community marketing and PR mmo signup processes startup advice web 2.0

Skype: failing at customer support at scale

I had a serious customer-support problem with Skype recently, relating to money they’ve taken from me. It’s proved excessively difficult to get a response from them – surprising, considering their size, their brand, and the fact it’s a paid-for service. It raises some interesting questions over Customer Support / Community Support, and how they can/should be scaled.

FYI, the initial complaint is over what looks like a scam – if you pay for Skype, but don’t use it frequently enough, they cancel the service but keep the money. It was probably buried somewhere in the smallprint, but I certainly don’t remember that as part of what I signed-up for: “pay now … get screwed later!”. Whether or not it’s legal, it’s certainly dishonest (they give no explanation, it’s NOT part of the marketing materials, it’s just “policy”). It feels like theft.

Their website was useless. So, I asked them about it…or, at least, I tried to.

  1. Reply-to-email: I replied to the email they sent me where they said they’ll be taking my money but NOT providing the service. They sent it from “”; this is a fundamental abuse of the email system, a sign of amateurish support teams. FAIL
  2. Email-to-support: I tried forwarding that + my question to the standard email address – I’ve been using Skype for 5 years, and I thought this address existed. Eithet my memory is wrong, or they’ve deleted it since. It doesn’t exist at the moment – you get a mailserver error. FAIL
  3. Google for “email support skype”: I tried again, emailing the support address that Skype’s own employees have sent emails from – right now, on, you can see example emails sent from “” (maybe this was what I remembered from years ago?). But if you send an email to that address, you get an email back saying: “Thank you for your email. Unfortunately this email address is no longer in use.”. FAIL

500 million accounts … too many?

Skype’s customer-support is unusually weak here; this is a paid-for product, and they’re actively blocking people from getting support. That’s not how support works; that’s what you do when you don’t have a support team – usually because you’re too poor to afford it AND you have no paying customers. Doing this with paying customers is surprising. Especially for a large product/brand.

I remember in the very early days of Skype they already had 50-100 employees for what was a comparitively small operation. IIRC, a big chunk of that was dedicated to support, and a big chunk to marketing – only a very small part was tech. I’d assumed that with their 10’s of millions of users, they had a highly automated customer-support system.

Today, they have well over half a billion user accounts – and it would seem that even their automated systems have failed. Why else would they put a block on industry-standard email aliases? And deliberately shutdown their own support address?

Obviously, those addresses would be flooded with spam and FAQ emails … but *all* commercial customer-support systems are specifically designed to handle those probems – and at large scale, too.

My guess is simply that whichever commercial system they use wasn’t architected to a high enough quality, and is incapable of handling Skype’s uniquely large customer base. This isn’t a criticism of that system – there are very few companies in the world with so many users of a single product. i.e. there’s very little demand for a product to be so carefully engineered.

But it begs the question: why hasn’t Skype put something better in place? Surely they have the resource and the skill to source or architect something better? Or is it a company policy to provide second-rate, low-quality support – even for their paid customers?

What Would Facebook Do?

…hopefully, I’ll post on this in more detail later, but briefly: they *eventually* went to specialist external vendors to provide the scalability they needed:

  1. Facebook was incapable of reliably delivering messages to users for most of the past 3+ years
  2. I’ve run several groups large and small, and found that approx 30% of all messages DIRECT to *opt-in* users went undelivered in the FB messaging system
  3. (speaking to other people who ran facebook groups, or had huge numbers of Friends, the experience was commonly repeated. e.g. I know a few people who had to setup multiple FB accounts because they had “too many friends” to fit on a single account)
  4. Facebook recently (last 6 months) replaced their internal, proprietary messaging with an external, specialist system from a company that specialises in high-volume messaging (according to the vendor; caveat emptor)
  5. Reports from other people who still use Facebook for large groups / large numbers of friends suggest the “lost in the post” phenomenon is now cured

Incidentally, I don’t/didn’t think much of Facebook’s tech team (although quite possiby it’s improvements in that team that have lead to fixed like the one above). It’s very hard to be sure, going on just public info, but I used to read their blog, and their posts about performance and architecture were for a long period … amateurish.

On some core subjects, they betrayed a deep lack of experience and understanding – and apparently no effort being taken to correct that, but rather they preferred to “hack” away with band-aid solutions. Great fun for them, but not appropriate for a billion-dollar service, IMHO.

community games design massively multiplayer mmo signup processes web 2.0

Customer Relationships and Support for Online Games and MMOs

Here’s a question about increasing the profitability and decreasing the development cost of any MMO, although probably no-one except the web-people will recognise it as such (and even some of them won’t get it):

How do you improve the customer support for an existing MMO?
[where do you start, and what do you target?]

dev-process iphone massively multiplayer mmo signup processes programming

iPhone: why’s my download stuck at 1.4 of 1.6 Gb?

Your possible answers include:

1. Because … Apple engineers have never heard of the concept of a “patch”, and require you to re-download the *entire IDE*, with all libraries, all documentation, all binary code – everything – when they release an update? So the current “SDK” for iPhone (hint for Apple: when most people say “SDK” they don’t mean “plus a copy of a bloody operating system”, they just mean “the few custom bits that are specific to that app”) is a whopping 1.6Gb?

[NB: actually in general I think that’s a good thing – avoids a lot of mis-configuration / version mismatch problems – but as an MMO developer the idea of *not* patching gigabyte-sized packages horrifies me, and avoiding those problems actually isn’t THAT hard (it’s been solved many times by now!) these days. Writing (or buying) a good patcher is one of the first steps you do in MMO dev projects…]

2. Because … Apple didn’t think to split The Behemoth into multiple files, perhaps make them something reasonable, like a few hundred meg each?

3. Because … Apple decided to put this monster behind an authentication check on their website, presumably for legal reasons, and there is no other “official” mirror (all the ones you find on google are technically-illegal torrents or else, ultimately, redirect you back to the link), and their authenticated sessions TIMEOUT after 1 hour of “not fetching any new pages from the site” (completely ignoring whether you have any transfers in progress!), and refuse to send you data once your authenticated session runs out?

4. All the above?

NB: I wasn’t brave enough to try resuming the downoad without first re-authenticating and loading at least one web page from the apple developer site to prove I was logged in. I suspect (*suspect*) that the web browser would receive an HTTP 300 redirect to the login page, at which point most browsers are going to delete the partial download. Ha. Haha. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAARRRRRRGHHH!.

Expect to see some comments/tutorials/advice on iPhone game development here at some point in the near future. If I can ever get the download to complete…

computer games dev-process mmo signup processes Web 0.1

Web 0.1: How NOT to run an open beta stress-test

1. Ask people to join the closed beta 6 months before the open beta happens

Dinowaurs Beta Testers Wanted

We’re now inviting Kongregate members to sign up to test the Dinowaurs Beta. If you don’t know what Dinowaurs is, go here for more info:
Simply pop in to this thread and say that you want in and I’ll put you on the list for the test. Please, no conversations, as it makes it more difficult to pull all the names out.
We’d like to thank everyone who helped us test the alpha! Anyone who signed up for the alpha in the previous thread will be first in line, so no need to sign up again if you already did in the alpha thread.
Thanks, everyone!

(posted may 1st 2008)

2. When you start an open beta, don’t tell players they’re accepted until 2 days before the beta happens


Thank you for volunteering to test Dinowaurs, an upcoming game on Kongregate. As of this email, everyone who volunteered to help test Dinowaurs will now get a chance to do so. We’re very grateful for all your help!

For those of you who have tested before, this is a different request than usual, and for all you new faces, welcome! What we need to do is load test the server – that is get as many feet stomping on it as possible and see if it crashes! Because of that, we’re going to try to stuff as many testers into the game at one time as possible. For this test, Dinowaurs will only be open on Monday, November 17 from 12 noon-2pm Pacific Time (All you non West-Coasters, take notice of the time!)

So we hope to see all 4000 of you Dinowaurs beta testers in here and playing the game on Monday! Don’t be late – our doors will close tight at 2pm.

Thanks again!

Kongregate and Intuition

3. Make it last 2 hours only

(Fair enough, normal practice for stress tests, although it’s usually a good idea to let people in a few days in advance to ensure that they have working clients etc (less of an issue for a web game like this, but still probably worth doing).)

4. Don’t tell anyone the secret link to the beta

Read that email again. Do you see the magic URL? No? That’s because THEY FORGOT TO INCLUDE IT.

Some googling turns up various people asking for it, and some friendly Kong players answering with the URL here:

EDIT: they just sent another email which remembered to include the link.


Today’s the day! At 12 noon Pacific Time (3pm Eastern), the doors to the Dinowaurs Beta on Kongregate will be flung open!

At that time you should make sure you’re signed in to Kongregate and go here to test:

Make sure you’re on time! We will be closing doors promptly at 2pm (PST). If during gameplay you encounter any bugs, please click on the little bug icon at the top right of chat and fill out a bug report. The more actual bugs you find, the better the game will be!

We really want to thank all you beta testers. We really appreciate all your help!

Kongregate and Intuition

Could be they intended this all along. Given that the beta starts less than an hour after that email was sent out, I doubt it :).

community conferences entrepreneurship mmo signup processes Web 0.1

Web 0.1: How NOT to organize an event on

(a FAIL using web-based meeting tools)

1) Make it look fun and interesting and seemingly inclusive:

“MiniBar is a social evening in East London which offers people a chance to snaffle some free beer while discussing p2p, Creative Commons, web applications, social networking and general Web 2.0 (3.0) mayhem & fandango.”

2) …but require that signup has to be done in two separate places for two “halves” of the event:

“You can come at 5pm … You need to register separately here for this part.”

3) …and make the location a Secret, known only to the special few:

This location is shown only to members”

4) If someone attempts to signup for the (free) event, deny them, and demand 250 letters explanation (no more! don’t you dare go over 250 chars!) for why they are important enough / l33t enough to be allowed to come:

(the way works, I can’t access this page from cache to copy/paste the text, sorry – you’ll just have to take it from me that it’s pretty abrupt, demanding you justify yourself without offering anything in return, or any kind of explanation of WHAT you are supposed to write, or WHY)

5) Finish your event description with not one but TWO content-less/broken links, and describe them as “more info”. For bonus marks: forget to hyperlink one of them:

“More Info at: and”

(the first domain there is hotlinked to:

NB: == a empty webserver directory on a webserver allegedly running Apache version 1.3.39 (!) – not impressive for a web/internet event.

NB2: == a webpage with adverts for 50 odd totally unrelated items, e.g.

“angled bob hair style
black braided hair styles
jc penny free shipping
trendy hair style
victoria secret free shipping”

(yes, really – Victoria Secret and JC penny. For a supposed BarCamp about startups and internet companies. Um … OK.)

I guess that’s another Web 0.1 example, then…

games design mmo signup processes Web 0.1

Web 0.1: and “identity”

This is getting ridiculous. I just tried to post a comment on someone’s blog, and I was forced to use either my gmail account or an OpenID account to post. When I tried to NOT use my gmail account, it force-logged-me-out of gmail in the other window! This is pretty incompetent.

Note to web companies: the days when normal people only had one online identity died ten years ago. We all have multiple identities today. Leave us alone, let us get on with our lives, and stop interfering with who we are and who we express ourselves as being.

games design games industry massively multiplayer mmo signup processes security web 2.0

Online Services Problems: Credit Cards

This week, I was at the Virtual Goods Summit in San Francisco (my session writeups should appear on over the coming days). A couple of things struck me during the conference, including the large number of “payment providers” (companies that specialized in extracting cash out of your users via credit card, paypal, pre-pay cards, etc and crediting direct to you) and the large number of white-label “virtual goods system providers” (companies that were providing a turnkey (or near-turnkey) solution to “adding virtual goods to your existing facebook app” etc).

Which brings be to a recurring problem I’ve seen for a long time with the online games and MMO industry, which I suspect is going to cause a lot of damage to a lot of social games and virtual worlds companies in the coming years: online service providers are – in general – shockingly bad (lazy or plain stupid, usually) at handling their customers’ money.

And the result? Ultimately, it could drive increasing numbers of consumers back to preferring to purchase their games and other online content via retail, where the companies and transactions are more trustworthy. OH, THE IRONY!

community computer games games design massively multiplayer mmo signup processes web 2.0

MoshiMonsters – new parental controls, consent “assumed”

From the latest newsletter, at the bottom (after the big graphics and announcement about “moshlings” – aka mini-moshi-monsters (my – this is getting a bit infinitely recursive, isn’t it? Now your child’s pet has a pet :). I’m still trying to attract an interesting Moshling (the minigame to get them is Animal Crossing crossed with a Fruit Machine / One-arm bandit – makes me think of ZT Online’s chests, although without the Real Money part), but already I find myself wanting the next hit: a moshi-mini-moshling-ling. Ling. Mini. *ahem*)).

ANYWAY … here’s the news bit – changes to the parental controls: