Vague Patch Notes: Managing the MMO message – and when to piss off your fans

Burn me bro.

Remember at the beginning of this year when Mark Jacobs managed to basically enrage everyone with his announcement of another game his company was working on using the fundamentals laid down in Camelot Unchained? I know, it feels like that was four years ago, but it was January. People are still mad about it now, to the point that you can definitely see some response to that in his recent livestream of granting people refunds when they asked for them. (The refunds are still being granted is not new, for the record; doing it on a stream dedicated to it is.)

This post isn’t about Jacobs, though. Not even in the “planting bait for you to scarper off into the comments over and thus prove the point” sense. It’s also about the Pantheon team managing to piss people off with a livestream that was mostly about the ways in which you can give the developers money. Or World of Warcraft announcing a big delay to its expansion that… didn’t piss people off. Yes, today we’re talking about managing the message.

This is a topic I’ve talked about before when it comes to leaks and datamining, but only peripherally. So as so often is the case, we have to start with definitions. What is “the message?” Is it a release date? Community event planning? Development focus? Customer service?

The answer is, well… yes, to all of those things. In this particular case, “the message” refers to basically everything that is being communicated by a given development team, and it comprises multiple associated concepts. “The next expansion/update is launching on this date.” “We have the following things in further development.” “Your feedback and support is wanted and valued.”

My ideas are so good!

For this particular discussion of semiotics, though, we actually want to break down this particular messaging framework into two separate fragments. The first is the factual component, which is essentially just data. A patch will be released on [DATE] containing [NEW FEATURE] and [OTHER NEW FEATURE]. This Kickstarted game will not be making its release target this year. The development team has [GAINED/LOST] the following team members.

The second component is the emotional component, and it’s here where the messaging starts to get more jumbled and more important. On its own, a release date is simply a value-neutral statement. But let’s say the update is expected for October 26th, and then spot the differences between these three statements:

  • “Our next major patch is expected to launch on October 26th. We apologize to all of our players who had been expecting an earlier launch; however, our staff has been working non-stop over the past several months to ready this update, and for their mental health we decided to delay the update by a week to allow everyone some time off.”
  • “We’ll be releasing the patch on October 26th. Our team is using this extra time to relentlessly hunt down bugs and address any issues well ahead of launch, so you can be assured that the full release will be as smooth as possible.”
  • “It’s a little bit later than planned, but the patch is planned for a launch on October 26th. To make up for the delay, we’ll be turning on a few buffs for the next week, so look forward to those!”

In all three cases, the factual information is identical. However, the first one is clearly meant to draw in your sympathy for difficult work and explain the rationale for a delay. The second conjures images of otherwise buggy content that will hopefully be fixed before this goes live. And the third offers no excuse, but functionally bribes you in the hopes that you’ll not be troubled.

So now that we’re all caught up on that, let’s move on and talk about when the emotional component is going to make people angry. Or, more accurately, the best way to handle when you know things are going to upset people. Which is, oddly… to lean into it.

Let’s talk a little bit about Pantheon having a stream that amounts to panhandling. This was definitely not a great look, but the reality of where the development team is probably means that right now, money matters are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The team needs to have funding to keep making progress.

What pisses people off, primarily, is that the means of conveying this is via what is normally a preview and hype-building operation for the game’s fans, meaning that instead of just being an up-front statement of the game’s financial situation, it’s smuggled in by the backdoor and feels disingenuous. Whether or not that’s accurate is irrelevant. Again, we’re talking about the emotional component rather than the factual one.

Sometimes, the decisions that need to be made for the health of a studio are not the decisions that fans would like. Things need to be delayed or cancelled, plans need to be changed, funding needs to be discussed, and so forth. And on some level I feel for the people who are trying to sugarcoat that fact as much as possible, to deflect player anger and try to make the pill go down a little bit easier.

But oddly – and after the last year it feels really weird to type this, but here we are – the right approach seems to have been the one Blizzard took when it had to delay the Shadowlands expansion. No pretending, no sugarcoating, no attempts at spinning this as actually a good thing, just a flat statement that the expansion would be late and that this extra time will be used to make the expansion better.

Shoulder touch.

It helps, of course, that players were already upset about the expansion. But in most of these cases we’re not dealing with a total dearth of player irritation otherwise. Usually, when you’re at a point when you might have to piss off your players, you’re already dealing with angry players to start with. At that point, trying to placate them or downplaying that anger winds up exacerbating the situation.

When you’re dealing with frustrated fans or players, your first priority from a community standpoint should be managing that frustration directly. If you can’t actually mitigate that fact, the best approach is being direct in explaining what is happening and attempting to ameliorate the negative consequences rather than simply mollifying players in the midst of that irritation. Treating the anger as legitimate and expected, in other words.

Obviously, the ideal time to make your players angry is never. But planning around that isn’t realistic. It can happen. It sometimes happens even when you don’t want it to. Rather than trying to focus on making sure it never happens, managing the message around when it will happen can do wonders to ensure that players are a bit more willing to take that moment of irritation with a shrug and a nod.

Or, to put it more cleanly: At some point, the odds are more or less absolute that a game will have to give its players bad news. But players are much more likely to accept the bad news if it’s being delivered as bad news instead of trying to be sold as if the bad stuff is actually super good for some reason.

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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