Vague Patch Notes: Online games are a marathon, but they still need to start running

    
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A very short marathon.

One of those phrases we like to use a fair amount here is the fact that running an MMO is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t need to look far to find examples of games that started small but managed to claw up in esteem over time. The Elder Scrolls OnlineFinal Fantasy XIVEVE Online, and even Warframe didn’t launch to immediate overwhelming success, but all of those games developed followings, improved gameplay, and steadily acquired more critical clout.

And then you have LawBreakers, which was described as a marathon instead of a sprint and stopped running the marathon pretty early.

This isn’t about dunking on the many games that didn’t make it through that marathon, of course; a lot of games are designed with the intent of long-term updates and wind up falling far short of expectations. (Looking in your direction, WildStar.) Rather, it’s about the very nature of the analogy and unpacking it a bit more because even a marathon is easily lost if you’re not making any forward progress.

Finally, this is a thing.As with a lot of frequently used phrases, it’s hard to find a definitive origin point for this particular analogy being used; Dr. Phil claims to have originated it, so take that with the requisite grains of salt. But it gets applied to almost everything that involves long-term work rather than short-term progress. The idea is that sure, you might stumble at first, but you can recover over the long term! That’s what matters, right?

Except… no, that’s not really what it means. Go try to start a marathon by not running for an hour and see how you do. I’m going to go ahead and guess badly.

Let’s go back to the four titles I listed right at the start. At launch (or start of open beta, for those who want to be fairly pedantic about Warframe) all of those games had serious issues. They also, however, had serious positives as well and were doing things that were legitimately different from other titles on the market. Sure, I can spend hours listing all of the problems with FFXIV at launch, but the game was wildly different from other games on the market at the same time, and it had a lot of elements (robust class-based crafting, elaborate storytelling, detailed worldbuilding, aesthetic sensibilities) that have more or less been preserved along the way.

These are titles where the analogy works because while they had bad elements, they also had plenty of good ones that earned fans who were willing to overlook the problems. There was a nugget of good stuff at the core.

More importantly, each of these titles had designers (or in FFXIV’s case, soon acquired a director) who recognized the good parts and were willing to cut away the rest. There are a whole lot of problems in Elder Scrolls Online, but the design team was more willing to excise the stuff that didn’t work rather than hold on to it. If players hate how things work at the level cap, that needs to be changed. You don’t need more systems to get them on board; you need to change the systems.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that solutions for a game’s issues are easy to implement and transparent even to the designers. (This is rarely the case, but again, it’s the purposes of argument.) It’s hard to look at a game you made with activities you think would be fun and have people tell you that they hate it. It’s really tough to take the required deep breath and make those changes, even remove stuff that you think is cool.

This is compounded by the reality of developing online titles. During the time in which you’ve had a public presence, you’re getting design feedback from fans and journalists. Most of the time, the latter group is more concerned with explaining and understanding than with evaluating, and while we do our best to evaluate things too, it’s based on predictions. The former group, meanwhile, is full of people who are predisposed to like what you’re doing, either downplaying or ignoring the actual issues that may be in place.

So your launch day is the day when you actually get people who are interested without being either on-board or analytical. It can be a splash of cold water that not everyone is prepared to feel.

This picture is, certainly, entirely unrelated.You still see games that have the “sprint” mentality; temports in particular seem designed to sell a few big pre-order packages for games that don’t seem to have a long lifespan. Kickstarted games also can harbor a similar mentality of selling people big on a fandom based not on the game itself but on what the fans imagine the game will be like; the actual game may fall short, or there may not be a game there at all.

The struggle of the marathon isn’t just in getting out the gate with anything and then relying on positive buzz and player counts to boost you up after that launch. It’s the fact that you have to be able to keep going after the start, and you can recover from a weaker start over time. An online game can continually improve, release new content, and ultimately earn a better reputation than it got at launch. Launch scores are just your starting position.

But you do still need to start. And you need to be able to shift your development footing over from catching fans to encouraging new people to become fans.

Interestingly enough, part of this is less about new content and more about managing the narrative. Human beings are wired to like narratives, and if a game casts itself successfully as a scrappy underdog refocusing after launch issues, we tend to think more highly of it than if it’s a bad game that launched and just kept doubling down. But it’s also about new content, things to address the issues people point out and to establish that the game is going to be worth paying attention to over the long term.

We’re facing a slew of titles that either launched recently or will launch soon, and all of them seem to be in need of some marathon treatment. Atlas is struggling to fix bugs and improve the gameplay experience. Anthem’s current narrative is focused on server issues and questions of viability. The Division 2 needs to overcome boredom with its “same as the last one, but new” setup. And there are other titles still mid-run with some stumbles in the marathon, like World of Warcraft and its tepid reception at present or RIFT and the fear that the game has been functionally abandoned.

All of these games are facing their own marathons, and they’ll be interesting to watch. But the fact that these are marathons doesn’t mean that any of these titles can get away with a failure to launch at all. You can rebuild trust after early blunders, but you have to start with people interested in the first place.

Sure, your starting position doesn’t determine where you’ll wind up in the long run if you put in the work. But you do need to start somewhere, or you’re going to end up as a footnote, and your game has to actually change once it becomes clear that course correction is needed. Otherwise the fact that it’s a marathon just means running into traffic more slowly.

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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Maggie May

I look at that comment more from a players point of view, most games require the endurance of a marathon runner to stick it for the long haul. For the developers it must seem that multiplied many times.

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Tuor of Gondolin

Just to be clear, the original version of FFXIV was a complete failure at launch. The game was taken down almost immediately and completely reworked from the ground up. FFXIV: ARR might seem to be a revised version of the original, but the changes were more extensive than that.

I was actually very impressed with Square-Enix being willing to go that far and for their determination in preserving their reputation. That took some guts, IMO.

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Ben Stone

“Almost immediately” – not quite. The game ran for two years while they worked on the revision in the background.

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Tuor of Gondolin

I guess you’re right. They did keep it running for two years. It really didn’t seem that long.

I stand corrected.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

Its more like an NFL Game where you have (content) ‘offensuve drives hopefully capped with a touchdown’ followed by (content) ‘commercial’ draughts.

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IronSalamander8 .

This is a little off to the side but I find the same issues in our local board game design meetup group. Some people change things on a whim, others won’t let go of anything no bad it is, while most of us are closer to the middle as the article points out; keep the good, drop the bad, and tweak the decent to be good.

My own main design started as a very old school tabletop wargame but they don’t do very well in the current market so I went back and tweaked some things; streamlined it, shrunk the modular board, simplified some stats on units, removed a few factions that overlapped too directly with others, and basically took all the feedback I got; both bad and good to make the game a much better and quicker experience. The comments went from:”too long, boring map, too many stats” to “would play again, having fun, love these changes”. Just swallow that pride and listen to useful feedback, when the majority of my playtesters hated something, I changed it or dropped it. When they loved it, I focused on that making that aspect more of a focus. This applies to any games and especially to games that you want running for a long time with player retention like MMOs.

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Akagi

IMO they are more like a 50m dash.

And after that? – I don’t know!
Do the developers know? – They don’t!
Who knows? – Who cares? Let’s shut down and bail!

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Geoffrey Smith

Correct.

The issue, I think, is less times money, than it is a willingness to look at what does and doesn’t work, and go from there. Warframe did it. ESO did it. FFXIV did it. Etc. More online games need to.

You mention Anthem for example. There is a lot of good in that game that is getting drowned out by the stuff that doesn’t work. If they are willing to move away from that stuff, I think it will turn out fine. The question is, are they willing to do so?

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Anthem‘s studio and producer are known for doubling down on ideas that cost SW:TOR enough subscriptions that they had to do damage control during their end of year hiatus.

Willing? Magic 8 ball says… Magic 8 ball is ROFL’ing.

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Geoffrey Smith

SWTOR also started out horribly, was dragged CONSTANTLY (by me as well) and got much better.

So……?

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

The damage was done, unless you count Ossus as an expansion (dont kid your self because Murkmire was bigger), its focus on a sinhle.player campaign for 2 years, releasing one raid on a comfort care morphine drip over the course of a year.

‘The picture of good health SWTOR is.’

That’s right I did that in Yoda’s voice.

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Geoffrey Smith

SWTOR came out in 2011. It got a lot better than what it was at that time. This does not mean it is good forever.