Silvestri Says – MODO Fools Day

The first sign something was afoot came when a number of players were booted off Magic Online. What’s weird about this crash is that the events didn’t all crash and not everyone got booted. Some people were fine, others were disconnected and could immediately reconnect, while others had login issues for up to 20 minutes afterwards. There was also a litany of issues with matches not showing up, people being timed out and locked out for minutes afterward, and other oddness.

In the end, the MOCS was compromised and had booted multiple players. This normally wouldn’t be major news, but for once it was someone who had a major following: Brian Kibler. He was locked for Top 8 of the MOCS event, got booted, and by the time he was able to login had timed out of his match and auto-dropped from his event.

Needless to say he wasn’t thrilled with this turn of events.

Brian Kibler then wrote about the whole situation here.

This isn’t even the first time something like this has happened to a high-profile event. Several MOCS events have blown up, and the Magic Online PTQs consistently explode without warning. Players such as Todd Anderson and AJ Sacher, people with article platforms, have railed against the crashes and bugginess of Magic Online. Michael Jacob and Andrew Cuneo have discussed on stream many of the flaws plaguing the program.

So what’s the difference when Kibler gets up-in-arms? Two-fold, I would say:

1. Brian Kibler has a huge following in the community. He has credibility because of his work on other games and has a platform that allows him to reach thousands every week. People like what Kibler has to say, and empathize with him far easier than when it happens to “random grinders.” His complaints tend to address major Magic community issues.

2. This may be the best shot to build the collective outrage to change MTGO. Ultimately what’s caused less complaints about Magic Online hasn’t been major improvements, it’s been the decreasing will to complain and increasing acceptance of the current situation. There’s only so many times you can walk by something broken until you stop caring.

It represents a breaking point among those who have to use the product to stay competitive or as part of their job and understand some of the difficulties with the program. This situation is that final boiling point. Why would you bother investing your money, and more importantly, your time into an event that you know has a decent chance of crashing?

In other words, when Kibler talks about these tournaments, he’s bringing up the major fact that they have no integrity to them. And he’s correct! I love Magic Online because it gives us so much information, but as far as major events go—doing anything important, something with real-world implications, is fraught with issues.

The absolute worst PTQs have had irreparable states where tiebreakers were unavailable. A player gets disqualified in the finals. Those are pretty much the worst I’ve ever heard of in regards to a tournament not having a legitimate conclusion. I have never heard of a real-life PTQ exploding so badly beyond repair that they needed to cancel and reschedule a make-up tournament. Yet that happens on Magic Online.

The most striking problem is that there is no tournament recovery option. Perhaps someone can educate me in the comments, but between all the individual game data used for replays and such, one would assume that all the game actions are being saved. If they’re all being saved for that, why can’t we simply recreate wherever we left off? Assuming a game or match is corrupted and unrecoverable, why is there no ability to simply recover from the last completed round?

In other words, why should anyone have to attend a make-up tournament—especially with no guarantee that that event won’t crash? Yet, that’s where we are.

I wrote a rant article about five years on some of the horrible transition from V2.5 to V3 and listed the following as major issues.

1) The UI is ugly, and there are a handful of completely unintuitive customs to make it less ugly, so we’ll hide them.

2) It’s unacceptable to have so much unannounced downtime/crashing for a game of this nature. (When I wrote the original article, draft queues had been down for 5 days straight. They then came up with the disclaimer, “The draft queues will stay up as long as we don’t see a return of delayed match starts. Thank you for your patience while they were down.”)

3) Complete lack of timely, clear and visible communication.

4) Lack of openness to rolling features/patches, instead of bug-fixing while we play a worse version of the same game we had a week ago.

Here’s what I mean about lack of clear or visible communication. I went looking for any information about what was happening through the official Wizards website and through the program itself. This is what I saw Sunday night.

What's Happening

I click on the “What’s Happening” page for Magic Online and what do I see?

Zero relevant information about the crashes.

Zero relevant information about what’s happening to Scheduled Events right now.

Zero information about when any of this will be fixed.

Ok… Maybe the information just hasn’t filtered through to the DailyMTG site. It’s a weekend so sometimes things can be delayed and that can’t be helped. Let’s log into Magic Online and see if anything new has been posted.

MODO Home

Hm… Nothing to see here. I guess it only affects a small set of players in the grand scheme though, so why have info on the home page? Whatever, I’ll just go play my usual Sunday Daily Events.

The World of Ruin

What is this?

No, seriously, what is this?

There’s no listed information about it and I had already checked other website sources, so I asked the ORCs what was happening.

Orcs are helpful at least

I phrased the question with a bit of jest, but it really does remind me of the World of Ruin from Final Fantasy 3/6. This answer, while not telling me all about specifics, gives me at least some useful information.

1. The Daily Event queues are likely down until downtime.

2. Whatever this problem was isn’t isolated to just a handful of larger events. For them to shut off all the scheduled events points toward major server-side issues.

3. The problem is unknown or can’t be disclosed at this time.

So the good news is anyone who asked the ORCs (and I’m sure they got variants on the same question a thousand times) got at least some sort of answer about what was happening. Maybe they even got a timeline like I did so they knew not to bother popping back in thinking it was a temporary problem.

Only by going on Twitter or checking into the Magic Online forums buried under at least four clicks, Mike Turian posted these in an attempt to fully clarify the situation with the PTQ and MOCS.

Here’s a good question. How would anyone find these if you weren’t following Mike Turian or Worth on Twitter or someone who retweeted them?

Even if every problem with Magic Online can be traced back to a lack of something, internal communication, manpower, programming, money, laundry powder, corporate control, and so on, there’s no excuse for the lack of external communication. It wasn’t five years ago, and it isn’t today. It doesn’t take manpower, money or any real resources to tell me that all the Daily Events are down. It takes five minutes to update a website or write a little note somewhere* on Magic Online informing me what is happening.

*And if it takes longer than that to post something on Magic Online’s Home screen, then frankly I don’t even know what to say.

I sympathize with many of the tasks the digital wing has been given over the years, because I’ve heard some unflattering stories about what expectations are versus the resources given. However, there’s simply no room to give in the communication department. When someone following the situation can’t even find a post about it without resorting to Twitter, something is wrong.

Solutions

Note that because I don’t know their infrastructure or resources. I won’t be suggesting anything incredibly difficult. This list of solutions is all basic stuff that should be already in the game client:

1) A clear indicator of being disconnected from the game server.

We’ve been asking for this for years—any active connection look-up could do wonders. There’s no reason in this day and age I shouldn’t know if I’m still connected to your game, especially a game where I can potentially time out of a tournament I’ve invested X hours in. A simple pop-up when connectivity drops below a certain level or a chat warning would both be excellent for this.

2) Using the “Home Page” to share important information.

There’s no excuse for not having a message on one of these to explain to players what’s going on. People not in the loop log in and have no idea that the game servers are having major issues unless something happens to them or they want to go play a Scheduled Event. If you have the time to tell me about the schedule and ask me to take a survey on Magic Online, there should be some relevant news updates.

The Home Page in its current form is used for advertisements of things already in-game. Why not also have critical news on it? Every once in a while I see a bug warning when it’s particularly bad ([card]Skeletonize[/card] comes to mind), but it isn’t made use of nearly enough.

3) Not dropping inactive players out of tournaments if they time out of a game.

Self-explanatory really.

At worst, you should be able to rejoin the event after you’ve been dropped from the event just like real life events. There’s no reason that if I time out of a round at X-0, I shouldn’t be able to rejoin the event before the next round begins. Drops simply shouldn’t happen until the 2-minute break between rounds. Even then, I am loathe to drop players, because if it happens toward the end of a round and they log back in, they have no recourse except to file for compensation.

4) A consistent and public policy in regards to major event crashes.

This is another simple solution that costs nothing on the programming side and would save a lot of grief. Between tournaments and judging, one of the primary tenets is consistency. Solutions to issues should be the same across the board for the same problems. Again, the biggest thing would be that the policy is somewhere obvious and visible to those looking for it. If I’m spending my 30 bucks and 8-10 hours of time in this tournament I want to know what’ll happen if something goes wrong.

This is one of the primary reasons I stopped playing Magic Online PTQs. I don’t want to have to play a PTQ over two weekends because the program seemingly lacks restore capability. This costs zero money to implement, only the time it would take to draft a coherent set of guidelines for when it happens.

5) The link between real life and online events.

Kibler summed it up well, and my hope is that they immediately prioritize restore functionality. If you cannot guarantee the successful completion of a tournament by some reasonable metric (And no, I don’t consider “all X-2s get a redo” to be reasonable) then you should unlink these sections of Organized Play. If the prizes are online only, then it becomes far easier to compensate in the case of crashes and lost time and events. When you link your tournament to a 1st-place-only prize that can only be attained at very specific times, then suddenly successfully completing the tournament has much more weight attached to it.

Immediate Hopes

This section includes the three major programming steps that we need to prioritize.

1. Tournament restore functionality.

Before we could watch replays immediately, so obviously the game is already saving all the relevant information to rebuild matches. Beyond that, you don’t even need all the Game ID data to reset a round, all you need is the ability to manually input win/loss records and tiebreaker data. As I’ve said, we’ve had times in paper Magic where the tiebreaker data was flawed and the PTQ had to be run anyway. It falls within the realm of dealing with it, you simply can’t stop the tournament though.

Even if this functionality is only implemented for tournaments beyond four rounds, it would be a huge step forward.

2. The Beta isn’t shoved out the door because of the current stability issues.

The beta client isn’t ready for primetime and I have no idea when it will be. We’re already months past the original launch date and while I’m not against it as much as some, it doesn’t fill me with hope. I have to imagine finding programmers for legacy codebases isn’t cheap and a fair bit of money has been sunk into V4. I just don’t want the same terrible transition from V2.5 to V3 where everything Magic Online related became unplayable for a substantial period of time.

3. Do more for player acquisition.

I understand Duels of the Planeswalkers is the player acquisition engine and that’s why you see such a major difference in how the programs are treated. The problem is, if players are interested in making the transition to actual Magic and not just the DOTP version, they’ll be treated to a program without any real tutorial, cheap options to play, or any real reason to stick around. Phantom events were a step in the right direction and Two-Ticket Thursday moreso, but there needs to be a greater effort.

It’ll be a sad day if it really does take a mass exodus to get substantial fixes rolled out, but it’ll eventually happen. Magic Online has only been able to get away with its state for the past five years because of lack of competition.

Do I expect serious changes to happen immediately? Not really.

Would I recommend you quit Magic Online? No.

Would I recommend you stop supporting Magic Online PTQs and other major events until the servers have proven to be stable and a clearer policy is put out? Yes.

Next week, back to strategy content.

EDIT: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/feature/273

The relevant portion of the newest update is that all higher-level events are suspended until further notice. This is a major step and I’m not sure what to take from it, outside of the Magic Online team taking this very seriously. I’m surprised and somewhat happy with the decision if it results in a superior program down the line. It’s a bold move considering the potential ramifications.

In the interest of full disclosure though, with the announcement I sold my entire Magic Online Standard collection in fear of what would happen to the online economy for the next 2-3 months. I don’t necessarily recommend you do the same, but I’d highly consider the option if you have a significant investment in Magic Online.

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: josh.silvestri@gmail.com

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