Technical support from Dovogame rocks :)

Ok, ok, I know. This is not Second Life-related. It’s not even WordPress-related (my second love 😉 — aye, pun intended!). But when some company provides extraordinary tech support beyond what I’m expecting from them, they deserve what little acknowledgement I should give them. Three years ago, I did a comparison of tech support provided by Dreamhost, compared with Linden Lab, so there is a precedent in my blog for praising companies 🙂 Note that Dreamhost’s tech support is still outstanding. The last time I talked to them was about a log file which I suspected to be too big and possibly having performance issues (I always have that problem on servers I administer); they replied not only telling me that due to the way they deal with super-big files this would have little impact, but they added a full report on dozens of performance issues with my own blog — I was quite embarassed and not even thanked them back! This was the kind of report that you get from professional SEO and web marketing gurus and pay a hefty amount of good ole US dollars for them; Dreamhost provided that for free — as part of their tech support. Cool guys, indeed.

Today, however, I’m moving to more futile endeavours. While I prepare myself psychologically to show up at SL Lag Fest — I mean SL8B — I wondered how to restore my lost account at Business Tycoon Online. First, since very likely you have never heard of that game in your life — after all, it does have less than a million active users (wait! That’s what SL has!…), so perhaps a little description of what the game entails should help to explain why I was so happy with their tech support.

When I was way younger and still loved to waste a bit of my time playing some strategy games instead of watching TV, I used to like the “tycoon series” — Railroad Tycoon being my favourite one, especially the early versions, which were very clunky with a graphically unappealing interface. Somehow, the idea of connecting cities with railroads and devising clever ways of shifting products from factories to consumers appealed to me; I cannot explain why.

I saw an ad for Business Tycoon Online (BTO) on Facebook, while I still had an account, and thought I’d give it a try. BTO is not “fully” integrated with Facebook — it’s sort of a stand-alone website which allows logins from Facebook, Twitter, and other account types (or you can just use an email). By that time, I was already playing some 7 or 8 Facebook games, so, well, I thought I could afford another one.

The company behind BTO is Dovogame, a Chinese company, but the game itself (and their tech support!) is done in rather passable English. Still, it’s fun to see sometimes how the game templates fail to load under Flash and you get some cryptic Chinese pictograms (which — yes, you guessed it! — are translated as “Template not found”. Very funny ?).

The game is a bit unusual. It’s definitely a “business tycoon” sort of game: you have to create a vast network of franchised stores, assign employees to it, and expand your business by growing, outmaneuvering your competition (or sabotaging their shops… heh), increasing the quality of your shops, training employees to do better service and become more efficient, and so forth. It’s not a very graphical game. In fact, what strangely appealed to me was its relatively 1990-style Flash-based interface; anyone expecting a very fancy game with cute, animated, 3D manga characters will be terribly disappointed. This is the sort of game that could be played on a 1980-style BBS — although it features some images and graphics, these are merely static and purely decorative.

The interface is also clunky; clearly this is the sort of interface designed by someone who spent a lot of time on the game engine, but not on game design. I’m actually amazed that so many hundreds of thousands of people play it; while I don’t consider well-designed interfaces that important (or I’d given up on SL ages ago!), I guess that a lot of people would be too frustrated to use it. Some things, like searching or grouping things together (like employees and stores, for example) are very hard to do; at later stages in the game, it becomes a nightmare to keep track of everything. But, alas, the game’s appeal is definitely not in its graphics and interface.

By the above description, you might immediately shrug it off and label the game as “yet another business strategy game” and never try it again. But here is where the Chinese developers have added a twist — something which might be culturally influenced, but it certainly has its appeal. You see, the “world” of Business Tycoon Online is not 100% realistic. There is a bit of magic in it. Oh, it’s not as you can get wizards to destroy other opponents’ shops, nothing like that kind of “obvious” magic. No, it’s just that here and there you might get a special, magic item. These are not that commonplace: it just adds a tiny bit of spice to the whole game. So, you might buy a regular attire for your corporate managers, which would be something out the latest fashion in Shanghai, but… you might get, say, a magic pendant. That kind of thing threw me back some two decades to my (pen & paper) role-playing days, where we might play in a “contemporary” scenario but had a few magic items here and there. BTO thus appeals to players who like that kind of scenario: everything is mostly contemporary, but, here and there, magic works, too.

BTO’s developers understood one thing very well: Facebook games are boring in the long-term. No matter how well-designed the game is, at some point, it all becomes “more of the same”. Sure, at higher levels you get more items, or more things to build. And you need to keep adding more and more friends in order to remain afloat and have to spam them more and more with “requests” to be able to continue to play. This is the kind of strategy Zynga uses for all their games, and most Facebook game developers have tried to emulate or copy that strategy. At some point, people with little patience just give up — you spend more time wading through the Facebook spam of requests than enjoying the game itself, which, at that stage, has no more novelty value anyway.

BTO is different. The game completely changes as you progress: completely new areas are suddenly available, even though at an early stage, you might have a clue what they’re for. For example, arena fights. Your employees can be sent to compete with other teams of employees from other players. This has absolutely nothing to do with the game itself, but, if you win a few fights, you get some bonus which might be very useful. Now this means that besides taking care of your main line of business — keeping those stores well-supplied, making sure employees are adequately paid and rewarded and trained, making sure your factory is outputting the right number of items to your warehouse, and so forth — you have “side games” to deal with. You can devise strategies for the arena battles, choose which employees should get, challenge other players into server-wide tournaments (and even cross-server tournaments), and so forth. It’s a game inside a game, and BTO is crammed full of that. There is horse racing, too.

Interaction with other players, like on Facebook games, is quite different. In most Facebook games, you cannot progress without adding more friends and spamming them. BTO is far less intrusive. Sure, it’s nice to belong to a Guild — which has its own real-time online chat group — because you get a lot of bonuses every day. But you’re not required to be in a Guild to progress, it just gives you a slight edge. You can attack other players’ stores — from making them dirty, to hiring people that will push their prices down, to media attacks libeling the owners — and the reverse is also true; you can also clean up other players’ shops (this will give you no benefit except a happy feeling that you’re helping them out 🙂 ). There are also some extra things and some gifts that you can send them (no play money, though!) which will also give them an edge. But the difference is not overwhelming — there is no pressure to spend all the time interacting with other players in order to “win”, unlike what happens on most Zynga games, for example. If you do it, yes, you will get a slight advantage here and there, but it’s not a requirement.

On the other hand, some players are eminently social and want to interact with others at all times. Well, BTO allows that, too: you can play on the Trade Center and “game” it. The Trade Center is a place where you can buy and sell a lot of things — mostly resources, raw and processed. It’s a free market where players set the price of things, and the system matches buyers and sellers (just like the LindeX, but with no “control” by the BTO developers — you can “game” it at will). Some players spend all the time making money on the Trade Center, which needs a lot of interaction to decide what price to set in items so that everybody involved in the trade benefits from it; and there is even something called “Illicit Trade” which I haven’t yet figured out how it works.

Similarly, in BTO, you compete mostly against yourself. But if you prefer to compete against other players, there are a lot of options to do so. Some compete in politics — you can get elected to several city office positions, which will (again) give you a slight advantage and bonus here and there. Election is absolutely delicious because it’s so corrupt 🙂 You literally have to buy votes 🙂 So all elections are “fixed” — no democracy! — because players agree between each other whom to impeach, buy votes to displace a player from office, then plan the strategy to get one of them to replace them. Some positions are only available for Guild Presidents (oh yes, no equalitarianism in BTO!), so it’s usual for them to organise their Guild members to concentrate their voting on themselves and displace competing Guild Presidents out of public office and secure a representation at the City Hall or other such public organ (each server has one city, but curiously you can also get elected to Unions, which are inter-server elections. Yay for Unions!).

So, wait… this was supposed to be a game of running a network of store franchises, and now we’re talking about elections for public offices?? Well, that’s the fun of BTO: there are lots of those things that have just marginal relevance to the “main game”, but all contribute somehow to get more items or cash or improve your business in a small way. From golfing courses to cross-country biking, from exploring pyramids or lighting up Christmas trees, from horse racing and betting on the best Guild, there seems to be a wealth of completely unrelated activities for players to join; I can imagine that some players can quickly forget what the game is supposed to be about. Sometimes it feels like you’re playing 20 different games at the same time, and, in fact, that’s pretty much what it is; Dovogame is constantly releasing new crazy ideas and abandoning old ones; there was an exploration game where you had to complete some goals to advance to the next stage. There were a lot of levels, and I was stuck at level 3 for a few weeks because I needed to upgrade my mansion (the full name of the game is “BTO Mansion” because apparently one of the ultimate goals is to build a Bill Gates-like super-mansion including everything from private airports to private beaches…). While I was doing that — the game ended! It was rather short-lived, but the truth is, I lost count on how many new games popped up into existence and quickly disappeared, too quickly for me. Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are usual pretexts for launching a few new short-lived games; sometimes these will give unique items that will benefit the few lucky players achieving them for months to come, even long after the game itself was discontinued.

It’s definitely quite different than most “Facebook games” I’ve played. And I guess that’s the reason I’ve stuck to BTO after dropping all other Facebook games I’ve attempted to play. In spite of the terrible interface, I’m always amused to see what will come next; and there are still a lot of options I haven’t managed to activate. They’re listed on the menus, but I never managed to get them working yet. So it’s hard to come to a point where you say: “So, I’ve explored this whole game, now it’s just ‘more of the same'”. If that happens, it lies in the far future — after several years of daily play! — and by then, I’m sure Dovogame has invented a few more surprises to tease us with.

So when my Facebook account was cancelled, I was frustrated — how would I get back to my account again? Most sites out there that accept multiple identities to log in usually allow you to bind them together; Dovogame, sadly, is not one of them. Tech support suggested that I created a new account and started from scratch. Well, you know how that is. I did buy some “gold” to improve my player (it’s not a requirement, but I’m a strong believer in encouraging “free” games by somehow paying a bit to their developers; that’s the main reason why I still have a Premium account in Second Life: I feel that Linden Lab deserves the right to get some payment in order to allow for more residents to join SL for free 🙂 ), and, of course, I had spent lots of hours in playing the game and establishing my tiny empire of 35 shops and 270 employees. It was a pity to drop that all just because Zuckerberg (literally) doesn’t like my face (because it’s made of pixels).

After a week of messaging Dovogame’s support — they replied quickly enough each time, but remember, they are on a quite different time zone! — we tried to figure out a solution. Initially it seemed that there was no way to deal with it: they cannot change accounts, at the database level, and they cannot “remove” the Facebook ID and “replace” it with, say, an email address — it simply doesn’t work like that.

However, after a discussion with one of their developers, they noticed something. Player logins that come from Facebook are stored as “XXXXX@facebook” where XXXXX is the Facebook ID. Now you cannot use that as a login because their site complained, due to the lack of a top-level domain at the end (e.g. .com or something), that it was an invalid email address (which it is). So the developer simply lifted the requirements for valid email addresses in order to allow “XXXXX@facebook” to log in as well. That was all it took! I’m back to BTO and catching up with a week lost in improvements… hehe.

All in all, for dealing with this complex request and involving a developer to fix a single customer’s problem, Dovogame certainly earned the Gwyn’s Award for Excellence in Technical Support 🙂

Hopefully, other companies (I’m thinking of a certain company in SF… 😉 ) are encouraged by this kind of example and start believing that good technical support is what keeps consumers happy and returning 🙂

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