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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