Vague Patch Notes: Why stan an MMO with nothing to show for itself?

"Hope for the best" does not apply when your car is on fire

ha ha moneymaking go brrrrrrrrrr

We need to talk about Star Citizen, folks. But maybe not in the way you might be thinking. Not about the game’s development, which is dragging on with no end in sight and no effective scope management; that’s just a set of facts. No, we need to talk about the fact that I assure you that at least one or two people read that previous line and immediately scampered down to the comments to explain how actually things are going fine, and the development makes sense, and you’ll all be looking so silly when the game releases or goes into beta or whatever.

These are not connected facts. It is entirely possible to want the game to release and be good while also recognizing that it has missed its targeted release date by six years now and does not look to be released any time soon (just for giggles, I’d note that Daikatana missed its release date by about three). So when I say we need to talk about Star Citizen, what we really need to talk about is the art of stanning for MMOs with… well, nothing to show for themselves.

Yes, the few members of the defense brigade left after the first paragraph have scarpered off for good now to insist that the current state of the game is something. See? I planned this.

I’ve written before about how you want to be a fan but not a fanboy, and a cursory glance would reveal that these are not unrelated phenomena. After all, what we’re talking about here are pure fanboys. The only difference is that instead of being a fanboy for a game that’s actually out and in the midst of making all the wrong decisions a la WildStar, it’s being a fanboy for a game without a proper release version of any sort. Do we really need to talk about this separately?

Well… yes. The whole Chronicles of Elyria implosion alone should show that. But it still bears discussion because with a released game, we’re still looking at a problem whereby someone has decided that the game is going to be good based on crowdfunding promises, which leads to both dropping more money on the game and divorcing oneself from the critical analysis normally required before you give a game your money.

Paying for a game is, at least theoretically, a relatively pure transaction. You pay a certain amount of money and get a game. If you like the game, then maybe you pay more later or buy a subsequent game from the same people. If you don’t like the game – or more pointedly, you don’t get a game – then you don’t provide more money.

Sorry, wait, were we not pointing this one out yet?

Crowdfunded games, unfortunately, wedge out a really weird space in the valley of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. For starters, you’re already paying money for a game that’s earlier along in the development process than what you’d normally expect, meaning that there’s time and space for design to radically change because what you’re being sold is mostly an idea. For another, though, you’re often being asked to fund the idea, then keep funding the idea for longer and longer.

So the mindset seems to progress something like this:

  1. “I really like this idea that I put down $BASIC GAME COST for a while back.”
  2. “If the game never gets made, then I’m out $BASIC GAME COST and I never get my idea, so I’m a double loser.”
  3. “The developers are asking for more money, which means they need more to finish the game.”
  4. “If no one thinks the game will come out or be any good, then they won’t get any more money, and then it will not be made.”
  5. “Clearly, what is in the best interests of my initial investment of $BASIC GAME COST is to ensure that people don’t say bad things about this game, thus justifying my initial investment based on an idea I like.”

You can add some extra sting to this for every bit of additional stuff purchased in the as-of-yet unreleased game. The point is that it’s really easy to start seeing it as a simple matter of dealing with the sunk cost, which provokes an additional sting because someone who doesn’t believe in the game doesn’t just not-believe in the game itself but also doesn’t believe in your idea.

Whatever you think about Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen at the moment is based as much on speculation as it is on the actual game at this point because the actual game is not yet released. But there’s some uncomfortable midspace between arguing that a given game does or doesn’t have good content and arguing that a game will have good content, especially when that content mostly exists in the form of a dream.

Heck, I think that’s actually a point in their favor on one level. If you really like Black Desert when I don’t, my criticism is a reflection on the game itself as it exists. But if I say something negative about a game like Star Citizen that’s currently just in very early testing? I’m actively attacking ideas in your head! Clearly, I’m an utter monster of evil darkness and must be shouted down.

My ideas are so good!

The result, sadly, looks a lot less like “I have successfully defended my Ideals from the Haters” than this particular defense brigade likes to assume. Far from making people think they were wrong to ask questions about this clear avatar of future glory, it usually makes people not already far into the converted camp think that this particular game’s fans have whipped themselves into an undesirable cultish following (especially when a given game’s PR department seems to actively encourage that thinking).

And trust me, when a PR studio wants its fans to serve as free promotions, that’s generally a bad sign.

Let me be clear about something: At least among the staff here, it’s pretty much accepted as an a priori assumption that we want MMOs to come out and be awesome. We would like the games that we are skeptical about to prove us wrong and absolutely rock, both for the sake of market diversity and simply to see more ideas come to fruition in the genre we all love enough to spend years of our life writing about them. But when a game is routinely delaying, failing to communicate, going over budget, going silent for long stretches, and so forth… that’s not a good sign, and the reason that it’s not a good sign has nothing to do with malice aforethought. It has to do with recognizing how the story is going.

In a novel, it would be called a callback.

For those of you who didn’t take a hop and a skip right down to the comments, though, I would both thank you for reading and thinking and urge you to take a step back. Yes, I know you’re eager for a given crowdfunded game to come out. But criticism of a game based on actual development red flags doesn’t mean the critic hates the game or wants it to fail. It just means people are paying attention to development trends.

You don’t have to defend an MMORPG. The game should be able to defend itself on its own merits. And if it can’t do that… maybe your priority shouldn’t be getting a return on that initial purchase price beyond a refund.

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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