Vague Patch Notes: Lazy MMO developers don’t exist (at least not the way you’re thinking)

    
25
SELF-DESTRUCT

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.

Yes, yes it is.

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.

Hmm.

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.

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.

25
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
kjempff
Reader
kjempff

I think intellectual lazyness springs from not having influence. If you are just a factory worker, a programmer doing what the gamedesigners tell you to do, and not being heard or taken to advice even if programmers often understand gameplay mechanics better than a schooled gamedesigner (I am no fan of gamedesigners that are not programmers).
Anyways at that point you begin to not ask the important “questions” (aka, listen mr. Gamedesigner, you hav not thought this through), and eventually you just do what makes your job least troublesome (not getting into intellectual discussions with people who are not listening).

The other kind of intellectual lazyness is when you are overburdened (this can also be self inflicted as a misunderstood wanting to be highly productive in your job..showoff). When you are overburdened you dont have the intellectual overflow to step back and think about your work, and be critical of it.

Reader
Ald

I find the majority of what i call laziness takes place when new expansions drop. No new class or race and maybe two or three new zones is either lazy or just poorly managed. I should be blown away by new content i waited possibly years for and more times than not, it has been completely underwhelming. I tend to blame the decision makers though and not the actual people doing all the nuts and bolts stuff.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

Ironically, “lazy” is also a technical term in programming.

It means the computer isn’t doing a task until it absolutely needs to; for example, making the HUD only update when there’s some change, instead of updating the HUD every time the screen refreshes even when not needed (and, thus, throwing away processing power on a task that isn’t useful). An important part of optimizing games (or any other kind of program) is identifying where routines and tasks can be made into lazy versions without causing bugs or side-effects.

Reader
Anstalt

I feel like I’ve always meant intellectual laziness when I describe developers as lazy (and have always meant “development studio” rather than specific programmers).

The main thing that irritates the hell out of me is developers not learning lessons from the past. Whatever the genre, there is a rich history of games with success and fail stories to learn from. But the devs seem to learn so slowly!

It’s most obvious in the “clone” culture. When devs try to basically copy a successful game, its extremely rare that the clone does well. In almost all cases, its because the devs haven’t taken the time to figure out why something worked. They tend to see the features and try to copy them, but neglect to see the subtleties of how systems work together to create the whole game and give the user that superior experience.

Within the MMORPG genre, I think the biggest example of intellectual laziness is the copying of single player RPG features without taking the time to consider how they’ll work in a massively multiplayer environment. Its why we still use vertical progression, despite the segregation it causes, the pvp it unbalances and the content it makes redundant. Its why we still have a loot-drop culture, despite the problems it causes with player economies and inflation.

I also think there are two very good reasons why this type of intellectual laziness occurs:

1) The main designers are usually just a small team and they get too focused on the features they like (like story and graphics) and aren’t capable of envisaging the whole game. By the time they start letting outsiders into the process, most features have already been locked down.

2) The churn rate amoungst actual staff members seems to be really high, so the industry as a whole cannot retain its knowledge and learn it’s lessons. If 90% of your staff gets replaced every 10 years, how do you learn?

Reader
Sray

Lazy. Spoiled. Entitled.

In the gaming world, these are all words that have largely been robbed of their real meaning and become empty buzzwords thrown about by those who have decided not to attempt to find a deeper understanding of the problems they’ve found. The overuse of “lazy” is in itself a bit of that “intellectual laziness” described in the article.

Anyway, was a good read. Thanks.

PlasmaJohn
Reader
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
PlasmaJohn

A part of the problem is that the definition of “developer” is so broad that it covers everybody from the janitor to the CEO so when players fling “lazy” at a studio they’re often not tarring the line grunts (engineers and artists) but management and the designers.

Reskins? Utterly lazy.
Regressions? Conceivably engineering laziness but far more likely to be a management problem (screw testing it has to be shipped yesterday!)
Design by metrics without somebody competent at root cause analysis? Management and HR laziness.
Failure to hire people that understand operational challenges? More management fun.
Failure to even consider hiring folks from outside the gamedev niche? Industry laziness.
etc. etc.

Reader
Robert Mann

True. That’s actually a form of what is being noted above though, but more of a business than development form of the ‘intellectually lazy’ as it was called.

Sadly, it seems that every business school learned from the same master, who’s crowning achievement was to gain acceptance of his idea that thoughtlessness, poor planning, and lack of attention to details are not a problem.

Theryl
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
Theryl

In addition to the resource constraint/trade off problems that all projects face, there’s also the fact that adding more people to a project often causes it to take more time, not less – something that’s been well known since The Mythical Man-Month was published back in 1975.

smuggler-in-a-yt
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
smuggler-in-a-yt

Was just going to post something about that exact thing.

People do not scale linearly. So a big project does not get done faster with a ton of people.

There’s the famous two pizza rule – never try to do anything with more people than can be fed by two pizzas.

I appreciate the article; just feel like Eliot’s looking to discuss something for which there is no simple reason. People are complicated and messy. To try and make their cumulative efforts encapsulated or labeled is just going to be difficult.

Reader
Sray

I find the two pizza rule to be problematic: my fat ass can easily eat at least one all by myself.

Reader
DargorV .

Then bring less people, thats the rule

Reader
Viktor Budusov

As an IT project manager i can only confirm. It’s truth.

Reader
Utakata

This argument can cut both ways…as it can also be used by unscrupulous executives to “downsize” the workforce. To which can also cause project delays and loss of quality, among other things. Just saying. /bleh

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Green Dragoon

When it comes to intellectual laziness, what is crystal clear as a poor decision in hindsight, can be incredibly obtuse to discern while something is being developed.

Additionally, as a designer, you tend to see what you expect a thing to be and not how others will see it. I think this contributes to a lot of the initial defensiveness you’ll see from a designer when their design isn’t received the way they expect. It takes a lot of effort to step back from your own expectations and try to see it from the perspective of those who are seeing it fresh.

And just as a courtesy, there’s a typo in paragraph 7, sentence 1. “Dumb” should be “done”.

ejester
Reader
ejester

lol ridiculous!

Devs can definitely be lazy. Devs can definitely be shitty. Devs can be deceitful and downright dishonest. There are LOTS of examples of this nonsense.

what a pointless article.

Reader
Wilhelm Arcturus

The problem is that you, as an outsider, are not in possession of sufficient information to know any of that. You think you do, but you are wrong.

ejester
Reader
ejester

lol this comment is almost as ridiculous as the article. the internet is literally full of “sufficient information”.

Reader
Wilhelm Arcturus

You’re going to go with “but I read it on the internet” as though that doesn’t prove my point? Good luck with that. Your problem is your inability to recognize your own ignorance.

Reader
Bruno Brito

the internet is literally full

You got to be f*cking kidding me. That’s the hill you’re dying on?

Reader
DargorV .

While I do agree that the article’s point went right over his head, he’s right about the lies and there really isn’t any need for sources or w/e, as he said, the internet is filled with articles on the matter (wether you personally don’t want to see/believe the evidence doesn’t mean its non-existent). I’d even add a simple truth on top, devs are men, men lie to cover their asses, ain’t nothing to do with “being an outsider” or w/e defensive stance you feel like spewing ou because someone just pointed out something you don’t like. Doctors lie, Cops lie, Teachers lie, hell, even your sweet mother lies.

I don’t even care about the whole topic, just found it hillarious that Wilhelm would go all defensive as if personally insulted and then chose to basically cover his ears and go “LALALALALA I DON’T BELIEVE THE INTERNET”

Reader
Bruno Brito

Not the point.

Reader
Bruno Brito

It depends of what you take by developer, sweetie.

When you’re hired to do a job, without regards for how monetization is being done to the game, you’re just rank-and-file. You’re not lazy, you don’t have power over a game.

A complete monetized shitshow still had decent people working for it.

Andy McAdams
Staff
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
Andy McAdams

*watches the point sail majestically over your head*

Reader
Sray

Sorry, but did you actually read the article? At no point did it say there was no such thing as laziness in the development process: quite the opposite. The article was pointing out bugs, imbalances, and/or oversights are seldom the result of laziness: they’re more often a matter time/resources. Furthermore, it goes on to point out that laziness does frequently occur on the design side when a course of action is decided upon without properly researching whether or not it will actually work.

I can’t believe that I just summarized an article that is on the same page as my summary, but your comment is a whole bunch of that “intellectual laziness” that you clearly didn’t bother reading anything about.

Reader
Wilhelm Arcturus

A high functioning development group will be constantly stack ranking tasks based on importance, impact, and dependencies so that somebody on the outside might think that the fact that they didn’t take care of the one simple item they asked for (which, by the way, has a very high likelihood of not being as simple as you think, there being a common misconception that “simple to describe” means “simple to code”) indicates that the team is “lazy” or whatever. Being on the inside gives a much different picture.

To further that along, individual devs tend to put in more effort into things they are passionate about. It is human nature. People will stay late and work at home to accomplish things they care about, but may not go above and beyond for features that don’t spark them. Things not getting extra effort is not a sign of laziness.

And in a real development group, where things are on fire, customers are yelling at them, the plan has gone out the window, and they’ve laid off anybody who doesn’t code due to budget constraints, there is no time for laziness. It is the opposite of laziness, a situation where there often isn’t time to think things through and see how they fit into the bigger picture, where code gets thrown at QA without bothering to mention the dependencies that got changed which might impact other areas of the product, and where the big issue of the day often overrides a lot of stuff that ought to get done.

Also, why do your dishes need to be dumb? Have they be talking back to you?