The Art of LiveOps

LiveOps Designer: Daniel McLaren

January 30, 2020 James Gwertzman and Crystin Cox Season 1 Episode 18
The Art of LiveOps
LiveOps Designer: Daniel McLaren
Show Notes Transcript

This week we talk with Daniel McLaren, a LiveOps Designer with decades of industry experience.  Tune in and hear about his experiences and how LiveOps has evolved through the years. 

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James Gwertzman (00:05):

Hello, I'm James Gwertzman.

Crystin Cox (00:06):

I'm Crystin Cox.

James Gwertzman (00:07):

Welcome to The Art Of Live Ops podcast. Hey, Crystin.

Crystin Cox (00:16):

Hey, how's it going, James?

James Gwertzman (00:17):

Good. Who's on deck for today?

Crystin Cox (00:20):

Today we're talking to someone that I've known for a long time. His name is Daniel McLaren. He's basically a live ops designer. He's been in the industry for about 15, 16 years and he's spent the whole time pretty much doing live ops design.

Daniel McLaren (00:36):

I'm Daniel McLaren and I've been making games for almost 15 years now. I started out in MMOs. Everything I've worked on has always had a live component. When I first started, being sentenced to live operations was what happened when you screwed up, right? If you were on live operations like, that dude there-

James Gwertzman (00:55):

The dungeon.

Daniel McLaren (00:56):

Yeah, he's dead. Now it's... I don't want to be anywhere else.

James Gwertzman (01:00):

This is his gig. This is his thing.

Crystin Cox (01:01):

Yes, he's incredibly passionate about it. We worked together for a little while at ArenaNet. He's got a background in PC MMOs and also done time on some really successful mobile games. He's very passionate about how design interacts with live ops.

James Gwertzman (01:18):

He's like a live ops unicorn. PC, mobile, MMO, he's done it all.

Crystin Cox (01:22):

Yeah, and he loves data.

James Gwertzman (01:24):

Okay, all right. I can't wait. Let's get going.

Crystin Cox (01:32):

When did it start to tip?

James Gwertzman (01:34):

When did it start to go from live was the death sentence to now live is the hot place where the cool kids hang out?

Daniel McLaren (01:40):

I think when mobile really started taking off, and I think actually when Supercell started really firing on all cylinders, that was the moment where everybody was like, wait a minute, this mobile thing seems really legit. I mean, I think it was making money and everybody was like, yeah that's money but that's why you got to rob players. Went from a death sentence to here's where you cheat people and then into this thing of like, Oh, these games are actually really legit. You can actually make real money on them, as opposed to fake money. That the-

James Gwertzman (02:10):

Blood money.

Daniel McLaren (02:11):

Yeah, blood money. Yeah. Oh boy. What paper do I have to sign after this? Thanks, buddy. No, but that you could play these games. There was this live component to it and it was no longer about day one, day seven, day 14, "Hey, can we convert people and get them to pay in seven days?" It became this thing of actually D one to 14 is really just about are we keeping people? Is this experience really good for them? Then it became, what does D 30 look like? What does D 60 look like? Now it's like, hey, what does D 360 look like and is it good? Are we continuing to grow? There's all these things that we think about now and it's just...

Daniel McLaren (02:48):

Yeah, I think mobile and Supercell really pushed a tipping point. To cap on this I've been talking to a lot of different PC and console studios. They're behind the curve. I've been talking to people and they're just like, "We know we need live operations. We don't actually know what that means." I think even PC and console are still lagging behind it.

James Gwertzman (03:12):

What do you think the... We have a theory on this. I'm curious what you think the evolution of live ops within a studio looks like. Take these PC and console studios, when they finally dip their toe in the water and say, okay, I'm starting to build a live ops team now. I'm starting to get my feet wet, what does that evolution path look like you think?

Daniel McLaren (03:32):

Sure. I think Rockstar is a great example of this. They're like, "We're going to put out Grand Theft Auto online." Whatever, "We'll do whatever." Then all of a sudden it's like, cool that just made a billion dollars. I think that's the moment where people go [inaudible 00:03:46]. I think there's a couple things that happen. The price of games has stayed the same, but the cost of games continues to rise. I think even if team size has stayed the same, I mean, it's just the natural course of things. It's just going to get more expensive. Especially as people come to expect, "Hey, my hardware can do this thing, and I'm not going to buy Terraria on my PS4 Pro and put it on my 8K TV."

Daniel McLaren (04:12):

People will but we're talking about the majority of spending, playing group of people. They're not going to buy. They're going to be very picky about it. That continues to raise costs. We're looking at this thing where it's like, if I can't sell 10 million units on day five, we're dead and we have to let everybody go. It's such a common story. So now you see things like Rockstar and you see Minecraft, I think, is a great example of that too where people are like, "It's going to be a fad."

Daniel McLaren (04:41):

I mean, I was working at Disney eight years ago when that came out. I bought the Alpha and I was like [inaudible 00:04:48]. It was nine bucks and I had permanent lifetime access. Now the thing has sold 50 bajillion copies and continues to grow.

Crystin Cox (04:54):

Yeah. It has incredible engagement. I mean, I think we... So many times in the industry, I think we come become blind to the younger generation and we don't look as closely at what younger players are doing to see where we're going. Because I mean of course game developers are self selected group of people and we're all old and bitter-

Daniel McLaren (05:17):

Speak for yourself, but yeah.

James Gwertzman (05:19):

Minecraft in particular has fascinated me because my 15 year old son is back in the Minecraft now. For a couple years there it was so not cool. It just fascinates me that even within a single generation these games go through these cycles where no one's playing Minecraft anymore, so dead now, and now it's cool again and he's playing it again. I don't know if it's because of realms or the live ops features or for what.

Daniel McLaren (05:41):

I think it's a couple of things. Number one, obviously kids super influenced by the things around them and now with Twitch and Mixer and all of this like, "Hey I can go on YouTube and watch LetsPlay." And all this kind of stuff, which continues to evolve and becomes a primary source of entertainment just like sports or entertainment for people. Things are going to go through waves. I think as streamers discover interesting things about Minecraft. I mean, because it's really about humor too. You watch all these streamers, and the ones that are really popular have charisma and they're funny or they're insightful or they're extraordinarily skilled and have a level of charisma. Right?

Daniel McLaren (06:20):

Kids are super... I mean, even adults. I'm not going to pick on kids here, but even adults it's like, "Oh, man, that guy's really funny. I want to go play that thing." Minecraft, I think just has continued to provide so inexpensive, so easy to get into and provide so much opportunity for people to just be super creative or super funny with it or get with the friends and do really stupid stuff. I think that's why Roblox has also just been a massive force where it's just so... You just get into it. You're like, I can harass anybody. I can do whatever I want. It's funny.

Crystin Cox (06:51):

As you're making this it's so funny. You started in PC.

Daniel McLaren (06:56):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh yeah.

Crystin Cox (06:58):

We're sort of in this world where live ops and mobile, that's where you get punished into. Then saw this giant rise. I know you worked in mobile during that rise and during a lot of that peak. Now you are spending a lot of time working with... I think a lot of people from our generation of live ops designers are having this experience, we're spending a lot of time working with premium triple A teams. What are you seeing their biggest challenges are?

Daniel McLaren (07:29):

Legacy. The problem is that you have a large team of people who've been making games for 10 to 15 years, and especially the more successful the studio is or the more the studio has it's legacy, it's hard to convince legacy people like, "Hey man, we've been making games for 15 years, and we've been doing it for 20 years and we sell million units. Why do we need to change?" So there's this fear. I remember when I went to Helsinki, Finland. I'd only been in the mobile industry for about a year and then I moved to Helsinki, Finland. Just my whole world opened up. I was like, oh my gosh, the way these guys are doing things. This Supercell guys. How they connect as a community. How they share information.

Daniel McLaren (08:14):

I was just completely blown away. Made some really good friends there. Prior to that, I remember, whenever somebody would talk to me about data, I'd get super panicked. I think this is also existing in a lot of these legacy studios. "Dude, science can't tell me how to make art. Get away from me." Designers start to panic. They're like, "Oh no, the AI is going to design all the things and I'm going to have no creativity." What I found was yes, that could certainly happen. I think there are bad leaders who are like, "Well, the metrics don't say this thing." They're not looking at metrics holistically. They're looking at a single thing and they're like, "Our app now is terrible and we can't do this thing."

Daniel McLaren (08:53):

Designers rightfully panic. They think, oh man this data is going to drive all my game design decisions. For me what it became was I want to be a better designer. I don't even see myself as a designer anymore. I see myself as a hybrid designer PM that doesn't really exist and is growing. Now everything I do is, I don't make games for me. That's not why I make... If I did, I'd have my own studio, that sort of thing. I make games for other people and so I need to know what they like. I need to know who they are. I need to know how to be better at what I do. I want to be able to build something, especially if something is really cool in the context of what we're doing, how do I know that it worked? How do I know that I'm not just feeding my own ego.

Daniel McLaren (09:35):

Suddenly, all of a sudden, this data just came back in and was like, oh, man, I screwed up. But look, here's a couple of good things. I can do this and this. It taught me also to be quicker about deploying stuff. Like okay, it doesn't really matter. I'm just going to put this whole thing out, because I just need to know if I'm hitting the right group or doing the right things. I think that's where it's really kind of... As I talk to these PC and console studios, I think they're... Most of the people who seem really excited about it are the new hires within the last three to five years.

James Gwertzman (10:08):

The young blood.

Daniel McLaren (10:09):

Yeah, the young blood, exactly. When I talk to the older ones, they're like-

James Gwertzman (10:12):

No, we know what we're doing.

Daniel McLaren (10:15):

We got this. I'm like, "Yeah, you had it five years ago?"

Crystin Cox (10:20):

This change is sort of unavoidable at this point, whereas you talked about cost of game development has gone up. But then also, I think that another element that often doesn't get discussed as much is that the needs and the demands of the players has also evolved and changed. Well they're absolutely... There is a group of people who want a tight 20 hour narrative driven experience and I hope that there's always a studio ready to deliver that to them because that's awesome. There's a lot of people who want a different kind of experience and they're not necessarily going to be satisfied if you don't deliver continual engagement, and you don't deliver something that's easy to be streamed and you don't do all of these things.

Daniel McLaren (11:07):

I think you're exactly right. I think that's the beautiful thing about the games industry. I'm always... It's funny. When I started, I was always irritated by people who were like, "PC gaming is dead." I was always irritated by people who have these just absolute statements about the games industry. The thing that frustrated me the most and continues to frustrate me to this day is assuming that people all think and behave and act the same way. Now, you might be able to say, hey, right now PC gaming is on a lull in this genre, because we found a different way to do things. Because that's always the way... We're always pushing this forward.

Daniel McLaren (11:45):

There's so many people. I learned this from Disney. We were building a game, and I'm not going to call it out, but we're building this game and we were getting ready to play and it was at the wrong place at the wrong time. We were building it in Flash right as Unity was coming up. Flash was literally... I mean we all watched as we were working on this game we're like, "Dude, Flash is dying before our eyes." It was horrifying. Oh man. I'm sorry. Just recalling this whole thing is hilarious.

Daniel McLaren (12:24):

We're building it, we're getting ready to deploy and I had only been in the industry a handful of years at this point. I was like, "How are we going to get people through this?" Somebody goes, "Oh, the Disney Channel." And I said, "What?" They said, Yeah, the Disney Channel. Basically we will run ads on the Disney Channel for this for 48 hours and we'll drive 2 million people on the weekend through this game. Easy, hands down. It's going to happen." I was so blown away. I was like, "What? How is this possible?" They're like, "Well, we on the Disney Channel. We don't run anything else on it. There are no ads that run. It is only a closed environment in which we preserve ourselves." Genius.

Daniel McLaren (13:00):

That was the moment where I realized there's no end to qualified users in the Disney space and... Boy this is a controversial statement because people argue with me all the time. I don't think there's any qualified users in the mobile space either. The reason that I say it is for the same reason that was told to me about Disney. Because every year, there's a segment of the Disney Channel population that is graduating out of the Disney Channel, and they're just like, they're gone. They're gone forever. Now, they're going to have a passion for Disney but they're not watching the Disney Channel ever again. Then at the same time, there's a whole segment of kids who are now coming up and they're the right age.

James Gwertzman (13:34):

The freshman class of Disney Channel watchers.

Daniel McLaren (13:36):

Yeah, and it just never ends. It's pretty much... They can't ESPN it basically. It's always going to do well because... I mean, I suppose it could if they have the right attitude. But for now, it's just an unending... I think it's the same way now. Now, you could make an argument on qualified users for mobile about it being a cost issue. Absolutely. I will completely agree with you there. Supercell, the guys who are doing Raid, Shadow Legends. Every time something hot comes up, Marvel Strike Force whatever. That really jacks up CPI. There's people just buying everything and these agencies just can't keep up with the demand, but I don't think there's an end to qualified users.

Crystin Cox (14:17):

That's so interesting because I think there is-

Daniel McLaren (14:20):

Oh, fight.

Crystin Cox (14:21):

No.

Daniel McLaren (14:21):

I'm just kidding.

Crystin Cox (14:23):

I actually mostly agree with you but I think it's interesting talking to premium game developers who haven't really worked in the performance marketing space. They haven't really worked... This is something that's been really interesting to me. Also coming from having my whole career in live games, is working with these premium console and PC developers. There isn't really a strong understanding of the acquisition funnel and there isn't really a strong understanding of how qualified users are identified and then acquired. I think that you're hitting on something that I think might be this incredible challenge, but also opportunity which is, there are all of these qualified users out there, how do we actually get to them?

Daniel McLaren (15:16):

Right. I think you're actually hitting on something here which I'll expand a little bit further here which is, I think the reason... My speculation is I think the reason why people look at mobile and go, "Well, there's only... You get your qualified users in the first 90 days and that's your..." Well we have a name for it. The golden cohort, right? [crosstalk 00:15:31] Oh, it's precious, our golden cohort. But I believe, from what I've seen, and what I've been able to work on, the problem isn't that we got all our qualified users in the first 90 days, it's that the game, especially with mobile continues to grow at such a rapid rate that when potentially qualified users come in at D 360, they're like there's so much to do, I can't catch up.

Daniel McLaren (15:56):

I just downloaded and started playing Teppen which I immediately deleted because I lost every single PVP fight right away. I was like [inaudible 00:16:05]. I'm impatient like that. I should at least win one. Come on, guys help me out if you're listening. It's super great. It's a super great concept. I really love the thing, but I can't understand their entire layout, their card information. All the stuff it's like, what? If you don't read ahead of time, it's really dense and you're just like, "I don't know what each card does." I'm putting stuff on there and I'm just getting creamed. My first few real matches after you get out of the tutorial. I'm like, "This is really difficult."

Daniel McLaren (16:33):

Now amplify that where you're like, oh, I come in, and I play and oops, I can't get into it. There's so much stuff and I don't know what to do. That's why I think... I'm going to pick on some buddies here now over at Supercell and Clash Royale here a bit. Chris, you and I have worked together. We were at Disney together and knew each other, not super well but then we also worked in ArenaNet and get to know each other really well. I think this was kind of related to this. We were talking about Clash Royale and Clash Royale came up a lot when we were working together at ArenaNet. What are they doing? Why are they doing what they're doing?

Daniel McLaren (17:10):

One of the things that I wound up digging, I wound up giving a presentation to another company. I think I can say now because they're gone, [inaudible 00:17:17]. I gave this presentation at King and they were like, "Wow, everybody comes in and talks about Clash Royale but you came in and talked about it a different way that none of us had thought about or seen." I walked through the mechanics of Clash Royale. I think most people know how it works. Then the last couple slides, I was like, "Now I want to talk about a problem with Clash Royale that I don't think people are addressing." That is when you look at their revenue from the day they started to now, it is in permanent decline. It has never recovered. It's never outgrown its previous... It's just... I mean, they have spikes like when they released 2V2.

Daniel McLaren (17:51):

My argument was, they're able to continue their revenue because it's so... They're always able to get qualified users because it's so easy to come in. They do such a great job of getting introduced, keeping you within your group of people so you're never really feeling like, "Oh I came in and lost five matches in a row. I suck, I can't. This is dumb. I'm going to uninstall it." Their problem is different. Their problem is that their monetization model and then a type of game it is. Hey, we're supposed to be creating this competitive meta changing. They fundamentally conflict with each other and so I think that's why. That's a different story. We go into that later, but I think they've been able to sustain.

Daniel McLaren (18:29):

Another game would not be able to continue to get qualified users like they have, because their qualified users would come and be like, "I'm so far behind the curve. I don't understand what's going on. Everything's so complicated."

Crystin Cox (18:38):

They would just [inaudible 00:18:38].

James Gwertzman (18:39):

They do a good job with the cohorts, they do good job of personalizing experience and... MMO's have been there for a long time as well. Whether it's a new server or whether it's-

Daniel McLaren (18:48):

Final Fantasy 14, they are blazing a trail on how to continue to... I mean that game is just growing year over year and EVE Online before that has been doing well.

Crystin Cox (18:57):

Yeah. We experienced this to some extent at ArenaNet as well where there was, I think, a constant low hum of pressure to redo the early player experience all the time. But ultimately, I think, and we came to this conclusion, it wasn't really a great idea because we had such consistent conversion information for the entire life of that game. We knew exactly what it took to get a qualified user. We knew exactly what they were going to do when they got them. Exactly what they were going to be worth. At some point, you go, that's almost worth more than possibly having a slightly higher... Which is I think...

Crystin Cox (19:42):

Sounds almost crazy. I remember a time, not that long ago, especially when mobile was really, really high. We were still a little bit in the social games era where people were like, who cares about retention?

Daniel McLaren (19:56):

Oh, yes.

Crystin Cox (19:56):

Just open the top of that funnel. It's all about the top of the funnel. Just do the top of the funnel. Now there's so many examples I have from actually running games where I'm like, so often retention is so much more important. I mean, the industry is shifting. More and more people are like, oh, it's all about retention. It's about engagement.

Daniel McLaren (20:13):

Every interview I've done, everything I've ever done I've always said I don't care about any metric other than retention. Because without retention, I don't care. You could talk about our death till the cows come home, you can talk about conversion till the cows come home. Cool. Who are you converting? That's fine. All I care about is when I look at retention and I see it declining, I'm like I can't monetize those people. I can't keep those people in the game. I care about this lifespan. What kind of environment are we building?

Daniel McLaren (20:43):

I don't want to get too deep into ArenaNet, but one of the things that as my role transitioned there a bit. I really started digging into gameplay metrics in a way that hadn't been done before. It was... You and I sat and talked about this a bunch. It was this thing where it was like there was this incredible stickiness to the game. If you could get to level 80, you're basically gold. You're not going to leave. Guild Wars became your life. We took your dog. I mean, it was like... It was incredible.

Crystin Cox (21:23):

But then we treated it really nice. [crosstalk 00:21:25].

Daniel McLaren (21:25):

To be fair, it was legit. It was good but the problem was, is that I think it suffered from the same thing that a lot of these things, you would get these people who would come in and they would buy the box without ever playing. That's already a really good indication it's a qualified user. Oh, this looks really cool. I like the art. I want to be here. I'll buy this box. Then Guild Wars just gave you so much freedom that those people are like, I have no goal formation. I don't know what to do. I want to do things but I...

James Gwertzman (21:56):

That's why [inaudible 00:21:57] a lot of time at PopCap in the casual space. I always thought... I gave a lecture one year at MIGS on what AAA can learn from casual games. I think that notion of telling you what your tasks are and walking you through, especially that new user experience.

Daniel McLaren (22:11):

It's funny because I think people... It's like, it's so weird. We're in this transition where I talk about mobile stuff to PC players, or PC developers. Depending on how old they are, and how long they've been in the industry, it's almost like this visceral, inherent reaction of we don't do that. You're like, "What? What are you talking about?" There so many good things here. Separate yourself from the old school early mobile mindset and just think about what's good for people.

James Gwertzman (22:40):

Not just the scaffolding your first time user experience, but [inaudible 00:22:43] control schemes. I'm like, if you're going to remove a couple buttons off that control scheme, single click gaming is cool if you can do it. It's like the famous quote, I didn't have enough time to write a shorter letter. There's a lot of work that goes into simplicity.

Daniel McLaren (22:58):

It's funny, when I started on Galaxy of Heroes, I came on to star wars about six months ish or so before it launched. The first thing... It was really cool because I knew a couple people there. I'd come up with a couple people in the industry. I had my own leeway. I was a senior designer and so I could just do what I wanted. The first thing I did was just played the game, ran through the tutorial. Our first iterations tutorial was so terrible. It was reflecting in our soft launch. It was so bad. You would do one move, or you do something, you complete one step you'd level up three times. It was so bad. I reworked it. I sat down and I just spent two days playing it over and over and just taking notes, timing notes, XP notes. Writing down the curve, writing down everything, just taking all these notes.

Daniel McLaren (23:48):

Then I wrote, just by hand just in my notebook wrote what I wanted to do with the tutorial, and then I just rebuilt it, and then I deployed it. It was a lot better. We saw really positive increase on it and then I rebuilt it again. I just... Because what I care... This goes back to what I said earlier. I don't make games for myself. I actually don't really care to work on games that I'm super stoked about. If that was the case, I would go move to New Zealand work on Path of Exile. I've got literally 1200 hours in that game. But I don't want to work on it because I love it so much.

James Gwertzman (24:19):

Don't meet your heroes.

Daniel McLaren (24:21):

Yeah, dude. I think that's true to [inaudible 00:24:25] but at the same time, that's my go to game whenever I'm... I don't want to ruin it. For me, making games became the thing. I think this was really after I went to Finland. I had gone through some really rough times in my early part of my career. I was super arrogant and super stupid. I had a really good... I had a couple of really good spankings. Just like, threatening to remove me from the industry kind of thing. I had a really good boss. I don't know if you remember [Rachel Dapollo 00:24:58].

Crystin Cox (24:57):

Yes.

Daniel McLaren (24:59):

She really helped me grow. Without her, I would not be where I am today. Her and Becky Bruce both were just so instrumental in teaching me so many things. The stuff that they taught into me, going to Finland solidified this learning thing that had started with them. It became this thing where I realized I don't like making games per se. I like being a DM and having this tool set and watching people engage with it and going, "Oh, that's what they did. Oh, that's so rad." I don't even care that they're railroading. I'm not interested in railroading people. I don't even care that they blew up my story. I'm like, that's dope and I'm adding this to my tool set. Where are they going? Who are these people.

Daniel McLaren (25:42):

It becomes about knowing who your player is, and all of a sudden the game that you started and released with is over here. As you learn who your players are and who the people are, that are saying this broader golden cohort, and I call this golden cohort our committed players. Who are our committed players? Where are they taking us? All of a sudden, the game is growing in this different way and you get amped about. I think when you really love making games, you get amped about what other people are doing in your game. All of a sudden, on Star Wars, there's this moment where I was building this content and it just became like, "Oh, dude. I know who our players are and I'm going to build this thing and they're going to be so stoked." Then deploying it and seeing them go nuts on Reddit, I was like, "Yes." This is the best moment.

Crystin Cox (26:23):

The ultimate feedback. I mean, this is what I love about live games. I've always loved about live games. I used to look at my friends who were in the console space and be like, how can you give three years of your life to this game?

Daniel McLaren (26:39):

Three years if you're lucky.

Crystin Cox (26:40):

And then, you have no idea what people really think about it. You would have reviews and maybe you'd have...

Daniel McLaren (26:49):

Check game spots like you're all failures. Just like, Great. Thanks.

Crystin Cox (26:53):

Depends on when you release it. You'd have some reviews and you'd have some chatter on the forums, but you didn't have that feedback loop that we had where we would release something and then we would be in the game with players. We would be getting data back and going, this is what they're doing. This is what they're liking. There was so much more feedback loop.

Daniel McLaren (27:13):

I think the second game I ever worked on was Vanguard Saga Of Heroes, which is the Everquest successor. I remember, I was like, man, super young. I would build something, we would deploy it to the beta server or to the pre launch server. Then I would just hop in the game and join groups of people who were running into it and just... I had no data. We didn't have data at the time. So it was more like a thing of, oh they did this thing and interacted with this and then this guy quit. We never knew. It was nothing like that.

Daniel McLaren (27:44):

We literally lived and died by the forums. That group of people who were on the forums I mean, it was the old school fires of heavens guys from ancient EQ. These were gangster hardcore people. They didn't treat my dog right when they took my dog. They were serious.

James Gwertzman (28:01):

John wick.

Daniel McLaren (28:02):

Yeah, dude. Ah, man, I was like that skinny little nerd. I couldn't do anything. Just had to take it. You're sitting here trying to design the next thing after Everquest and it's like everybody hates it. In the forums just... You read these forums, they're just like, You're a terrible person. Your family are terrible people. You come from a stock of terrible people. I hope you all die in a fire. Just like, cool, I got to go back to work tomorrow and do another update and hope they don't kill me.

Crystin Cox (28:31):

I mean, that's the flip side of it. Right?

Daniel McLaren (28:33):

Yeah.

Crystin Cox (28:34):

We used to talk about this... I used to tell my team that because that relationship with your players is the core of everything really, when you're running a live game, but it's not all puppies and kittens. I used to tell my team and you may have heard this from me before that one of the things we provide when we provide a live game is a safe thing to be angry about.

Daniel McLaren (28:57):

Yeah, absolutely.

Crystin Cox (28:58):

It's like sports. It's very similar to sports. I can go into a public space, I can go into a forum, I can get very angry about a decision that somebody made on my local sports team. That's a safe thing for me to be angry about.

Daniel McLaren (29:13):

Absolutely. You're going to have people who are going to help you with that and they're going to be people like, "Stop being a baby."

Crystin Cox (29:17):

Oh, absolutely. That's just part of the service we provide. I think this really got driven home for me. The story I like to tell, I don't know if I've told it on here before. Hopefully not.

Daniel McLaren (29:30):

Well I haven't heard it so do it.

Crystin Cox (29:31):

[inaudible 00:29:31] repeating myself. I was at a fan event once. For Guild Wars 2, was in Germany during Gamescom. I was at a fan event with a bunch of committed players in a big bar in Germany. We're all walking around, the people who were there from the dev team with name tags on. This woman walked up to me and she saw my name tag, and she was like... I was like, "Hey, how's it going?" She's like, "Oh." She looked at my name tag she's like, "People hate you."

Daniel McLaren (30:00):

Yeah, you always had that.

Crystin Cox (30:02):

The first thing she says to me, "People hate you." Like, "Oh, I recognize your name. People hate you." It really drove home for me that on the internet, with the community, I am not a human being.

Daniel McLaren (30:14):

Yeah, I know. It's funny you should say this story because I totally get it because you had to handle all of the monetization. You had to make us survive. That's what I... I've always respected you for that because you-

James Gwertzman (30:24):

Dragging their bodies across [inaudible 00:30:26].

Daniel McLaren (30:26):

Legit dude. I'd work with her any day. I've already said this to you. I would work with you anytime. I have so much respect for you, the work that you've done.

Crystin Cox (30:34):

Now, it's just a love fest.

Daniel McLaren (30:36):

I don't agree. I mean, you and I have argued about stuff before.

Crystin Cox (30:39):

But always enjoyably.

Daniel McLaren (30:41):

Yes, always happily. But I respect that because you are very experienced in what you're doing. We have healthy arguments. It's funny because people only see this aspect of you. When I started at ArenaNet in February of 2018, somebody on the forum on Reddit said, "I think ArenaNet is working on a mobile game." They pulled everybody's name from LinkedIn who's associated with mobile. I was the only one who was proper mobile. Come out, I'd made a lot of decisions. I had just come off Galaxy Heroes, worked on it for three years. They literally posted my name, posted my LinkedIn. The first response [inaudible 00:31:22] was like, this guy's going to ruin the game. He's a money guy, he got a mobile guy. He's going to come and destroy everything.

Daniel McLaren (31:27):

I had to reply. This actually... It's funny because everybody was banned from replying since I made this reply, but I was like, "I'm responsible for trying to keep the game healthy. It's my concern to care about players." But they think because I come out of mobile that all I care about is money and how can I screw them with a got you? In reality, I had a really... This is why I've moved into this hybrid PM game design role, because I see myself as... We have to survive because I've been laid of four times in 15 years. It doesn't bother me, I understand the work we do so I'm generally prepared for it now. It was terrifying the first time.

Daniel McLaren (32:08):

But I want to keep making games. In order to do that, I really need to get paid. It is my job. There are a lot of people who have put their blood sweat and tears and we need to get paid for this. It comes into this thing where it's like, how do I create something that you want to be in to and then offer you opportunities to give us money so that we can keep doing this? I recognize it's no longer my game. We are the stewards of your game, but I still have to monetize it and I still have to figure out how to create gameplay experiences that encourage the people who want to spend and validate them.

Daniel McLaren (32:45):

You and I have talked about this. If I asked you for $5, I want to give you $50 in value in return. I want you to feel like, I got the best of those guys. That's what I'm always fighting for. Also the reasonable things of like, well, we have to do it this way just because we're out of money. We have budget season coming up or whatever it is.

Crystin Cox (33:05):

It cost a lot of money to make a game.

Daniel McLaren (33:06):

Yeah. People don't see on the other side it's like it... Look, I'm not a business owner. I don't have to write the checks of everybody. I don't have shareholders breathing down my neck but I got a boss who tells me, yo, dude, here's quarterlies, here's where we are. We're falling short. We have to make this up. I can't stop that. If you guys want games, that's just a reality.

Crystin Cox (33:29):

I think that you hit on it though. I think this is one of the things that we're seeing the industry evolve into, is, yeah, that is absolutely the reality. But at the same time, we create these games and we give them over to players. As I said, you're just not really... You're not a human being in the community. You're-

Daniel McLaren (33:52):

What?

Crystin Cox (33:52):

I know, but you know is [inaudible 00:33:54] is that they think of you as you're beyond that. You're beyond reproach to somebody. How could that hurt your feelings?

James Gwertzman (34:02):

What I find interesting is the games you're talking about, even the fact that you're assuming that you're still visible to the community is fascinating. Some art forms, you the fan get to know the creator. In other forms you don't. Most mobile games are made by faceless groups of people and play the game and engage with it. Something about MMOs, something about a lot of online games on pc, you get to go behind the scenes a little bit. You go behind a curtain and that's part of the enjoyable part of it. Part of the fan interaction is engaging with the team.

James Gwertzman (34:31):

I think we're seeing more and more of that with obviously influencers and streaming and kick starter and things. We had an earlier podcast in the season. We talked about the creative process is increasingly part of the game itself. The enjoyable part of the disengagement.

Daniel McLaren (34:51):

It's funny because on Star Wars, this was really interesting. I'm not shy about interacting on the forums at all. I've had some amazing hate mail messages. I actually... People get mad. It's hard for me to understand why people get bothered by hate mail messages. I am like, "Sweet I am collecting these." This is like a badge for me where I'm like, sweet Dude. I'm well loved enough that people hate me. This is great. I also don't have a problem admitting when I'm wrong on the forums and I try to be very self deprecating in a lot of ways and create this experience of hey, you can approach me.

Daniel McLaren (35:28):

It was really interesting to watch how there were always, on Galaxy Heroes, there were always some people who were just like... Not really [inaudible 00:35:36] is a terrible person. He's stupid. He's lying to us. It is a very small number but then immediately people would come to my defense be like, dude, EA's making him do it. It's like, well... Yeah, there were some things that I had to do because EA but really EA wasn't-

James Gwertzman (35:51):

[inaudible 00:35:51].

Daniel McLaren (35:52):

EA wasn't coming in a suit and being like, "Maze window is too good. You got to make them suck more." Nobody was saying that. We're all trying to do the best we can. We made mistakes on stuff. There's a lot of stuff that I straight own. Yeah, I'm sorry that, Commander Luke [inaudible 00:36:07]. That was my fault. He's too powerful. Sorry. EA wasn't making us do that. The problem is when you're employed and you have Lucas and Disney, and EA and there's all these stakeholders, you can't just say things like, hey, look, here's what we did. Here's why we did it. Here's what our hope is.

Daniel McLaren (36:29):

There's a level of obfuscation that happens just by the nature. It's not a blame on anybody. It's just that's the nature of life. The more stakeholders you have involved, the harder it is to just be open and honest and communicate to players and create this sense of, hey, we're real people. The great thing is through all of that I was able to create this thing where people are like, no. They used... My abbreviation was NRAJ, N-A-R-J. Not really [inaudible 00:36:55] N-R-A-J. People be like, "No, NRAJ wouldn't lie to us. He's got our back. He's going to do it."

Daniel McLaren (37:01):

I love that I felt like if we can create this sense of, hey, there's somebody inside the development team who's got your back, the rest of development team, they're not hating the real people, they're just hating this imaginary monolith.

James Gwertzman (37:16):

I'm going to steal one of Crystin's pages out of her book is we talk a lot about game is community now. We have this theory that-

Daniel McLaren (37:24):

I love that phrase by the way. I really do.

James Gwertzman (37:26):

Well, I think it's [inaudible 00:37:27]. I mean, there's this notion we had, game is product good and then we had package good, then game is service. That was a lot of [inaudible 00:37:33] that we talked about. Now we're in this game is community era. Sort of thinking about what... One of things we're starting to think about now is, we know what it looks like when you've got one. What do you do to make one? What are the behaviors, the prescriptive actions you can do as a designer, as a studio to get there? I think you just touched on a big one, that notion of inclusivity. That notion of... You may hate it or love it, but you're included. You're in that discussion, and there's that sense of NRAJ got my back. It's really important.

Daniel McLaren (37:58):

I always try to create this thing in which players can say anything they want to me on the forums, because none of them ever said it to my face when I met them. It's always kudos and props, and I love your game. Even when somebody is complaining about something, it's generally the people who don't have social skills and they're just being blunt. There's no real malice behind it. For me what I realized, I've been... You call it lucky or unlucky, I think it's lucky. I've been lucky enough to work on a Star Wars game and a Star Trek game.

Daniel McLaren (38:33):

The fans behind those franchises, and I love both franchises very deeply. I completely understand the level of emotion. Look, there was no way that we were going to get everything right on Star Wars because it didn't matter the character that we would release, people have. People are projecting their own passions and emotions and nostalgia and everything else on a character and so you release it. It's just like, well, we're doing the best we can with what we have. Some people are going to love it, some people are just going to hate it.

Daniel McLaren (39:01):

What I tried to do is create this thing where you can say anything you want, I'll answer any question I can as honestly as I can, whenever I can. Whenever I would go on podcast, I tried to explain methodologies and let people ask very honest questions. If I really couldn't talk about something, I tried to be as honest as I could about it without throwing my employers or my stakeholders under the bus because again, it's not their fault. It's just the nature of working inside something that is so big and is so connected.

Daniel McLaren (39:30):

But giving villains and good guys and expectations, and the nice thing is with something like EA, or even... I won't pick on EA. It's not even a EA thing. The nice thing about a game development team is the dev team is a faceless, soulless thing over there. It's the grinder, it's the meat grinder. Just turning and grinding the beef through. You can hate the grinder all day. Great, do it because as soon as somebody from the dev team comes out and shows empathy, then people go like, that person has our back. It's true. I do, I am out there because I have your back. I have to balance as a lead. I have to balance what's right for us to survive, what's right for the stakeholders who are involved, what's right for the players. That's... I don't always get it right. I wish I did. That'd be rare. That's so rare.

Crystin Cox (40:22):

Yeah. I mean, I think that... As you said, when we give these games to players, and they have so much ownership over it, they feel very passionately about it. I think it's a very understandable reaction that they would be worried. They're always worried. They're always worried that something's going to happen, because ultimately, they own the game in a way, but they don't actually have that much control over what happens to the game. That concern is very real I think.

Daniel McLaren (40:49):

I think... Sorry, I just choked on some water. I like to... My timing is always really great. That's a tough thing. As a gamer myself, it's hard to look at the games I really love and think oh man, if you just did this one thing. I think destiny is a great example of this. In my mind, Destiny One is the perfect game on paper. Perfect game. I mean, dude, it's Sci-Fi. It's basically this awesome shooter with aliens. I think it's everything everybody who really thought a Sci-Fi online MMO game would be. You're like, that's dope.

Daniel McLaren (41:27):

It just wasn't. It fell short in a lot of areas and I think where they really fell short was community. Community, social, connecting people, making feel like the game was living and big. I think what they're doing now after the forsaken patch, and where they're going, and what they want to do is exactly the thing that is going to propel them to the next level and let them live in perpetuity because now it's a space where it's like people you watch it. It's just like, if we can get more people connected to the lore, if we can get more people serving other people, I think that's the word that a lot of people miss a lot. Serving.

Daniel McLaren (42:07):

It is a service job. We serve our players, we serve our fellow co workers, we serve our masters, and everybody around. If you don't have a servant's kind of mind or servant's heart, why are you building something for other people if you don't have some level of a servant heart. I want you to be happy. Even I think, when you and I worked together, I'd like to think that my behavior was like, even if I really believed in something, it was like, "Well, okay, that's your space. You're the stakeholder on that. I've said my piece. What do you need me to do?" I might still have feelings about it but I think if you don't have that. Especially if you don't have that to the player and you can't represent that on the forums. I think that's such a critical part of life. I think that is the definer between a live service and being able to execute on live service and just shipping something in a box.

James Gwertzman (42:56):

We should ask our favorite question.

Crystin Cox (42:57):

Yeah, this has been great but we ask pretty much everybody who comes on this question. Can you share a live ops disaster with us?

James Gwertzman (43:05):

Train wrecks.

Daniel McLaren (43:06):

Oh my gosh, I will share the very first live apps disaster where I thought I was done in the industry. I was working on Vanguard. I'd only been in the industry for about a year and a half at this point. I had started at this company, Perpetual Entertainment as a junior community manager. The guy who designed Diablo II and Diablo II's expansion, Lord Of Destruction, Steve [inaudible 00:43:28], he took me under his arm. That's why I have a career. He helped me get this job at Sigil.

Daniel McLaren (43:32):

I was like, oh my first job. I'm a real game designer on an MMO that I am so hungry for. I was so happy. It was a very difficult job. We were working 16 hours a day, six to seven days a week for almost a solid year. I was young and I wanted it so badly. For me it was like... I would ask my wife... I took peanut butter and jelly to work. We were so poor. I was getting paid such dirt wages. Because we run out of money. I was literally making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eating them three, four times... I won't eat them anymore.

Daniel McLaren (44:10):

If I don't have to eat them, I won't. It was brutal. I was sleeping under my desk but I was so happy. I was like, I'm doing it. I'm making games. I got my first dungeon, I got my first quest line. So I got my quest line and I'm writing this quest out. Oh my gosh. I go, I'm working. I get there seven in the morning, eight in the morning and it's 10:30 at night so I need to go home but I'm still on fire creatively. I'm like, okay, I got to put in placeholder text. I put placeholder text in. I've got everything set. I go home, it's the weekend. I get my days off. I come back on a Monday. Finish out the quest. Check it in, a couple days goes by.

Daniel McLaren (44:51):

Few days goes by and the senior designer, Bill Fisher, I'll never forget this. Bill Fisher comes up to my desk. He's super looking at me like, "Hey, Daniel, can you come into my office for a moment? We need to talk to you." I was like, "Yeah, sure. Okay." I'm like... Bill's a cool guy. Bill and I had a pretty good relationship. Him doing this was really weird. I go in and it's all three of the senior design leadership team.

James Gwertzman (45:16):

[inaudible 00:45:16] Council.

Daniel McLaren (45:16):

Yeah, [Darren Salim 00:45:18] and Bill and I'm like... Oh, and the head producer was in there too. I was like, "Oh, no." They're like, "Is this your quest?" They hand me a piece of paper with a screenshot on, which I still have to this day. I have to show it to you. This is hilarious. On this, is a picture of a player in front of my quest with the placeholder text in which I used several choice curse words as placeholder text, including a derogatory term for females, which I am so... I mean, I was... No excuse. I was stupid. I was just holding it and I felt the blood drain. I felt my hands get cold and I was like, I'm done. I'm over. I've only been doing this a year and a half. I'm done. My games industry career is over.

Daniel McLaren (46:04):

It turns out, what happened was nobody told me this, every morning at five in the morning, the server dumps everything to live. Everything that's in works, it just dumps to the live server. Mind you we were not... It was a closed beta so this was not... Closed alpha actually. So there were not people, was not a pay thing, thank God. But somebody took this screenshot and posted it on the forums and they managed to pull it down and get this before it got wider. So you can't even find the picture on Google. Thank God. Although I'm sitting here telling everybody. [croostalk 00:46:34]. Twitter is going to roast me I'm a horrible misogynist. But it wasn't that. This was 2004, something like that.

Crystin Cox (46:45):

Placeholder text.

Daniel McLaren (46:46):

Oh boy, and that was the... I was so humiliated. I was humiliated because my language was course and it didn't need to be. It wasn't... I was just humiliated all around. You're looking... You're like, cool, I see the self flaw. Then I let this thing get out now. It's impacting company. It's impacting this job, this thing that I love. I was like, I'm a dead man. Thankfully, they were so kind about it. They just started laughing at me and teasing me, Dude, you should have seen, and I can't repeat this on this podcast. I'm sorry. I'll tell you the story after the podcast is over. But they're like, "You should have seen this thing that got out into the wild during a request beta as a joke and it got out." He's like, "You didn't reach that level of bad." I was like, "Oh thank God." I got to keep my job but I was so Cognizant after that.

Daniel McLaren (47:38):

I was so cognizant of what I do in front of a player. I just realized, there the perils of live. Perils of live, everything is live. Even if it's not. You treat everything like it's live. Then there was a story at Disney. I don't know if this is urban legend at Disney or this really happened, but a programmer who let the swear word slip in, what was it? Preschool time [inaudible 00:47:58], some like that?

Crystin Cox (47:59):

Yeah. I actually don't know if that's true either.

Daniel McLaren (48:01):

I don't know if it's true, but the rumor is a very talented and skilled programmer who worked at Disney had placeholder text for an error that was literally one in a million error. Basically, of course because a million customers bought it, one customer got it and she called in and it was like something like, "Your piece of garbage computer upgraded." They fired him.

Crystin Cox (48:21):

Because it was shipped. I mean, that's the thing about brand, that shipped under the Disney banner.

Daniel McLaren (48:26):

Though shall not mess with the mouse.

Crystin Cox (48:28):

I don't know if that's true.

Daniel McLaren (48:30):

I don't know either but it's a great story. [crosstalk 00:48:31]. It's what you tell your kids at night. Hey kids.

James Gwertzman (48:36):

The live boogie man.

Daniel McLaren (48:38):

The live boogie man, you're going to get fired if you don't be careful with your placeholder text. I heard that story and all I could think about, to this day, it's been 13 years and I still... I do not put placeholder text. If I put placeholder text in, it is extremely just systematic placeholder descriptor. I do not mess around anymore.

James Gwertzman (48:59):

Though shall not take liberties without placeholders.

Daniel McLaren (49:02):

Oh no. It was a really good lesson. I'm glad I learned it very early. I'm glad I had really good managers who saw the humor in it and thank God we were in closed alpha because I think if that had been in live beta, I think I would have lost my job. I screwed up.

Crystin Cox (49:16):

Yeah, probably.

James Gwertzman (49:18):

Wow, that's sobering note.

Crystin Cox (49:20):

Cautionary tale for everybody.

Daniel McLaren (49:22):

Yeah, no kidding.

Crystin Cox (49:23):

Well thank you so much for coming on and doing this.

Daniel McLaren (49:25):

Thank you for having me. I feel like I talked the whole time.

James Gwertzman (49:28):

That was the idea.

Crystin Cox (49:29):

That's why we have you on actually.

James Gwertzman (49:31):

It's called an interview.

Daniel McLaren (49:32):

Well, I appreciate it was a lot of fun.

Crystin Cox (49:33):

Cool. Thank you.

Daniel McLaren (49:34):

Thank you.

Crystin Cox (49:40):

Thanks for listening to The Art Of Live Ops podcast.

James Gwertzman (49:43):

If you liked what you heard, remember to rate review and subscribe so others can find us.

Crystin Cox (49:48):

Visit playfab.com for more information on solutions for all your live ops needs.

James Gwertzman (49:53):

Thanks for tuning in.