TibiaQA had the pleasure of interviewing Solkrin - lead of the Customer Support team and the first employee at CipSoft. We talked about his duties and challenges running the Customer Support department and we also forwarded some of the questions suggested by the community. We hope you like the interview, let us know what you think in the comments!
TibiaQA: To begin with, could you tell us a bit about yourself? Who is Solkrin?
Solkrin: Who is Solkrin? Solkrin is obviously an alias (because we CipSoft members like to have secret identities (much like super heroes!), and it is the name I use when serving the community as team lead of our customer support team. The guy behind the name is a pretty average guy with a family, a dog and a huge backlog of computer games he will NEVER EVER manage to play. In the company I'm known as the very first employee and the only simpleton who showed up to a CipSoft job interview in a suit.
TibiaQA: How has your adventure with CipSoft started? Was this your first job in the gaming industry? Or have you worked in a similar field before?
Solkrin: I have always been a sucker for all kinds of video games, but I frankly never expected to end up working in the industry. I actually trained to be a teacher, but having been able to collect some first-hand experience in teaching I decided that I will do this neither to myself nor to my future pupils, so I started looking elsewhere after university. I learned about the position as a community manager for CipSoft, decided to give it a shot and somehow managed to get the job (even despite the suit!)
TibiaQA: What does your typical day look like as the lead of the Customer Support department?
Solkrin: As the leader of the team, my focus is more on organisation and personnel management rather than actual support field work, but answering so-called 'escalated' customer requests (i.e. tickets where my team has questions or wants a second opinion) is also part of my daily routine. So a typical day would involve quite a lot of talking to colleagues, both in person and via our internal chat system, and a fair bit of customer communication as well as various organizational tasks (such as maintaining statistics) and working on the occasional internal project.
TibiaQA: What would you name the biggest challenge in your role?
Solkrin: One thing that can be very challenging at times is having to disappoint customers. Sometimes people write to us with problems we really cannot solve for some reason or other (technical limitations are a typical reason). These players are often sad and sometimes even desperate, so you really want to help them when they tell you about their problems, and having to tell them that there is nothing you can do for them is not fun. Worse, it is not always possible for us to explain to such players WHY we cannot help them (for instance if giving the reason would imply giving the players confidential information), so such players are sometimes frustrated because they think that we simply don't care. I think I speak for all of my team when I say that I'd rather deal with ten abusive customers with unrealistic expectations than with one decent guy I have to disappoint.
TibiaQA: Could you tell us more about the structure and organization of the Customer Support department? Does everyone have their assigned scope of responsibilities? Do you all sync on the current issues?
Solkrin: As publishers of online games, we are a rather small company, so our customer support team isn't huge, either - my team consists of eight full-time plus half a dozen part-time employees. As we are few and our team fills a comparatively large variety of roles (from classic support tasks to payment processing and rule enforcement), there is little room for specialization. This means that even while some are more experienced in a certain area than others, each member of my team is essentially a bit of a jack-of-all-trades who can take over every other colleague's position if necessary.
TibiaQA: Are you comfortable sharing any numbers with us? We are curious how many reports, e-mails, and forum posts the entire department processes on average.
Solkrin: I can only give you very rough numbers - not because such information is confidential (it isn't), but because numbers can vary wildly from week to week and indeed from day to day. I would put the daily number of tickets at something between 200 to 300, while reports are currently at about 600 to 700 every day. As to forum posts, we only actively look after the payment board (in the sense that we actually reply requests). As to other forums, we only supervise them, so work in the forum is rather limited in comparison to other support tasks.
TibiaQA: One of the most frequent complaints we hear about communicating with the customer support team is getting responses that sound like copy-paste templates. Could you shed some light on what the process of responding to players' emails and tickets looks like?
Solkrin: I will not deny that we often use templates, like pretty much most other customer support teams elsewhere. We know that this kind of practice is not popular, but I would say that it is better than its reputation. Apart from the obvious advantage of saving time, templates also help us to make sure that we don't forget crucial information. And let's not forget that there are a number of problems that tend to come up over and over again - imagine how frustrating it would be for us to manually type nearly identical replies again and again and again!
Having said that, we know that players ideally expect bespoke personal replies, and we fully agree that every player should get the right answer to their problem. Our reply to this is that we use suitable parts of templates where they make sense and otherwise resort to custom adaptions where that is necessary. At any rate, we always try to make sure that our replies contain the information our customers need.
TibiaQA: In the past, your department was responsible for gamemasters and tutors. Could you tell us how those two positions initially emerged?
Solkrin: This goes all the way back to the very beginnings of Tibia. As you will know, after a rough starting phase the 'gods' (i.e. the guys who gave us Tibia) found that running a community was actually hard work that cost a lot of time, and they did not have much of that at this point (they still don't). However, Tibia was still a hobby project at the time and they were also short on cash, so they decided to employ the help of willing volunteers. This is how the gamemaster system came about - a system of volunteer rule enforcers with far-reaching executive powers along with the assistant role of counsellors, and later tutors, which also served as some sort of training role for upcoming gamemasters. This system was still in place when I started working at CipSoft back in 2003, but it was gradually phased out until gamemasters were finally abolished in 2010.
TibiaQA: Now that gamemasters and tutors no longer exist, how would you rate the concept of volunteer helpers in Tibia? Do you anticipate CipSoft will ever return to relying on helpers from the player base?
Solkrin: First off - CipSoft has never completely done without help from our players, and we never will! We collect feedback and discuss ideas with players in the auditorium, we rely on player reports to learn about rule violations and bugs etc. However, as to the prominent roles of tutors and, above all, of gamemasters, it is unlikely that we will ever return to this model. We are aware that people have a lot of fond memories of gamemasters and their work (frankly, so do I), but as time went by, we became more and more aware of this models' shortcomings. To name but one, the gamemaster team was completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of necessary work resulting from the rapidly increasing number of game worlds, so many people got burn-out, while players on newer worlds complained bitterly about a total lack of rule enforcement. Of course, we considered the option of massively expanding the gamemaster team as a solution, but we soon found that the model itself was not sustainable, so we decided we needed a completely different approach - an approach that included the cooperation of the community as a whole. Looking back, I am fully convinced that we did the right thing, even if it undoubtedly came at the cost of losing Tibia a little bit of its unique personal charm.
TibiaQA: BattlEye - a third-party service is currently used by CipSoft to prevent players from using unofficial software to play the game. What are your current steps when players report bot/macro usage in Tibia? Are there any manual investigations that are taking place?
Solkrin: I'm afraid that rule enforcement and especially the fight against botting is a sensitive topic, so I hope you understand that we are keen to hold our cards close to our chest when it comes to this issue. Still, I guess I can go as far as to say the following: Bot reports are collected and evaluated just like any other report - the only difference is that rule enforcement is supported by an automatic system. However, there IS a manual aspect: we make manual sanity checks on a regular basis just to make absolutely sure - after all, the punishment for using unofficial software is instant account deletion, so we want to exclude any possibility of mistakes. This does not mean that we do not have full confidence in BattlEye, of course - it's just that we generally like to play it safe, so we review more or less all of our processes on a regular basis.
TibiaQA: Earlier this year, players were given an option to report bugs in-game. Our readers are curious about what happens with the reports they submit - could you tell us how they are handled?
Solkrin: Sure. This is actually a multi-layered process. First off, all bug reports are manually checked by members of the customer support team. We sort-out unhelpful or double reports and convert all reasonable reports into issues in our in-house bug reporting system. These reports are then checked by our test-team, and if they can be verified, they are then forwarded to the development team for priorisation and fixing.
TibiaQA:In the past, CipSoft would respond to and investigate cases of ongoing "power abuse" such as claiming a server by a guild. Do such investigations still happen for extreme cases, and if so, how does CipSoft respond to such issues?
Solkrin: Power Abuse has been an issue in Tibia ever since the game started, and this is not a coincidence - it is a logical development in a sandbox game that gives players many freedoms, including the freedom to kill other player characters. This means that unless we are prepared to change Tibia's fundamental game mechanics and severely limit player freedom - spoiler: we don't! - power abuse will always be a part of the game, and because of this we are extremely reluctant to interfere. We know this is not an easy pill to swallow for those facing power abuse, but we want players to find solutions within the framework of the game mechanics (for example by negotiating with their enemies or by simply fighting back) rather than expect us to simply appear as dei ex machina and to resolve the probelm from the outside. Tibia is a hardcore game at its heart, and we want things to stay that way.
Does this mean that anything goes? Not necessarily. We constantly monitor what is going on, and of course, we reserve the right to interfere if we feel it is absolutely necessary in a specific situation. However, I hope you understand I cannot and will not go into more detail here as to what we feel is tolerable and what isn't. We will evaluate every case individually and decide on a case-to-case basis.
TibiaQA: Contacting the Customer Support Team is mentioned as a last resort option by the Tibia Manual. Are there any plans to provide players with more human contact support?
Solkrin: Many customers are looking for a human contact when they have problems - online games are not different from other products in that respect - and that is absolutely understandable. But there is the money side. Depending on how many people you employ, the running costs of operating an online game can rise exponentially, and these costs would have to be passed on to players to make the game sustainable. This means that we had to find a compromise, and I feel that we are actually doing alright. I feel it is understandable that we would like players to check out self-help options first before contacting us - not just because of cost-cutting considerations, but also because players can get help almost instantly, provided, of course, that they find the info they need quickly. But if a player fails to find the info or help they need, they can always write to us and we will help as best we can.
So, coming back to your question - we have no such immediate plans. Note that we do not completely rule out to increase manual support if a promising, sustainable option arises, but there are no concrete plans at this point.
TibiaQA: Some of our users point out that the current ticketing system might be difficult to reach, especially for new players. Do you have any plans to make it more available, for example, by introducing it directly in the game?
Solkrin: As I have already mentioned, we ideally hope that players check out existing self-help options before actually contacting us, because we know from experience that there are many problems players can actually resolve for themselves if the only know how. This is why we, like so many others, decided against putting some shiny "Contact us!" button in a prominent place. Having said that, though, we took great care to create the FAQ system in a way that no player will have to desperate click around for hours - typically, players will find links to the ticketing system within a few minutes at the very most. All things considered, we are absolutely confident that every player who wants to write us will find a way to do so - after all, remember that there is still the option to directly write to us via email, too.
TibiaQA: How are the recordings from the play session agreement used? Have they helped draw any conclusions?
Solkrin: I'm sorry, but we consider this issue to be confidential, so I really cannot tell you all that much about it. One thing I can say, however, is that player participation in this project sadly fell behind of what we had hoped for. We fully understand players have concerns regarding the data collected, but I would like to use the opportunity to stress that this data will be used exclusively for the benefit of the game and that no player has to worry about their personal data being abused in some way or other. We would be grateful if more players decided to help us make Tibia a better game by giving their assent to the play session agreement.
TibiaQA: You are one of the longest-employed CipSoft members. How has the company evolved since you joined?
Solkrin: Today's CipSoft is many ways a different from the company I came to know back in 2003 - larger and perhaps a little less personal, but way, way more professional. People are more specialized (and experienced), tools are better and workflows are much smoother. And of course, there's many more of us than there used to be! These days, CipSoft has a workforce of more than 90 people, which was quite an amazing development for me, seeing that I started as an only employee working under no fewer than four bosses! It really has been quite the journey.
TibiaQA: To wrap things up, could you share with us one of your funniest encounters with players? Perhaps a ridiculous report or a hilarious post on support boards?
Solkrin: Here's a story I always fondly remember: Back in the day of active gamemastering, I happened to be online both with my gamemaster character and my game character one day (yes, we could MC!), when out of the blue a guy with a name that went something like "G|\/| Soandso" messaged my character. He told me that he was a CipSoft gamemaster (!) and that he now urgently needed my password and email address to correct some really big problem with my account. I played along for a while (giving him some random data etc). and when I got bored of the farce, I switched to my gamemaster and deleted him.
That was not the end of the story, though. 5 minutes on, suddenly a guy by the name of ""G|\/| Someothername" writes to my gamemaster character, saying that a guy just tried to hack him by posing as a gamemaster. I was understandably intrigued and asked him about that guy ... and lo and behold, he accused MY own player char of trying to hack HIM! Having processed the surprising revelation, I told him I thought hackers are the scum of the earth that need to be deleted without mercy, and he completely agreed ... Well, you can guess the rest. ;)
TibiaQA: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! Is there anything you would like to share with TibiaQA and the tibian community?
Solkrin: All I can say is that I am looking back at the last twenty years - which is a hell of a lot of time - with fondness and a feeling of deep gratitude. I still love my job, I love what we do and I love working with this amazing community. I will not deny that players are not always easy, and yes, there are those who really make my blood boil, but all in all, I have met so many great people and had so many positive experiences that I really don't regret a single day. I would like to use the opportunity to say thank you to all of you guys out there who make it possible for us to do what love. You are fantastic, and it is an honour to be working for and with you!