To this day, no one has a quote as useful on the subject of life and death as E. B. White: “We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” Eloquent, brief, and jut a little bit cynical. But this particular column is not concerned with the lifespans of spiders or pigs, but MMOs, and while you could probably still gloss them with those nine words, there’s obviously a bit more to talk about within the life cycle.
One of the fascinating things about MMOs, of course, is that they don’t necessarily follow this cycle in a linear fashion. Sometimes a game goes from launch right to maintenance mode, and sometimes it goes right back to launch again and then it’s a huge success. Or beta just extends on and the whole launch gets a miss altogether. Or everything is fine, then suddenly the game is shutting down. It’s a kind of wild ride. So while this is broadly sequential… well, you get the idea. We can jump around. I’m also going to be listing a couple of notable games in that state, if you want to look at something and say “oh, that sort of situation.”
1. Pre-announcement development
How many games are being developed in this region? We don’t know. That’s the point, we don’t know. This is the part wherein the idea is being pitched, early work is being done, vertical slices are being assembled, and so forth. It’s pretty much invisible, and anything you know about these games tends to be about leaks, rumors, and staffing announcements.
Notable MMOs in this space: Well if there were any we wouldn’t know, would we? Maybe Naoki Yoshida’s next project.
2. Announced development
We have a title! We have some early gameplay demonstrations! We have some reason to believe this is actually a thing that’s going to happen! What we don’t have is a game that anyone can consistently play. This doesn’t inherently preclude games at this cycle of life from having show floor demos, but it does tend to imply that such demos are made for the show floor rather than just being a slice of a larger game in testing.
3. Alpha testing
The words “alpha” and “beta” have taken a pretty thorough drubbing over the past… entire time I’ve been working in this industry, actually. I’m so tired. But at least in theory, alpha testing is when the game in question is not yet feature-complete. It’s playable, but there are big sections even of the basic gameplay mechanics that amount to blank spaces with a post-it note saying “fill this later.”
This is also when a lot of games come into early access. They’re playable, broadly, but they’re not anything like even half-finished. Whether or not players are allowed in is highly variable; developers often prefer to limit these tests to just people who are going to be working within the space of unfinished titles.
4. Beta testing
A game is in beta testing when it’s testing for one of two things. First of all, the game is feature-complete but not content-complete; everything works, but there are still placeholders and unfinished elements, often times related to playable systems. (For example, WoW’s beta testing left several classes without talent trees until pretty late in development.) The other possibility is that the game is being tested more in terms of server capacity, stability, and localization; everything is in, but the team needs to make sure servers are all working correctly.
An awful lot of games just hang out in this status long after it seems like they’ve launced.
We’re counting this as the three months extending out from the actual launch window. This is during the phase of excitement and hype, new groups and new players first rolling in, those lovely first couple of months.
6. Major updates
At this point, the immediate luster of launch has worn off, but there’s still a lot of life in the game and big updates are being rolled out on a fairly regular basis. This is when a game is in a comfortable spot, usually a cadence of expansions and smaller patches along the way, and things are more or less just peacefully humming along. It’s a good time to be a fan.
7. Minor updates
No game really wants to be here, and to be honest, the line between this state and major updates can sometimes be very subjective. The point isn’t that the game’s support is slowing down, but it feels… a bit lighter, on a whole. Yes, updates come out, but they tend to be a bit more lightweight and a hair more disposable. They’re more focused on older fans than on bringing new people in or on making major additions. It’s still evident that the game has life in it, but it feels notably less active.
8. Maintenance mode
This status is, in some ways, like a holding pattern. The game isn’t going anywhere, it might even see some updates, but it’s an accepted fact that the game isn’t big enough to regularly see big updates. The intent is to keep the servers on, make sure that things are turned on and off appropriately for fans, and that everything remains playable even now that the flush of novelty is gone.
What’s interesting is that very few games actually go from maintenance mode to here; more often games wind up stumbling into this particular abyss in an unwelcome fashion. Not that there’s any situation wherein this would be a welcome scenario, seeing as how it’s a place wherein the game is struggling to stay afloat.
A lot of things can land games here. Poor initial reception at launch, lack of cash flow for the studio running the game, sudden and sharp playerbase decline… there’s a plethora of causes, but all of them result in a game that can’t be said to simply be in maintenance but actively struggling to stay around at all.
And, last but not least, we have the point when everything falls apart completely.
Interestingly enough, even this isn’t always the final end for a title; some games shut down, then get re-acquired and come back to life after all. Granted, that situation rarely works out great for the relaunch, but it does happen! And that’s not counting fan-run emulators, either; those can often take a game that has left and bring it back to life after the official lights go out.
Last, and certainly not least, it’s important to note that this isn’t the inevitable end, either. Games can stay in maintenance mode for an incredibly long time. Some have been there for years and show no sign of going away. But that also doesn’t mean no games wind up here, sad though it might be.
Notable MMOs in this space: Gosh, a bunch. This got depressing. Who wants to talk about pangolins?