Vague Patch Notes: How MMO studio communication and player confidence really work

You won't believe the things I didn't bother telling you!

Here’s the funny thing about communication from MMO studios: It’s vital to the continued feeling of a healthy game, and yet at the same time that communication includes a whole lot of things frequently not included under that header. We talk a lot about the need for communication, yet just posting new information isn’t always enough to change the communication problem despite it literally being additional communication from the studio.

This has been on my mind a fair bit lately because we’ve seen studios struggling with communication and getting it right even as those individual studios have all had wildly different approaches to communicating. So I feel like it’s interesting to take a look at what we mean by communication and what can cause things to work differently for different studios despite ostensibly being the same set of behaviors because it’s not just about actions speaking louder than words. But it also sort of is about that.

When we talk about MMO studio communication, what we’re really discussing is confidence from the playerbase.
Let’s start with a bit of reframing. When we talk about MMO studio communication, what we’re really discussing is confidence from the playerbase. Players want to know that development is continuing, that there’s a reason to stay committed both financially and emotionally, and that there are new things coming to the game over a reasonable timeframe.

As a result, communication from a studio is generally meant to do one of three things for players: reinforce existing confidence, assuage any flagging confidence, or stimulate excitement about something in particular. That last one doesn’t seem connected to confidence, but it helps create a larger footprint for the game in terms of discussions and news.

Let me use a departed example: If you see a whole lot of people discussing WildStar and how exciting an upcoming patch is going to be, you get a sense that people are excited for the game and confident about its future direction. Thus, you’re more likely to at least go check it out. If you see no one talking about it or see all the talk being negative, well… your confidence isn’t going to be high.

things are going great

Similarly, though, confidence is informed by history as much as announced plans. As a good example, while The Elder Scrolls Online is not my main game, the studio has actually been on a solid update cadence for the game for a few years now, with releases that are generally received well. So it feels fairly certain to me that in the future, that’s going to continue. If the company had announced updates that had repeatedly been delayed by months, then a new slate of content updates getting revealed in a roadmap wouldn’t really assuage any concerns.

I am pretty confident in saying that Final Fantasy XIV’s fourth expansion will be released some time between June 15th and July 15th in 2021, for example. That expansion has not been announced. The fan festival where it will be announced has itself not been announced. The second patch for the existing expansion has not even been announced. And yet Square-Enix has consistently had such a solid update cadence and offered such reliable updates that it feels almost inevitable, to the point that this feels like a foregone conclusion two years out.

But predicting the future based on past events isn’t the only aspect of confidence. Flagging confidence comes from a lot of aspects – an update that isn’t received well, a design philosophy that isn’t welcome, a system in an expansion that no one likes all that much. And so a lot of communication comes down to how that is also handled.

To use an example, confidence in a new World of Warcraft expansion releasing sometime next year? That’s pretty high; Blizzard is reliable in that regard. But confidence that it’s going to actually address the numerous player complaints about the current one? Well, not so high. Communication has long veered away from even addressing that there is a problem, and when it has, it’s generally taken the form of “don’t focus on that, focus on this new shiny thing! It’s so pretty!”

It’s not that communication isn’t there. It’s that the communication is aimed at deflecting concerns rather than addressing them, which in and of itself communicates that either the studio doesn’t consider the problems worth addressing or doesn’t know how to do so. And a refusal to even engage with the topic itself shakes confidence.

I guess it's like a win when the community is better than the developers.

So here we see how communication can fall apart instead of actually help the playerbase. Building excitement is all well and good, but excitement isn’t a substitute for confidence. While you can use excitement to help stimulate confidence… well, why do you think I used WildStar as an example up there? After all, you know that the game has shut down. If you saw a lot of people talking with breathless excitement about an upcoming patch, your reaction wouldn’t be to share in excitement but to be confused. Your confidence is already bottomed out.

Building excitement is all well and good, but excitement isn’t a substitute for confidence.
Many examples of subbing in excitement aren’t quite that severe, of course. It’s not as if WoW is on any path to shutdown, for example. But a lot of people are going to be looking askance at the next expansion announcement if it occurs without tangible communication addressing player discontent. It’s present and known throughout the community, and merely announcing an expansion will be an attempt to build excitement while that discontent is still simmering, leading to uncertainty about the game and whether or not it’s even worth being excited about this feature list in the first place.

This is also where communication both does and doesn’t matter the most. A roadmap does a lot for giving players an idea of where the game is heading over the next several months, but if players aren’t confident that it’ll be largely delivered as planned? That promise of content doesn’t really help.

Moreover, it really doesn’t help if there are glaring problems today that are being dodged by posting about vague long-term plans. Anthem really ran face-first into this. The game launched with pretty severe problems on a skeleton that was fun, prompting my own first impressions to be broadly positive if the developers followed through. But instead of addressing those problems correctly, the team flailed.

That's not good, no.

You know what would have helped a lot? If the team had been the one writing up an analysis of the game’s endgame problems and some of the plans to fix those things. No vagueness, just a direct explanation of things like “here’s where loot is, here’s what we understand you want, here’s how we plan to change it.” Even if you change nothing else that happened with the game, I feel like more honest communication acknowledging and addressing faults would have made a positive change just insofar as players would truly believe that movement was actually happening.

As I said before, it comes down to confidence. It comes down to a sense that problems will be addressed, that the studio has a plan, and that future releases will be launched with an eye toward maximum enjoyment for players. Good communication through serious problems, even problems that can’t or won’t be fixed for some time, tends to work out all right. FFXIV Machinists spent an entire expansion loathing the job because everyone was confident that when the next expansion launched it would get a redesign and things would be better.

Trying to drum up excitement without a foundation of confidence, though, is like trying to organize a shuffleboard tournament on the Titanic. Sure, the idea might sound fun to some people, but there’s still the lingering sense that things are going to get worse before they get better. And it’s hard to be excited about the next big thing when you aren’t even sure if anyone paid attention to how the last big thing worked.

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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