Massively Overthinking: The boring MMO development between bookends of hype

    
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If you watch MMOs being developed for long enough, one truth becomes evident: It’s kinda boring.

I started thinking a bit about this last week when a reader named Bel pointed out that Crowfall doesn’t seem to get much hype on blogs or forums, even though it’s becoming nicely polished and probably closer to release than most of the crowdfunded indie MMOs we cover. While I suspect some of that is a result of ArtCraft avoiding some of the unprofessional tactics we’ve seen from other studios (like sending out brigaders to astroturf and troll), I also think it’s because MMO development is fundamentally tedious and boring as hell for the vast majority of gamers, and at some point in a game’s development, even backers decide to mentally check out. I believe in you, but call me when it’s really ready, right?

So for today’s Massively Overthinking, I want to riff on that idea and then take it further. Is development boredom a problem in general? Is it Crowfall’s issue? And what other in-development MMOs aren’t getting enough love?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): It’s Crowfall’s issue, in a good way. As Bree mentioned, they’re not doing anything overtly underhanded. They’re also careful about not overhyping their product or milking customers. It’s boring, but at least they understand that getting people on the hype coaster means you’d better have a great finish. It’s incredibly difficult to win people over well after launch, especially for an MMO.

Other games may be falling into this trap, and while the launched product may end up objectively better than Crowfall, the high amount of hype could cloud that and kill it on arrival. Hype generation is a big deal for businesses, but hype management really should be a job these days.

Slower than a ray of light.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Yes, it’s an issue. Most people don’t really want to see behind this curtain, even if they say they do. I watch these games for a living and I’m first in line to admit it’s often boring and exhausting chronicling the minutiae of projects that are cooking. Sure, some days it’s exciting; others it’s basically the video game industry equivalent of watching paint dry. No, it’s worse – it’s writing about watching paint dry.

I do think that Crowfall specifically has sidestepped some gross pitfalls and done a better job climbing out of the traps it fell into (its major delays, its multiple funding rounds, etc.). The kinds of superfans who follow these types of MMOs closely don’t care about that stuff as much as they care about, say, cash-shop shenanigans, so there’s not as much drama. I also suspect that Crowfall’s development has been a tad confusing to follow with all its many campaign stages. I think it’ll do much better with the General Gaming Public once it breaks out of alpha, starts to feel like a Real Product, and cranks up its marketing hype machine. Right now, that machine is pretty limited to influencers/streamers and hasn’t saturated the rest of the genre or the broader media landscape.

My picks for in-development MMORPGs that don’t get enough love? Dual Universe and Fractured, both made by European teams, both shaping up to be spectacular sandboxes, neither getting the player attention it deserves.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): One of the things that definitely sucks with the advent of crowdfunded/open development titles is knowing how the sausage is made. Like, not just the meats and the grinding thereof, but very nearly the chemical composition of each piece of particulate that goes into the sausage. As a fan of the crowdsourced MMO idea, even I have to admit that development boredom is a thing.

Whether it’s a problem or not, though, depends on how much fatigue knowing the sausage recipe one is susceptible to. If you’re able to mentally check out long enough for a new update to genuinely surprise you, then outstanding. If you’re the sort who is upset at the glacial pace of game development nowadays, you’re probably best just sticking to the announcements “of worth” that come out of trade shows and events. In fact, judging whether a developing title’s updates are worthy of your attention can become a mental slog, especially if a number of them don’t excite you. Which then leads to the whole “What’s taking them so long?” complaint, or — in the case of Crowfall — offering updates that are solid and steady, but not exactly barn-busting.

I’m not sure that development boredom is enough of a problem to really worry about, but that combined with the personal biases folks can carry regarding paid-for early access, DLC, and assumptions of how game dev budgets work certainly combines to form a dangerous cocktail.

As for a game that probably doesn’t get a lot of love from me, personally? City of Titans. Like, OK, you can make neat asymmetrical outfits, but I would really really love to see more dev updates on gameplay and where that all stands, please.

Titan-size!

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I don’t think that development boredom is precisely a problem in development so much as it’s a problem in how development is shown. And this is exacerbated by the nature of games that are in early access, being Kickstarted, or otherwise trying to flaunt “LOOK AT ALL THE STUFF WE DID” as quickly and as early as possible. There’s always going to be a good chunk of time spent going from “ideas that work on paper” to “ideas that work in the game,” but it only becomes a problem if you announce the former as soon as you have the idea and then have to provide some sort of update while you actually make the idea into a reality.

Traditionally, this is why you can stagger out your reveals. You announce the expansion when it’s already had its big ideas and they’re being implemented, you reveal more when you still have more stuff in the wings. It’s an informative cadence that Final Fantasy XIV has worked with for years, and that’s on my mind as the game gears up to tell us more about the next expansion this weekend. No doubt there’s more that’s been done that we won’t be told, but by staggering out the pacing we’re seeing things that have already been finished even as other things are being finished.

Games like Crowfall don’t have that advantage. There’s no backlog for Crowfall, just the stuff that’s being worked on now or is already there, and as such it’s harder to stagger out reveals to cover the parts of development that are… well, bland. That’s fine, it’s part of how projects work, but it’s a little unsettling for fans to realize that a good chunk of this work is just rolling down these systems and making them work correctly.

Guns and ships.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): There’s a reason I’m much happier to write about games than make them: It’s because game creation is a long, difficult, and bonecrushing task – and that doesn’t even factor in the pressure to remain relevant to the community and appease those waiting with information and hype. While it’s not fair that studios have to be selling their audience on the game while the devs are making it, they have to. It’s vital to build up that community and prime them for release in order to maximize the potential for success.

But how best to do this? For a while, the standard in the industry was a weekly dev blog, and while some games hew to that, others have decided on information overload or informational blackouts. Long rambling developer streams might feature important info, but players don’t always have the time and patience to sift through hours of this on a weekly basis. I think the once-a-week article or newsletter is a reasonable pace for both community expectations and developer workloads.

As for games that we should be hearing about more often, there are tons. Ascent: Infinite Realm and New World are putting out spotty info at best, and even Ashes of Creation is more uneven with dev diaries than it should be. Smaller indie titles like Valiance Online need regular communication to spread the word, so they can’t afford to just take off for a few months and expect everyone to stay interested.

Your turn!

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