can be expected. I liken this to regular upkeep of best practice of skills and new and innovate ways to approach the problems on your project. Ask your team – how many hours do you spend continuously improving yourself and the way in which you work in your private time – this is a great indication of how attuned the team is to their cause.

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I posted recently about my fascination with online role playing games and how some of what intrigues me is around the area of incentives.

This has had a bit of attention in the Agile space with Daniel Pink covering off motivation in his book ‘Drive’ but for the quick versions you can see his TED talk or checkout an animated version.

The general gist of motivation as explained by Daniel is that if you reward people based upon speed of task completion, the stronger the reward the more likely to have an inverse productivity effect. The reason? Work where any element of innovation is required, ie the solution path is unknown, is stifled by rewards.

Now Daniel says that this is due to the fact that a reward or incentive is promised. I wonder what the impact would be if there was just a push from a time perspective – ie rather than encourage a reward, try and get it done faster by saying the last team got the candle test done in ‘x’ seconds and put a big huge clock in the room counting it down.  I think that the same problem would occur, but would this be because the time pressure is stifling innovation or because the challenge itself is creating a human instinctual reward – “If I do it faster than that last group then it shows that I am smarter and if I prove I am smarter than I feel better.”

Daniel says that you are better to remove reward systems and replace them with innovation systems eg FedEx days to create motivated employees.

So how does this fit into online games? What motivates millions of gamers to play? Well naturally it is fun. FedEx days appeal to many because they are fun. Is it purely that simple? Make work fun and you have fully motivated and engaged employees? I’d say fun goes a long way to motivated employees but it isn’t the whole story.

There are many different elements of gaming that is not fun. ‘Levelling up’ being the one that comes foremost to mind. When you start playing the game, as with real life, you are an inexperienced virtual person. Through learning and using your skills you become better. Completing missions or ‘quests’ would earn you experience. Defeating creatures would also earn you experience. Each time you levelled up the experience required to complete the next level would increase.

Back in the ‘ol days of online gaming levelling up pretty much was a majority of the game, taking half a year to get one virtual player to the maximum level possible. There was a lot of push back from players and consequently this has been slimmed down over time to a few weeks to under a month assuming a player focussing 25 hours per week. (Sounds familiar – waterfall to iterative anyone?)

Individual’s rarely cheered or got a thrill when they completed a quest or defeated a creature. But levelling up was a big reward. Other players in the area would congratulate you, your virtual family (guild) would congratulate you, you would also receive a new skill or an improvement on an existing skill. This is likened to getting a very small promotion frequently. In Agile, quests would be like ‘done’ stories, where as levelling up would be more like a release or maybe an iteration showcase.

The second ‘grinding’ element of online games occurs once you reach the maximum level and begin having to save money to buy clothes or other virtual related items, for example, vehicles or mounts. This element reflects a capitalist life all too much where you must complete the same monotonous quest every single night in order to receive money. This sort of re-occurring capitalist related behaviour is already starting to be phased out of online gaming and replaced with ‘weekly quests’ or slightly random regular quests in order to be more engaging.

The last of the less motivating elements of online games is around a concept of ‘raiding’ and ‘downing bosses’. ‘Raiding’ involves getting together with a bunch of other people, usually from your virtual family, and working as a single unit to defeat a complex non player character (boss) that is a few levels above you. This often involves working in teams of 5,10, 20, 25 or 40. Like software development, the larger the team, the greater the complexity required to herd cats. Conceptually you can think of ‘downing bosses’ as a large point Story and completing all bosses in the dungeon as an epic or release. Bosses can take anywhere from a few hours up to sixty hours for the whole team to complete. Whole dungeons of bosses can take a few to several months of work to complete.

I remember fondly one particular boss that required utmost perfection. Not just of defeating him, but defeating those that came before him. The less you failed, the higher the rewards. It was an interesting concept and probably is the key tie to quality. But for this boss we spent around forty hours before he was finally defeated. The way that he was coded meant that each person had a role they had to fulfill and in order to defeat him it required everyone to fulfill their role at the right point in time with 100% perfection. Because getting together as a huge team took quite a lot of logistical effort we probably only spent eight hours a week on this fight and consequently it took five weeks to progress. A five week epic. And what happened when he was defeated? Riotous cheering amongst every team member. It went on for minutes. The high lasted for days. When was the last time you cheered at the end of completing an epic? When was the last time you were on a high for days for doing an iteration?

The complexities are the same. Working together as a whole team to get a particular outcome. So why is the engagement so different between the two? What is the reward in online games for such an effort? It often isn’t about the gear or financial rewards you get, it is about the bragging rights, it is about the sense of achievement. We can’t compare apples with apples here when we deliver a Story. No one else in the world is delivering the same Story to be able to say ‘Hey we delivered As a Call Centre Operator I want to see the all the products that my customer has in a single view, have you done yours yet?’ or even ‘We did it in 8 days, how long did it take you?’. We need to make sure Story completion is regarded as an achievement.

So how can we make work more fun and more rewarding looking at online games:

  1. On demonstrated skill improvements make a big deal. Go out of your way to congratulate those that made it.
  2. Go out of your way to celebrate a release to production and epics being completed. I’ve seen release parties for Waterfall. I don’t think I have ever seen this for Agile, we need to do it more.
  3. Regular, repeatable activities that require no level of innovation are not fun. Effort needs to be expended to switch it up more or vary the activity somewhat to keep an employee engaged and motivated.
  4. In a Kanban like system where we aren’t celebrating at regular timed intervals. This means we need to concentrate harder at celebrating success when an epic is completed.
  5. Challenge has to exist but not so much that a person feels overly stressed. Getting this balance is important, challenge encourages the need for innovation; innovation makes the mental part of ourselves feel rewarded.

Lastly let me leave you with this one thought. What if we weren’t paid an annual or fixed salary. What if we were paid on the Stories that we delivered as a team as a percentage of the Story’s actual returned value? What behaviour would it drive? There would be potentially lots of really bad behaviour out of this, but the one thing I can’t take my mind off thinking is that finally we would focus on real value. The metrics we would have to predict value would be a lot more thorough. Daniel’s findings suggest this would be a dreadful thing as tying a financial element to the work will have a negative effect, but if you have a fixed definition of quality and no time restrictions would it really not empower innovation? To me it would still drive innovation because we would be directly tied to ensuring that our delivery will result in optimal outcome of value for the organisation.

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One of the first few comments to my partner after I touched down back into Brisbane last night was ‘Gosh I’m buggered. It’s been such a long week!’

He smirked at me and shyly commented ‘Monday was a public holiday. And you still have to work tomorrow.’

Was it really just two days? It felt like a whole week. All those late nights, lots of preparation, stress of going far out of my comfort zone and a hotel room only three floors away from a night club must have really pushed me hard!

I’m hopefully not going to write a long blog about all the ins and outs of the conference. I’ll let Craig do that as I saw the mountain of notes that he took and I’ll later take the lazy path and just link them. So what high level observations do I have:

  1. Lots of people. Apparently over 650+. But as far as passionate people, it very much seemed like a small group. Watching twitter there was some movement but not a lot, maybe 20 or so consistent twitterers (is that a real word?) Now there would have been an element of passion to attend in the first place but there felt like little zeal.
  2. Keynotes. I had seen something similar for Alistair Cockburn’s presentation before, probably on his blog, so there wasn’t much of a surprise there. It was the first time seeing Rob Thomsett and I had heard lots of people rave about it. I felt the raves were justified – his presentation was passionate, energetic and fun, albeit not covering the topic I thought it would. Side note Rob – the website you linked has broken pages *everywhere* in it. Jean Tabaka had some very cute ideas and some interesting links to books and websites. Unfortunately the links quoted weren’t right, but I eventually found some of it at http://www.gogamestorm.com/ and http://innovationgames.com/. I didn’t get to see too much of Martin Fowler as I left a little early to go back home.
  3. Key themes. Its all about teams. Agile isn’t a methodology – its a significant culture upheaval, a revolution.
  4. Best quote: Every time some does a Gantt chart a fairy dies.
  5. Most relieving moment? Finishing my presentation! How mean was it making me be stressed the whole conference leaving it till the end? But seriously, I am so happy I did it and it was a considerable personal stretch. My presentation aims fulfilled - to have the most ‘out there presentation’, only stage jumper, getting through it without passing out. I wanted to be energetic and funny but I also wanted people to be able to take at least one thing out of it. Hopefully some people took away a better understanding that their transformational pattern actually has a name, behaviour and risks associated with it.

Thanks to my Suncorp ‘hood’ for your support on the day!

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Okay so I don’t get asked this question enough but feel a need to justify it to some extent because I am tremendously passionate about it.

Why am I, an Agile Coach, so fascinated with MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games)?

At its heart the reason is fairly simple – because behaviour is unconstrained, and unconstrained behaviour makes for some very interesting human nature observations.

For those without much of an understanding of MMORPGs let me digress for a moment and describe them a little. You may have heard of some of them – World of Warcraft, Everquest, Second Life, Eve, Rift, Warhammer, the list does go on a while. Within these games people play on a server; sometimes there are hundreds of servers for the game. On a server can be tens of thousands of people playing. As long as a player is online on that server you can see them in front of you (assuming they are standing in the same virtual section of the virtual world). You can interact with them and others in the virtual world around you. You can also interact with virtual computerised characters inside of the world.

The motive for interaction is to ‘progress’ or ‘advance’ in the world, ie become an expert in what your chosen direction in virtual life is (sounds familiar right?). Once you reach this expert layer you can then tackle hard projects called ‘bosses’.

Now these ‘bosses’ don’t just fall over when you talk to them. Generally you won’t be able to defeat them by yourself. Depending on the conditions that have been setup for the boss you might require four other players or even up to thirty-nine other players to use all of their expert skills against the boss. In a situation of you and another nine or more people working together it is not a simple matter of doing one expert action over and over. In fact, the level of complexity needed to defeat these bosses requires amazing levels of co-ordination that would make an average person unaware of the domain of MMORPGs boggle.

To put it into content, one boss might take a coordinated effort of twenty people thirty hours before he is defeated. This is thirty hours of complete concentration where a single second of failure from one person might result in a total group failure.

It is in this environment that I find MMORPGs fascinating -

  • What incentivizes individuals to spend hour upon hour with people they don’t like to defeat these bosses?
  • How do these teams form where there are no real world boundaries constraining them?
  • How do these teams reach peak performance when there is no body language to read?
  • With absolute anonymity how to people behave differently than they would in the real world?
  • How does a culture form inside MMORPGs?
  • How safe to fail is it when a single error from one person might result in significant disappointment of nineteen other individuals?
  • How does retention and recruitment work when there are no legal constraints on a system?
  • How does virtual corporate purging and takeovers work when there are no legal constraints on a system?
  • How does hierarchy and leadership naturally form and work optimally?
  • Do similar problems of Manager vs Leader exist as in a real world business domain?
  • Does storming, norming, forming, performing fit?
  • How does burnout occur for highly motivated people?

But the most fascinating element is

Are MMORPGs the future of our world and consequently the unconstrained nature of them?

I predict the business world to change much in the next ten to twenty years. I predict a world where white collared workers conduct their activities from home in a virtualised business environment where they can virtually walk up to their team member (who might be physically in a different country) and have a discussion/collaborate on some work together. Each day we are inching closer and closer to this, but this will be a virtual world where you sit in many realities at once and that excites me tremendously.

What we are learning today within Agile I feel will be very important for the virtual world of the future.

This blog entry is dedicated to that vision but is also a nice little wrap up for some posts that I will do in the future about this relationship. Expect the dot points remarked above to be answered in future posts.

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Over ten years ago I vividly remember the first moment I saw ‘Safe to fail.’ I was working for a large scale telecommunications organisation. Most of us working there were pretty young. With our youth came inexperience. I learnt that through a project re-assignment I was going to have a new manager and was anxious of what he was like. This was until a valued friend chipped in and regaled a story.

He told me that he had once reported to this manager and that I had nothing to fear. He recalled where he was once working on a email server and had setup a rule on the server to bounce an automated reply to not contact the server directly if an email was directly sent to it. Much to his horror he walked into work one day to find that the whole telecommunications network was crippled and this his server had been a strong part of the cause. It turned out that another automated server sent his server an email and the two of them began a bouncing war to the tune of over 10,000 emails being bounced per second between the two of them.

His manager once removed wanted heads to roll but his manager stood firm, took the fallout and accountability and refused to let that happen.

This manager knew what safe to fail was and stood up for it.

There have been many big stories lately of companies making gross errors, but organisations don’t have to hide behind them as savvy customers are more than willing to stay loyal to companies that stand tall and say ‘We are sorry, it was our fault.’

Atlassian had such an incident in April 2010 when a security breach exposed thousands of passwords. There were many responses to their openness, both positive and negative.

Zappos had a different kind of incident when in May 2010 they incorrectly priced their stock at one of their sister sites 6pm.com. They found the glitch a few hours later but to much surprise they honored the prices at a cost of 1.6 million (if you take their retail and not cost price). Word spread like wildfire and subsequent media resulted in a significant increase in their sales.

This week I found another major example crop up from one of my favourite pastimes - MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games).

 Trion recently released  a MMORPG called Rift that has been boasted as the potential  replacement to Blizzards successful World of Warcraft.

The release itself went quite flawlessly barring the fact that the game was so popular that the servers were flooded and queue times were staggeringly high. But the servers stayed up despite the load and the quality of the gameplay was high with very few bugs evident.

And then the security issues began. It started out fairly lightly as you would expect in retrospect, lurkers waiting for the players to actually accumulate virtual currency. There was a story or two of people having their accounts ‘hacked’ where someone else logged in as them and their virtual currency was re-directed elsewhere. Complaints on the forums resulted in attacks on those unfortunate enough to loose control of their account with citings of ‘poor security’ as the cause.

Within weeks it reached significant proportions. Although supposedly less than 1% of accounts were compromised it was rare to find a person who didn’t have a friend that has hacked. The forums became a mess of witch hunts. Players, sister fan sites, downloadable combat parsers, keyloggers and mostly the users were blamed as the cause.

On the 19th the Executive Producer of the game, Scott Hartsman, released a statement to say whilst some of the hacking was caused by traditional security holes such as keyloggers, and bad/re-used passwords from other games, there was indeed a defect that caused a man in the middle vulnerability that meant neither an account nor a password was required in order to hijack accounts. Kudos was even given to the user that found the breach. But importantly the breach was fixed within two hours (in MMORPG time this is like a heartbeat).

Replies from customers were almost unanimously positive with most boasting appreciation over the honesty that the company provided. My favourite reply was,

“I had cancelled my sub over this even though my account was never attacked, I cancelled out of fear I would be hit sooner or later. After this and the impressive response from the company I have since resubbed my account and will spend some time on my toons to enjoy the beautiful game that it is.”

by Mauvelence, demonstrating that being open and honest can lead to a more loyal customer base.

Will a security incident like this ever happen again in an MMORPG? Not likely –  all future companies will look at this and give it the focus and attention it truly did deserve prior to a product going live.

So what is safe to fail? It is having the guts to say you were wrong (though ironically only Atlassian said ‘We’re sorry!’). Safe to fail not only applies on a business to customer context but it also applies internally.

I would keenly love to know how the employee at Trion who caused the oversight in security was treated. Were they fired? Were they reprimanded? Or were they praised?

Human beings are completely imperfect. It is what makes each and every one of us so special. Creative human beings probably more so as creativity breeds innovation. So next time someone you know does something really wrong laugh it off with them and look for the positive learnings and results that have come out of it.

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