One of the most consistently weird elements of covering MMOs is that there’s a very simple and yet incredibly odd metric of knowing if a company is doing well. The more the studio is trying to tell everyone that everything is fine, the more trouble is burbling beneath the surface.
It’s almost like a sad refrain at this point. Trion Worlds undergoes layoffs and states that everything is fine, and then soon thereafter we find out that Gamigo bought the company’s whole portfolio in a fire sale. The Marvel Heroes team goes silent for weeks and we’re told that things are all fine, but then it turns out Gazillion lost the license and the game is sunsetting. Daybreak says… well, Daybreak says anything is fine, and then soon thereafter it’s demonstrated that things were fine in a K. C. Green sort of fashion.
These, of course, are what’s known as lies. They’re statements that are inherently false. But I think now is a good time to talk a little bit about the difference between being told that everything is fine as a lie and as a truism.
See, sometimes a studio will tell you that everything is fine because, well, everything is fine. It’s really nothing to worry about, but rumors and other circumstances make things look less than fine. So it’s not really quite as simple a metric of “if they say it’s fine, it’s not fine.” Which is why I phrased that first paragraph the way I did.
Case in point? Star Wars: The Old Republic. That’s a game that seems to have been consistently teetering on the edge of “not fine” and is regularly the subject of rumors that things are definitely not fine. And yet the studio rarely addresses those rumors, but they still get deflated; when they are addressed, it’s just a quick statement of “no, that’s not a problem” and then the staff moves on and looks to future plans.
Do you see the difference there?
Here’s another example. The most recent financial report for Square-Enix showed that Final Fantasy XV wound up hitting the company’s finances. This game did not develop into the multi-year tentpole they wanted, and that meant posting a loss and changing plans. Final Fantasy XIV players thus worried that things were not fine behind the scenes, and the team has proved that wrong by… not actually talking about it at all but proceeding with fan festivals and further development.
In both cases, you didn’t need a lengthy explanation of how everything is fine. The statement is implicit in things continuing to operate just fine. It’s “show, don’t tell” on a corporate level.
More to the point, in both cases the source of the apprehension aren’t weird pockets out in the middle of nowhere. Square-Enix didn’t release a financial report at a weird time; it released one at the usual time posting a loss. By contrast, the real panic that presaged the Trion mess came from sudden and unexpected layoffs and then involuntary PTO that didn’t coincide with any sort of transition between launch and live team; while those sorts of job losses are still sad, it’s not as worrisome if you hear that a new game released and then some people were laid off.
That’s the real core of it. It’s not a matter of what the company says and it’s not a matter of how that contrasts with what you observe or fear because you can paint almost any picture you want with those. I can certainly picture a scenario before the collapse of Trion wherein I’d believe that yes, things really were fine and people were overreacting, but not when its layoffs happened without any surrounding obvious motivator and when the company line was just “nope, don’t worry, there are no problems to be found here whatsoever, and how dare you even ask about such things.”
To a certain extent, the days of early access have helped the transparency side of things somewhat; it feels as if companies are a lot more willing to be honest and state that something isn’t working or a game isn’t profitable after launch. But it’s hardly a universal boon, since you also wind up with titles like Bless Online that admit the game needs work but that the company is fine even as negative feedback fills the airwaves.
So, let’s not just be flippant. What are the real signs that claims of “all is well” are lies?
- The inciting event is unprompted by visible factors. A series of layoffs did not follow a launch but happened out of the blue. Player numbers drop instead of rise after an update. Something occurs that runs contrary to your expectations, or at the very least does not have have an obvious and benign explanation.
- Claims that everything is fine are immediate and inflexible. Half of the time there’s not even an explanation offered (because how can you offer an innocent explanation for suddenly laying people off out of the blue), and when explanations are offered they usually get crouched in vagueness. But the statement is firm in that everything is fine and nothing is wrong, and the stuff that looks like something is wrong is just normal background noise.
- Actual forward motion seems immediately absent. I hate to keep picking on Trion, but it’s such a clear example; when layoffs hit and rumors swirled about RIFT being slipped into maintenance mode, it was immediately denied. And then… very little happened with RIFT. Next to no new development occurred. Which means that the claims of “we’re still doing things” weren’t backed up by actual things being done.
- Further troubling signs follow. Layoffs in particular are like this. First, the layoffs happen, then something else bad happens or something isn’t added on schedule, or some particularly nasty numbers come out from a financial standpoint. In other words, the insistence that all is well is followed in short order by more signs that it isn’t.
- Vagueness replaces details. This tends to accompany when all is said to be fine about games that seem like they’re flailing. The team eagerly states that they have big plans for the next few months, but no plans are actually detailed, or they don’t really seem to be big plans by most standards. You go from having a picture of the future to a picture so blurry you could add almost anything without it seeming completely wrong.
The thing is that usually, when you’re being told that all is fine whilst things aren’t fine, there’s a very clear motivation: The owners don’t want you to leave just yet. Sure, the company is floundering and development has ceased, but there’s still enough money to keep the light on for a little while longer, but if you knew that, you’d probably leave. And then there wouldn’t be just a little additional trickle to hope for a turnaround success or make the assets look better for another buyer.
Don’t assume that every bad event means disaster, in other words. But if everything you hear is either bad news or weaker news, and development goals seem to be replaced by something far less ambitious… keep your eyes open and be leery. It’s probable that things aren’t as fine as you’re being told.