Vague Patch Notes: The myth of the days before MMO datamining

    
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We still care.

For those of you who don’t know, this column was named after Final Fantasy XI. Specifically, it was named after the practice that particular game had for many years of making its patch notes vague to the point of uselessness, which included one of my favorite lines of all time as a bullet list entry discussing changes to the game. To wit:

The potency of certain actions has been adjusted.

That was it. No indication of which actions, or how potency was adjusted, or anything further. Just that some had changed. Figure it out yourself!

FFXI really had its height of popularity before the modern trends of datamining and databases were a thing. And thinking about that game always comes up when I see people bemoaning sites that datamine out all of the details of upcoming World of Warcraft patches or let you know the best DPS classes in that game or the like. As I see it, that’s actually conflating a couple of separate wishes into one convenient bucket and conveniently ignoring that the reality of datamining was that it never changed anything, just made what we already did more efficient.

The thing you have to understand about FFXI when it comes to data is that FFXI was a game that seemed to personally hate each and every person who played it. Under its original producer, the game was basically a nonstop cavalcade of design decisions meant to obscure, confuse, and baffle people who tried to understand any one of its in-game systems.

Take crafting. There was no central listing of crafting recipes, much less ones that could be used at any given crafting level. Crafting required rare and somewhat valuable crystals, which could become impossible to gather if you lost a buff or if too many people died in a certain zone. There was also no clear indicator of how likely a craft was to succeed or the mechanics behind success or failure, just the effects of a failure, which could include losing millions of gils in materials.

Even now, some things about how the game’s crafting worked like facing in the right compass direction or choosing to craft on the right day of the week are still debated. Everything was so vaguely explained and unclear that suspicion and guesses ruled the roost, intentionally or otherwise.

But how would you know all of this stuff in the first place? Well, for most players, you hacked the game with a custom launcher that allowed you to tab away from the main window and then look all of it up in a separate website. You know, in 2003, which was supposedly back before this was a thing.

Ultimate alt-line

I’m picking on FFXI here because it was my personal first MMO experience, but it was not actually an outlier in this particular instance. I’m willing to bet that if Bree and I could have a conversation about Ultima Online in which I listened past the first two minutes, she’d have no problem recounting the dozens of websites players frequented in order to paper over holes in the game’s information. [Accurate, chief among them being UOSS. -Bree] I remember using auction sites for Guild Wars to trade items because there wasn’t a proper in-game tool. Heck, it’s not like Thottbot didn’t exist for WoW players pretty early in the game’s life cycle, and it became the go-to source for most information quickly.

There was, to be certain, a lot less pure datamining going on at that time. There were just fewer people digging into game files and analyzing this stuff. But it was less, not none, and if you never experienced that era, just understand that it was still done for the exact same reasons then that it’s done now. People want to know more information, they want to know what the “best” options are for accomplishing any task, and they want to have some sense of what’s going on beyond what is said in-game.

You know what has changed the most? Centrality.

Back in the day, I remember having easily a dozen different FFXI sites bookmarked because I needed all of them for different things, including several different sites with guides because each one had a few more useful tidbits that ultimately added up to a useful portrait of information. There were a lot of WoW sites to check on back in the day. It was nice to whittle that list down somewhat and only be checking on a half-dozen different sites.

Now, of course, you can usually get everything you need from the game itself and one core game site. The breadth of community has gotten a bit smaller. Moreover, that usually means that even when you have multiple sources, the results are less contentious; you rarely see one site saying that, say, Spork-Fighters are the best damage-dealing class while another says Spork-Fighters are useless compared to Toad-Hurlers.

These days, everyone has access to clearer data and knows that the actual best parses come from Ladder-Trippers. But that doesn’t mean that no one was trying to figure this stuff out beforehand; it just means that we have, as a community, gotten better at all of this stuff with time. The same philosophy is at work regardless.

Parses were still a thing, even then.

Asking to return to the days when this wasn’t a thing honestly strikes me less as yearning for a time that never actually existed (which is technically true) and more for a time when there was no centrality or consensus. If you really like playing a Spork-Fighter, it’s nice to go back to a time when you could find the forum that was dominated by Spork-Fighter players and really get into discussing the fine points of Spork-Fighting with the same general vague sense that you didn’t have contesting viewpoints.

The volume of information hasn’t changed, but what has changed is the centrality and ease of access for that same information. There’s less room for contentious or splintered opinions when everyone’s working from the same dataset, and there’s less opportunity to fill in the blanks of firm knowledge with what feels accurate when you can actually just look up the facts.

As a result, it feels as ifthere’s a lot more information now than there used to be because rather than all of it being based on hearsay, conjecture, and observation, it can be based on concrete observation and supported by information ripped directly from the game’s data files. There’s none of this “the potency of certain actions has been adjusted” stuff in the patch notes when you can just look up the actual changes, documented and otherwise, and have a simulator run the numbers to let you know what to expect.

Ultimately, then, it’s wrong to say that there used to be less information out there or that people didn’t used to have a website open to check on these things; that’s been a part of MMOs all along. But it’s also not wrong to say that the character of these interactions has changed over time. It’s still somewhat futile to wish to go back to a time when things were more wild and wooly in terms of distribution, but that doesn’t mean it’s not prompted by a real sense of things being different.

Whether or not they were better, on the other hand… that’s a different discussion.

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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> Whether or not they were better, on the other hand… that’s a different discussion.

Some people (read: a very small niche) get off on theorycrafting. While I have the math to do it I would very much rather not. I very much appreciate their efforts especially if they share their findings. I may even engage in a discussion but working out those findings is not something I care to expend my spare time on.

Discovering the mysteries of the world is not why I play MMO’s. When I’m in the mood for something like that I’ll read a book, play a single player game, or work on a non-gaming hobby project.