LOTRO Legendarium: What we have here is a failure to communicate

    
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If this year has taught us anything, it’s that clear and boosted communication is vital to handling a crisis. Having information and a message is one thing, but getting it to people is quite another. When people are kept in the dark or have to deal with mixed messages, frustration brews and mistakes are made.

Communication is absolutely vital to running any sort of government, organization, or service. Done right, it can amplify messages and improve situations. Done poorly, it can ruin brands and alienate audiences.

These past two weeks, Standing Stone Games has delivered an unfortunate case study in exactly how communication should never be handled in an MMORPG that is going through a crisis. Other studios should take note of how poorly this has been handled so as to not replicate the same mistakes. In today’s LOTRO Legendarium, I want to examine the failure point of SSG’s handling of Lord of the Rings Online’s server instability and how it could have been done so, so much better.

First, a quick recap of the situation. On Wednesday, July 15th, a couple of servers started to have significant issues in Lord of the Rings Online. According to Community Manager Jerry Snook, by Thursday this had “cascaded” to other servers, resulting in a whole lot of lag and other issues that made the game (and its sister game, Dungeons and Dragons Online) unplayable.

Since the 15th, numerous servers have been taken down at moment’s notice, sometimes for extended periods of time as the tech crew worked on it. Servers would be brought back up, sometimes it seemed better, sometimes not, and servers would be brought down. All in all, as I’m writing this, the game has been largely unstable and unplayable for a week and a half, and even though the servers came up last night, players are still reporting the same problems.

This is a dire problem for a live service MMORPG, especially one with a monthly subscription, and the solution clearly wasn’t an easy fix for the day-to-day devs. It highlighted how creaky LOTRO’s backend is, but that’s all a discussion for another day.

So here’s the thing: I’m not writing this to bash the studio’s tech team. MMORPGs are monstrously complex beasts, and I worked long enough in IT to know that fixing widespread issues takes time and a whole lot of effort. It’s a headache, and I’m patient enough that I can wait for the work to be done. So there’s absolutely no blame from me to the people trying to fix the problem.

The issue that I have, and one that is shared by many of both games’ players, is that Standing Stone Games has been absolutely abysmal in communicating throughout this whole crisis. For one or two days of downtime, sure, you can get away with quick tweets saying that the game is down and will be back up soon. Ten days? Ten days of instability and intermittent downtime, with no end in sight? You need a lot more than one-line forum posts and the same “servers are down, we’ll let you know when they’re back up, we’ll talk about gifts later” messages on Twitter.

But that’s what we got. On Friday the 17th, Snook lightly addressed the issue on his weekly livestream, saying something about a cascading problem that he didn’t quite understand and didn’t want to comment on in more detail at the time. And that was it. Repeated requests for more information and any assurance was met with stony silence or the same non-informative replies. SSG wasn’t telling anyone what was going on. There was no back-and-forth dialogue with the community, no messages from the studio’s leadership, and not even simple placations to calm players.

There was one thing this crisis did amplify, something we’ve known for years now: SSG is flat-out terrible at talking to players. It’s not the only studio that has developed this reputation (Daybreak and ArenaNet quickly come to mind), but it’s been bad for a while, and this whole mess showed how much this could blow up in their faces when they fail to address it.

What boggles my mind is seeing the fan apologists come out in defense of SSG this past week. Yes, there is no call for rudeness and demands to fire staff, especially toward those trying to fix the problem, but even reasonable requests for more information and transparency was met in some quarters by fans defending a studio that wouldn’t even defend itself. “Why do you need to know more? What would that solve? You’re so entitled!” defenders would say. My favorite line was one where a forum poster said, “You’re not on the board of directors, you don’t need to know the details.”

No, I’m not on the board of directors. But do you know what I am? A customer, a member of the community, a journalist, and a player. A game service that I enjoy and pay for and engage with frequently has been inaccessible without explanation, and I’d simply like more information for my peace of mind and to manage my own expectations. When there’s a problem, we like to know what’s going on. It’s as simple as that, and it’s not even close to an unreasonable request.

Let’s talk about SSG and good communication for a minute because I do want to be fair. Remember when the whole quarantine/COVID thing started back in the spring? SSG quickly took advantage of the situation and catered to the players by opening both of its games up to everyone to enjoyed and then threw down some impressive sales. There was a huge post on the website that was full of information. It went out on all of the game’s channels, and it was a huge PR coup for the studio.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to be effusive about good or beneficial news, but we really needed that level of studio communication these past two weeks. And it is absolutely shameful and embarrassing that SSG instead chose to hide its leadership and give the barebones minimum of communication and information. It honestly made me worried that the problem was (is?) so incredibly bad that the studio was electing to stay quiet rather than freak everyone out by explaining what was going on.

Even if that were the case – even if the news is really good or really bad – game studios have a social contract with players that needs to be upheld with clear and useful information sent out across all available channels of communication. I will encourage SSG to invest in proper training for its chosen community managers, and I call on the studio’s executive producer to make a public commitment toward better communication and transparency in the future.

Standing Stone Games, you can do better.

You should do better.

Your players deserve better.

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.
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