The project management triangle constraints: quality, quick and cheap work is a myth

Today I will tell you a story.

Let me introduce you to the MMORPG called Rift. The game launched in 2011 with pomp and acclaim, with fun bantering claims that “You’re not in Azeroth anymore“, which piqued the interest of many a World of Warcraft player and launched endless comparisons with the older game, sometimes to the detriment of the fledgling game.

Nevertheless, Rift was off to a great start: great content, a robust soul system with seemingly endless customization options, and vast open-world dynamic content in the form of rifts (hey, it’s the name of the game!) and massive zone events that could affect your day-to-day gameplay if left unchecked. Trion, the company behind Rift, had a lot to pat itself in the back for.

A lot of older players would say that things went south as soon as the game went free-to-play. I wouldn’t know for sure, since I started playing when it went F2P myself (long story short: I’d never played video games before, and when I moved to South Korea one of my new friends suggested I try it out since it was free anyway. I wouldn’t feel robbed if I didn’t like it. I bought a newer laptop that could handle it, downloaded the game, and was off for a few years of unabashed fun). With the advent of F2P, however, you could notice that things did change in the game, in the forums and in the community. Little by little.

You see, when you offer a service, there is a holy trinity – the project management triangle constraints – that affects it: its quality, the speed at which it is produced, and its cost. The caveat? Offering all three is nigh on impossible.

The project management triangle constraints

  • Develop something of high quality and low cost, but it will take a long time
  • Develop something quickly and of high quality, but it will be very costly to do
  • Develop something quickly and cheaply, but it will not be of high quality

Quick and quality

When Rift went F2P with Storm Legion, they immediately cut down its staff, fractioning its potential for effectiveness. Storm Legion itself was, content-wise, very well done, mostly because the staff that was let go had worked on the early content, making for a polished product. The launch had few bugs, the raids were elaborate and unique. My favourite content? The zone event favourite, Dreams of Blood and Bone (as soon as it started you’d see tons of messages in server chat for “VOLAN UP!”) and the raid boss Thrax from Planebreaker Bastion (can I just say wheeeee!)

People contend that Vanilla and most Storm Legion raids were some of the most unique, memorable, complex and personally rewarding, with a few bugs here and there but nothing too game-breaking.

Quick and cheap

Then came Nightmare Tide, the second expansion. Server lags like you wouldn’t believe. Buggy quests. Live testing a new type of zone event. Trion decided to add a gear slot that had to either be paid for or grinded for hours on end to unlock. I grinded, mostly out of principle: I refused to pay for something that shouldn’t be P2W (pay-to-win) to be competitive (I did pay for two soul packs, but one could make the argument that you could be competitive without them). The group content on release was badly tuned, buggy and laggy. Guilds that had tested on the test server began to be frustrated that the hours of work they put in out of goodwill were going to nothing. Bosses were live-tested and, in some extreme cases, completely removed from the game for further QA’ing until fixed. This held back world-first achievers.

I mean, I enjoyed most of the content from NT. But a lot of the content was not polished on release. I’m going to go ahead and argue that perhaps they didn’t have enough staff to work on the expansion. You can’t have quality when you ask for quick and cheap work. If you have a leaner staff, you can’t expect the same amount of quality in the same amount of time as you did before cutting down staff.

Quick and cheap, reloaded

Rift’s third expansion, Starfall Prophecy, came out in late 2016. This time, it was a buy-to-play expansion. People complained, quoting Trion’s own words back at them: “you promised us no trials, no tricks, no traps!” I was one of them, yet ultimately understood the reversal to bought expansions. And… I was skeptical. Would they deliver? They promised polish. They promised quick. Obviously, it was a paid-for expansion this time, so it promised no cheap work. It seemed too good to be true.

It was. There was less content. Delayed content promised on launch. Quests were buggy. Dungeons were too easy and/or buggy. The first raid? You guessed it: too easy and/or buggy. It was all a mess. I was happy I’d missed that train wreck by going over to World of Warcraft, which in my opinion doesn’t truly hold a candle to the old Rift in many aspects.

The problem

What went wrong? The truth is: you can’t have the holy trinity. If you want quality work, you can’t forego the time it takes to polish off any bugs or problems. If you want cheap work done quickly, it won’t end with quality content. If you want quick work done well, it won’t come cheap.

Trion has struggled with the classic project management triangle since they went F2P: they didn’t take into account that they have less staff. Oh, they know they have less staff, but it seems they’re struggling with how to produce quality work with less staff to work out the kinks. When you’re working with less staff but still want to deliver quality content, you need to take your time to iron out the issues. Live-testing is the epitome of annoying for any customer, but video game players take special affront to it. The general consensus is: “Why are there testing servers if we’re being served half-baked content on the live servers?” Game developers 1like to point the fingers at the players themselves for not using the test servers to report bugs, but the truth is simple: we have jobs. Perhaps offering incentives like in-game toys or mounts (etc) or even paying testers according to their time testing would go a long way towards players actually going on those test servers in the first place.

The solution

Take your time when you have less resources. Your customers won’t mind the extra time if it means more quality content. Give your staff breathing room for them to be proud of what they deliver.