Massively Overthinking: Canaries in the MMO coal mine


A few weeks back on the MOP Podcast, reader Danny posed us such a provocative question that we said right then we were going to turn it over to the team. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in this week’s Overthinking.

“We all know there’s a specific type of game that in hindsight seems destined to be either a critical or commercial flop,” Danny wrote. “Fallout 76, Lawbreakers, Battleborn, 90% of MMO Kickstarters, and so on. At least in my social circles and less anecdotally on the sites I frequent, it always seems to be the same people early adopting and going down with the ship mentality hard from day one, while the rest of us go, ‘Something stinks here; I’ll wait and see.’ It made me wonder if there is another brand of consumer like ‘whales’ who are just as predictable and documentable: canaries. But these ‘canaries’ are more of an early warning sign to the other consumers than a source of easily farmable income. Are canaries a thing in online games? Or am I just used to dealing with a lot of early adopters who just never learn?”

For those not familiar, the “canary in the coal mine” refers to birds taken into coal tunnels; any poisonous fumes (like carbon monoxide) would kill the canary first as sort of a primitive but effective early warning system for the miners.

I’ve posed Danny’s theory to our team. Are “canaries” the way he’s described them a real group in the MMO community? And if so, are they even a problem?

Andy McAdams: I think these “canaries” — the people who flit from title-to-title stanning a game until it melts back into the primordial gloop that spawned it, then Homer-Simpsoning into the hedges — are an early warning system. I think they are a group of people for whom the idea of the game will always be better than the reality. These are the people who fill in the gaps in the developer’s pitch with their own wants, needs, and aspirations and then get emotionally invested in this game they’ve created in their mind.

But those canaries aren’t particularly drawn to games destined for failure. They are drawn to games that allow them to fill in the gaps in the pitch (whether the developer intentionally messaged things to allow that or not). Some of those games will turn out to be really great despite the ambiguous pitch or lack of vision at the start. But more often than not, the game flops because the very ambiguity that draws the canaries in is representative of developers who don’t have a clear vision of where they are going with their game. So we see a proportionally larger number of failed games with canary-stanning because the thing that enables that canary-stanning – the lack of vision and clarity on the vision–is the very thing that makes the game more likely to fail.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I’m wondering if canaries are whales in the making. Like, if the canary is sent into the mineshaft and dies, everybody flees. But if the canary survives and eventually finds a source of water in the shaft (like an old cave system, perhaps?), it may enjoy spending some time flitting around the water source, occasionally bathing. Eventually, the canary spends more and more time bathing in the cave pool and evolves into a legless mammal. Over several iterations, the mammal grows in size and earning potential, eventually becoming what the cave was designed to support, the elusive cave whale.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I joked on the podcast that maybe I am my own canary, since if there’s a game I really love, it’s sure to get sunsetted – just ask Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes! Hehe. And it’s not as if everything I’ve ever backed on Kickstarter has come out the way I hoped. So take what I’m saying in the same cheerful, self-deprecatory spirit: Yeah, some MMO players are definitely canaries in the way Danny means. Some MMO gamers have more hope than sense and more money than caution and y’all know who y’all are. It’s often the same string of very online, hardcore gamers moving from one Kickstarted or indie or fledgling title to another, getting their hopes up, pouring money in, immersing in the Discords, then eventually becoming disillusioned, talking shit, and moving to the next dream.

So sure, some folks are canaries for other gamers, and their support can represent the kiss of death in the same way the excessive support of whales can be a red flag for pay-to-win, and there’s surely overlap between the two. But that also makes them marks for studios, and that’s where I stop being cheerful and get angry – at the companies, not the gamers being preyed on. That’s a problem whether you’re putting in actual cash or just putting in time being a “superfan” and de facto marketing vector for the title.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I’m pretty sure they’re a thing, but I wouldn’t really call them anything though. If anything they’re people who value their time more than anything. MMOs are massive timesinks, and even during a time of stay at home orders and working from home, some players (including me) opt to just go with reliable games they’ve been playing for a while. I guess I’ve got a pretty boring answer, but if I have no doubt about playing a game and also excited about it, I’m diving regardless of how long it’s been around or if the average gamer doesn’t like it. This does not happen too often anymore. If it’s something that’s mildly interesting, I find it much better to just play the game and if I end up spending quite a bit of time on it, I’ll drop some money its way. This is assuming it’s a free-to-play game. If it’s an MMO that I have to pay more than $10 for, I probably won’t play it unless there’s a special free login event or something.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Hmm… this is extremely interesting, actually, and considering the glut of Kickstarted, crowdsourced, and early access launched titles out there and in the wings, I can see how people being “canaries” can be thought of. The problem I have with the term is that it’ll be weaponized like “tryhard” or “fanboy” as part of the glossary of MMO terms that need to go die in a fire.

As for whether they’re a problem, that depends on one’s wider view of whether crowdfunded and early access releases are a problem. I rankle at the way some of these practices work, but I also am bought in to Star Citizen, gleefully enjoyed Dauntless during its stages of development (and still do today), have backed Crowfall, and have my fingers crossed for the CoH legacy titles like City of Titans and Ship of Heroes. Ultimately, calling people “canaries” seems to sort of feed into the black and white opinion of many (“Crowdfunded and early access games are bad and you should feel bad for helping the genre die! Rabble rabble rabble!”) when the matter is far more nuanced and really changes from game to game.

But on the other hand, watching the behavior of the canaries could indeed be the signal for others that a developing game really does have promise. I’m pretty sure I was a chirping canary when I was asked about whether hopping in to Star Citizen was wise when I was part of the recent MOP podcast.

Again, very interesting question. Dang, Danny, you’re good.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Danny is entirely right. Also, kind of wrong. Let’s go over the former first.

There are definitely people who serve as this sort of an early warning system, and they are almost always people who are seeking out something specific. I don’t want to call it nostalgia, exactly, because nostalgia is a wistful longing for the past, whereas these canaries are longing for a feeling. Look at the games Danny listed in the examples, either. Games that are deliberate throwbacks to older MMO mechanics but more so, as if the things that really made Ultima Online popular were the gank squads and janky early mechanics and not the sheer originality. LawBreakers, an urge to return to the days back when shooters were more grim and serious and competitive that never really existed. A lot of these games are either mandatory open PvP or primarily focused around PvP, bringing around a thought of times when everyone played against other people and that was how video games were, people don’t want to cooperate, it’s a game of winner-take-all and the big gun wins, right?

It’s not really a matter of seeking out the past again, but one’s memories of the past, which is much more complicated. You see this sort of thing a lot when it comes to toy collectors, wherein people will decry new toys as being somehow “kid-oriented” or “goofier” than their predecessors when the toys you remember as a kid were equally goofy… but you recall them primarily from play experience and fuzzy memories that gently spackle over the reality of the past. (Here’s a prime example.) The present can’t live up to the past not because the present is worse but because the memories are primarily around emotions rather than the actual history.

For the record, lest it seem as if I’m just bragging about being smarter than people, you are talking to someone who at least once per month has vivid plans to start playing a character in either WoW or FFXI for it to be “like it used to be” before remembering that this is ridiculous. I am not immune to these impulses.

However, I said that Danny is also wrong, and the reason is that the comparison between “canary” and “whale” doesn’t really work here. Whales are people who are willing to sink a lot of money into a game, but that’s because they already enjoy it and are able to toss in disposable income. Canaries, meanwhile, are people who aren’t really inherently about financial solvency. Instead, they’re willing to overlook other warning signs in the hopes of recapturing a feeling, even when people see the warning lights and would like those actually addressed ahead of time. Canaries serve as an indicator that these developers are more willing to market to vague feelings than actual audiences because they think they’ve found an audience who will overlook any flaws in hopes of grabbing that feeling again.

Basically, canaries are the sort of people who are always going to fall for talk about bringing X back (where X can be almost anything from the past, from “real open PvP” to “real competitive shooting” to “sexy” or whatever) no matter how many times someone fails to accomplish that goal. Which makes them a useful group of players to think of. But canaries can be whales or not; those are separate classifications.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I want to be cautious here because it’s easy to paint with too wide of a brush on a gaming community made of people who might be early adapters and early enthusiasts for a lot of reasons. Also, it’s very easy to look back after a game bombs or lets people down and laugh at those who were “foolish” enough to fall for it… even though we’ve pretty much all been there at one time or another. We don’t have clairvoyance into the future and whether or not a game will fail, but we can embrace both realism and optimism without conflict.

The warning sign that I keep a look out for when it comes to people is whether or not they are willing to see potential red flags and flaws in an upcoming product or if they’re white knighting so hard that there is no room for any doubt or criticism (the opposite is true, too; I don’t tend to listen to people who double-down on hating a product that they don’t acknowledge its virtues). I still love getting excited over upcoming games, but I’ve learned to keep my eyes open a bit more and not try to gloss over the bumps when I’m managing my expectations.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): Do canaries exist? Yes. You know that guy who just had to be in Alpha 1, even though all you could do at that stage was run around in your placeholder avatar, hitting placeholder mobs with placeholder sticks and sometimes open doors, unless it was a door that crashed the game if you got too close to it. You know all those content creators streaming footage of a game that will release this year… or probably release this year. Or next year. There are people diving deep into that mine at the first opportunity, often feeding out information.

I used to be a canary but have since switched to waiting on the canary results. That is still a gamble for me, since I seem drawn to niche games that may have a hard time getting out of the gate. If more niche players buy in, the longevity of the game is more likely, but sometimes you can just read the writing on the wall.

If I had more time and money, I would probably take more chances. There are just so many games and one person can only play so many with any regularity. It is probably the safest bet to stick with proven companies and waiting to see if the game is playable and fun for the canaries. On the other hand, if you love weird little games, there may never be enough canaries to give you a sense of security, so you might as well put your money in if it looks like it will be up your alley.

Yeah, that was a “both sides” answer.

On the question of their influence, there’s a test case in the works. Amazon’s New World seems to have gotten a thorough remake after their alpha run. If those alpha players were canaries, we’ll soon find out if what they sang to the devs was a tune the public will respond to.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I like the concept that some players act as canaries, but I think that would imply that we can be on the outside and watch the canaries’ reaction to help us know if an upcoming title is a disaster.

I don’t think it entirely works out that way, though. Mostly because those canaries tend to have their eyes shut, breathe held, and fingers in their ears while shouting, “la la la, everything is fine here!”

Instead we have to sit on the outside and just hope we see the smoke rising before we step into the fire ourselves.

Tyler Edwards: I’m not sure this is really a thing in the way Danny describes it — all games have loopy uber-fans, and it’s not necessarily a predictor of failure — but I will say that if any new game is attracting a lot of attention from the “games were so much better back in the day/uphill in the snow both ways” crowd, and they’re selling it as the game that’s going to bring us food and water and smite the casuals, it’s generally a pretty good sign that I should stay away from said game.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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