the soapbox

The Soapbox is home to our staff’s wild opinions on MMORPG topics near and dear to us. [Follow this column’s RSS feed]

EVE Evolved: EVE Online’s CCP Games is gambling with the livelihoods of employees

Last week we broke the story that EVE Online developer CCP Games is backing out of the virtual reality games market, closing its Altanta office and selling its VR-focused Newcastle studio. The long-held Atlanta office was acquired in the merger with White Wolf in 2006 and has been hit with several rounds of layoffs over the years, with a major hit in 2011 after the Monoclegate disaster and another 2014 when the World of Darkness MMO was cancelled. The Newcastle studio was the development house responsible for CCP’s VR dogfighter EVE: Valkyrie, and both Valkyrie and CCP’s new VR game Sparc will now be maintained by the London office.

Around 100 staff were laid off in the restructuring, roughly 30 of whom worked in CCP’s headquarters in Reykjavik, Iceland. Though we were informed at the time that these changes would not impact the development of EVE Online, it since became apparent that more than a few non-development staff were cut. In addition to the EVE PR staff and others that were stationed in Atlanta, all but two members of the EVE community team in Reykjavik have also been let go. There are reports that several GMs and the localisation manager for EVE have departed too, and the mood on twitter from staff in Reykjavik recently is best described as sombre and a little shaken.

In this extra edition of EVE Evolved, I dig into CCP Games’s history of taking risks with staff’s jobs, look at some of those affected by the layoffs, and ask whether there is more fallout to come.

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The Soapbox: NCsoft’s bizarre silence on Aion’s server merges says everything you need to know

NCsoft done messed up. Again. Yes, I know the studio has already had a few black eyes for other things throughout the years, but this recent punch hit closer to home. So close, it involved multiple family members. What happened? A debacle called Aion server merges. Yeah, I know all server merges tend to feel pretty rotten and are fraught with troubles by default, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about them. And boy does it ever feel like NCsoft was all gung-ho for the wrong.

For example, as much as the ArcheAge server evolution affected me negatively, it was still is a shining beacon of doing more right — and that’s saying something! That merge left me feeling as if I could return to regular play sometime. The way the whole thing played out for Aion has chased an eager paying player away as well as a long time vet from the game, and who knows how many others who will be affected.

If nothing else, another black eye does not bode well for goodwill and trust, things NCsoft was pretty short on anyway.

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The Soapbox: Getting to the heart of toxicity in MMOs

So we’ve gotten another post from a developer saying that they’re going to really 100% be better about rooting out toxic players from their games. Seriously, we mean it this time. The latest one is from Blizzard, but let’s be real, this is something that’s always happened. We always get periodic statements from companies that this time they’re really going to address toxic behavior, someone links that inevitable Penny Arcade strip, nothing really changes, play laugh track, roll curtains.

I’d like to be happy about this, I really would, but it’s so much empty posturing, and it came out only shortly before the announcement that everyone who plays the game can now be signed to the Overwatch League. I think the two are pretty closely connected. And I think we need to actually start talking about this because this sort of darkly toxic problem is at the core of the designs of these games, even though on some level it’s entirely separate. The problem isn’t that these games are designed to be toxic; it’s that they’re designed to encourage toxicity.

Getting rid of individual toxic players, as Blizzard purports to do, is merely treating the symptom. We need to discuss the disease.

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The Soapbox: The disastrous Pokemon Go Fest was just Niantic being Niantic, and that has to stop

I know I complain a lot about Pokemon Go in my articles here, but there’s a reason for this. I’m a huge fan not just of the Pokemon series but of what Niantic is trying to do with its game on a basic level. The idea of getting games outside with the rest of the world instead of hidden in our rooms and offices is hugely appealing. I’ve even applied to work at Niantic before (though obviously I wasn’t selected), so for me especially it’s frustrating to see a company I want to succeed repeatedly making the same kinds of mistakes. These are mistakes that plagued the game’s launch, several events, feature reworkings, and now not one, but two birthday celebrations within the same year. 

I actually got sucked into the hype recently and even said that the events surrounding the festival might give people a reason to come back. I’ve finally removed my foot from my mouth after previously downing some crow, but I’ve realized that, now more than ever, Niantic needs some tougher love, and here it is.

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The Soapbox: Your favorite MMO is going to die

Your favorite MMO is going to die. Don’t take it personally, though; every other MMO is going to shut down, too. That includes my favorites and everyone else’s favorites.

Do you like Final Fantasy XIV? It’s going to shut down. WildStar? It’ll shut down. Ultima Online? Oh, yes, the shutdown is coming. The Secret World? Guild Wars 2? The Elder Scrolls Online? Destiny (yes, I meant to leave off the 2, I mean the original)? RIFT, Trove, Black Desert, Revelation Online, Crowfall? All of the above will shut down.

But don’t get up in arms about this. Seriously, relax, take a deep breath, maybe hum a little William Shatner tune. All of these games are going to shut down, but that’s just because every single MMO exists in one of three states: not yet launched, shut down, or waiting to be shut down. And as cynical as that may seem, I think accepting that truth is going to do wonders for all of us when it comes time for the next unexpected shutdown. Because it’s going to happen.

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The Soapbox: Lessons Secret World Legends failed to learn from Final Fantasy XIV

I’ve mentioned many a time that I like Funcom quite a bit. I want to like Funcom quite a bit. Heck, I want to be excited about Secret World Legends, but every day or so I get reminded that such a course of action will be very difficult at the least. Because quite frankly, Secret World Legends seems to want me not to be excited about it, as evidenced by… oh, every single thing that Funcom is doing around it.

Which is odd, because Funcom literally has access to a playbook for a large-scale reboot.

Secret World Legends is coming off of The Secret World, which was a cult MMORPG classic with a mighty fan following. Final Fantasy XIV was coming off of… well, its initial version, which had a fan following full of people who admitted that it was halfway to Stockholm Syndrome. And yet that game managed to get people excited and earn fans, while Funcom seems dead-set on alienating people or making them just plain nervous.

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The Soapbox: Why is Pokemon GO still a tech demo?

I’ve been a bit frustrated with Niantic lately. I love some of its ideas, but I watched someone else play Ingress prior to Pokemon GO’s release, and I noticed very similar problems between the two games after release — problems that the company should have noticed and corrected in its followup.

Recently I decided to try out the former. Both are totally unintuitive. You have to search the UI for the tutorials, though Ingress’ can be accessed only near objectives. You’re asked to join a faction sooner there than in PoGO and with no context beyond 2-3 sentences. The game throws jargon with little to no context at you throughout the tutorial, making it difficult to follow. I walked around, clicking things and used items that I don’t fully understand, not because I’m too lazy to read but because I wanted to understand a game without consulting google. I saw portals get taken without anyone around me as I stood by an objective near a government-restricted area where standing still longer than it takes to read “No Trespassing” could trigger security. I couldn’t get into it, not just because it was simple but because it was poorly designed.

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The Soapbox: What the Mass Effect Andromeda kerfuffle ought to teach us about games criticism

Today is the official release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, which was preceded by the frankly baffling decision to allow people access to an early build of the game ahead of time. Or perhaps the final build without everything enabled? The point is that you could play a bit of it if you were willing to drop some money. That seems like a bad idea that we’ve been dealing with in online-game-land for a long time, but regardless, it gave people the opportunity to see some of this RPG ahead of time.

This, in turn, allowed the typical internet trolls to find any and all animation flubs and then happily declare that it was all the result of one woman working on the game and handling all of the animations. Which, you know, is a conclusion that would be helped significantly if the woman in question actually worked in that role on the game, which she did not.

Obviously, the game under discussion is not an MMO. But it is symptomatic of two all-too-common problems in gaming culture that are worth noting to people who do not have balls of spiders in place of a soul. So let’s talk about those.

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The Soapbox: Everyone’s being dumb about Star Wars: The Old Republic’s lightsaber

A couple of years ago, The Force Awakens introduced us to (among other things) a lightsaber that looks poorly made, like a little kid made it. So Star Wars: The Old Republic added a version of it to a lockbox, and everyone got pissy. Then it got added to direct sales, and everyone got pissy.

Including me! Except, in my case, not because I feel like one side or the other is being hard done by. No, it’s that rare situation wherein I consider pretty much everyone involved to be whining about something that really requires not the slightest bit of whining. Yes, everyone here is being dumb and I am on absolutely no one’s side here. Except for the side of tegu.

As such, I’ve compiled my thoughts briefly below, with sections dedicated to both “sides” of the debate and all of the people who are mad. I’ve also included a few pictures of big old lizards because I was told that I couldn’t write an entire column about liking lizards and I can be petulant, too. So if you don’t care about this debate, check out some lizard pictures. That’d be fun.

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The Soapbox: Pokemon Go Generation 2 still isn’t a real MMO

Pokemon GO Generation 2 is out now, and it feels a lot like an MMO expansion in a lot of ways: We have new features, we have new grinding mechanics, and (of course) the combat system’s been overhauled (twice, with the original change making dodging useless, the second possibly fixing the situation).

On the one hand, I’m excited as a Pokemon fan, especially since it’s a free update. On the other hand, I’m starting to think that Raph Koster’s famous comments on AR games being MMOs might be a bit off, at least in terms of POGO.
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The Soapbox: The sorry state of ARK Survival Evolved

When ARK: Survival Evolved came on the scene in June 2015, it was met with enthusiasm (dinosaurs!) as well as some skepticism (Early Access). But Studio WildCard quickly won over many fans with the game’s delivery, which included frequent updates (and dinos of course). And we do mean frequent! The studio was cranking out meaty content and bug fixes at a rate never seen before in any other EA title —  sometimes updates were multiple times a day! Stuff came so quickly it was hard for server admins to keep up with at times. Many of us started holding ARK up as an example of early access done right. Why couldn’t other studios do early access more like WildCard?

But over time, that sentiment changed. A year and a half later, folks who have championed long for ARK — including me — have taken a few steps back. Enjoyment is giving way to frustration. Fans are giving up and leaving. Why is that? Bugs? Devs? Shifted priorities from finishing to milking money? Different eyes might see different causes, but the one thing stands out: The development process has changed. What was once so great is now not so great. And you have to wonder if this spells trouble for the studio.

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The Soapbox: Asheron’s Call is dead, and Turbine killed it

You’d think recent news about Asheron’s Call 1 and AC2 would be easy to swallow. After all, we’d already been warned that Turbine was becoming a mobile company. We lived through the end of AC1 updates and a desire to give players the chance to host their own servers. Heck, AC2 had died and resurrected. We’ve been living on borrowed time, but anything seemed possible. Despite the fact that Turbine’s games were squeaking by (when not getting cancelled), I thought that fan power would lead the company to see what it’d done right (innovating MMOs) and where it had failed (straying from monthly updates and GM lead content).

Clearly I was wrong.

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The Soapbox: Calling an MMO launch a launch

It’s launch.

Can we collectively accept that? Marketing, developers, and players alike? Launch is launch. When your game launches, it has launched. If I can reach another decade on this planet without ever hearing the term “soft launch” again except as a historical footnote, I will be… well, I don’t know that I’ll be happy, but I’ll certainly be happy with that particular development.

Unfortunately, I appear to be on the wrong side of this. Early access and points related have disrupted the very concept of a launch state, and developers have been working hard to redefine “launch” as an arbitrary goal line rather than a term referring to the point when a game is bought and paid for. But I think more so than the ambiguity of testing terms, the way we’ve diluted the idea of launch has really had an impact on our perceptions of products and the state of a game.

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