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):
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:
Hang on, I’ll do one where you also borrow $75m from Rhode Island.
— Steve Danuser (@SteveDanuser) August 13, 2021