Vague Patch Notes: Bugs are hard in MMOs

But 'lazy devs' aren't the problem

    
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Schwing

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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ghoulas

You know how do developers get rid of the bugs in commercial software. They hire testers. Do QA. And than sell the software after it’s stable and bug free.

If they are unable to write a code for servers that is not lagging maybe they should aim for single player games they are easier to make.

I hate how the whole Early Access beta s**t was so engraved into our gaming community that we are agreeing to companies selling us unfinished products.

I totally understand that for indie games perspective but not from big developers who already have a working game and still fail to deliver a viable product.

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texyFX

know whats even more complicated to code than MMOs?
rockets, Large Hadron Collider and Quantum computing to name only a few.

relativism is
(often) ignorance.

the expectation of the audience of being served a bugfree experience is legit.

guess iam not solitary in my prognosis on this articles authors empathy, when he is stuck somewhere in Mojaves Deaths Valley at noon, cuz his Teslas OS crashed due to bugs…

/edit i dislike the framing of an impertinent audience claiming their right to the promised experience. and no, bugs r not mentioned in these products table of content.

the argumentation of “user experience”, that bugs r a natural by-product of this ” house of cards built on intensely complicated code that had to be assembled in sub-optimal conditions” is a strawmen. a strawmen argument to blame the audience for sub-optimal behavior instead of the sub-optimal coding. cuz those dev-hamsters r all humans!
SO R UR CUSTOMERS! but those customers dont get paid.
i love to see the dev that will pay for a sub-optimal cooked dinner…

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treskatay

Yeah that’s all well and good until you remember that this is basically an expansion pack for a game that’s been out for nine years. A game that (for the most part, global launch and MS Store issues aside) works fine.

As for lag, it’s instanced. Zones have a max player load presumably based off of some measurement of performance. In PSO2 it can sometimes be janky when other characters move a lot, but the actual PVE works fine even on the big maps. NGS’s map is zoned seamlessly so you don’t even notice until you see the player counter in the top left, but there’s obviously some sort of issue with the way that all works.

The PSO2 lobby has notoriously bad model sync for the players. If someone runs around it’s like they’re on a 56K modem. They’ll be running and then they’ll appear 78 miles away only to suddenly reappear. NGS is like that, but all the time. The whole game is the lobby.

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Dankey Kang

The PSO2 lobby has notoriously bad model sync for the players. If someone runs around it’s like they’re on a 56K modem. They’ll be running and then they’ll appear 78 miles away only to suddenly reappear. NGS is like that, but all the time. The whole game is the lobby.

I’m not sure what the server setup is, but given that all non-Japanese players are on one “Global” server (which is probably based in JPN), I don’t really think that helps with things. Also there seems to be some kind of clientside going on with NGS; you can tell because even when the servers drop, the mobs keep wandering around like normal instead of running on the spot.

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Greaterdivinity

To a point I grok this in a huge way. I always think back to the BC-era bug where a change in Hellfire Peninsula somehow caused Illidan, in Black Temple, to start one shotting players. Or how companies like SpaceX (long ago) used to recruit engineers with MMO experience because making a MMO is apparently WAY less complicated than launching something into space.

I generally don’t get upset with bugs even if they’re pretty major. Shit happens, all of us make mistakes in our jobs, and sometimes the bugs simply never presented themselves until a live environment setting. Sometimes they can be super difficult to find the cause of and then even more difficult to find a proper fix that sticks.

I won’t say I don’t get MAD about bugs sometimes, I do, but if I express that frustration I try to keep it towards a “studio” rather than people. I know the devs are all likely bustin their butts and doing what they can, they don’t like bugs either. I’m plenty salty at PCF as a studio right now with the nonsense still going on in Outriders, but I’ve done my best to express that frustration in a way that doesn’t target individual devs or the CM who is thankfully engaging with the community…even if he doesn’t have much good news to deliver : /

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laelgon

I’ve definitely fallen on both sides of it. There are times when I’ve been the one saying “Chill, every launch has issues, just wait a bit” and also times when I’ve been right pissed off that I can’t play the game at the time they said I could.

But here’s the thing, you can be annoyed or frustrated without taking it out on other people.

I work on software, and while I don’t see a ton of support tickets, every once in a while I get one from someone who has experienced a bug and they can be downright vile. And you know what? Fuck those people. Very often we just won’t respond if they’re bad enough. As a customer, employees are not your punching bag. We’re a small team at a small company doing the best with what we’ve got, and five people can’t anticipate every way that tens of thousands of people are going to do things. We know that there are bugs in the stuff we release, and most of the time they are things we consider to be enough of an edge case that it can wait for a patch in a few days. Sometimes you just miss something though. Everyone fucks up at their job now and then, whether it’s game developers, rocket scientists, or the kid bagging groceries.

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Tanek

Bugs happen. Big bugs happen. I don’t care how good the development team is, something will eventually go wrong with a game. Sometimes it will be an easy fix, sometimes it won’t. I don’t think one or the other necessarily says anything about the skill or dedication of the developers.

The reaction to these bugs on the game company side, though, does tend to tell me something about the management of the company and of the game.

Are your players informed when a bug is found that can negatively impact (or even break) their characters or items? Or is silence the path you choose?

That is the part that matters to me. Sure, I want the bugs fixed, but more than that, I want to know the people running the game are willing to address issues rather than seeing how many can be swept under the rug first.