SAN JOSE, Calif.--How do you fine tune a game that has been long in the making and is just a couple of months from going public?
That was the central question behind a focus group I sat in on Tuesday, as the developers behind the wildly popular casual virtual world Gaia Online invited seven devoted players to put zOMG, their new massively multiplayer online game, through its paces.
During the session, which lasted about two hours, the seven players--five women and two men ranging in age from 19 to 25--were asked to pound away at zOMG in a bid to help the designers see just what was working at this point in the development process, what wasn't and to discover whether the players would recommend the game to friends.
Already, the Web-based Gaia Online has more than 7 million unique monthly users, and an auction system with more than 100,000 transactions per day. Gaia is mainly a social environment without a deep goal-oriented gaming element, but now, with the planned launch of zOMG, the company is adding an MMO that will be a separate, but adjunct, gaming environment that will essentially have direct paths into the company's larger virtual world and which will be peppered with references to the original environment.
The Tuesday focus group wasn't the first Gaia has held at its offices, and it won't be the last. But it was the first time the company had allowed a reporter in the room to witness the proceedings, a risky move if the testers said they didn't like the game.
In the end, I'd say that the testers I watched were generally pleased with the game. They liked its mechanics and the way it tied into the larger Gaia Online world, but they did have some sobering comments for the producers about why they would recommend it to their friends.
But more on that later.
The session was hosted by Kate Pietrelli, an account manager at TriplePoint, Gaia's outside PR agency, and was attended by several members of the game's development team, as well as Gaia Online co-founder Derek Liu. Throughout the two hours, she directed the players through the game and peppered them with questions about what they were experiencing.
She began the session by asking the testers how they felt about using the trackpads on the PC laptops they'd been given, rather than mice.
One tester, 25-year-old Crysta Coburn, said she was happy with the trackpad, and that she tended to be using it when moving around from place to place in the game, but reverted to using keyboard commands when fighting.
But four other testers said they wanted mice for a better experience, and the producers handed them over a minute later.
At one point, the players were all in what is known in the game as the "Village Green," and Pietrelli asked them how difficult it was, particularly when they were engaging with "the gnome," an enemy non-player character.
"When you get out of the sewers, it's kind of challenging," said 21-year-old Alex Lapin.
"How do you deal with that," Pietrelli asked.
"Run," Lapin joked.
"You hope that there's nice people around" to help out, added Sara Newman, a 24-year-old tester.
Pietrelli wanted to know how the social elements of the game were working, so she asked how many of the testers had joined groups, rather than playing solo.
Most of them said they had.
"As soon as I signed in," said Coburn, "I was like, 'Who wants to join a group?'"
A 19-year-old tester who called herself Malo added that one of the benefits of being in a group is that players can see the attributes of everyone else they team up with, which is helpful for collectively combining skills and talent.
Malo also said that she liked that it was easy to see a symbol that identified which player had initiated a group.
And Desire Lyon, a 24-year-old tester, said that she felt that being part of a group was beneficial when the game gets complicated because "you kind of need someone around to help."
One of the main tools in zOMG is a series of rings, each of which bestows on its wearer different skills and powers.
Pietrelli asked the testers if they found that the game made it easy to switch rings when they were in the "Null Chamber," the place they go after they die in combat.
Lapin responded that, "Maybe (the producers) should make it so you can't switch rings for a minute after you die."
But others didn't like that idea.
"I don't know about that," Coburn said, only half-joking. "You need to pipe down a little bit over there."
As with any MMO, an important part of zOMG is the accumulation of treasure, or "loot," and Pietrelli asked the players what they felt about the system for accruing loot.
Coburn said, "Honestly, I'm paying absolutely no attention to loot...I can't figure out what it does."
That seemed like a useful bit of feedback to senior producer Dave Georgeson, as he responded, "Well, that's a good note right there."
A few minutes later, the testers were asked what level their rings were at, and most answered that they were still just at the first level.
Coburn, however, had a different take.
"Whenever I have a choice of rings, I'm like, 'Where's the selfish bitch option?'"
And Lyon added, "I like the 'Improbability' ring, but only because I like the name."
She was referring to the obvious allusion to the Improbability Drive from Douglas Adams' series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
To which Georgeson added, "You can tell by the descriptions (of the rings) that we like the books, too."
Then, Pietrelli asked the testers about their thoughts on the balance between areas of combat and other areas.
"I think it's really well done, actually," said 19-year-old Sierra Payne.
"The mobs aren't so bad if you have people with you, for sure," said tester Stephen Welch, also 19.
Georgeson started to explain that the mechanics of the game were such that players were rewarded with more loot by working in groups than they would be by working alone, and asked if that meant that the testers would be more motivated to join groups.
Around the room, the testers echoed out, "Oh, yearh."
And Lapin joked, "Join my krew or I'll break your arm."
A little later, the discussion turned to the balance between using the in-game communications system and talking face-to-face. Lyon said that she thought talking face-to-face was less likely.
"We're all in the same room, within three feet of each other," Lyon said. But "it's easier to talk on the Internet than face-to-face."
To which Lapin added that he'd like the game to feature hotkeys that would produce battle cries and taunts such as, "Fear my leet skills."
Soon, the discussion between the Gaia team and the testers got very interesting.
Pietrelli asked the testers whether they would recommend zOMG to friends who don't already play Gaia Online, and if so, why.
"Probably (I would)," said Coburn, to "the ones who play (World of Warcraft) but can't afford (that game's $15 a month fee)...It's free. That's the only sell (of zOMG)."
"Wow," said Pietrelli, clearly taken aback.
Lapin seemed to try to change the subject slightly by adding, "I'd probably get some of my friends from Magic: The Gathering and say, 'Instead of kicking your butt there, you can help me out here.'"
Later, I asked Pietrelli about Coburn's comment.
"I think she probably didn't explain herself very well," Petrielli said, "and I moved on from that quickly (because it's a large group). I can follow up with her later."
But before letting the testers leave, she did return to the subject with the group still in the room to ask Coburn to elaborate on her comments.
"I think that's the biggest selling point, that it's free," Coburn confirmed, adding when I asked her to say more that zOMG would be competing with many other casual MMOs, and that its game play alone wasn't setting it apart as much as the fact that there was no charge to play.
She tried to soften her comment, but only slightly.
"It looks nicer, too," she said, "and the game play's better. And it's free."
While the testers broke for a quick pizza lunch, I pulled Petrielli aside and asked her about the value to Gaia of this session.
She explained that it was just one of several such focus groups the company had held with players, and wouldn't be the last. But she said that every bit of feedback the development team could get from players, especially as the game is just a couple of months from being opened for its public beta, is worthwhile.
"I think it's very helpful," she said, "especially for the development team, because they've been so heads down...So getting feedback from uses is a priority for Gaia in the development of the game."
As the testers returned from their pizza break, Pietrelli put a few more questions to them.
And before she finished, she asked if there was anything else the players wanted to say to the development team.
"We love you," said Welch. "Now work faster."
And with that they all dove back into zOMG, and didn't look like they had any plans to depart, despite the end of the two hours allotted for the focus group session.
"It's gong to be difficult to get them to leave," Petrielli told me. "They won't stop playing."