Vague Patch Notes: MMO sunsets and the myth of meritocracy


A few weeks back, I talked about why a given MMO might have failed even when it possessed good qualities. It was a response to something that I see get passed around a lot any time a given game sunsets or winds up in a half-alive maintenance mode. And clearly I was being some kind of predictive wizard with that, as last week saw the sudden and rather brutal shuttering of four separate games (Eden Eternal, Twin Saga, Defiance, and Defiance 2050) along with the end of a reboot effort for another (Anthem).

And predictably, people came out of the woodwork to explain how if these games had really mattered or been loved they wouldn’t be shutting down in the first place. No surprises there.

One of the things I mentioned in that first piece was how this sort of clarion call is nearly always a bad-faith criticism, but today I want to take on the same basic problem from the other side. I don’t want to examine why a game could shut down without the problem being “the game was bad,” but rather I want to look at why there is this assumption that no one played the game or even just that the players fell below some vital critical mass to justify the continued effort.

Now, at face value, you can probably tell for yourself this is wrong. But consider this, if necessary. The core conceit I saw put forth, for example, was that if nearly as many people cared about Anthem when it was running as when it got the reboot shut down, the reboot project wouldn’t have been shut down.

Except that’s ignoring the fact that the number of people who were invested in the project up to that point clearly justified a year or more of work by a reasonably sized team of developers to reboot the game, work that wasn’t going on in secret or in addition to other projects. This work was largely done out in the open, the people in charge knew what these people were working on, and it was decided that keeping Team Anthem working on this project was a productive use of resources for quite a while.

And then it got shut down because it would have needed to pull resources from elsewhere to justify an arbitrary deadline, and the people signing the checks decided that now was the time to pull the plug. That’s all it comes down to.

You might wonder why that happened. Keep that wondering in mind. We’re going somewhere with this; for now, stick a pin in it.

I'm sorry this is the only long-form article you're likely to get, Twin Saga.

When you get to smaller games that are being shuttered, there are fundamentally two reasons to ask whether or not anyone cares. The first reason is a genuine good-faith or at least minimally bad-faith argument put forth by people who simply don’t know anyone who’s into the title in the first place. It’s really easy to assume that Twin Saga was floundering without players because, well, you don’t know anyone who plays it and so it must not have had much of a playerbase.

But even that elides the fact that your knowledge of the MMO sphere does not equal the entirety of what it encompasses. I could argue that I don’t personally know anyone who’s very happy with retail World of Warcraft at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people happy with it. This is why I spend a lot of time searching down information from a wide variety of sources to make sure that I know more than just my own limited perspective and still assume that my perspective is limited.

Yet that’s fundamentally a problem of ignorance. The other reason to ask why to care is more insidious and far more destructive. It assumes that MMO development and success is a pure meritocracy, wherein all of the best projects get the best people and the worse projects get progressively worse people. Failure, in this conception, is not only predictable but almost justified as an outgrowth of having a lower-tier team working on the project in the first place.

It’s an attractive view that assumes success is an outgrowth of skill and thus altogether deserved. And it only has the slight problem of being absolute nonsense with no resemblance to the real world in any way, shape, or form.

Ooh, it's meat time.

You know what game I don’t care about in the least? Star Wars Galaxies. Absolutely nothing I’ve ever heard about that game or seen about it makes me even remotely interested in playing it. But that doesn’t mean the game’s official shutdown was somehow justified by my apathy toward it.

This was a game that did have fans who loved the heck out of it, even after the NGE. It was a game that had a vibrant and active player community. It was shut down solely because the licensing fee for it was jacked up to unreasonable levels to “clear the board” for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Period end. There was no meritocracy in play here.

But for some people, it needs to be merited. There’s this strange obsession with the idea that all of this must be justified, that a game shutting down must come about because it somehow “deserved” this facet, because what’s the alternative? That all of this is being made in service to the whims of a system that has a very different set of priorities than you do?

Gosh, if that were the case, your favorite game or games might be subject to a shutdown for arbitrary reasons just like the games you don’t care about, and the only thing that’s keeping them running are whims and what the budget looks like on the balance sheet. It’s possible for a game to have a solid fanbase willing to overlook its flaws, a reboot plan on the table that would work, and for someone in charge to decide that it’s just going to cost too much money, making all the time spent working on that reboot plan a complete waste because it’s getting thrown out.

And that is… kind of scary! It’s not exactly heartening to think that WoW, for example, continues running because of ontological inertia and that people currently busy running the game to the consternation of players are being checked on by people who don’t care if players are unhappy so long as the game meets its financial targets. Heck, that’d mean that it’s possible for things to be successful or fail entirely separate of their artistic merits.

A belief in meritocracy when it comes to the survival online games is far more comforting. It’s much more pleasant to pretend that Anthem just didn’t have the support it needed from players and thus the real problem is that people who are missing it now didn’t give enough Support Energy or whatever, so it failed. That’s way better than seeing issues with an underlying system or leadership that may not be something you can actually control one way or the other.

It’s a nice fiction to believe in. But it is a fiction, and it serves only to demoralize and marginalize actual developers doing hard work to improve games by blaming them for shutdowns that they likely worked like mad to avert.

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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