Friends, readers, genre fans, lend me your eyes; I come to bury WildStar, not to praise it. But just like Marc Antony, I’m going to be doing a lot of the latter even as I do the former.
It was just a short time ago that I took the bait and went on a lengthy rant about the history of WildStar and where it caused its own problems, so I’d rather not recount all of the the things I spent time talking about there. Especially since that was funny instead of kind of sad. But I still feel like it’s important to talk about the game and its shutdown, and perhaps even more importantly what its shutdown means.
Because for all of our joking about how the game has been in limbo for what seems like half of forever, the reality is that it hasn’t even been out for all that long. The game launched in 2014! It launched amidst massive amounts of affection and imitation! It had so many things that were going right with it! But so many things that were going wrong, too.
Again, I don’t want to recount a rant I already made, but the simple reality is that WildStar launched in service to two different masters. It had one game that was a creative sandpark experience with tons to do, paths to explore, and lots of fun stuff to use to make your character and your space your own. It had another game that was just straight-up garbage that was the fever dream of every endgame vanilla World of Warcraft raider who decided that Molten Core didn’t go far enough.
That at least explains why the game suffered early on; as people got to the level cap, they found nothing but a bleak abyss that was made for basically no one attracted to the game’s sandpark nature. But that was launch. There was time to win back the crowd, plenty of time. Things could have been done right away to minimize those aspects.
Instead, they doubled down. It baffled me when the developers started talking about adding more raids when the top-end players were already upset that no one seemed to be playing the existing ones. This is the sort of thing that the aforementioned WoW has only gotten away with because it has a large enough population to paper over the issue.
Carbine was working on more titles, but none of them had confidence from NCsoft, and while I completely understand people neither trusting nor liking NCsoft, it’s hard to blame the Korean company on this point. If Carbine couldn’t manage its first game, would you trust it to make another? It’d have to demonstrate some wildly improved priorities, and it sounds plausible that this just didn’t happen.
Really, The Elder Scrolls Online is what we should have gotten from WildStar. That was another game that launched with some wildly bad ideas in place, and it still has some… but it also took those ideas, trimmed away the bad ones, and produced a game that’s actually a lot of fun to play now. The two games were contemporaries in launch, and no one is worried about ESO shutting down at this point.
When I returned to WildStar for Choose My Adventure, I recall being stunned that the game had put a bunch of effort into changing things that were not, in fact, the problems the game ever had. What little was done to address the issues waiting at the top end wasn’t enough to draw players back, and what had been changed on the bottom technically improved the experience but wasn’t really the problem in the first place. It was like sprucing up the upholstery on a car that still lacked a functional engine.
Of course, by that point there was already really little to no hope. There was already a dearth of players and budget. The game managed to bungle its free-to-play transition by failing to draw people back in, especially when the biggest thing the game needed to attract players back was proof that it had fixed its issues. “There’s more fun to be had now!” would have done journeyman work. So would “dungeons are no longer miserable slogs!”
This is without even getting into phenomenal ideas like Warplots that never actually worked. The less said about those good ideas that were oversold, the better.
But then, that’s kind of the legacy of WildStar right there. It’s not a game that suffered from a lack of ideas or inspiration or neat things it could have done. Warplots were a brilliant idea (even if former employees have described their actual implementation as slapdash). Things like challenges and paths were great ways to mix up the leveling path and exploration. Yes, some of the issue there was that the game walked back from its more sandpark features, but these are still good ideas.
No, its problem was that its original designers were too certain of their own brilliance, too certain of their paths and decisions to listen when people said that they didn’t work. The certainty seemed to be that if people just got to the hard stuff, they’d be hooked by the real challenge, never mind that a lot of the hard stuff was just too hard to be fun or relaxing or energizing.
That, at least, seems to be the general sentiment we see from former developers on the title: that there were good ideas and good people working on the game, but upper management had A Vision that was being pushed to the detriment of the actual game. It’s as plausible as any other explanation, although it’s grindingly depressing. It almost feels like a tacit expression that nothing could really be done.
Obviously, Reddit quotes like those all fall in the grain-of-salt zone, but I would believe lines about feedback being offered and ignored. There were people in positions of power who needed someone to tell them no, and the project never had someone with enough power and wisdom in the right places to put the skids on bad ideas.
But let me tell you something: I still have a boxed copy of the game that I got when I flew out to get a preview of the free-to-play conversion. And very few weeks have gone by when I didn’t have the urge to pick it up and start playing again.
And that’s because there was so much good stuff in there! The game nailed its aesthetic, created a rich and vibrant world I wanted to explore again and again. The story behind the game was top-notch and immersive and there were few to no characters I didn’t want to learn more about. More words have been devoted to the game’s music, which was excellent and set an atmosphere and a mood with aplomb. So many neat ideas were on display, so much fun stuff, so much that I wanted to love.
Enough that I did love it, for quite some time. Enough that I still love it, enough that my reaction to the game is still not “you did this so badly” but “why did you screw up so close to the end.”
There’s every reason for the game to have been a success story, to rack up expansions and improvements and new ideas. I still want to know more about the lore and the mysteries buried deep within Nexus. Instead, we’re just left with… nothing. A stillborn conclusion.
It didn’t need to happen this way. None of this was a foregone conclusion. It was a direct result of developer hubris and avoidable decisions, and now we’re losing a game with lots of creative and interesting ideas for good.
If there was ever a game that could benefit from private server projects, this would be one. There’s more to be done with the world and assets, new stuff that could be a lot of fun to tool around with. Sadly, I’m not sure if the passion is still there or if people were already done with the game too long ago for anyone to actually make a private server. Another tragedy in the litany, in other words.
And that’s what this is – a tragedy, a missed opportunity, a game that could have been big and had so many great ideas in place. I’m never going to stop being impressed by elements like its award-winning housing system or the fluidity of movement; it still deserves credit for ideas like paths and mount customization. But at the end of the day, it missed the mark by quashing all of that in service to an audience who was never jumping ship for it.
Goodbye, WildStar. You really had some amazing parts that deserved better. I never stopped wanting the best for you. I just wish you had wanted the best for yourself.