WAR Project Management

If [Project Management] is competent and strong, we can concentrate on our work

Judy McKay, Managing the Test People

Truer words were never spoken. Yet project management is always one of the more difficult things for a software development organization. We’ve been fretting a bit about a lack or project management around my own office of late, so this has been on my mind.

Engineers generally don’t like schedules, they tend towards optimism when estimating how long things will take, and it can be something of a mystery tracking durations of software design and implementation. Designs tend to become “done” because the date has been reached, while the amount of code written is the only tangible indicator of how far along implementation is going, and I have seen enough cases of features being “90% code complete and nowhere near finished” to trust that metric.

Even in SQA, where we love project management because it means somebody else being the bearer of bad news, there are issues. I have been asked many times a question along the lines of, “How long will it take you to regress all the bugs you will find in the software?” I hate to do this in the room with the development team looking on, as it tends to reinforce in their minds my reputation as a pessimist. (Even when my estimate turns out to be quite optimistic in the end, which they do a depressing percentage of the time.)

Which brings me to Warhammer Online.

I would love to know how project management played a role in the decision to make the content cuts they announced last week. Without any insight into the goings on out there in Virginia, I wonder how they have run the Warhammer Online development cycle.

Still, being past the 18 year mark in software myself, I can sometimes get a vibe, sense a clue or two, pick up the tenor of what might be happening… with some companies at least. For example, the way SOE talks and produces, they seem to have project management under control. Rise of Kunark shipped sans some features, but hit its date and was solid.

At the other extreme is Sigil, project management, or the lack thereof, seemed to be an underlying reason that Microsoft got out from under Vanguard when they did.

So what do last weeks announcements tell us?

First there was Punkbuster support. Very good. They don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel. Blizzard can spend time and money on Warden, but Mark Jacobs would prefer to out source that effort and spend development cycles on the game itself.

Then there are the cities. Certainly going from six to two capital cities seems like a reasoned approach to the inevitable content vs. schedule conflict. Well, it would if they were not already a year late and only a couple… a few… not very many months from release. And the follow up about putting only two of the six cities in play for conquest once they are all in seems like either an ill-considered plan or an ineffectual smoke screen. Mythic now has a FAQ up about the decision to remove the capital cities. Not a great choice for a RvR game, but not a deal killer either.

And, finally, dumping four classes seems a bit less well thought out. Two of them were tank classes which, in a PvP dominated world, probably won’t be missed too much. But the other two were DPS classes, which has the distinct possibility of making two races considerably less desirable. That seems like questionable judgment in my opinion.

According to the FAQ about the classes they just put up, the pay off will be smoother animations and more visual effects for the remaining classes. Not a bad thing, but it seems like an odd trade to me. The classes removed weren’t removed because of animations, and, in my mind, the people doing animations are not the same people doing class balance and skills… they are not the ones creating GREAT careers, or so I would imagine, so I wonder what those people will be working on.

And the statement put forth that EA had nothing to do with this… well, I have to go with Michael Zenke and his “EA exec looking at his watch and tapping his foot in cartoon-like impatience.” You don’t make a cut like what was done to classes unless you’re under some time pressure, and only the execs in Redwood City can put that kind of pressure on Mr. Jacobs.

So I would have to guess that while they have strong personalities out at Mythic, strong project management is probably not part of the equation. That is my reading of the tea leaves, and given the state of their schedule and past delays, I don’t think I am going out on a limb.

None of this seems to have put a damper on the enthusiasm for the game. I have seen mostly cheers and very few jeers. A lot of people want to play this game very badly.

And these may be the right decisions for the project and for the quality of the game at this stage. You don’t need strong project management to make these decisions, just to make them early and to accurately know what you are getting for the decision.

I don’t write much about Warhammer Online. I have kinda/sorta of decided to pick it up when it finally ships, pending announcements about pricing and such. Otherwise I have tried to avoid the rabid fanboi mania that surrounds the game. To hear some go on, you would think that this game is the Messiah.

And if it doesn’t deliver on those rather high expectations, I’ll be there to paraphrase a quote from “Life of Brian.”

There is certainly a mess here, but no Messiah.

Ah, well, back to my own fanboi obsession; Diablo III.  Is it out yet?  No?  Gaaaaagh!

16 responses to “WAR Project Management

  1. I certainly enjoy your grizzled-veteran-gumshoe approach to these situations and announcements. They are pleasently in vast contrast to the general hysteria, pro and con. Once Warhammer does ship, I’d be very interested in your view when comparing the lead-up and launch of WAR to that of The Age of Conan. Any initial thoughts?

  2. Oh and as a side note, a buddy of mine an I have been feverishly playing Diablo 2 in the vain hope that the overload of clicky gameplay will spontaniously spawn Diablo 3. Just an idea.

  3. This kind of hits home the idea that they don’t have very strong PM in that they were not able to really control their scope that well. I know, par for the course with these types of projects…but I think they would have been able to pull it off if they had more time, which they don’t (…see EA executive tapping watch…).

    Rest assured, the descision had nothing to do with “fun” or anything like that. That was just the answer given so that gamers could understand why it’s in their best interest that they do this cut. No…simple more time or less features descision here.

  4. I’m glad somebody else is with me on that approach to speeding up the release of Diablo 3.

    However, the voice of game shamanism in my head now seems to be saying that I must defeat Diablo with each and every class before Diablo 3 can spontaneously appear.

  5. I dont’ think it was EA, I thik MarkJacobs and Mythic execs had bonuses tied to delivering product within XX time of the acquisition. I like Mythic, but I think they need to shoulder the burden on these “questionable” decisions.

  6. A bonus based on ship dates is just the “carrot” version of the EA exec tapping his foot, right?

    “We’ll give you cookies if you ship on time/we’ll beat you about the head and shoulders if you ship late” are two sides of the same coin.

    Still, an interesting statement. Is the Mythic exec bonus based on shipping with n months of the acquisition anywhere in the public view? I’d like to see that myself.

  7. “they tend towards optimism when estimating how long things will take,”

    That’s exactly what I see everywhere, you ask a developer (in the morning, on a Monday) how long will this take, and you get the answer 4-5 hours max. Now suddenly it’s 5:00 PM on a Friday, and the person has nothing to show you (you know, I had an urgent bug, I thought it was going to be a bit easier, but since we’re using the older version of this software we have to do a workaround, etc…). Optimism in task durations is a such a bad habit that almost all developers seem to adopt.

  8. It sounds to me like it’s this: why give out 10 classes when you can ship out 6 now and then 4 more as an Expansion Pack for an extra 20 bucks per account? Mythic customers are no stranger to those: DAOC had what 5 or 6 adds: Shrouded Isles, Atlantis, Catacombs, Darkness Falls, Minotaur whatever… and they also completely redesigned the RvR frontiers. The retooling and additions made me stop playing. There’s always post deployment retooling/balancing of characters, so I don’t think it’s content completion as much as the sound of mario coins in the pocket.

    And I can’t be the only person that was left unimpressed with the Diablo 3 gameplay video. Maybe 5 years ago that was passable…but after all this time? Meh.

  9. Ah sagely wise one from the world of SQA, what make of you of MJ’s statement that they had been looking at this for “some months” or somesuch yet the halberd falls with what appears to be only a few months left before release?

  10. Well, who knows what passes for discussion and “looking at things” at Mythic. Not I, certainly.

    Again, it seems more that strong personalities are driving things and not project management. I might buy the “looking” line when it comes to the cities, those are huge investments. But the classes, and two key PvP classes, at this late date? That seems more like something just fell off the back of the truck as opposed to a plan.

    I forgot to bring up in the article a project management rule of thumb. When you have a target date and you know you are not going to meet it, the amount of time you are going to slip should never be greater than the time remaining until the target date. So, if you are three months from release and you slip the date six months, you are not managing your project well.

    I don’t recall the dates exactly, but has Mythic been slipping longer than the time remaining before their target?

  11. Project management can be such a fubar within many companies. People who aren’t involved with development can’t even comprehend how bad it can be, even at huge multi-million dollar companies. We’ve run afoul so many times based on poor proj management alone, that they’ve shifted the role and senior leadership associated with it 6 times in 5 years. When it tried to circle my way earlier this year, I said hell no, I’ll quit first. You can have all the talented and visionary developers/engineers in the world. If the project management sucks, you’re in for a rough and potentially unsuccessful ride.

  12. I always double what I think it will take and am about right. Though lately I’ve been quadrupling my estimates to be safe since I’m not familiar with some of these systems.

    We can’t get the non IT folks to do any project management at all at our company, this applies 100x to any marketing group. Their projects are over time and over budget, it’s crazy. But they won’t do any project management because they think it’s like handcuffing their creative people.

    If you read about the cluster Donna Karan made at DKNY her first year it’s about the same idea as some of these stories. People in charge (her) wanting to redo everything, thinking “just work harder” will get it done on time, etc.

  13. I watched that video and man.. that just didn’t look like fun. I know that you have to take those with a grain of salt as playing it can feel different but… yikes.

  14. Agree there Ocil, the graphics engine already looks outdated, and the game isnt even out yet. The combat looks sluggish and slow as well.

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