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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Knecht_Rootrecht

This looks so absolutely generic. A woman in a mini skirt, a cute girl. The same asia look with the oversized eyes.

I guess some marketing department said that all new MMO have to share the same bland style.

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Utakata

They should of made it a Rozen Maiden MMO. Because that’s what it looked like at first, desu… >.<

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Kawaii Five-O

Oh how I wish.

View post on imgur.com

Carlo Lacsina
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Carlo Lacsina

Desu~~~~~~~~~~~~

saget84
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saget84

Great article–super odd that I see this headline when I had the exact same thought a few days ago! I played the beta for Astellia, bought the game, and even liked it enough to get the optional subscription during my brief stay. It truly was one of the most “okay” game I’ve ever played…. I got a nagging feeling during every session where I’d ask myself “Why am I playing this?” While I’m pretty well travelled in the MMO genre (although probably not as much as a lot of folks here) there are still some major titles I’ve never touched or just dabbled in. And that’s pretty much what happened, I had some real-life responsibilities pop up and a friend of mine wanted to dive back into WOW–hard to say no to that for Astellia, and I wasn’t motivated enough to “squeeze” it into my schedule. I did revisit the game later but just felt super behind, and again, not motivated enough to grind to max level and truly do the catch-up song and dance. Overall, you nailed it, not great, not terrible. It’s the kind of game I’d play if I had waaaay more time on my hands, but otherwise I just couldn’t stick with it.

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PanagiotisLial1

A small correction

Guild Wars 2 is free to play years now

https://www.guildwars2.com/en/news/play-for-free-today/

For Astelia the other problem I see, is when an asian game closes its asian servers you know the company wont really continue developing just for the western market. So what meaningful updates they could offer. Then like you said it was a bit generic. I get similar vibes from Elyon after the feature-diet it went through on its scope and I dont expect it last long.

The other problem is now we have too many mmos for a static or slowly shrinking(at least on PC) global playerbase. Most people cant play more than a couple mmos so even if they like a new one, they wont abandon an established mmo they were invested(like ESO, FFXIV, BDO etc). They will still check the new one but in a month or less they will go back to their main game even if their first impressions were positive. If the global playerbase wont grow, new mmos that shut down will be common

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Bhagpuss Bhagpuss

“Good enough” by definition is good enough. If it’s not then we really need to come up with another way of saying what we mean. Like “Not good enough”, for example.

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

Hmmm, ‘mediocre’, maybe?

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Ken from Chicago

That’s all true denotatively. However there are connotations associated with “mediocre”, “average” or even “okay”. I think Eliot was trying to avoid that with describing the game as “fine”. Back in the day, “fair to midling” would just about nail it or “alright but no great shakes” or “alright but nothing to write home about”. “Passable” or even a “C” or “C+” game might even fit.

No major flaws but no major flares to light up interest–which is in itself is a kind of major flaw, which is what Eliot is discussing at length. Playing it safe is a flaw.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

It sounds like the game is a grilled cheese sandwich. There’s nothing wrong with that, sometimes that’s all you want. But it’s a grilled cheese sandwich on a menu with “Grilled Cheese and bacon,” “Triple Ultra Mega Cheeseburger,” “Grilled Cheese with Tomato and onions” and also something something steak medium rare. Most of which are the same price. Even if you want “grilled cheese,” why not try one of the other options with more flavor? It’s the same price, which means “plain grilled cheese” feels like you’re getting less.

Also, I might possibly need to go make something to eat.
( O.O )

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Ken from Chicago

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.” — Daniel Burnham

Burnham was a turn of the 20th century Chicago architect who was influential in designing cities to be beautiful not just an accidental collections of houses, office buildings, warehouses, etc. but planned.

Eliot’s right, just “okay” or “fine”, being average is more likely to get a game forgotten in the wake of games making big swings. It’s kinda what mmo players have been wanting, beyond a WoW-clone, something truly new and *daring*. It was kinda what the mmo space was like pre-WoW (as chronicled by a certain mmo archaelogist, “Eliot” 🤣). Even a spectacular failure is remembered fondly (Wildstar) because it dared to dream big. The video arcades of the early 80s were like. Coming out with new games, different styles, different gameplays. And then the sequels and copycats came. Instead of revolution we got more evolution, minor tweaks of the same ole same ole. 😭

Now the big thing is “Classic” or “Retro” or “Remasters”. At least it’s honest but also kinda sad. I get it. Companies don’t want to pay for the big risks. And the flip side to the old phrase “Go big” is “go home”. Yet, we will play and buy minor tweaks to the familiar because we like what we like.

I can’t act superior. At the same time I’ve backed a game with cosmic ambition, STAR CITIZEN, my other, and first crowdfunded game I’ve backed is CITY OF HEROES, a spiritual successor to CITY OF HEROES. So I guess things are a wee more … nuanced.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

“Aim for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Realistically though I prefer “Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.”

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Peregrine Falcon

Eagles are said to soar majestically. But there’s no word that truly describes the awkward waddle of the lowly weasel.

There’s a reason for that.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

No words? I’m going to go with “Enthusiastic. Acrobatic. Energetic. Frisky, sprightly, and animated.”

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Ken from Chicago

I’m pretty sure the word is just that, “waddle”.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

I’m not sure “daring” is right either. I think people say they want innovation but they’re certainly not willing to put up with things that go too far off the beaten path. Take Book of Travels’ plan to go without chat. Yeah no — anybody remember Twinsen? I didn’t make it very far in that game either.

Wildstar was remembered well because despite several fatal flaws it was a hella fun game.

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David Goodman

Developers and publishes are always trying to go after customers’ wallets and money, but they forget the one resource they CAN’T take more of: Our time.

We’ve reached (and have been there for some time, in my opinion) a critical overload of games that demand ALL OF YOUR TIME from you. We’re encouraged to log in, every day, for everything. F2P games more than most, as there’s always a new event, a new character, a new item to buy in the shop and a time-limited sale you have to take advantage of RIGHT NOW before it’s gone.

But as you said in the article, ‘good enough’ isn’t any more, and we’re trimming the branches of the Great Tree of Gaming.

It absolutely doesn’t help and isn’t fair that the frontrunners of the industry, and F2P in particular, have already sunk it’s teeth into the userbase and established a sunk cost relationship with the bulk of the market. Nothing short of an egregious violation of trust will disloge them now, and there just not time in the day to do everything for every game that asks it of a player.

Ultimately, I think this is a good thing – for all that I don’t like seeing games fail (there are undoubtedly people on the team that actually loved and believed in it, as more than a money-grab, and I wish them well in their careers), the bar being raised can only help the customers. You dream big and you offer bigger, and then you DELIVER on what you offered; the only way to carve out a piece of the market is to TAKE it, and you do that by doing what they do better, or by doing what they refuse to do, and giving it to the players who want it.

It will also help some developers realize their costs and scopes better. If you are OK with having a game that doesn’t dominate the market; if you’re happy with having a niche title that scratches that special itch of “cyberpunk My Little Pony survival-romance simulator” – then be sure you’re not designing a game that will need AAA-level income generation. Don’t over-reach with your game’s scope and needs.

So i think better games will come of this in the long run.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk. I’d better get back to work before IT blocks this site and I have to do all this on my phone instead

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Vanquesse V

Sunk cost is part of it, but social connections, comfort/familiarity and the sheer amount of content and options in a more established game are also pretty good incentives for staying where you are.

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Adam Russell

Is that the game where everyone is a pet class?

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Greaterdivinity

At this point, free-to-play is the industry standard.

I dunno if I agree with this anymore. It definitely was for many years post-F2P boom, but over the recent years we’ve been seeing a much bigger trend towards B2P monetization. Either via traditional setups like GW2/ESO where you actually buy the game once and then may pay for additional content/expansions later, or via SWTOR where it’s F2P, but you’re not really getting a great experience until you at least get to the preferred status, and still need to “buy” expansions via a one month sub when they’re out.

Hell, a lot of the more modern F2P games aren’t really even that, look at Destiny 2 and how unplayable the game is without keeping up to date with the latest expansions. Or losing tons of content you paid for with their vaulting nonsense.

Otherwise, fully agree. The days of the, “meh/fine” F2P imports that usually ahd lower budgets are kinda over. Many old ones still chug on, and we still see the occasional very small budget one, but games like Astelia and…man I can’t even remember a few of the other recent F2P import games released like Bless or Cabal 2 that are a bit higher budget and looking for bigger success simply can’t fill that niche anymore. That’s filled by higher quality titles like ESO or BDO. And even some of the middling/above average MMO’s like SWTOR add to this.

I’m eagerly watching some of these newer import MMO’s like Elyon and Crimson Desert (if it’s ever taken off the indefinite pause). I don’t think I’ve seen a super strong “hook” for either of those, but admittedly haven’t looked too closely, but maybe they can bring something rad to the table and find success.

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Vanquesse V

This was a good read. Thank you