Vague Patch Notes: Stop taking your released MMOs back to the drawing board


This is not a column about Kingshunt, but it is. It’s not a column about Crowfall or Deathverse: Let it Die or even Crucible. But it’s about all of those games and more besides. And it’s about a myth that irritates me to this day based on a misunderstanding of something that happened to one game that managed to break a curse no one even thought was a curse until Final Fantasy XIV came along.

Because it’s also about Secret World Legends, and it’s also about Hellgate: London a little bit, and it’s about Legends of Aria. It’s about the promise that the game is going to go to sleep for a little while, but it’s going to come back and it’s going to be better and it’s going to be so much better and you’ll see very shortly, and then you’ll be rewarded for your faith, dad will come back from the store with cigarettes and everyone will be happy again!

And that’s the problem.

On some level, you can understand why this happens. A game launches but people bounce off of it, the company is then in trouble, and someone gets the idea that maybe this can be salvaged. Maybe there’s a route forward. All right, yes, we’re taking the game offline right now to retool it and find the best part of the game, and then we’ll focus on that, and no, stop it, stop it, I am getting angry just thinking about this.

Do you know how many MMOs have had to change plans with content and systems after launch? Basically all of them. Every single game launches with ideas about how players will engage with the game, what they will find fun, and what will be the biggest hit. And that’s always something that requires editing and changing, sometimes substantially, and sometimes you even realize that there’s a trend you could capitalize and hastily cannibalize another game to chase that trend only for that game to become entirely dominated by that one mode.

The problem you are having is not that you need to find the fun in your game and re-release and that will fix it. The problem is that you already released and nobody came. Taking your game offline is, I’m sorry, a way to anger your existing playerbase but not to substantially change how the people who already didn’t show up see your game on a whole.

And yes, there are definitely games that managed big glow-ups and turned from being punchlines into being success stories. And while I’ve already argued that No Man’s Sky is the real success story there, we have to talk about the fact that FFXIV is not, in fact, a type specimen.

da fuq did I just read

FFXIV was a game that, at launch, was considered so bad that its producer Hiromichi Tanaka left the company because of health reasons (which, in Japanese culture, is basically the polite way of saying that he left to avoid being fired). That is a big deal. The new producer, Naoki Yoshida, was also made the director of the game, meaning that an intense amount of power was concentrated in the hands of one man who could thus easily derail the entire game into his personal vision.

And that… was not what happened. Instead, he formed connections, laid out a plan, kept an open line of communication with players about the future as well as discussed things with the team, and managed to take the game and substantially improve it even before its shutdown and relaunch. Said shutdown and relaunch was, functionally, making an entirely new game from the bones of the old one, something that had about a million opportunities to go wrong and a million more reasons to go wrong, but Square-Enix had apparently decided that it might as well swing for the fences at that point.

No part of that story is assured. In fact, by every objective metric, if you ignore the fact that you know how this story ends, it looks like a tremendously dumb idea. This should not have worked at all. It was basically the one time ever in forever that one man was given a ridiculous amount of power and authority in development and that was the right decision.

And so many of these games we’re discussing above don’t have that. We’re not talking about cases wherein the games had their staff changed from the leadership level on down, and that’s even avoiding that Naoki Yoshida is not actually an easily reproducible entity. The real world has tons of people who think they are Yoshida and they are not actually him. We are full to bursting with people who believe that they would be staggering geniuses if just given unlimited power and authority, but most of them are just pretty average people who just become pretty average people with no checks on their power.

Heck, that’s not even getting into people who actually were geniuses doing serious damage to their chosen fields by wielding power with impunity and abandon. Especially in films. Sorry, but Stanley Kubrick does not get a pass on awful behavior because he made good movies.

Burnt out.

There’s a phrase in Chinese, “守株待兔,” which can be translated as “wait and see” but more accurately means “to watch a stump waiting for a rabbit.” It comes from an old story about a farmer who one day saw a rabbit dart out of the forest, run full-speed into a stump on his land, and break its neck, thus delivering him a dinner with no work on his part… at which point he decided to stop farming altogether and simply wait for rabbits to come break their necks because that’s way easier than farming!

But there were no more rabbits, and the phrase is specifically used to refer to people or organizations that see a fortunate but unlikely event take place and conclude that it must happen again, thereby failing to take appropriate action and instead waiting for the next windfall to occur.

In one very specific situation, yes, shutting down the game and reworking it severely produced a far better game that is currently sitting pretty within the larger MMO space. That is an undeniable fact. But it isn’t a plan that has worked any other time, and it seems like it is an obviously bad plan once you think about it for more than a few minutes. You needed people to come play your game and no one showed up; why would they suddenly be more inclined to show up if you showed you’re willing to ditch the entirety of the game when things go wrong? What core elements are there for people to connect with?

For that matter, if you can’t keep the game going while you retool its mechanics, you are not suddenly going to have an easy time doing that when the game is launched and further problems arise (and they will arise). So you are not actually making your life any easier or projecting anything beyond a sort of benign incompetence.

I know, you don’t want to say that your game flopped when it’s a game you felt strongly about. But not wanting to say it won’t change the reality.

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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