The Nexus Telegraph: What other MMOs should learn from WildStar’s demise

The final edition of our WildStar column. RIP, cupcake.

It's fine, everything is fine, this is fine.

The shutdown of WildStar stings in a way that other shutdowns haven’t. It’s hardly the first game I’ve covered closely that has stepped away to the land of wind and ghosts, but it’s the first one where my career pre-dated and post-dated its entire lifespan. From the first announcement of the game to the closure on Wednesday, it’s been a part of my professional life, and now it’s gone for good.

Of course, I’ve already written about why that affects me, just like I’ve already written about why it’s not so much a surprise that it’s shutting down as that it took this long to happen. So instead, I’d like to focus on the lesson other games can take away. Seriously, consider this the final message from this game, the equivalent of Javert leaving a note before throwing himself to his death. And while there are a lot of nuances to it, I can even sum it up in one line.

Know your actual audience and design for that because your dreams of the past are over.

Let’s make one thing clear here: WildStar’s shutdown is a death knell for raiding, or at least the antique MMO fantasy of the huge hyper-difficult raid as the be-all and end-all of the level cap. We have seen what the audience is for that, and it brought us here. Arguing otherwise is a game of trying to snipe at semantics or insist that the evidence doesn’t count. If there was ever a game that would have made this work, either by attracting that audience or developing its playerbase into that audience, it was this one.

Instead, it killed the game. The audience is not there. This is much like when World of Warcraft landed the final blow on the old declining EverQuest model of group-based leveling; while there may forever be people who prefer it, the vast majority of the audience isn’t going back to that when there are clear alternatives. People did not step up to raiding; they stepped out of the game altogether, and attempts to get people back into the game fell flat even as the developers scrambled to tune their end point for a smaller audience.


This is even more sad when you consider that WildStar as a concept actually did have an audience. There were a ton of people who were invested in the game’s visual character, lore, housing, path systems, and general go-your-own-way atmosphere. This audience didn’t leave because they weren’t on board with the game; they left because past a certain point (the level cap) the game no longer wanted them around.

And herein lies that central and all-important lesson. This was an avoidable tragedy. It was a case wherein the game could have capitalized on the audience it actually had and attracted, an audience of people whose desires were not being filled by other titles on the market. It wasn’t even as if there was a dearth of feedback; both gamers and journalists had been talking with some trepidation about the game’s hard-as-nails ideals from pretty much as soon as they were announced.

What we’ve heard from within the company backs this up, as well. Stories of designers being forced to throw things out in order to align with someone’s arbitrary vision, of large sections of the game being invented without any assurance that it could actually be implemented… there’s a general sense that much of the game was designed with an eye toward what some of the designers’ egos wanted, not what the community already popping up around the game wanted.

And a lot of it, I have no doubt, was married to nostalgic visions of what something meant to someone on the design team at some point in the past. There’s too much of that “hardcore” mentality shot through to avoid that.

It shows up elsewhere, though, in different ways. I was one of the people who really liked the idea of the tweet-quest, that you should be able to get a quest objective and description given to you in 140 characters or less. This is a very smart thing to do and avoids the possibility of huge chunks of poorly-written quest text. It’s a good idea!


And yet this extended beyond the useful part (making quests easy to understand and start working on) into savage reductionism. Instead of ensuring that quests could always be summarized by a tweet, quests were broken up violently into tweet-quest length… sometimes with insufficient elaboration in the process. It got so bad at one point early on that a story literally made sense only if you had read all of the quest text because the summary you got didn’t even explain why you were doing anything.

The story itself was good. But instead of designing for the audience the team had – an audience that wanted to explore this lore but also have the option to just get the quick version – they designed for an audience that was never going to read or care about the quest text, and thus sent the message that the players shouldn’t read it or care either. And people were annoyed.

So much effort was put into making every part of the game immediate and urgent that less was put into the slow parts. The action-based combat felt really good, but it was married to ability systems and talent systems that were hard to understand and you weren’t given the time to understand or explore. The game’s designers had an audience or two in their heads, but they never explained what that audience was supposed to be, and instead of acknowledging where that did or didn’t intersect with the actual audience in the game, they kept plowing onward.

And now it’s gone, and all it can do is serve as a similar font of information to the planet Nexus itself. You can’t save this title, but future designers can make sure they don’t make the same mistakes.


Know your actual audience and design for that because your dreams of the past are over.

Your hardcore endgame is not going to fly because that is not going to attract new players. WoW gets away with it only due to already having critical mass, and even that’s proving contentious at this point. If your players want buckets of lore, focus on giving them that lore instead of courting the people who want less and just want to race through the game.

Yes, it’s a good thing to have diverse appeal, but there’s a difference between making sure that your game appeals to multiple player types and hurting your actual satisfied audience in favor of courting someone who doesn’t care about your game. You need to consider how much development effort is going to capturing different sorts of players and whether or not they’re resources well spent.

But above all else, you can’t make the game appealing to different sorts of people by making it a wildly different game at the top than it was through the rest of the experience. The people who are going to stick around to the top are then not going to be the people who actually get to see that endgame.

There’s lots of brilliant stuff in WildStar deserving widespread adoption, and it’s important to take away the right lessons from its ultimate failure. Its problems were not entirely confined to 40-person murder festivals at the level cap, but the philosophy that led to that is what caused a lot of the problems.

Get it through your head, designers. And have a cupcake.

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