Vague Patch Notes: Finger-pointing in the MMO and multiplayer games industry

    
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Tumble.

I know for a fact that I’ve already made the joke at this point about how Babylon’s Fall just straight-up Babylon Fell, but the wordplay amuses me. That’s not what this column is about, though. This column is about the fact that the CEO of Platinum Games decided to say a few words that sounded a lot like an apology but were, in fact, not actually apologetic in the slightest. If you read it carefully, you’ll notice he doesn’t apologize once for the actual quality of the game itself; he apologizes to fans who are sad that the game is going to shut down without admitting any degree of culpability.

This has been sticking in my craw for nearly a week now because it is one of those things that is at once so distressingly common and so bracingly predictable. It is something that we see happen on a sadly reliable basis when you have a studio that has in some way, big or small, been caught screwing up. And given the context swirling around this particular non-apology, I wanted to take some time not to drag Babylon’s Fall specifically over the coals but to talk about the finger-pointing that tends to go on when something turns out to be a failure.

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: Pointing fingers leads basically nowhere. Whenever you have a figure in a studio whose first priority is blaming other people, you have probably found at least part of the problem, and it lies with whoever is pointing fingers in the first place. And the reason for this should be obvious because when a game flops and you are involved with it, that failure is not everyone’s fault but yours.

Boss Key’s woes with LawBreakers did not come solely from external sources, but from design choices that ensured people weren’t coming to the game and then definitely weren’t enticed once the problems started cropping up. The problems plaguing Artifact did not come from people just “not getting it” when it comes to the game. Heck, Richard Garriott is not an untrammeled creative genius who always strikes gold without publisher interference. Shroud of the Avatar proved that, right? Right?

Does that mean that none of these woes was ever compounded by external forces? Of course not. A bad publisher can definitely hurt an otherwise good game. But the thing is that if you genuinely made a good game screwed by the publisher, you usually don’t need to advertise that fact. The situation speaks for itself. If you have to tell people “this is obviously not our fault at all,” it’s probably both not obvious and wrong.

Ghost riders.

It also does a great job of ensuring that no lessons are actually learned. If you want to know why Babylon’s Fall faceplanted, the answers are not hard to find. Combat was not particularly engaging, with a lot of buttons to push but a lack of meaningful feedback or systems. Loot wasn’t interesting. Character abilities were lacking. The list goes on. At the end of the day, it was a game that lived entirely on the strength of looping through missions beating stuff up… and that activity was not terribly fun. That’s a problem!

But then we get that awful non-apology, and instead of acknowledging that there were bad decisions made about every aspect of the game’s design, it’s just tersely apologizing for fans who were disappointed about the shutdown and promising that Platinum still totally wants to do live service games, for realsies, they promise. Lessons learned from this first outing: apparently none. Likelihood that the next attempt at a live service game will go better: I’m not hopeful.

This is a fiction that is attempting to shift the blame to someone that we are, let’s face it, predisposed not to like. “The publisher is the problem” is kind of a long-standing boogeyman at face value. I get it. It’s way more compelling to think of the studio as a group of creatives being stymied by greedy jerks who didn’t really care about the game beyond maximizing profit.

Unfortunately, the reality is that much of the time the publisher isn’t the problem, even if it is a problem. All of the things I just listed about Babylon’s Fall were problems with the game to begin with, not things that had anything to do with monetization or the like. Moreover, the game was in development for five years, so you can’t even really assert that it was forced out the door too early and Platinum never had a chance. Square-Enix as a publisher makes lots of boneheaded decisions (“let’s make a Final Fantasy VII battle royale after that bubble has already burst and let’s also put it only on mobile devices!”), but this does not appear to be one of them.

And when a studio head’s first priority is blaming the publisher instead of the product itself, that indicates a bigger problem about taking responsibility.

Oopsies.

People do not like looking at something they worked on and thinking that they didn’t do a very good job. That’s understandable. But the reality is that saying “maybe we screwed up” is the path to doing better. When people were raging at No Man’s Sky for talking up features not actually in the game and being kind of boring to play, Hello Games did not respond by saying that it was someone else’s fault or the players’ fault for expecting an unrealistic standard for the title, even though that was absolutely a thing that was happening.

Instead, the studio knuckled down, took the feedback, and went to work making the game better and closer to what had been promised and fans wanted. These days, NMS has gone from being a punchline of disappointment to being a really good game. Instead of pointing fingers and blaming others, the people behind the game figured out how to do better. Better was done.

Deflecting blame feels nice. It’s nice to tell yourself a narrative wherein all of the bad things that happen to you are the result of other people being mean or stupid or incompetent while you are none of those things. It is really satisfying to feel self-assured that Sasha just went crazy and yelled at you for no good reason; you are a good person and Sasha is a crazy jerk.

But if Sasha is actually mad at you because you claim you’re going to do the dishes and then don’t do them at all for weeks on end and you leave empty takeout bags all over the house? Then blaming Sasha for just going nuts is not going to fix the problem, and it’s going to lead to your next roommate getting mad at you about the same thing because this is something you actually need to address.

So keep an eye out for finger-pointing when it comes to games. I can definitely think of times when a studio has done everything right and got screwed by its publisher, and I can definitely think of times when a studio has pointed fingers and blamed the publisher. But I can’t think of a time that the Venn diagram of those events has not been two non-overlapping circles.

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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