Vague Patch Notes: Bugs are hard in MMOs

But 'lazy devs' aren't the problem


So apparently it’s been pretty hard to play Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis. I don’t know from personal experience (fool me once, shame on you, and all that), but I’ve heard stories about bugs, lag, and all of the things you expect from MMO launches if you’ve been around as long as I have. Oh, child, let me bring you back to the days of the Champions Online beta launch. Have you ever wanted to really scour your program files for stuff to delete and re-download? It was agony.

And that was before we even got to play.

But today, I come here not to pillory PSO2:NGS for anything other than having what is definitely one of the worst acronyms I’ve seen (Swords of Legends Online doesn’t have a great one for its Twitter handle) because… well, I can’t really blame anyone here. The players have every right to be mad because there’s nothing worse than going to play a new game you’ve been looking forward to and getting hit by bugs and disconnections and problems with quest flow and so on. But it’s also kind of inevitable.

See, here’s the thing: MMOs are complicated. Really, really complicated. They’re almost certainly more complicated than you think they are. You might have an idea of how much work goes into every one of these ridiculous titles we enjoy so much, but any time I start to think that I know what goes into them, I just think about the time I took a lesson on playing bagpipes.

That crap is complicated, you know that? You have to blow in constantly to fill an air bladder, press against that bladder to produce a sound, and actually pick out notes, and you have to regulate both your breathing and your rate of pressing the bladder, and… seriously, it’s a lot. People march with those things. I couldn’t get one to keep making noise for a minute!

In other words? However complicated something looks? If you’ve never done it yourself, the odds are that it’s at least an order of magnitude more complicated than you’re thinking. Those of us who play MMOs are not the scholars of these games but the audience, and video games are not exactly simple experiences when they’re just hop-and-bop platformers.

So in addition to all of the work that goes into making a video game, you also have to build in code to make the game work across multiple different computers with wildly varying internet speeds and in hugely different locations while ensuring that everyone’s actions more or less sync up properly. You also need to do it in real time. Oh, and you need to do all of that while still guarding yourself against malicious actors.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds kind of hard to me.

Pork chops

Into this mixture we introduce… bugs. Things not working as they’re intended to work. And it’s easy to get frustrated with these things, especially when in many cases they’re not hard to see or encounter in the game. Like, we can all see what’s happening; it can’t be a hard bug to replicate. Why hasn’t this stuff been fixed?

There are a couple of answers, and the first is that some issues can’t just be fixed. Like… lag can be made better or worse through netcode (which is also insane and nightmarish to work through), but at a certain point lag is just a result of a certain number of players wanting to do something when there’s only so much bandwidth. You can try to improve bandwidth, and in some cases the hardware to do so might be readily available (though not all the time), but sometimes that’s not actually a good solution.

Remember how new games used to launch, add new servers, then a few months later have to start merging down servers? Server hardware costs money. This is not actually a good solution or a good plan to operate upon. Generally speaking, you want to buy as many servers as you expect to need over the long term. But even then, sometimes, new servers might not actually fix the issue!

Remember, all of these games are being tested internally for a very long time. About 90% of the coding is done with internal testing, and that’s a very generous estimate in favor of what the public gets to play with. Then, you suddenly turn the game over to a huge mass of people with wildly different internet connections and hardware over a much wider area.

“Well, that’s what beta tests are for!” Beta tests are always smaller than launches. Sometimes beta tests have people who experience the issues but don’t report them. And even when everything’s going well and the issue is found and reported in time, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy to fix… or that it’s even easy to find what’s causing the issue in the first place. If you notice that a particular monster in a zone is acting weird, it doesn’t mean that someone just has to go into a database to flag ONE_PARTICULAR_MONSTER and change the ACTS_WRONG flag to OFF. That’s not how database maintenance works.

I think. I don’t actually do database maintenance. As mentioned before, that stuff looks hard.

The hour is nearly here.

Of course, the flip side is that whatever the players have to deal with is, in fact, whatever the players have to deal with. It’s not fair to charge money for a game, let players in, announce your launch time, and then get mad if people expect to be able to actually play when that hour rolls around. So the inverse side of people being upset over bugs is equally valid.

Heck, sometimes bugs can basically destroy your experiences in the early days. I remember when a progress bug basically locked everyone out of progression in Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood for a couple of days; it was kind of infuriating. Fortunately, they did a good job apologizing (and this would usually be where I talk about how to handle apologies and credibility, but I’ve already written articles about that, so just go browse back in this column).

Bugs are a problem. Bugs are bad. Bugs can negatively affect your first impression of a game. The thing is that on a list of reasons why bugs are still in a game when someone reports the bug, “developer laziness” appears exactly zero times. This entire genre is a house of cards built on intensely complicated code that had to be assembled in sub-optimal conditions and then got thrown to the wolves, and usually the people who are trying to fix the issues are the same people being called lazy for these issues even existing.

So what should we do? Eh, chill a little. Bugs suck. We all know this, players and devs alike. Maybe you’re not going to get the best experience out of it. Try to recognize that it’s an experience and part of the adventure. Laugh at memes, talk about it, hope it gets fixed sooner rather than later, and just recognize that it’s not something easy to be fixed. But chill out with the blame and hyperbole a little bit.

Remember: If you don’t play the game because of lag, you’re actually helping.

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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