Vague Patch Notes: The lesson hidden in the Astellia shutdown

    
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This is probably my favorite of the outfits I got, which is indeed damning with faint praise.

A couple years ago, an MMO launched named Astellia. It was fine. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was just fine. It was perfectly acceptable as a buy-to-play game, but a lot of people were waiting for the free-to-play conversion right out of the gate. It had nothing to stand up and make you say right off the bat that it was a terrible title, but even if I were grading it on a curve, it was just all right.

And now it’s getting shut down. Both it and its free-to-play version, which launched alongside the buy-to-play version in one of the most bizarre and ill-advised releases that spring to mind in recent memory. So do I want to write an entire article about this just because I’m salty at doing a bunch of research about the game for a piece only to have the games undo that two days later? A little bit, but that’s not my only reason, nor is it simply a fit of epicaricacy. It’s about a potential lesson amidst the noise.

The lesson? Just good enough isn’t good enough any more.

It should be pretty obvious at a glance through Astellia’s history that this game had a uniquely cursed history, like when the game managed to get sold off to a blockchain company partway through its run. But at a fundamental level, the big problem Astellia had from the get-go was that it was just all right. It was fine. It was a buy-to-play game that offered some microtransactions.

You know what other games are in a similar basket? The Elder Scrolls Online, Black Desert, and Guild Wars 2. Would you like to make a compelling argument for buying Astellia over one of those three titles? I certainly wouldn’t, and as mentioned above, I sort of liked Astellia all right when I played it. Not enough to keep playing it, but it didn’t actively turn me off.

And that is not enough to produce a solid playerbase and make money. It’s hard to get a sense for how many players Astellia ever actually had (since Steam is not the sole platform it was available on), but it clearly wasn’t all that many. It obviously didn’t keep the game going or make it a desirable property for companies to hold on to. It’s shutting down, after all. That doesn’t happen with a non-licensed game when player counts are booming.

Shawow.

Here’s an interesting thing to consider: Out of the games we consider to be part of the Big Five, none of them is actually purely free-to-play in the strictest sense of the word. You’ve got three more or less buy-to-play games and two subscription games. Sure, there’s space to debate precisely how far these games encroach into free territory with their de facto trials and velvet-rope content, but the accepted biggest titles are not purely in the free-to-play wheelhouse.

At the same time, there are a lot of titles doing quite well for themselves that are in the free-to-play space. Indeed, it’s easy to see the free-to-play revolution as having been a major impetus for a lot of MMOs to exist comfortably in the market space; the number of games that saw profits actually go up after converting from a subscription title was pretty notable, to the point that some titles saw it as a leap to profitability.

That all happened about a decade ago, though. At this point, free-to-play is the industry standard. And the result is that we have a lot of really good games occupying that free-to-play space, other good games occupying the buy-to-play space, and… well, a pretty steep uphill climb for any game which is basically selling itself on the basis of being acceptable.

“Good enough” just isn’t any more. You need to excite people, provide something new, and provide a reason for people to play your game as opposed to all of the many other options on the market.

The thing was that this was not always the case. For a long time, there actually was a space for free-to-play games and explicit temports to thrive because there was a base of players who would buy into these things on the basis of not being able to afford or wanting to pay a monthly subscription fee. The competition in the free-to-play field was lesser. I’ve said before that Runes of Magic had a moment in the sun wherein it looked like a massive value proposition because you just didn’t get titles like that operating as free-to-play games! It had the potential to be the wave of the future!

Then, of course, everything was free-to-play, including games with budgets and production values previously intended for a subscription. And suddenly there was a lot less space for the “good enough” to exist. Which is definitely the case now; Astellia was a throwback in ways it didn’t want to discuss, a game designed around a particular period of time when this was a realistic design goal rather than a dead end.

All things go, all things go.

This isn’t to say that you should feel particular pity for Astellia. I can’t say I do. The game showed up a day late and a dollar short, and if given the choice between supporting something that I consider to be a genuinely good game and one that is just all right, I’m always going to choose the former and would encourage everyone else to do so as well. “Good enough” just isn’t.

But I do think it highlights a trend of sorts in the industry, and that’s part of the reason it’s worth paying attention and learning the lesson that it’s not all right to make something just good enough any more. That, at least, is part of the reason why it might be worth bothering to remember Astellia, even as a whole lot of the game is no doubt doomed to be forgotten.

The other reason, of course, is… well, the game is likely to be forgotten. It did have its fans. Some people who worked on it no doubt cared about what they were doing and wanted to make the game the best it could be. While I have a feeling that there was overwhelmingly a drive to do something that could in fact be read as a cynical attempt to cash in on a moment in the marketplace that had passed, in some ways it’s important to remember these things as well – the games that weren’t as good, that weren’t as notable, that didn’t penetrate the public consciousness.

No one is going to forget all-time classics of the genre. No one is even going to forget the ambitious failures that never achieved mainstream popularity, and you’re no doubt thinking of a few titles that fall under that header right now. But we are going to forget and lose a lot of games over the years, ones that were… only good enough. Acceptable, but not particularly notable.

And every so often, it’s important to take a moment to remember these games that might otherwise be altogether forgotten, to remind ourselves that they existed. You may never have played Astellia, but some fragment of knowledge about it might in fact live on this way. That’s worth something.

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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