Massively Overthinking: When should we cut MMO studios some slack for trainwreck launches?


A while back, the MOP writers were chatting about some of the trainwreck launches we’ve seen from MMO studios over the last few years.

“I was thinking about Fallout 76 appearing to (slowly) get its shit together, and how we’ve seen a lot of other games with rough launches become much better with time,” MOP’s Tyler began. “I’ve always felt that MMOs tend to improve with age and have been hesitant to jump into games right at launch as a result. I’m wondering if maybe we as a community should just accept that large-scale online games will be rough at launch and we need to give them time to mature, or is that giving developers too much of a free pass for bad launches?”

That single question blossomed into a big conversation about how we judge launches, and that’s when you know the topic belongs in a whole Overthinking. So here we are: Do we just accept that all MMO launches are going to be a mess? When do we hold studios’ feet to the fire for that when we know it’s an inevitability? Or is a quality launch something we should keep expecting a quality studio to offer?

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I guess I see this from two perspectives. From the player perspective, yes, I assume all launches will suck, so when they don’t, I’m pleasantly surprised. Do not preorder, do not take off work for a launch, in fact maybe just don’t bother trying to play for a week or two at all. It’s taken me a long time to internalize that kind of patience for sure.

But as a journalist, I don’t like the idea of giving these studios a free pass to fail their launch. Accountability is a big part of our job, and it should be a large part of studios’ obligation. We do have games that manage to slide into launch or updates properly, and it’s because they’re well-prepared or staggered. Even then, I’m more willing to forgive specific types of failboat, like “whoops we need more servers” or “so it turns out 500K concurrent kills our logins.” But massive piles of broken shit and kitchen sink patches and collector edition lies and garbage monetization should not masquerade as a launch at all, let alone one we should forgive.

The only companies I think deserve a lot of extra rope are indies, and that’s only because I never expect a three-man company to do what a 500-person studio seldom can. But the AAA companies with their piles of money, especially the ones that admit they’re just trying to save money by cutting close to the edge of disaster? Nah, the ribbing is well-earned. (For the company, not for the rank-and-file, let’s be clear.)

And Fallout 76 is just in a league of its own, since so many of its launch problems were  related not to the game being a mess but to unforced marketing and distro and PR errors, one after another. Never forget the great canvas bag shortage of 2018!

Tyler couldn’t have known since this convo happened a few weeks ago, but Torchlight III’s early access ticks a lot of the same boxes for me now: Once the actual tech problems are indeed cleared up, there’s still a lot to be concerned about.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): A troubled launch comes with the territory, especially in MMOs. A launch without issues is certainly a welcome thing, but I’ve been around the block more than enough times to have a backup plan on MMO launch days.

The problem is how many Youtubers have commodified the rage and frustration that happens and recontextualize it as “how gaming today is absolute shite because corportations want your money.” You know who I’m talking about. Suddenly, a very inconvenient, unsurprising thing suddenly becomes this “massive outrage” where “gamers are pissed” about something or other. That’s what I hate more on launch days. Hella people gettin’ mad acting like its the first time an MMO had launch issues… pfft, please.

With everything going on in the world right now, I actively resist watching those people; it spreads even more bad vibes that I don’t want in my life. PSO2 had a bad launch. I saw it coming a mile away though because I knew how finnicky Windows store already was. And with all the fingerpointing going on, that to me was worse.

It was honestly way more enjoyable for me to learn what was wrong and then solve the issues I had. It helped me get to know the game in a deeper sense. All that poop about blaming Microsoft and Sega was just pointless! Launch issues are easy to fix; a negative mindset on gaming is a whole other problem.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): This is one of those questions where I really wish I had more technical knowledge to understand or appreciate why stumbling online launches always seem to happen. Alas, I am coming at this topic from a layman’s perspective; discredit or ignore me as you see fit.

That said, I always sort of assume every game’s launch will be a tire fire, especially the bigger the game gets. What will make it less annoying will be the level of communication between the devs and the players, and that’s what separates the good launches from the bad. Torchlight III has been, from what I’ve seen, pretty communicative, while Phantasy Star Online 2 has vomited up the same statement about its problems from pretty much the start.

Of course, that’s not to infer that companies should shoulder all the blame. At a certain point, players need to chill the heck out and just do something else for a few days instead of review bomb or digitally shriek at a Twitter account.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing is, well… I have less than zero time for trying to drag a company for when its launch of a new online game features (gasp) lag or disconnection issues. Yes, it’s all well and good to say “the studio is big enough that these shouldn’t be here,” but the reality is that things like lag and server strain hit literally every online service. No one is ever going to be so big that these issues don’t happen. If it happened when Disney launched Disney+, it is just going to happen. Complaining about this and calling it a launch issue is absurd.

But a lot of launch issues aren’t in that category. That’s the problem.

I’m not dragging Phantasy Star Online 2’s Western launch simply because, say, there was some lobby lag. I’m dragging it because the game literally deleted itself multiple times and plenty of people had issues even installing the damn thing or getting it to run. That is not something that should happen. And that is where the size of the studio actually matters: because you’re big enough that you can do some dang testing and actually figure this stuff out.

Oh no, launch zones are crowded in World of Warcraft: Classic? Suck it up, cupcake; this is what you signed up for and you all went to the same servers, so welcome to here. But the problems in, say, Battle for Azeroth aren’t about server capacity or anything; they’re about systems that looked bad and people mentioned were bad and everyone knew were problems that just didn’t get fixed. For that matter, bugs of a huge game-destroying scale that should have been caught in testing but were missed due to, say, not having someone test this on a given platform? Those are worth dragging a launch over.

I think the problem is less that we have the wrong approach to being hard at launches and more that our vocabulary for talking about launch problems is limited. Yes, some launch problems just happen and are not worth making a big deal over, and trying to frame making a big deal out of them with “well, the company is big enough that this shouldn’t happen” is kind of silly. But that’s also a different issue from launch issues that weren’t caught or were ignored because the people who could have changed things just didn’t care.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I think we can collectively understand that launches are hard. Our games are extremely complex with teams mixing all sorts of new features and content together and exposing them to the world simultaneously. There’s simply no amount of testing that is going to uncover every potential issue.

With that said, though, there are certain expectations we should have about what problems we can expect and how a studio should respond to them.

Login issues are totally unacceptable. At a bare minimum anyone who wants to play should at least be able to login and wait in a queue to play. Having played Guild Wars 2 for so long, I know login queues don’t even exist due to the mega servers, so I’m hard-pressed to even wait in a queue. I understand most games aren’t built that way, but maybe they should be.

If there is a main quest line that all players need to complete to progress, that needs to be tested and polished to the nines. I can accept that a side quest bugs and can’t be completed for a week, but main ones have to work.

But if there are issues that prevent linear progress, those need to be openly addressed and fixed or bandaged immediately.

Tyler Edwards: The fact is online games — and especially MMORPGs — are enormously complex pieces of technology. If you’re expecting a game to launch with no server issues, no significant bugs, and enough content to rival similar games that have been out for years longer… well, you’re going to have a lot of frustration and disappointment in your life. Expecting a game intended to run for years, possibly decades, to have it all together in the first couple weeks is unrealistic and terribly short-sighted. We can keep getting angry about launch issues that seem all but inevitable at this point, or we can accept that these things need a little time to work the kinks out. If you don’t want to deal with those kind of issues, you have the option to wait a while for the game to sort itself out — I’ve often done so myself.

Like anything in life, of course, it is a matter of degree. Some hiccups at launch are to be expected, but that doesn’t excuse truly major blunders. Fallout 76 is an example of a game that had more than just some hiccups; there were genuine, serious mistakes made for that game. How anyone expected that fanbase to be OK without quest NPCs is beyond me.

Even in such cases, though, I think we should be open to giving games second chances if they make a serious effort at improving. To continue using 76 as an example, I think it’s done a great deal to turn itself around, and the trend for the game seems to be upward. That doesn’t entirely excuse how bad its launch was, but the effort deserves credit. Whether Fallout 76 specifically deserves a second chance is up to individual taste, but I don’t think we should ever discount a game due to its past mistakes. That feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

I would also like to see we as a community stop punishing developers for doing the right thing. I swear sometimes it feels like people are more mad about New World reversing their gankbox plans than they were about it being a gankbox in the first place. I’m not even talking about the PvP fans, who have some legitimate cause for grievance. I’m talking the PvE fans who are being served by the change and still somehow seem to be mad about it. How dare they learn from their mistakes, eh?

Yes, going the gankbox route in the first place was an obviously bad idea, and there are legitimate concerns to be raised over whether there’s enough time before launch for them to build a satisfying PvE experience, but at least they didn’t just keep doubling down on their dumb until the whole game crashed and burned beyond hope of repair, like a certain space western MMO I could name. Admitting you’ve made a mistake and changing course takes humility, and that’s something we should prize in a development team. If we’re still just as angry about a mistake after steps have been taken to address it, developers have no incentive to learn from their mistakes or fix things.

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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