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By: bubba0077, Walter Kolczynski
Feb 17 2008 12:43am
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So, people have been bugging me for years to write an article about Magic Online.  As you can see, I've finally caved in and I decided the best thing for my first article is to conduct an interview, thereby getting someone else to do the hard work and write most of the article for me!  I haven't mailed it in entirely however, as the interviewee is none other than Worth Wollpert, Brand Manager for Magic Online.  I guess technically I did mail it in since the interview was conducted via e-mail, but you know what I mean.  At any rate, I talked Worth into taking some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about the upcoming transition to version three.

First things first.  Since this is my first real Magic article, I should probably give a brief introduction to myself.  My early Magic was played almost entirely on the old Microprose Shandelar game.  I had seen paper Magic cards, but didn't have the money or opponents to really play anything except Shandalar until I was brought into it around Odyssey.  Shortly after I found my way into the original Magic Online beta and have been involved ever since.  I'm an active member on the WotC MTGO boards, where I maintain the FAQ and create online set FAQs for sets as they exit the beta process.  I've also been known to hang out in the Support room and help Adepts with player questions, and some consider me the most informed person outside of WotC for MO information.

I had three main goals when I drew up the questions for Worth.  First, I wanted to cover some of the biggest issues that I and the community have about the upcoming transition to v3.  Second, I wanted to limit myself to stuff that I thought Worth would actually be able to answer without concerns over security or industry secrets.  Third, I wanted to keep it short and relevant so as not to abuse Worth's generosity in granting the interview during a very busy time.  My questions appear in bold, Worth's responses appear in
blue, and my commentary on the answer appears in italics.

Q: We learned, first from 'huge' tournament tests in v1 and again in the ill-fated v2 release that internal load tests using bots are inadequate to sufficiently mimic the actions and stress of a real community.  However, load tests conducted so far, while labeled a 'success', have failed to attract more than a fraction of the users that are online even at off-peak times.  No such large-scale test appears to be planned before the release, and such a test would likely require the shutdown of the v2.5 server to achieve the necessary load (which is probably undesirable).  What additional steps have been taken to ensure that the new architecture is capable of supporting the necessary load when previous internal tests have failed?

W²: I have been repeatedly assured that bots are more sufficient to test on this platform than they’ve ever been in the past. Real human testers are, and will continue to be, more desirable than bots, but we’re comfortable with the level of testing we’ve gotten so far. There may indeed be a time in the near future when we would even go as far as to shut the live server down entirely, but that’s a development call, and a situation I’ll deal with at that time. They don’t think we’ll need to do that, yet. Time will tell.

Bubba: I'm not sure what to make of this one.  It's certainly possible that MO3 is much more compatible with bot load testing than 2.5, or that they've improved their bots substantially.

Q: What sort of contingency plans are in place for problems that might occur with the release of MO3?  Will it be possible to return to v2.5 if there are major problems during the transition week in between?  What about after MO3 is brought up live; how long would regression be possible?

W²: I can’t really go into details of the contingency plans, other than to say that we have them.

Bubba: A little disappointed on this one.  I wasn't expecting highly-detailed contingency plans, but I was at least hoping for a time-frame when they could revert to 2.5 (probably before the store goes live) or on the possibility of having 2.5 come back up if something occurs during the transfer.

Q: What sort of communication plan do you have in place for the 'front line' customer service personnel, such as Adepts and WizOs, for the release, especially in case something goes wrong?

W²: This is really more of a question for the Game Support team (folks like WotC_Eric & co.) but as far as I know, the various adept/WizO teams have been briefed on the basics of what to expect, and the GS guys in-house are busily banging away (and have been for months) on the v3 system as we speak, familiarizing themselves with it.

Bubba: It's good to hear the GS team have already been getting lots of experience with v3.  I hope this also means they will have a substantial presence alongside the Adepts and WizOs at launch, as I expect the volume of questions and issues to be huge.

Q: While we are on the subject of communication, what plans do you have in place for using the new home scene for communicating to the MTGO population?  Can we expect all announcements to be moved (or at least linked to) from the in-game announcements area from the announcements board in the forums?
W²: Absolutely. I don’t know about moved proper, though. I think we’ll still continue to post information in as many places as possible. The new home scene really offers a great place to get important news to you guys in-game though… something 2.5 sorely lacks.

Bubba: I really hope this is the case, and intend to push if I don't think the area is being used to its upmost.  The (lack of) use so far during the beta hasn't impressed me, although things have gotten a little better recently.  Add this to the hesitancy to use the message of the day area in 2.5 (I know no one looks there, but more timely references might increase viewing).  While the communication on the boards has improved remarkably since Worth took over, communication IN client is definitely an area that is still in need of great improvement.

Well-Laid Plans

Q: A week has been set aside to make the transition and verify everything is operating correctly.  What steps will the team be taking to guarantee the integrity of customers' collections during the transfer and what verification will be done to ensure everything transferred properly?

W²: This is a pretty technical question, and I’m not the most technical person. All I know is that I’ve communicated from the outset that the integrity of collections is of the utmost importance during the changeover, and I’ve never gotten anything but total agreement up and down the chain of command. This is perhaps the single most important thing we’ll do regarding MOL in 2008. I can’t stress enough how important this is to me.

Bubba: The computer geek in me still wants to hear some of those technical details to evaluate the testing more objectively, but I guess we will have to settle for tales of the importance being stressed.  For the record, I firmly believe WotC can and will get this one right, because not only is it the most important thing they do this year, it is the most important thing to date.  For all the complaining about the UI, post-migration collection issues are the only thing that could truly kill MO in this transition.

Q: How long does v3 need to be up before you declare it 'the solution'; that is to say, how long before you begin planning larger, high-profile events that were impossible to hold on previous versions?

W²: Up and stable, with features that will be missing at launch…I’d say late summer maybe? Fall? Sometime later this year. I want all the kinks to be gone before we start doing stuff like this. Walk before we run, and all that.

Bubba: Some very good info here.  First, it puts an estimated timeframe on the inclusion of leagues, multiplayer and redemption.  Second, WotC is planning on holding back on huge publicity-drawing events until after we get those things.  Third, that those large events *will* be coming at some point, even if it isn't until next year.

Q: As of the time of this interview, some of the new constructed formats, such as Lorwyn Tribal and 100-card Singleton, were not yet implemented into the MO3 client.  While there is obviously little incentive to rush Elder Dragon Highlander into MO3 without multiplayer fully functional, but will the others be included with the intial release?

W²: I imagine the legality files will stay the same, so that those formats that are available for casual games in 2.5 will be so in 3.0, but this is more of an elf/live team question.

Bubba: At press time, these formats were still not included in the MO3 client.  However, with the formats being so new to 2.5, this may be by oversight rather than by intention.  I've brought it to the attention of the dev team to look into it.

Q: With the new architecture, do you foresee a time in the near future (< 1 year) when MTGO could return to having scheduled maintenance (requiring downtime) only about once a month, as was the case in the earliest days of MTGO?

W²: You and your technical questions. I think from what I’ve heard the answer to this might be yes, but I’m speculating. Again this is more of a dev question.

Bubba: I was actually able to corner a dev, the infamous Lee Sharpe, with a follow-up for this one:

Lee: It's possible.  Some changes would still require a downtime, they aren't use[d] strictly for maintenance, so that's a factor.

Bubba: It's good that this one seems to at least have been considered internally.  With any luck, the rules fixes that are sometimes included in downtimes will be able to be applied as hotfixes to the game servers without bringing the main servers down.

Q: With the integration of the store into the client and the improvement of back-end tools for the tournament organizer, will the current gap between a set's online onsale date and the start of release events be eliminated?

W²: A hot topic around these parts… I think the answer to this is going to be yes, eventually. We’re talking about ways to improve and shorten the QA process, which is the real sticking point in the time it takes right now. Without getting into NDA’ing a ton of testers (which is complete with its own set of problems) there will always need to be *some* delay. I’m hoping we can shorten 3-4 weeks into 2-3 pretty quickly, and work on doing more after that as well.

Bubba: It seems Worth misread my question on this one, but provided some good information nonetheless.  It seems he instead answered "Do you think the current gap between the paper prerelease and the online release will be eliminated?"  At any rate, it is good to hear that the beta window may be shortened.  At 2-3 weeks, that puts us in line to release simultaneously with paper (the prerelease is two weeks early), or shortly afterwards.

Q: Justin Ziran often talked of an online analogue of the MtG Rewards program being introduced online shortly following the release of MO3.  Is a reward-style program still in the plans, even though Justin has moved on? 

W²: Long term, absolutely. One of my goals is to really expand the way we use promos online, and a rewards style program is something I’m definitely interested in pursuing.

Bubba: Good to hear it is still in the works, although the phrase 'long term' always makes me slightly uneasy.  Hopefully by long term he means after the dust settles and existing features returned and not 2+ years down the road.


Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell the MO community about this release?
W²: Other than thanking folks for their patience in advance, not much, no. I’ve said before, we’re going to have a rocky couple of weeks (every major online release seems to have their issues at launch) but with our whole MOL team focused on one platform I fully expect issues to be identified and resolved with increasing speed in the coming months.

Bubba: Good advice.  No matter when MO3 launches, there *will* be growing pains.  However, it is time to "rip off the Band-Aid®" and forge ahead.  When all is said and done, Magic Online is going to emerge stronger than it has ever been.  But it could be an uneven journey getting there.

Thanks for your time, Worth.  Here's to a strong, issue-free release.

W²: Any time.

All in all, a pretty decent interview.  I'm somewhat disappointed by the lack of information on some of the technical questions, but I am obviously not asking the most ideal person to answer those questions.  I intentionally avoided questions about the UI, as those have already been done to death on the boards and I know a lot of those types of changes take time because of all the graphic design involved.  However, I did echo a suggestion made on the MO boards to Worth about publishing a list of the elements that are under review or being changes and the status/ETA of each.  He agreed it was a good idea, but indicated that things are a little too hectic right now to get such a thing put together and doing so would wind up taking time away from getting those changes actually made.  Hopefully after launch things die down, we can get such a list for remaining UI elements.

I'll be keeping a close eye on the forums for reaction to this interview, both here on PureMTGO and over on the WotC MO boards.  If there is anything you like or dislike about something Worth or I said, I'm interested to hear about it.  After launch, I intend to interview Worth again to gather reaction to the launch and pry a little more into his long-term plans for Magic Online.  If you have any suggestions on topics you would like to see me tackle in the future or suggestions for future questions of WotC, drop a comment in the forum or hit me by e-mail.


by bubba0077 at Sun, 02/17/2008 - 14:03
bubba0077's picture

The questions for the interview were made over a month ago, before the conversation on prize changes had started.  However, I doubt there is much more than what he has already said there about the possibility of 'draft packs' in lieu of boosters.  We DO know that prizes on v3 will be more flexible.

As far as I know, the announced changes to leagues are still in the plans when leagues arrive (there hasn't been any statement to the contrary).  However, given that the changes were announced a long time ago (well over a year, maybe two), it might be nice to get confirmation on that.

You da' man, bubba! by tempesteye at Sun, 02/17/2008 - 01:09
tempesteye's picture

Thanks bubba. Between you and hammy I feel like a baby cradled in it's parents arms. ;p

thanks for a great interview Bubba by Anonymous (Unregistered) (not verified) at Sun, 02/17/2008 - 08:19
Anonymous (Unregistered)'s picture

Great interview - you touched a few matters that i didnt see b4
i Hope V3 will lunch with a minimum technical issues
one thing i would ask if given a chance..
does WOTC plan to change the prizes structure
like tweaking the number of packs given or maybe even give store credit for you to decide (whice is far better then packs).
or just letting us know if that option (aka prizes structure)
is more flexible now ...
i know Worth open a thread about it some time ago on the mtgo forums. but he didnt say anything new in it ...
one more thing i would ask.
still i would like to know if they have a plan to attract new players
hate playing league sharks :).......
and i wanted also to thank you -as a new player -your guides helped me a lot..
p.s sorry for bad grammer english is not my native tongue..