Vague Patch Notes: How to recognize MMO lies from quite a long way away

    
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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?

Still here, guy.

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.

Uh

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.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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Jersey
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Jersey

Just a thought… How would players react if a game studio were being honest about having financial problems? For example by telling that they need X $ from all current players to stay afloat for one more year. Maybe even run a little fundraising campaign, for example “everyone who spend X $ or more on subscription or in the in-game shop during the next month will unlock the title “Saviour” for all of their characters” or something.

For my own part, if it was a game I wouldn’t want to lose and the amount asked for not unreasonable? Sure, why wouldn’t I? Especially if they show numbers to back it up.

Kind of reminds me of when Massively-that-was became OP about four years ago ;-)

((Also: The larch!!))

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Matt Redding

We somewhat have an example of this from City of Heroes. They really slowed down development and at one point only had a handful of people on it (but this was concealed from the player base). They made a premium costume pack with some minor perks and sold it and suddenly the devs were like, “Oh we made enough money from the costume pack we can give you the villain epic archetypes you wanted for so long!” Then they entered into a series of “Buy this new mini pack of stuff for $15 and we can develop X content” which lead them to eventually just going to the free to play model and selling all the new stuff. Now CoH of course was eventually rudely cancelled but it was cancelled while being more profitable as a FTP than it had been as a subscription game. It was canceled when it was making money because while its revenues increased they didn’t increase as much as the owners hoped for. Basically, it was killed due to corporate politics and the mother ship NCSoft wanting to show that it was “doing something” to offset Lineage dropping in revenue.

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sizer99

Basically, this is like dealing with another person in a relationship you have suspicions about. The tone and amount of detail are just as important as any actual claims being made.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

Here’s one of my favorite ones that’s company specific, that idea is on the table, only a small minuscule of accounts were affected.

Those of us in the know are aware of the company I speak.

All snarkiness tongue in cheek stuff aside,

You know I think this is going to be a string of articles to attempt to educate us to make the comment section cleaner, I’m speaking of course about that article with 10 taboo comments that we should avoid making I guess. So these articles should theoretically make us more savvy when looking between the lines before we comment?

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Ardo Norrin

I think this article says a lot that’s applicable outside the MMO industry or game industry. Here’s a rule of thumb: In communicating with the media or customers, companies (at least in the US) can lie with impunity. However, most countries make it illegal to lie to investors. Now, some will still lie, but usually they’ll just offer rosy interpretations of facts (or dire interpretations, if that’s what they want). The factual data (earnings, expenses, balances due, etc.) is generally factual.

So, if you want to know what’s really going on and you’ve got the patience to pick through it, your best bet is to read the reports to investors. For publicly traded companies in the US (which hits all the major developers), that all has to be made available to the public, so you can find it on their websites under “Investor Information”. You can also find legally mandated disclosures from the SEC in the EDGAR database. Some Google-Fu or a visit to your local public or, if there is one available, university library can help you find things like subsidiaries and even more details.

Three caveats: 1) If you can’t get hold of things like the quarterly report to investors, you’re going to have to parse financial statements, which is awful and boring (and often what companies who are lying to you don’t want you to do); 2) Figuring out title-specific info from a game company is challenging to say the least. You’ll probably need to find out how your game fits into some corporate org chart and hope the financials tell you more (the quarterly reports will be helpful); 3) You’ll have to look at reports over time, too — current data will rarely reveal anything but immediate disaster.

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rafael12104

Thanks for the article. Lays it out very well.

I’ll only add that there are two other factors that greatly contribute the fire alarms we should be hearing when things aren’t fine.

A devs credibility is key. Most will know this as “brand”. I go on about it a lot because it is a gauge of consumer confidence.

You mention Square Enix and there ability to move forward and continue to deliver despite the problems with FFXV. That is one example of many that show why SE has good brand loyalty. The result is consumer confidence that SE will take care of their customers and bring quality products to the marketplace. A truly profitable strategy if you are thinking long term.

The other variable that is becoming more evident are the shifting sands of management and ownership. Devs may have the best intentions but sometimes the problems are beyond their control. Take Bioware and Mass Effect Andromeda, for example. I’m quite sure that devs started the project with every intention of surpassing the heights of ME. But mismanagement and a complete shift in priorities and direction by EA changed everything.

Devs lie, oh yes. You can pick your own example. Heh. But I also think that sometimes devs are made into liars because directives and corporate interference change the environment and scope of what they are tasked to deliver.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

You know I think this is going to be a string of articles to attempt to educate us to make the comment section cleaner, I’m speaking of course about that article with 10 taboo comments that we should avoid making I guess. So these articles should theoretically make us more savvy when looking between the lines before we comment?

Think I’m going to add this to my actual comment, god damn morning coffee hasn’t completely kicked in yet.

Veldan
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Veldan

The lack of anything happening with RIFT was kind of predictable. It looked like they sent most of the people who made the game and worked on it all these years out the door, so who is even left to develop it any further? They just hired a bunch of random people to form a new community team, who are a total joke btw. Some of them had never played an MMO, let alone RIFT.

Alyn
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Alyn

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
― Abraham Lincoln

Pepperzine
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Pepperzine

I think it’d be really interesting to get a post-Mortem on the revival now that the dust has settled!

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Dan

How to 101: Look at anything the developers of Ark/Atlas say, apply logic.

Dalishal
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Dalishal

SWTOR is not fine. I’m sorry but it’s not. You don’t call a game that goes almost 4 years without releasing a raid, 2 years with no major story release at all, several content creators and major guilds closing as fine. Yes there is supposed to be an expansion coming up but BioWare hasn’t even tried to match the current content release schedule of their peers in the market. Not even WOW’s once a year new content release schedule. That is not just fine. A single map is not enough. Qol is not new stuff. Ask a game Dev answered a question about how to tell if a game is experiencing decreases in revenue and used SWTOR as an example. What happens before a game is in serious trouble? Cost cutting. SWTOR has been cost cutting for years.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

There’s something super fishy going on with SW:TOR that’s for sure. No sane publisher would neglect a key IP that badly. Now I realize calling EA sane is a bit of a stretch but given their MO they should have shuttered it years ago.

Smells like a contract stipulation. (Yes I’ve said it before)