Vague Patch Notes: What we mean when we talk about MMO maintenance mode

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I’ve mentioned before that this column’s title was inspired by the vague patch notes of Final Fantasy XI, and here we are diving into that game all over again because it turns out that it screwed something else up. No, not its patch notes; those are still a bit vague, but not like they used to be. What it has screwed up is the very concept of maintenance mode by being a game supposedly in that stage of development still receiving monthly updates.

Of course, to a certain extent, you can excuse this. Unlike terms like “alpha” and “beta,” maintenance mode has no established outside consensus for what it actually means for MMOs. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. After all, there’s a pretty clear box to be drawn around games that are genuinely now sitting in maintenance mode and the ones that aren’t, even when the developers don’t properly draw those boxes themselves.


Let’s start with the basic terminology. Maintenance mode is the point when an MMO is being maintained reliably but isn’t being actively developed any longer. This is almost always a net result of the game being older and not having much in the way of budget and/or active playerbase left to really appreciate active development.

The important thing to note here is that this isn’t really a bad outcome for a lot of older online games. Usually, it happens when the studio that had been maintaining a game has another project that’s bigger and more active, but the older title is hopefully at little risk. A fine example of a game in maintenance mode is the original Guild Wars: It doesn’t look to be going anywhere and even has gotten a couple of system-side updates, but the idea of a substantial content patch for the game seems outright laughable.

It’s also important to note that this is a function of budget, development, and demands, not simply age. Games like Dark Age of Camelot are still very much being developed actively despite the fact that the title is old. Sure, the days of big boxed expansions for a lot of old titles seem to be gone, but you can’t say that DAOC is just being allowed to slowly coast into nothing.

Or at least, that’s the case as I write this. Who knows? That could change by the time you’re reading this, although it seems unlikely.

A game in maintenance mode, then, is effectively the closest you get to a finished game in the MMO space. Generally speaking you can still expect seasonal events to run, even though they’re all familiar events at this point; you can expect the occasional technical patch and for everything to stay functional. All that remains unchanging is actual content. Once you have theoretically finished off the hardest content in the game, there’s nothing left to do and no hope for anything else to arrive.

So, is maintenance mode a bad thing? No.

Uh, no.

I want to cut a fine line here. Clearly, the ideal outcome for games is to never go into maintenance mode, or to claim it’s going into something like that and then turn out to be completely lying. (“Monthly content updates” make FFXI’s claims of any kind of maintenance mode feel like a dirty lie.) We would all love for games, even older ones, to keep getting new content for as long as there are people playing to keep enjoying the new content, and given that the first MMO is still getting new content updates, age alone doesn’t make it impossible.

However… well, MMOs are complicated. It’s entirely possible for something to be worth keeping the servers on or at least not actively detrimental to keep them running without being worth the budget and time for a full development team. In these situations, maintenance mode means that we get to keep having these games around, a sort of middle point between active development and the floundering that a lot of less successful titles can do.

And make no mistake, the floundering can happen. Witness the sad saga of Fallen Earth, for example, a game I can make Justin sad about just by mentioning its name. The game languished for years in a de facto maintenance mode only to finally be bought out… and then be taken offline with a hope that maybe it’ll come back. Given the choice, I think fans would have preferred maintenance mode, something that at least ensured the game would still be around even if it was a little bit janky. If it never comes back, what does that leave fans with? Not a heck of a lot.

Announcing a maintenance mode for RIFT right now would kind of suck for the game as a whole, but it would also probably help assuage some player worries about the future of the title. Sure, it would mean that the game wasn’t likely to get any further big content updates, but it doesn’t look likely to get those now. It hasn’t happened for a while. At least being told that the game was officially going into maintenance mode would assure people it had a future, even if it’s a static one.


The flip side, of course, is when games get flagged as being in maintenance mode when they really aren’t. FFXI is a prime example of a game that called itself a maintenance mode title but keeps on bringing out a steady stream of monthly content for players to enjoy. Sure, it’s not boxed expansions, but it seems obvious that the Square-Enix definition of “maintenance mode” isn’t one that we most gamers would recognize.

There are also titles that sure seem to be in maintenance mode, like Champions Online, only to finally start getting trickles of new content after all. Whether or not that’s a temporary reprieve or a change in priorities is still unclear, of course. It could be something that’ll be gone as quickly as it arrived, but it still pokes a bit of a hole in the prevailing narrative of the game being in maintenance mode.

But the important thing about maintenance mode as a concept is that it’s not a point when the updates have gotten smaller or slower – it’s where they stop. It’s when the game is, for all intents and purposes, a complete product with basically all the content it’s ever going to have. The lights stay on, but there are no new rides coming to the park.

Ultimately, it’s not the outcome anyone wants for a game. But it’s also not the worst thing to have happen. It means that these older games get to stick around and the fans get to keep exploring them. It means that you can always come back to see your favorite haunts and go on a tour of your old favorite times. Heck, it means that you can bring a friend in to see the stuff you loved again any time you’d like, introducing someone to a game you consider a classic.

It just means that you’re not going to be getting anything new to slake your appetite once more. And while that’s not ideal, it works better than some of the really dark or flailing options out there.

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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