Vague Patch Notes: Ambition is not delivery in MMOs

Alas, Chronicles of Elyria, there was nothing of you to know

    
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That was a real laugh!

So Chronicles of Elyria is dead in the water. Or… wait, that’s not actually accurate; let me start again. Chronicles of Elyria has admitted that it’s dead in the water, something that has been obvious to a lot of people since roughly the moment it was announced with all of its crazy ambitions. This announcement has come without an iota of apology or understanding but instead still has that attitude of the face of the project still serving as hype man. “We’ve still got something coming! We laid everyone off and have no money from fans or investors, but we’ve done so much work, it can’t be for nothing, right?”

Wrong. It can absolutely be for nothing.

Next week I will do a deeper dive into the failures of this particular project, but today I want to start off by talking a little bit about the project as it presented itself and how it fits into a larger framework because… well, there’s stuff to be angry about when it comes to this one. But there’s also a lesson to be learned, and it’s right there in the header. Ambition is nice, but it ain’t the same as delivering your dang game.

Let’s be clear, “ambition” was not the only problem at work with Chronicles of Elyria. You can see a lot of the other things wrong with it right from the “we’re shutting down everything” post, which spends most of its runtime praising the team and only languidly gets to “we’re shutting down” at the very end as if it were a footnote instead of the main event. This is burying the lede like an inexperienced mafia enforcer trying desperately to shovel dirt over Jimmy Hoffa’s shallow resting space knowing someone’s going to find this guy, like, tomorrow.

But ambition is what the game was sold on. Literally, this was a game charging thousands of dollars to let people be a pretend regent, with the promise that there would be systems in place to make this a totally functional system with support and mechanical elements and so forth. And wherever it wound up, I do genuinely believe that the people in charge of this project started with an intent to make this game exist.

The thing is that ambition is a liar. It shows you something delightful and asks why no one has tried to do this without letting you know that the answer is that it’s really hard to do.

no

That’s an element often overlooked. It’s rare that the reason something isn’t done is that it truly cannot be done from a programming standpoint. Far more often, games back away from doing something because it’s either not fun to play with or because it’s massively expensive compared to the rate of return for spending that time on something else. And as much as an ambitious plan catches your eye and make you think about how fun something would be, the whole purpose of design and refinement is that some of that ambition needs to be trimmed down.

Many of the games that have stuck with perpetual crowdfunding have backed away from investors because the investors wanted to actually change something about the development. This is framed as not wanting to compromise on a studio’s ideals, to be absolutely firm on delivering your vision of the game to players!

Except… well… have you ever noticed that these stories either end with the game not being delivered at all, or possibly worse, still winding up in a compromised form anyway because the developers ran out of money and needed to deliver something?

Chronicles of Elyria is, in many ways, a snapshot of exactly this problem. You can see it right in the game’s history, a series of compromises and half-measures. You even get this particular gem in the midst of the aforementioned “we’ve run out of money and we’re shutting down” letter:

“This left our backers feeling a bit alienated and ignored. So in November of last year we hired a new producer and split the company into two teams: The Core Game Team, still focused on the Alpha 1 adventuring mechanics, and the Online Experiences team, focused on the Alpha 2 mechanics.

“The plan was to let each team make forward progress in parallel, releasing a public, playable demo to the community every four months, staggered by two months. The Core Game Team was going to ship playable, testable experiences related to the above adventuring mechanics, while the Online Experiences team was going to focus on shipping web experiences that enabled testing and validating the kingdom management, land management, economy, settlement management, and other Alpha 2 mechanics.”

But at last you didn’t have investors forcing you to compromise your vision, right? Instead, you had… lack of money compromising your vision. Because holding on tight to that ambition was holding so tightly to an idea that it didn’t actually materialize and the concept that you’d rather fail at delivering anything than succeed at delivering something.

But at least you never compromised.

Ambition is expensive. Ambition costs a lot of money. Ambition can often run into technical limitations that make it difficult or impossible to do certain things that the developers really want to have in the game. Ambition, in other word, is the opposite of actually getting things done; it’s short of a playable game by one full game’s worth of content and mechanics.

Oh, and let’s not forget that all that ambition doesn’t actually assure you that when all is said and done you’ll actually have a game anyone wants to play. I’m sure we can all think of at least one game designer who is well known for having wildly ambitious design goals that never actually materialize into a game that people find fun to play.

The idea of never having to compromise your vision is an appealing one, but it loses sight of the idea that compromising your vision can often be what helps lead you to positive locations. It leads to taking a solid look at your overall vision and realizing what parts are actually vital, what elements make this unique and interesting and something worth playing, and what parts are… well, ambitious, but not really helping the core game out and not explaining to investors or players why this is something special.

Speaking as someone who has worked in a creative field for more than a decade, I know my history is filled with compromised visions. Sometimes it’s due to editorial changes I didn’t get a voice in. Sometimes it’s due to things I argued against but ultimately had to do anyhow. Sometimes it’s due to my own lack of ability. Sometimes it’s just down to time, even – when you need an article out by Monday and you don’t have a chance to write after Thursday, you have to compromise what you might have wanted to write to get your piece finished.

And the vast majority of the times, those compromises were fine. They didn’t actually make things worse. Many times they made things better. And they resulted in all of these projects actually seeing the light of day instead of sitting unfinished because I refused to compromise one inch, because my ambition couldn’t be constrained by things like objective reality.

Perfect is the opposite of done, as they say.

We ultimately cannot judge whether Chronicles of Elyria would have been a great game because it’s never going to be an anything. It’s been shuttered, however much hope there might be for dusting things off and resurrecting the project. But just like the Wayne Gretzky quote about missing all the shots you don’t take, your unreleased prototype of a game is never going to measure up to an actual released game.

All your ambition is no substitute for releasing a playable game. A playable game can be good, bad, need work, have positive elements. But a half-finished tech demo? Ultimately, that just means that all we have to judge your work by is… nothing. And that’s when all that ambition is ultimately a hollow pursuit.

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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Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

At the end of the day, Jeromy Walsh seems to have been an incredibly incompetent manager. Either not demanding, or just unable, to get results from the people working under him. I’m sure he’d bluster and try and argue that, but it’s self-evident via the way we saw next to no results after many years. So between ambition, yes, but also Walsh’s management (or lack thereof), plus a tiny budget and a microscopic userbase (relative to wanting to run three massive servers rather than having everyone on a megaserver), the game was indeed heading towards being DOA from basically the start.

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Robert Mann

Yeah, the ambition involved and where it interested people was widely split. The details of the world were what half the people looking at it wanted (generally the ones who spent less if at all) and then there were the big spenders and PvP groups that wanted the political aspects of things. Trying to please both ends of that, along with all the other odds and ends they aimed for… was too much.

Add to that an environment that was in direct conflict with the vested interest in avoiding too exploitive of monetization with investment (something that was literally a huge discussion between backers and SBS), and finding funding was a huge longshot at best.

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Utakata

Pretty much pwn’d this always to Sunday, Mr. Eliot.

…this pretty much also shoots holes in the idea being bantered around here that crowd founded MMO’s are scams. For the most part, they are game ideas with lots of ambitions, with developers to unwilling to change and little to show for it as you’ve said. As well as a hyped up fan base willing to throw money at it to make it all happen.

Therefor, they are more a religious cult than anything out for player’s wallets. But player’s wallets do help feed it…until such cases as this, they can’t feed it anymore. And the company implodes along with all it’s ambitions. /le sigh

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Rob Hagaman

Just look at the religious following around still-in-alpha Star Citizen!

‘runs from the pitchforks and torches’

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Utakata

I tried to avoid implicating that because I didn’t want an Oleg sized burr up my behiney. But yeah. >.<

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

I agree with those but I’d rather see more ambitious developers than yet another “safe” game not different than existing games. Or game like New World, from developers who belong to a company with huge budget and huge hardware resources to support any ambition, but which ended up (as of right now) as a generic “MMORPG building kit” with no interesting story, no PvE gameplay variety, no interesting crafting, no interesting housing and worst kind of PvP mechanics I have seen in any MMORPG games and which will unlikely to bring any kind of significant profit to Amazon unless they will delay it for few more years and completely rework it. And I would gladly pay the monthly fees and all costs for cosmetic items in real currency store if the ambitious developer will succeed and release something really interesting instead of yet another generic game which caters towards very specific group of players or (in case of New World) does not cater to any group at all, so will millions of other players.

Ambitious developers just need to learn how to manage and calculate necessary funding before starting their project, or hire people who can do that for them. And if they cannot secure enough funding for their ambitious project – they should NEVER start it in hopes that “maybe we will find someone else willing to invest more money” at some future part of development.

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HolyAvengerOne

Great piece, thanks Justin. Very passionate, too.

Did you back the game, too?

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styopa

The worst thing that ever happened to Star Wars (well, George Lucas) was success. As a young, struggling filmmaker he was certainly wrestling with the ideas he wanted to convey. Twisting, turning, trying to figure out JUST how to present them in the best story possible.
And then…success. Around here we actually call it George Lucas syndrome.
Because with success comes confidence, and with too much of it you don’t question your ideas any more. In a place filled with terrible examples of human like Hollywood, you’re also surrounded by yes-men and lickspittles who will enthusiastically, gratuitously confirm your every idea as if it dribbled from the lip of Solomon himself.

I see a large element of this in Kickstarter. When you have to approach money-guys and investors, you have to SELL THEM your idea. It’s literally your first sale. It requires hard thinking, sanding down the rough edges of your pitch, confronting the inconsistencies, really thinking critically about your idea.
OTOH, Kickstarter you’re in a void – this is your “vision” and you can be “true” to it as hard as you like but ultimately it just postpones that actual first sale: where you have to present a product to someone that’s NOT YOU and convince them to hand you money for it. Not for your ambition (per the OP), not for your ideal, not for “how hard you worked” but for Ding an Sich: what it is, bro.
Certainly that CAN work, but lacking the front-end filter that investors require you to employ means a lot more unsustainable ideas live longer than they should.

Great column, packed with insight. Thanks!

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Khrome

Funny you should mention Lucas, i watched this recently:

https://sfdebris.com/videos/special/shadowsjourney.php

It’s not so much a ‘confidence’ issue with Lucas, but more stress and other factors which caused the direction he took Star Wars in with RotJ and beyond.

Watch the other specials by SFDebris about Star Wars as well (Hero’s Journey and Hermit’s Journey). While they don’t make the prequels good, they did give me an entirely new perspective on why Star Wars in particular ended up like it did, and how elements of what Lucas did shaped the movie industry as a whole.

TLDR: I think Star Wars is not the right franchise to use when punctuating the point this specific article is trying to make :)

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Witches

Was this really ambition?

If instead of arrogant that statement was humble and contrite, i don’t think we would be calling it ambition.

On the other hand if he had just disappeared or mocked the people who backed the project we would be calling it a fraud.

MMOs are hard to build even if you have lots of money and/or have built MMOs successfully before, this project had neither of those.

Comparing this to Wildstar, i would say Wildstar was ambitious, it was fully funded, finished, launched and online for a few years, and it still failed, this didn’t even get to the being fully funded part.

If i think i can fund my project with the winnings from my trip to the casino, is it really ambition?

Covynant001
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Covynant001

No, we call that delusion, which is what this game always was.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

IIRC, Chronicles was the one where your character aged and was reborn? Or something like that. This premise alone made the game worth watching. If they had concentrated on that and made a decent MMO surrounding it, they might have succeeded.

It’s truly stunning how many of the games that came out with kickstarter 5-6 years ago have faded into the background, failed to launch, delivered poor designs and are dead in the water or are still begging for money in an endless cycle of “almost there” PR.

Apparently it is very ambitious to try to make a good MMO, which makes the success of the giants in the genre ever more amazing.

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Arktouros

I’d rather have games that failed to be ambitious than games that succeed at the mediocrity that has dominated the MMO genre since 2004.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Not sure you said what you think you said. I’m guessing you meant to say “ambitious games that failed”.

Unfortunately, the genre is littered with ambitious games that failed and I don’t see how that helps anyone. It certainly doesn’t instruct mediocre studios to take chances.

Bereman
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Bereman

Yeah…what they said – “failed to be ambitious” – is pretty much the same as succeeding at being mediocre (at best…at worst it’s a released game that isn’t even mediocre)…

If they meant “ambitious games that failed” I guess they’d be okay with frequently being promised amazing games and then simply watching those games never come out?

Not sure I’d want to be part of a constant cycle of “This game idea looks amazing, the vision for it is so innovative…and I’m never going to get to play it” but hey, if that’s what someone wants to experience over and over then that’s their prerogative.

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Arktouros

frequently being promised amazing games and then simply watching those games never come out?

As a PvP player I’ve been promised high AAA quality PvP games since the early 2000’s and haven’t had a single one delivered. They’re all either super janky or barely functional. I already expect Crowfall to be a technical nightmare of bad performance and Camelot Unchained to be a broken, unbalanced mess.

I still don’t want companies to keep trying to be ambitious and make a good PvP games however. The cycle is only as bad as what you invest into it. I have nothing invested in Crowfall, Camelot, etc. If they all said “Welp that’s it folks” I am okay with that because I have nothing in it.

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Arktouros

Really I meant it both ways but yes I did type that a bit awkwardly for sure. If I could edit I would probably have it read “failed in trying to be ambitious.” The MMO genre has been filled with games funded by people who point at World of Warcraft and demand developers design it again for them.

You look in any field and you will find a number of projects/products that simply failed to get off the ground entirely. This is especially true in tech where often times it’s innovation that drags us forward. Ambition and innovation are all extremely risky but it’s the only way you’re going to make actual progress. That risk means there will be failures. The idea that any those failures have to “help anyone” is just…weird. The most you can reasonably expect is a cautionary tale on why they failed and what not to do but there’s also scenarios where things just don’t work out.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

If developers paid more attention to why ambitious PvP sandboxes so consistently fail, we’d have better games and better experiences for players. If developers stopped constantly repeating failed designs, there would be more games to play.

An outside observer can only think that developers either 1) fail to learn from the mistakes of others or 2) think they can repeat the mistakes but have a different outcome.

Neither one of these is ambition or innovation.

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Arktouros

Would we? I think that’s a bold claim to make because being an outside observer is a poor substitute for practical experience. It leads to assumptions on why things happened and how they happened.

Like anytime a PvP sandbox thread comes up at Massively you see a dozen people offering a dozen different reasons why said game is going to fail. Most of them are just faulty, narcissistic logic of why companies shouldn’t be wasting their time and should instead design the games they want to play.

As an outside observer I recognize developers are human like the rest of us and will likely have their own assumptions on why things succeed or fail. Since they didn’t fail themselves, they equally can only assume what went wrong and come up with solutions they think will address their assumed problems. This goes the other way as well and make assumptions as to why a game was successful and in so trying to copy a successful game they don’t always get what made that game successful correct and it fails.

Ambition is trying to do something no one has really done before, to reach for the stars and set new standards. PvP titles have had a lot of people who talk a big game but none have really delivered a good product. So setting out to make an good PvP game I think is pretty ambitious in the wake of so many let downs and failures.

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Utakata

It gets worse when the ambitious ends up being mediocrity. Seen that with a few releases actually. And New World seems to batting for another example of that, lol. O.o

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kjempff

I was about to try to write something like that. From a gamers perspective, we don’t really need more of the same (mediocre) games, so maybe it is ok for 999 to fail if we get one that succeed in delivering a great game.
Not that I disagree with the article, you have to sacrifice to make it to the finish line – What determine a good developer is knowing what to compromise on so you don’t lose your vision in the process.

I once asked Brevik how he picked one feature over another when the feedback you get often suggest that half the players want one thing and the other half want the opposite thing: His answer was something like, I just know which one is the right one for the game (meaning, following his vision I guess), it is only if a majority is against it I reconsider. Or said in another way, no one knows the “correct” way to do things, you just have to go with your gut and make the game you want.

Obviously, for CoE there were so many other things causing the fail, than not wanting to compromise. Starting out with ambitions 10 times too high for the budget, then adding to the ambition instead of tuning down and cutting features, and on top of that not multiplying by PI in the estimates (the rule of thumb in development estimation).
Adding to that overconfidence, unwillingness to take ownership of failures and correct them, not taking criticism and instead getting defensive, and possibly taking that attitude to investors who are experienced with seeing through bull like that; not good …. You want to be honest with an investor, if you don’t have the experience say that you know this and what you will do to solve it – They already know the problems you will be facing, and they want to hear that YOU also realise it.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

I am not sure I’m buying that you know what software development is like because sometimes a 1,500 word column isn’t all you wanted it to be.

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wratts

Yeah, I kind of side-eyed that myself. Having been in IT 25 years now and published a fair number articles and short stories, I can say conclusively that I can jam out a manuscript in a set amount of time and then it comes down to whether I have time for enough revision later. Software, especially experimental software, isn’t usable until its gone through several revisions

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Ozzie

I think he captures it very well. Compromised vision is exactly the goal of agile software development. But the point is that it’s not just the technical work that needed improvement and restraint, it was the entire management of the studio.

In fact, I’d go further and say the article should be required reading for any product manager of a software project!

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Arktouros

Yea wish someone had compromised that vision and clipped that ambitious comparison.

Bereman
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Bereman

Compromising your vision on a project – whether it’s software, writing, artistic, home improvement, etc. – based on the reality of the situation you find yourself in isn’t exactly a hard concept to understand.

Also, you’re making an inference about their point that isn’t actually in their argument.

What they said “I know what it’s like to have to compromise my vision when working on a creative thing.”

What you’re implying they said “I know what software development is like because I’ve had to compromise my vision when working on a creative thing.”

I trust you can see the difference and don’t need it explained?