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The Lawbringer: Autonomous systems deal with customer service problems

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Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, full of rules, regulations, and esoteroic topics that slip through the cracks.

At the beginning of March, Blizzard laid off 600 positions from the company in many departments, many of which came from the customer service and community side of the company. The official response and reasoning for the layoffs is internal restructuring of much of the way World of Warcraft's customer support is handled. Restructuring could mean a lot of things, after all, so the vagueness of what was happening threw people off.

I surmised that one of the reasons for the sudden downsizing of customer support had to do with the development of new, better, and more automated tools that perform many of the mundane repair or restore jobs customer service was previously responsible for. Staffed for a new subscription number and armed with a more stable infrastructure, account recovery tools, and now the automatic item restore feature, the Blizzard customer service team was able to shed personnel and keep expected services active.

Today's Lawbringer should have been titled "How interesting," mostly because this topic is just an exploration of something that intrigued me. "The machine took my job" is a popular way to categorize this type of situation, but that's too simple. There are tons of factors that went into Blizzard's recent restructuring, and while today I'm writing about just one of those factors, please remember that this isn't the whole story. If I knew the whole story, I'd be writing very different documents for very different people.

Rage against the machine

In the past few months, Blizzard has rolled out a few key new systems along the World of Warcraft back end, allowing the game to be supported more smoothly. Smooth operation is key to a large-scale MMO like WoW, SW:TOR or RIFT -- almost five times as demanding in World of Warcraft's case, going by subscriptions alone. Smooth operation means consistency, something many new MMOs are delivering on. It's a disturbing trend in the industry when patch days are rolling restarts and downtime is shaved down closer and closer to nothing. When am I supposed to see my family, go food shopping, and shower?

Machines operate more smoothly than people, for the most part. It's easier to send a robot to Mars because of that whole pesky "don't have to suck oxygen into your lungs and excrete all sorts of things" that we humans happily deal with every day. Machines also have the added benefit of (usually) doing what they are told with minimal interference from the everyday toils of human life, like making judgment calls or being unable to help with something. If the machine can't help you, it gives you an error message to find someone who can.

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The data is there

One of the biggest, quieter releases by Blizzard over the last year was the roll-out of new APIs that clued the outside world in on how much data was actually being collected about our items, characters, and game stuff. It turns out that there is a whole bunch of it, and these APIs tap into some healthy and wealthy pools of knowledge.

All it took (and by "all it took," I am actually referring to the potentially long, arduous production, development, testing, and shipping a problem) was someone to link the data to a system that let you access it. In the case of the newest automated system, the Battle.net Item Restoration service, two delicate birds are taken care of with one stone -- players need their items back, and most of the people who dealt with this were fired.

In player's hands

If I had to guess, I would imagine a good majority of the item restoration claims that Blizzard customer service must deal with have to do with vendored items. People carelessly right-click on stuff in their inventories all the time and log out, forgetting that they might have just tossed a cool sword or piece of transmog gear into the virtual trash. These types of quick, fairly painless restores might be better suited by the players themselves, rather than having staff people do it.

I don't think that this was the case for the entire history of WoW, however. Back in the Wrath days, the volume of item restores was probably less, considering there were fewer items in game and less reason to restore other than sentimentality. The main reason to restore an item was accidentally disenchanting it after a raid or trying to move the soulbound item to another person who won it during that night's festivities. The actual number of restores that did happen still took a good amount of time, leading me to believe the system was already taxed or just not sufficient to deal with 100% of the problems.

In preparation for a system where going to old raids is not only encouraged but a gameplay feature, the toll on the customer support team for the influx of calls transmog would bring about would be too much to handle. When the new guidelines for customer service were in the planning stage, you can't think about a cut in workforce at the same time as a system that will create problems this exact team was created to solve -- customer game issues.

Express services

Giving the players a way to fix their own problems has the potential to work very well. It also has the possibility of becoming just like that express line at the supermarket where the designers forgot one very key component in giving Grandma the key to the register -- people are dumb and don't know how to use the registers. That's why there is a person at every other register who knows how to scan items and not look like a total idiot doing it.

There will still be CS calls about item restoration and fixing problems, but the majority of them can now be handled by you, in the comfort of your own home.

Will we see more automated features in the future? Yes, and they will be more fully featured. It's always better dealing with a person for complicated issues because of the empathy and understanding. The computer and automated process are extremely adept at dealing with the most common piece of the customer service problem -- I did something in the game and need it to be fixed. The problem isn't solved best by humans 99% of the time, at least in this case.

Watching Blizzard change as a company is fascinating. The ebb and flow of the subscriber base, the changing focus of the game's world, and new systems like Raid Finder and transmogrification all have profound effects the people and systems that control the WoW juggernaut. New systems were introduced that changed the nature of item restores and the amount of items people were accidentally vendoring or destroying and had a system being developed in place of the personnel cuts to deal with a new, emerging issue.

How interesting.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact your lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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