Vague Patch Notes: Datamining, leaks, unforced errors, and messaging


So now that Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers has been released, basically everyone playing the game has completely forgotten that the expansion actually prompted some notable controversy before its release. Specifically because of, well, leaks from behind the scenes, datamining, and one notable case where the game itself accidentally spoiled a race reveal thanks to overzealous localization staff. People were stating that there was no mystery, that the expansion had lacked any build up, and so forth.

This isn’t really about that, both since I’ve already told you everything you need to know about that right there and because, well, we know the end of the story now and it’s an ending wherein nearly everyone is thrilled with the game. But it does provide a useful backdrop to discuss what I see as the three arms of messaging in MMOs and how each one falls in terms of the overall culture around the game. That shouldn’t be a complex topic at all, right?

Let’s do that thing where I start by defining terms. In this particular case, messaging doesn’t simply mean direct communication; it covers all communication from the development studio to the playerbase, press, and so forth. The messaging for Guild Wars 2 consists of official Twitter accounts, the game’s site, the launcher, trailers and press releases, screenshots, the pace of revealing new things being added to the game, and so forth. In short, if it involves new information coming from official sources and it’s under the studio’s direct control? That’s messaging.

Obviously, we’re dealing with a nebulous and difficult to define field here, but in the broadest scope it all makes sense. Any given game wants its players to be looking forward to what happens next. The teams behind the game employ people to make sure that the information being put out is something both desired and positive, and it’s paced to keep people excited about upcoming additions while also leaving room for speculation and stuff that’s inevitably going to change during development.

Let me tell you about this thing you can buy.

So now that we have this framework, we can talk about datamining, unforced errors, and leaks. Because all three of these things screw up that aforementioned messaging for different reasons.

Datamining is, of course, a matter of picking through the files of a game after a patch looking for things that have changed since a prior version, often with an eye toward inclusions that aren’t actually included on a feature list. If you go digging through files and find strings related to classes that aren’t in the game, for example, that’s quite possibly confirmation that the class in question is on its way.

Why is this stuff in there? Without going too deep into the woods of the exact process behind software development (since that’s not actually my job and I’d prefer not to make a mistake in recounting my understanding of the field), it mostly comes down to the fact that software development is a long and laborious process in which half-built stuff that you’re going to use in three months anyhow is harder to remove from intermediary patches than to just leave it in there. It’d take as much work to remove those strings as it took to add them in in the first place, in other words.

There’s not much a company can do to avoid datamining at this point aside from adjusting how it manages development branches and entreat the goodwill of the community. Of course, datamining is also largely non-malicious. All of the stuff being revealed is there for anyone with the technical acumen to find in the first place. For that matter, datamining just points to possibilities rather than realities; there was datamining for a bunch of stuff from FFXIV‘s initial version that never went anywhere, after all.

This part is cool. Everything around it, not so much.

Unforced errors are no one’s fault. Well, no one on the player side, anyhow. Unforced errors are things like the character creation screen accidentally displaying two extra races after a patch, or a dialogue option popping up that explains what’s been happening since the time skip in the next expansion. Things like that. In other words, someone forgot to dummy out something.

Technically, a lot of this stuff could be datamined out through other means. However, datamining is a slow process, and some of these things might either be stashed somewhere innocuous or otherwise not known by the datamining community until the game accidentally smacks players in the face with it. These are the sort of errors that get quietly patched out in a hotfix without any acknowledgement.

Here is also a place wherein the problem with the messaging is entirely the fault of the people also in control of the messaging. It honestly might be better to just acknowledge these as mistakes and move on, but that doesn’t seem to actually happen.

The problem might not be the trying itself, guy.

And then we have leaks. Leaks are something else entirely. Leaks are when someone who is actually working behind the scenes decides to functionally take the messaging away from the people whose job is, again, controlling the messaging. Now, instead of whatever roll-out was actually planned for information, the leaker has provided a lot of information that was never meant to leave the room until a later date.

This is pretty much straight-up malicious.

Obviously, there are cases wherein leaking sensitive information is the correct and noble action to take, and I have less than zero interest in examining the complex nature of violating agreements to not reveal information under circumstances wherein that information might be considered somehow illegal or morally incorrect. Why? Because we are talking about video games. Someone who leaks the next four classes being added to the game ahead of the planned reveal at a trade show is not unveiling a secret conspiracy.

So why do I say this is malicious? Because while I’ve gone on record as saying that things like spoilers are granted a wildly outsized importance in the general culture, the fact of the matter is that there is a reason and a pacing to the information being given to a game’s fans. While it’s very possible for the reveal strategy to fall flat, there is still a strategy in play, and information is not being obscured just to make your life worse. The developers know you want to know the answers; that’s the reason that you haven’t been told yet. It’s supposed to be a surprise.

Or to put it another way, leaking information here is like someone telling you what presents you’re getting for Christmas. You might want the information, but as soon as you have it, you’ll realize that you’ve now ruined a surprise and haven’t actually changed the waiting period for it at all.

Leaks are also kind of easy to fake. It’s not hard for somebody to claim that he’s leaking information about a game as an anonymous source regardless of his credibility; the very nature of the claim as an anonymous source shields you from having to prove anything. This sort of contributes to the overall problem wherein you can claim almost anything, and you’re either ruining a set of reveals planned with actual pacing or just making things up for jollies.

Thus, at the end of the day, datamining and unforced errors are sometimes problems but aren’t really the sort that can be solved. They might disrupt the messaging around a title, but all you can do is try to avoid errors or overstuffed update files. Leaks, on the other hand, are arguably just bad things for communities even if they turn out to be true.

And now we’ve… well, talked about that. What? Not all of these columns have a lesson at the end.

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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