The other night, I was reading the Final Fantasy XIV subreddit and came across that gem of all gems for people who love badly reasoned arguments: the “rework Blue Mage” thread. There’s layers to unpack there, but frankly I already did that before and this column isn’t actually about that; instead, it’s about one of the phrases used in the argument, the claim that the development team working on FFXIV designed a limited job because the staff was “lazy.”
This is a pretty common accusation aimed at teams for anything that the speaker doesn’t like. And more often than not, people who know anything about MMOs and the complexities thereof are well aware that “lazy developers” is in and of itself entirely incorrect. Today, I want to talk about that… while also talking about the fact that there is, in fact, a side of development where “lazy” is an accurate descriptor that basically never gets used because it’s far more complicated than that.
For starters, I’m going to just note that when we talk about laziness, we’re really talking about two different things. (Apparently some psychologists think that “laziness” as a concept is itself rooted in misunderstandings about how human minds work, but for the moment we’re just staying here with the idea that “lazy” is a real thing.) The most common use of the term is functionally an executive laziness: You know what it is that should be done, but you don’t put in the effort.
Yes, I am including myself in this category. I could make a new header image for this, but I really don’t feel like hunting one down, cropping it, and uploading it right now. The dishes can wait until tomorrow. I’ll get gas the next time I drive. It’s human nature, the thousand little niggling chores that we evaluate as things that can be avoided and thus aren’t done.
And let’s face it, everyone does this to a certain extent at work because we all know that there are some things that we can let slide and perhaps be a bit less efficient with because hey, no one’s going to notice or care, right? It’s very easy to reach that point.
Here’s the thing, though: When you get up to big, sprawling projects like MMOs, laziness doesn’t really exist any longer. What exists is time and effort.
To extend that analogy, you might say that it’s lazy for me to not do the dishes when they need to be done. But if I’d been working a marathon session on that particular day of two different jobs, proofreading and writing, collating images and doing research, then feeling like I just don’t have the energy to do the dishes stops seeming lazy and starts being just a matter of exhaustion. You do as much as you can with what you have and that has to be enough.
This is basically how larger projects are. There’s not a point when developers just say, “Eh, don’t feel like coding this any longer, screw it.” There’s investigation of what’s been done so far, questions about whether or not certain things can be implemented, and a careful evaluation of the effort for any given objective compared to the reward for where that effort goes.
Where laziness is going to creep in, if it ever does, is in coding and file structures and things that are invisible to the end user but make fixing a problem way more of a mess than it needs to be. And the things you think of as “lazy” are generally anything but; they’re intentional choices made to fulfill a certain need.
Recolored equipment from previous content? That saves the modeling time and some people will be excited to have new colors, new patterns, or just a familiar piece back. Maybe this version can be dyed differently (or at all). Recycled basic objectives for quests? Hey, people have been playing the game long enough, so don’t buck what works. Things aren’t balanced perfectly? Balance is hard, and you’re never going to get as much data with internal testing as when you unleash players.
Every MMO has limits in terms of manpower, time, and cost. Heck, manpower in particular is something we don’t tend to acknowledge, but throwing more people at a project doesn’t make it faster. Whenever you see something that you can think of being better than it was, though, that doesn’t mean that anyone didn’t feel like it; it means that the problem couldn’t be solved or was deliberately determined not to be a problem.
And that’s when we get into actual laziness.
Remember how I mentioned that there are really two sorts of laziness? When people say that the developers are lazy, they’re talking about executive laziness… but there’s also the issue of intellectual laziness. Not thinking things through, not planning, not considering possibilities, not really putting in the thought and consideration.
The development team on WildStar was not lazy in the executive sense. A whole lot of work was put into that game. But the game did suffer from a horrible spate of intellectual laziness that didn’t really examine the implications of how its endgame was put together, what its challenge modes for dungeons actually rewarded, how hard it would be to get into a grindingly difficult form of endgame raiding that no one wanted… as plenty of people said at the time.
Intellectual laziness is when the thought just isn’t put into the work because you think you already know all of the answers. You don’t have to think about it or examine your preconceptions, because you know better. And it’s something that literally all of us are capable of, almost all the time.
Why do I spend a lot of time looking at data about subscriptions and sales, reading forum posts, watching player opinion, and paying attention to the community? Because that’s the path to not being lazy. Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction and enshrining it as completely right, you need to spend a whole lot of time doing the work and examining what you “know” to be true.
And the same is true of developers. Launching an MMO alone means understanding where the market is, what a group of players want, how much money it can realistically make, budgeting accordingly, and so forth. Continuing to update the game means even more work figuring out what players want, what changes are being requested, why, and what’s going on underneath all of that.
Oh, and just so you know, you’re also being consistently told by a certain section of your fanbase that you’re right and another segment is always going to tell you that you’re wrong. Past a certain point, yeah, it’s easy to fall into intellectual laziness and just assume you know better.
So there is, sometimes, an actual problem with developer laziness. The trick is that it’s not the sort of laziness that’s easy to point to as something not being done. You have to take the time to understand what sort of laziness is actually going on, what options aren’t being considered. It’s not a matter of “this wasn’t done because nobody cared”; it’s that someone made a decision, didn’t re-examine that decision, and just keeps defending it despite that fact.
And that’s… bad. But I don’t feel like writing a longer concluding paragraph; it’s late and I need to sleep.