Writing about WildStar at this point feels weird.
Obviously, I just finished up playing the game for this feature for four weeks. It feels fresh in my mind. And in many ways, it really has changed quite a bit from launch to its credit. In many other ways, it hasn’t changed much at all. And the ways in which it has changed would make a much bigger difference if those changes affected things that initially drove me away from the game.
So in many ways, when I write about WildStar now, I’m still writing about the launch version of the game. It’s just that we’re now several years out from that launch, and its potential to really be something no longer has the time to turn into reality. It’s still just a hope for what it could be, and there’s not much more to the game beyond what we see right now. So it’s the same state of the game, but it’s gone from promising opportunities to unrealized potential.
Let’s start with the positive: WildStar still has one of the most wildly inventive settings and premises in the MMO space. It’s an endearing and unique blend of fantasy, science fiction, and western aesthetics that still feels bracingly novel. The art and the zones are replete with personality, looking very distinctly like the sort of thing you’d only find in this specific game.
And boy, the game is clearly crafted with a lot of love. There is still a lot to like about the IP and all of the cool stuff therein. It’s the sort of game that could easily have supported itself as the first installment of a long-running franchise, or even just a successful MMO with a lot of development behind it.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem that it’ll ever be the case. And that’s for several reasons, starting with something that I noted right off of the bat: This is a game with one speed, and the speed is “go faster.” Which is, frankly, exhausting.
It makes sense, of course; as the game tried so hard to sell itself as being very different from other MMOs, it also rolled in the idea that the more sedate options in MMOs were also part of the problem. Instead of letting you laze about or race along at top speed, the game really pushes the idea that you’re always doing something. There’s always more to see, more objectives to complete, more challenges to clear, and so forth.
More content is, in fact, a good thing. But there are people who play MMOs at all different intensity levels, and one of the joys of the games can be that you go back and forth between high-energy challenges and just quietly farming for herbs. A game that tells you a night of herb-farming can turn into enormous boss fights under your feet is discouraging you from ever being relaxed.
Part of the problem here is that the game is overloaded with Stuff To Do more than it has reasons to do all of it. You wind up getting overwhelmed in short order, and because the game isn’t great about labeling things as side objectives – or even just giving you a reason to ignore the main stuff to do – you frequently wind up with a forest of icons and no solid direction.
There’s far too much to do, far too much time to spend doing all of it, and far too little direction. When you’re pulled in every direction at once, you wind up going nowhere.
All of this was stuff that I also liked about the game when I first played it, of course. And I still think these elements are a mixed bag of positive and negative, but I think they also limit the game’s audience by definition. It winds up rather pushing the idea of the game as a dynamic sandpark with a lot of emergent experience, which… is not how the game’s designers wanted to tune the game. I was not among the people worried as soon as raids were discussed, but I certainly understood that worry.
In practice, that “harder is better” philosophy shows through everywhere. Yes, there are emergent experiences and sudden unexpected challenges, but frequently the game feels like it’s tuned just by fiat. I remember the game’s dungeons being rather brutal experiences that were tuned for a level of coordination that most people just don’t have with random strangers, which is really what 90% of your runs are going to be.
This may have changed quite a bit, but what I found currently at the level cap were some rather unengaging dailies and a lot of big quests tuned around a thriving population that, as near as I could tell, was not there. And, I’m sure, those dungeon runs. Which are apparently not assembled by the dungeon finder, which indicates something kind of damaged about the structure to begin with.
But all of this stuff is old hat. What really cripples the game is that it hasn’t really adjusted any of this since launch. It has, continuously, lost more and more staff and heaps of players, and each time it has had an opportunity to really capitalize on new stuff, it’s wound up with little more than a whimper.
Most likely this is a result of lacking money, not lack of will. I truly believe that the people still working on the game genuinely believe in it and like what it’s doing. But there’s only so much you can do when you can’t actually afford any new staff to develop a patch, and I think WildStar passed that point quite some time ago.
The worst part is how many of these things could be changed or addressed. It feels like there are two games that are fighting for dominance, one of which discourages you from reading or paying attention or doing anything beyond playing the rushin’ spammer game writ large, the other of which celebrates doing weird things and exploring the world on your own terms. The housing, crafting, and expansive costuming system all point to a game that wants to play more like a more sedate MMO, but the fact that you can’t so much walk out of town without a half-dozen quests and exploding challenges all around you force you into playing at top velocity… or just opting out altogether.
And I think, at this point, the game has spent its last chances for relevance. We’re constantly wondering behind the scenes about when the final moment will come, when the game is going to be quietly shuttered, and that’s going to be a real loss. Because for all of the problems the game does have, for all of its issues with information overload and overtuning and pacing problems, there’s also some really clever work on display here. It’s the sort of game that could really benefit from a reboot, a pattern of taking it back out of the public eye, heavily adjusting it, and re-releasing it with a leaner and more elegant focus.
But then, at this point, I’m not entirely sure that wouldn’t be undercut as well.
WildStar is a game that should be played. It has a lot of really cool elements to it, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to jump back into it well before any sort of sunset. But we all sort of see the sunset coming around the corner, and the question becomes a matter of when. Which is a real shame, because it’s one of those games that rightly should be doing even better than the other big-name game released the same year. But that game has devoted time and money into improvement, refining systems, fixing things that didn’t work, and creating a better all-around game.
WildStar didn’t, and now that it really needs to, it looks like it’s just too late. And there’s a reason why I went back to that game and found myself roundly impressed, while going back to WildStar just left me sad about the lost potential.
For the second month, I’m going to be aiming my laser focus at a game rather than putting it up to a vote. The reason for this is mostly down to timing and personal preference, and I promise, the next round of games will be back to open polling. But first, I’m heading to the desert.
Despite winning our game of the year award, Black Desert Online is a title I have not actually played at all, separating it from all of the other titles I’ve highlighted since restarting this column. Plus, they did just add a new class that sounds like it’s kind of my jam, even if it’s subject to the same obnoxious gender locks as so much of the game. So that’s our destination.
There’s more to say, of course, but that’s for next week. For now, feel free to share your thoughts down in the comments, or mail them along to firstname.lastname@example.org. See you in a week, when we prepare for our next venture!