Friday, October 18, 2013

Harder Than It Looks

This is not a political blog, but watching the roll-out in the United States of the Obamacare health insurance exchanges reminds me of the launch of a new MMORPG.  I don't say that to denigrate any game company because I don't think any MMORPG, including Anarchy Online, has had a launch this bad.  For those not following the story, here's a few articles.

Assessing the Exchanges
Software Expert on Exchanges: Without New Management, Project Is Doomed
‘Tech Experts: Health Exchange Site Needs Total Overhaul’
Design Firm Wipes Website of References to Work on

Admittedly these are all from National Review, a conservative publication, but that's just because I was too lazy to scour the web looking for MSM articles.  The links in the stories have some of those.  Besides, the focus of this post isn't about the wisdom of Obamacare.  I want to point out how good of a job game companies do on a day-to-day basis.

Think about it.  The U.S. government spent a reported $634 million on the website and it had a hard time even creating accounts at launch.  Even Star Wars: The Old Republic only spent $200-$250 million and not only could you create an account to play, it has some pretty good voice acting!  Admittedly, over the past 14 months both Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn had to stop digital sales after launch due to demand, but that's because they just didn't have enough servers built.  All across the political spectrum of the U.S. media outlets are reporting that the design and coding of the exchanges left a lot to be desired.

Just from reading the coverage over the past 3 weeks I'm convinced that the policy makers thought that building a website as massive as Obamacare was easy.  Hey, Blizzard had 12 million players (when the law was passed) and the target insurance market is about 16 million.  All that's needed is throw money at the problem, and the government has a lot of that.  Easy, right?

Watching the technical train wreck makes me realize how easy companies like Blizzard, CCP, ArenaNet, NCSoft and SOE make running an incredibly complicated software project look.  Sure, we complain about bugs and lag and exploits, but I've never had an instance where I couldn't create an account and log into a game I'd just purchased.  I've read people complain about a lack of QA on game forums, but the Obamacare exchanges are giving me a greater appreciation of just how much goes right in order for us to play our games.


  1. I don't think it's terribly fair to blame the developers considering that HHS delayed producing the regulations and guidelines to govern the process until after the 2012 elections to prevent them from being used by the GOP as a campaign issue.

    1. There are 12 million words worth of regulations (so far) and regulators are to blame in part.

      However, a number of the bigest players spent a combined 200 million lobbying for Obamacare contracts from 2011-2012.

      (Consider the numbers ballpark, as I can't find the source. Sorry.)

  2. When pay is correlated to performance, expect increased performance.

    The companies which created the exchanges were guaranteed their money as soon as their lobbyist secured the contracts. Everything after that was just for show.

    Additionally consider that video game companies have limited capital, and a timeline to repay debts. The US gov has essentially a blank check.

  3. If you like to follow politics I've found the POTUS channel on Sirrus/XM to be the balanced reporting I've heard in a while. I don't know if they do anything other than the radio and social media sites though.

    From that source yesterday the 600 mil figure is for a contract that started in 2007 for HHS, of which 100 mil was the original amount for the website. which now is close to 300 mil. A lot of which is due to changing regulations and in some cases starting from scratch due to them.

    I think how the US awards and pays out contracts for anything is due for an overhall. Like back when we were trying to get to the moon and the first few missions failed. Then we changed the contracts to pay the bulk of the money on sucessful completion of the mission. Suddenly all the missions worked! We should do more of that. Minimal payments to fund salaries up front with good bonuses for completing on time and target.

  4. The basic problem is the way the contracting system works. The companies that can win contracts (stocked with proposal writers, lawyers, lobbyists, etc) are not the companies that do the work. They pass that on to some other group who become yet another level removed from the people offering the bid. Add in that everything must be specified in minute detail, most of which is wholly irrational and not useful in software development, and you have what we see now.

    And it's not just this. Look up the Army FCS program for an earlier example. We are still trying to clean-up the fallout from that failure.

    A game company works directly to produce a product. The US Government does not, and the people who win contracts this large do not. You could eliminate much of this if you stopped outsourcing, but that will never occur, far too profitable to the companies that have been build to win large contracts and for the elected officials, military, and Government civilians who, directly and indirectly, benefit. You have no idea how many companies bid on the services of a retiring Colonel or the civilian equivalent just for, as we used to say, access to his Rolodex.

    By the way, I've been a DoD contractor for 15 years so this is very much an insiders view.

  5. The difference is incentive. Capitalism vs. Government. The game companies expect to make money off of their product, and the negative press, negative player reaction, and any actual inability to function cost them money, or at best, delay their income. A government has no real incentive to make sure it is right. If the press complain, and people can't use the site, they don't have a choice but wait until it gets better.

    You notice the same thing with lines at the DMV, post office, welfare, or government health facility, compared to most any private business such as a restaurant or retail store, etc. I don't fault the individuals for a lack of customer service, as most of them are doing the best they can. But the staffing at government offices are set a year or more in advance by the legislature, not by any change in demand. Because the welfare office isn't making more money by the number of people they help, but Target is, and adjusts their staffing accordingly.