Vague Patch Notes: Trying to salvage MMOs from bad launches

I half-see.

So I’m glad that Crucible got a “pull back to beta” instead of a complete shutdown. I’m surprised but still happy because that’s more likely to give the game a little bit of leeway rather than just giving the axe. Of course, that does raise the question of whether this is going to fix things or whether it’s just delaying a shutdown now for a shutdown in the future, which seems to be entirely based around whether or not it can build up enough buzz to get back on its feet.

This, of course, has me thinking about salvaging games. It’s one of those things we talk about a lot when it comes to MMOs and games that launched in a state that was, either truly or simply in the court of opinion, somewhat dire. And that raises the question of whether or not these games can be saved after their launches… and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not it’s worth trying in the first place.

Here’s the thing: Whenever these situations come up, the example that people always turn to is Naoki Yoshida and Final Fantasy XIV, which was definitely considered unacceptable at launch and wound up getting pulled back, relaunched, and turned into… well, what it is now. And that’s an obvious success story, right? It’s very clear that this can be done because FFXIV went from a punchline to an enormous success.

A great narrative. There’s only one problem with it, and that’s how it’s not altogether true.

Half man. Half beard. Another half beard.

I say “not altogether true” because the bulk of the facts are true. The game launched, impressions were brutal, Yoshida took over, the second version launched, reviews were great and people flocked to the game. But that “second version” part is pretty major. The game’s entire set of mechanics, map structure, design, quest flow, and so forth were all wildly overhauled. In a way, it’d be more accurate to say that the game was completely torn down and rebuilt with only the broadest use of assets remaining from the original version.

So it’s definitely a success story, but it’s not quite the success story that needs another few months in beta testing; it took more than a year of development time and was possible largely because Square-Enix was bankrolling the whole thing. Square-Enix can throw all the money it wants at a project without really getting overwhelmed, and the powers that be decided salvaging FFXIV was worth the pile of money it would cost.

The cost element isn’t relevant in the case of Crucible, of course, because Amazon can also just throw money at the game until it’s ready to pull the trigger again. Indeed, it’s plausible that the whole launch was in part based on the simple reality of stay-at-home orders providing an obvious-seeming shot; launch it now, if it does well we’ve made great money, if not, no big deal. (That’s not what I suspect is the reality, but it would line up decently.)

But it is a big deal because the big problem with these things isn’t just the fact that you have to tear down the entire game and rebuild it on the framework of its predecessor. (The word “just” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.) It’s the fact that you also have to fight against the court of public opinion… and you’re already one down because you had to basically call a mulligan.

One of the points I mentioned last week (and I’m as surprised as you are that I’ve written about Crucible two weeks in a row) is that there’s a sort of twisting of the sunk cost fallacy at work with online games. If you expect to be playing one of these games in a year, you’re more likely to spend money on it… but if you don’t think it’s going to last a year, you’re less likely to invest. It’s very easy for a title to fall into a death spiral that way, with no one wanting to play, playerbase dropping, income dropping, and no way to bump interest even as issues get addressed.

ha ha ship go brrrrr

The idea of pulling back and trying to turn things around, of course, is to get a second shot at making that big first impression. But it also means you now have to explain why this time people should be interested in your game, when clearly they weren’t interested in it the first time around. That was kind of the whole problem you had when you launched initially, after all.

We definitely have no shortage of stories about online games that started out without making a big splash but slowly grew over time. EVE Online, for example, is a famous case of a game that launched to poor reception but managed to build its audience over time. The Elder Scrolls Online was actually kind of the underdog when it launched in close proximity to WildStar, if you can believe that from knowing the story; the former had much worse buzz than the latter.

But a lot of games that try to point to “slow improvements over time” as a model forget that neither of these games started out without an audience. Both of them had to convince the audience that already wanted to try them out that it was worth doing so. There were already associations with TESO based on the franchise, and EVE had staked out its territory pretty early in a conceptual sense.

By contrast… what’s going to pull people back to Crucible? What are the associations that are going to sustain the game? What about the project makes this a wiser investment than letting it go?

Keep in mind that this isn’t me saying that’s what Amazon should do; I’m saying that these are the questions that the developers need to actually answer ahead of its relaunch. It’s not enough to just put it back through beta; the game has to be actually retooled into serving a distinct space wherein people want to play it instead of something else. It is definitely a task that can be done, but it remains to be seen if it will be done.

And I’m leery that just its one remaining mode will, by itself, be enough to really help prop the game up. It’s definitely going to be a boon to have development focusing on one thing, but it also raises the question of whether the game’s real problem was a surfeit of half-baked modes or just that one mode out of the three was less half-baked and thus the one thing players in the game wanted to play.

Sometimes, this column is more based on speculating than anything, and this is one of those times. It’s obviously true that you can take a game that had a bad reception at launch and pull it back into a positive place, but I think it tends to be understated just how difficult that actually is because you need to both prove that the game has improved and have enough of an audience that slow improvements are worth the time they take. I’d definitely like that to happen for lots of games… but sometimes, you just can’t fight the momentum.

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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Brazen Bondar

You mentioned an important issue for FFXIV – complete over haul… I don’t know if AGS is thinking that. Of course, they might be, but I suspect not. It seems to be particularly hard for developers who have invested in a particular vision to get to the point where everyone agrees to over haul as opposed to tinker with. Isn’t this part of what doomed Wildstar, a game that should have absolutely hit it out of the box? If, as people suggest in the Overthinking column, its the feel of the game that is wrong, that is going to require more than just tinkering. Amazon is used to just buying up crap and throwing around money and getting its way. Maybe making a good, fun and successful MMO requires more than that. I guess time will tell.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Hype is a dangerous thing in the age of instantaneous social media. Hype used to be confined to gamer magazines, which you picked up at the check-out stand when you bought the latest game in a box. There would be spreads of great pictures, and snatches of dev talk. There might be in-game chat about an upcoming game, an ad on TV and maybe forum talk. In other words, hype had to get out there because it needed time to grow and spread.

Nowadays, hype is always bad. It’s an exaggeration, usually excessively so, about what a game will deliver. And then it barely meets that expectation or not at all and then gamers burn it to the ground because they were sold a load of hype the game cannot possibly deliver on.

Unfortunately, gamers can be very credulous and believe just about anything if it’s wrapped in a terrific cinematic because we all want the fantasy. So I think over-promising hype is a major contributor to player disappointment and game failure.

Wolcen is a case in point, where the hype train just took off and got out of control. It’s a fairly standard game with some fun mechanics that got trashed because it wasn’t the epitome of RPGs many had decided it should be.

Diablo 4 in my opinion is doing a good job of managing the hype. Blizzard, can you believe it? Their quarterly updates allow players to get excited and then tamp down on their own expectations because it’s still so far away and so much can change and maybe they see something they don’t like, so it’s wait and see. When D4 comes out, I sincerely hope it is not hyped up and is evaluated on its own merits and not on fantastical expectations.

Every game that’s gotten back on its feet after a bad launch, ESO, Destiny 2, so many others, have done so through solid game design changes. If Anthem, Crucible, et al., are going to be salvaged, it will be through good development that generates word of mouth that gets players interested in trying them again. Hyping them up beyond what they could/can deliver will be deadly.

(BTW, “hyped up” is a term we used in the last century to describe someone who was high on drugs and behaving erratically. Derived from hypodermic drug use, no doubt. Interesting how far “hype” has traveled in a few decades.)


I feel that identifying the major cause of a bad launch is probably the hardest bit. Between your own metrics, your own feelings, then feedback from critics and the community, I bet it’s a nightmare to narrow down exactly what went wrong. I bet it’s also really hard to admit to mistakes, I can almost guarantee that someone in the QA department will have pointed out the problems months / years in advance, but they’ll have been ignored. The manager that ignored the advice is unlikely to want to own up to it.

If the main problem is part of the core game loop, then I think it’s probably best to can the game and start on the next one. Whoever the main designer was simply got it wrong.

If the main problem is part of the meta-game, this is probably when it becomes worth it to fix it. This is where I’d put FFXIV 1.0: the combat and the world were pretty cool, but SE just made some bizarre choices. For example, the XP penalties for playing too much……/facepalm. I would also put Wildstar in this position too, as whilst nothing was overtly wrong with the game, there were small problems everywhere, resulting in death by 1000 cuts. I’d also put Anthem (tho its not an mmo) in this slot too – solid core game loop, but the meta-game was shallow and boring.

If the problem is the IP….well, then your research team messed up. Pretty hard to change an entire IP.

If the problem is marketing, fire your marketing team or throw more money at them. Plenty of games fail to generate enough buzz and fail to put the game in front of potential buyers and so don’t hit the critical minimum viable population. This is an especially important thing to achieve with MMOs.

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Lack of marketing is a favorite boogeyman of those invested in a title but I’ve yet to see an MMO fail solely to that. Usually there’s other very obvious problems.

When you mention IP I’m assuming you mean licensed (eg. Star Wars) because homegrown IP is the easiest thing in the world to adjust. If you have to retcon be upfront about it.


I’m most curious what’s going to happen with New World, since it seems destined to be a dud on launch. I don’t know any outlet or player that is singing its praises, which is rare for an MMO given how few we get nowadays. Usually even the most so-so title drums up a disproportionate amount of hype because “holy shit someone made an MMO!”

Salvaging it from this weird middle ground where it doesn’t appeal to the PvE crowd because of a lack of content, nor the PvP crowd due to how poorly they’ve retooled it, would be a huge feat.

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Transparency and Honesty. That’s how you do it.

What you don’t do is make excuses OR go silent, those two things are the kiss of death.

Own you mistakes and put them right, Hello Games style ;)


My gut feeling with FFXIV is that Square isn’t willing to let any of the mainline Final Fantasy games be seen as a failure, as that would tarnish the brand; thus, the cost in brand damage from not remaking FFXIV was seen as larger than the cost of remaking the game.

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Thank you. The amount of times people point to FFXIV’s reboot as proof that other games can simply do the same without truly understanding how much of an outlier that was is frustrating to say the least.

Roger Christie

Anarchy Online should be THE case study for this article.

Hikari Kenzaki

It’s better to just wait until it’s done. I think/hope the industry is starting to relearn that lesson.