WildStar’s Stephan Frost shares the depressing ‘flat circle’ of MMO development

    
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If I had known then what I know now, I... would have felt no different, really, but it might have mitigated stuff.

Former WildStar lead Stephan Frost piped up on Twitter this past Friday to share a story. This isn’t just any story, but rather all stories of MMORPG development, from concept to release and beyond. In summation, he says that this “flat circle” brings around the same problems, struggles, and fallout of development again and again.

The entire thread makes for fascinating (if depressing) reading of what goes on behind-the-scenes at an MMO studio (and considering Frost’s background, you can probably infer it’s a point-by-point inner history of WildStar):

I’m going to rant for a minute on the MMO development experience and how so many people in development and the community go through the same experiences repeatedly, and how we are all still here, witnessing time as a flat circle.

Step one, making an MMO. Sweet god this is painful and it will change for 4-6 years if it isn’t cancelled. This period of time is filled with lofty ideas that are difficult to prove out without lots of systems working together, and then sometimes they aren’t fun and you burn it. It’s not to say that it isn’t possible to find the fun in a shorter amount of time, but it’s really hard. There’s also a ton of tech needed during this period, and it needs to support lots of players doing lots of actions at once. Not easy or cheap. Plus it’ll be reworked later.

Then you get a vertical slice that isn’t feeling awful and you think this could be good actually, then another mmo comes out and has some feature you’ve been trying out and you need to evolve it more now because you won’t launch for three more years. Eff.

OK, now we have some zones and combat and art and it’s looking decent in ONE part of the game and the team does take home alphas and has tons of feedback to address, and so does the publisher who also wants it out ASAP. No pressure.

OK, it’s on a good enough spot for a Friends and Family. The servers mess up, the latency is bad, but there’s still something there that could be good.

Now it’s getting ready for alpha and an announcement comes out about the game. MMO content creators are excited. “A respite from WoW!” There are some folks that get REAL hyped about the game, make new channels, get followers talking about what the game COULD be. Some of those content creators get access to the game, have feedback, keep building hype, and get excited for future alphas. More people check out their channels, they build more of a following.

Meanwhile the dev team is still making a crazy amount of leveling content, while having to fix the issues in alpha. About now, there are features that everyone wanted, and maybe even talked about with the community that may not make it. (Spoiler: they won’t make it.) The goal is to have end game content, but the team has so much stuff they promised the publisher and the community, they are trying to get all that stuff in. The hype continues building from the community, as does the pressure on the dev team to deliver.

Producers notice the date of completion for bugs in alpha and current zones in dev aren’t moving at a rate where deadlines will be met. Time to go ask the publisher for more money and delay the game. If there’s enough hype and the publisher has money, they’ll continue funding.

After announcing a delay, the community (more recently) understands. Content creators won’t mind as long as updates keep coming out, but if there’s a drought of new stuff, this will mean they start coming up with wishlist videos, and expectations grow higher. After announcing a delay, the community (more recently) understands. Content creators won’t mind as long as updates keep coming out, but if there’s a drought of new stuff, this will mean they start coming up with wishlist videos, and expectations grow higher.

Things are improving. Beta is looking better. People are happy with the changes, but it’s still not in a place where it’s ready to launch. People voice concerns, but for the two weeks they played, they like it. The dev team knows there’s still some stuff to fix, and still hasn’t gotten to end game content, but they said they would and know it’s a thing. They need more time. But it’s been 4-7 years by this point. Not many publishers have the stomach to keep delaying. Some do.

Then closed beta is hitting and most of the systems are in place, and it’s roughly what the game should be with more bug fixes on the way. It still needs more dev time, but the publisher has spent 60-100 million at this point over 5-8 years and wants a return on investment. The community KNOWS it needs more time. The dev team KNOWS it needs more time. The publisher is feeling the pain of having spent a crazy amount of money and is worried about the 30-50 million they will be spending in marketing on top of the dev and server costs. Gotta launch.

There’s lots of attention on the game. Fans enjoy that first month, money is coming in. Now comes the part where everyone is scared shitless. The end game needs work and won’t be ready for a few months, there are more bugs because of the influx of players. Hype is winding down. Players want things fixed. Bugs. Server issues. Eng game. Tuning. Class balancing. The dev team now has to shift to a live development cadence. This is different and takes some getting used to (ie messing up and solving problems) and patience is tested.

Player counts are dropping, even with improvements trickling in. Content creators are not getting the same clicks they used to, and are struggling to get eyes on their videos. They are trying to stay positive, but they are showing some frustration in their content. Devs notice and know about the frustration and are working hard to fix it. Morale drops at the studio. Other offers come in from other studios who will pay more money on exciting new projects. The game is getting better, but it’s slow going.

Some big names leave. Can’t blame em, great opportunities and they are exhausted. Content creators are feeling like they aren’t being listened to, and the devs are now figuring things out. Player counts are dropping. A new patch with content is coming up. The new patch is coming out. Bug fixes, a new zone, balance changes. It barely increases logins. Content creators are getting frustrated and can’t cover the game anymore because the clicks aren’t there. “It’s just business. I love the game. I need more eyes to make cash.”

Videos start coming out talking about “The MURDER DEATH KILL of X GAME.” Those get lots of clicks. The game is improving. More devs leave. The team who knew how to make the game is either burned out or gone. Either the game recuperated and profited enough that a team can be funded to make the game better and keep the player base engaged, or it will be sunset in six months.

A new MMO is announced. Time is a flat circle and it all repeats again.

And for a stinger:

Source: Twitter
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rafael12104
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rafael12104

Hmm. Well, I’m not sure it is a perfect circle. I mean, take a look at SWTOR as the perfect example and exception.

Everything mentioned applies to SWTOR, but the IP was strong enough to escape the flat circle. In fact, the games strong points which were established early on, the story telling, weathered the storm of angst and circumstance and kept the game going.

So, I would say the circle isn’t flat but a series of peaks and valleys. The more peaks, the better the games chances. And one way to keep the peaks coming is a good IP that keeps players coming back even though they may leave again from time to time.

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Dean Dean

Copyrights prevent collaboration and force people to reinvent the wheel. Of course it’s going to be a horrible experience with a negligible outcome.

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Utakata

Bottom line thinking seems to be one of the biggest MMO killers. So to add to Mr. Eliot’s “games are made for making money”, making money may breaks games. Flat circle, indeed. /sigh

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Scorp Gang

Good read. I still say he killed Wildstar. Never forget he openly mocked a player on Twitter for asking for the Difficulty to be toned down a bit.

Then he had the audacity to go work for Blizzard and be great at his job.

I WILL NEVER FORGIVE HIM!! lol

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

I liked Wildstar. The inability to assign a combat skill to a mouse button and FOV settings killed the game for me.

There was strong dev op at the granular level of that game that did as much harm as the meta end game choices. A shame.

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Crowe

So… just looked up what he’d been doing recently… Board games. Hey, I loved boarding before the pandemic and I abso-fricking *love* board gaming MOAR now. I usually host one every Sunday and converted an un-used room to do it.

That said, here’s the description of his board game Brutality:
THE MOST BRUTAL GAME EVER MADE
(their website emphasis, not mine)

SSDD? Flat circle… made of cardboard? (dunno, just guessing. not going to spend any more time on that)

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Crowe

Interesting thoughts/point of view. Seems to drop the ball on the part where a large portion of the programmers/QA staff get sacked 30-60 days after launch.

But none of what he covered was Wildstar’s issues with me though. We left because the end-game content that they did provide required too many players. Getting 20 or 40 people together and focused on something is less fun and more of a job. Heck, most of us even enjoyed the “cupcake” thing they had going.

We launched with the game, ran all the dungeons we wanted as we levelled up, hit caps, made a second character, repeated to caps, and then cancelled. I was playing with some damn fine folks, too. Top-of-their-game types although the personalities were far more mellow than you’d have guessed for their skill levels.

Very few of our “normal” raiders were interested in the social hassles that a 20 person group would have going to 40. 10 person to 20 would have been a completely different story though. For many of us, raiding was more of a social engagement (even us cupcakes) and when you hit 20, you have to phase out a lot of the social parts in order to have clarity of direction. And if you’re *starting* with 20 and going to 40, forget it. It’s just a different job and that’s coming from the designers.

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styopa

You that this litany (or a form of it) is applicable to pretty much every job there is, barring the few people who get to do what they love?

And even they COULD describe it like that, they are just having too much fun. But that’s a pretty small %.

I mean, I’m lucky to enjoy what I do, but if I wanted, I could frame my days like that too.
(shrug)

Corey Evans
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Corey Evans

Making something new using 20-years-old (or older) design philosophies will never be a great idea, whether MMOs or general game-dev or anything within the tech sector. This is why MMOs need to be moved forward. Not just in the content, but even the development cycle, too.

A person in 2021 wanting to make a game that is incredibly similar to Everquest and World of Warcraft, from the design philosophies to the development strategies where they hand-craft all of the content, is a really bad idea and has a high chance of ending up the way this dude describes, because there are a bajillion MMOs out there like that, and they take tons of time and resources if done the way it was done twenty-plus years ago.

Leverage technology that didn’t exist two decades prior!

What about making a game world so huge that you can have unique and non-repeatable quests? It is doable. No Man’s Sky is huge, but too huge. It’s like a thesis paper on the theoretical limits of how large a video game world can be. Take a billionth of that size and it’s still gargantuan. And that was made by a team of… ten or twenty or something at the time?

What about making quest content using procedural generation? Even when hidden behind a discretely-designed plot, 99% of MMO quests are some variation of: kill X things, loot/gather X things, or bring X thing to Y place. Even if your adventures are never much deeper than “Save the [mayor’s son] from [werewolves]”, it’d still be pretty neat if you and only ever you would be able to succeed (or fail, and then the mayor’s son is dead forever). Now you have infinitude of content created by robots instead of needing a multi-hundred person team.

What about putting dungeons and raids in random places in the world? All of a sudden, a boss fight can be like three or four boss fights. How do you respond to the big beam attack when you’re in a forest with trees to hide behind? Versus in an open field with nothing but dash attacks? Versus on a thin bridge over a chasm where if you dash left you fall off and die?

Yeah, sure, idea versus execution. But that comes into play whether you’re designing an MMO twenty years ago or ten or yesterday or ten years into the future, so I’m discounting it.

The technology is there to make a big leap forward; it just needs fresh ideas.

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Toy Clown

I feel bad for all the people that poured their hearts, souls, and time into developing content that didn’t meet financial expectations. I feel bad for developers who work 18 hr days to get content out there that their publishers and other financial powers-that-be push them to do, especially when it isn’t exactly humanly possible. Only to go through all of that for a canceled product. I hope the union movement starting up will eventually help these people.

We’ve all been led to believe that the costs of creating an MMO are exorbitant. While I stopped supporting games through kickstarters because many have failed, I kind of look at kickstarted products with furrowed brows, hating them, but at the same time thinking that the games need them to come to life if they don’t have big, fancy investors.

My beliefs were recently jarred by reading what the sole developer of Galaxies of Eden posted in the discord. He explained how he was able to create the architecture of the game in 14 months (which he calls MIR server engine), then spent 7 months developing the MMO with the tools of the server engine, Houdini, and the Unreal Engine. It will be ready for Alpha early-ish next year.

I’ll preface by saying that I know very little about what it takes to create an MMO, and that I also realize this is an indie project currently being developed by a single person, so the scale might be different for something a bit more massive. But this is what got me to thinking about this, and I’m going to directly quote Alkan, the developer, because my lack of knowledge would probably screw this up!

“Software Engineering field has been dramatically changing for the better in past few years, and finally we got really nice IDEs, libraries, DBs, and cross-platform compatibility. I decided to move to Software Engineering couple of years ago as software development experience is currently extremely enjoyable. Also, software engineering has finally reached to a state where even a single person can create majorly disruptive products.”

Of course, I’m thinking, hopefully going forward, the costs of MMOs will be much less expensive to create and maybe developers won’t have to seek out investors and publishers to fund their games. I’m just making conjectures at this point, but I hope it’s positive going forward for the industry.

Feel free to chime in, as I am deeply curious.

Corey Evans
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Corey Evans

This lines up quite well with what I posted right above you (when I hadn’t read your comment yet).

A SINGLE DUDE making an MMO, probably because he isn’t trying to hand-craft all of the content like it’s the early 00’s. Even if his game ends up bad, people will take note of how he was able to create it, I think.

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Crowe

TC, I find your comments insightful and now slow down when I’m scrolling to read them. (which is something absolutely *no one* will say about mine!)
Keep it up!
/salute

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Hikari Kenzaki

I felt this in my soul…

And no, to all the people below who think this is just about Wildstar. It’s not. The scariest time for any launch is launch day. The second scariest time is month two.