Vague Patch Notes: Why we should evaluate MMO systems based on how they break

They'll let anyone be a primal these days.

Back before Final Fantasy XIV’s reboot launched, Naoki Yoshida talked about how the developers had plans to make certain primals be world bosses. Players would team up to take them down, and the free companies that managed to land the killing blow would have access to the primal as a powerful summon for a limited span of time. It immediately sounds like a really neat and evocative system that would carry some of the weight of how party-wide summon unlocks worked in older titles in the franchise.

And then a moment’s thought reveals that this is a terrible idea and should definitely never be implemented in the game, which is probably why it hasn’t been.

There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed, and to some extent, it happens whenever a certain breed of person gets hold of a new technology or idea. This week it’s AI, last year it was crypto, in a year or so it’ll be something else. But it’s also one of those things that crops up a lot with Kickstarter projects and just generally rears its head whenever someone somewhere comes up with a great idea.

The thing about great ideas is that you have to evaluate them based on how they break.

This is, I admit, not a fun or sexy way to think about neat ideas. You come up with a new idea for a game system, and you find yourself immediately energized. You want to imagine the fun new things that could be done in game design space with a new concept. What if you have a game world where your character is still around and goes through a regular schedule and is capable of interacting with other people as an NPC when you’re offline? Think of the potential!

And that’s a cool idea. You don’t want someone like me to bring up questions like what happens if other players can attack and kill your NPC self? What if your NPC self farming is more efficient than actually playing the game? What if the best way to play the game is have a bunch of alts farming?

But here’s the thing: None of those problems I brought up just now is impossible to solve. None of those means, “Oh, never mind, this was a terrible idea and we shouldn’t do it.” Rather, bringing up these issues is a way of testing the idea. It’s a way of making sure that instead of watching their darling run aground as soon as these issues come up, the people proposing them know they’re coming and can prepare for them.

And make no mistake, these issues are always coming.


One of the things I’ve talked about before as it relates to Kickstarter projects is that Kickstarters have a particular advantage insofar as they’re about ideas. Ideas can always be presented in their most positive form. And it’s easy to find yourself thinking that because you understand how an idea is supposed to work, you don’t need to really evaluate it based on its potential to be abused. After all, why would you abuse a good idea? Don’t you want the game to be fun?

But you have to also remember that someone is always going to look for the way of doing things that is most fun for them even if that solution is shockingly unfun for others. Heck, sometimes it’s not even intentional! Sometimes a player will just mess around with game systems looking for an exploit and any consequences for others are just unhappy accidents. Or happy accidents. The point is that it wasn’t meant to happen, but it did.

More often than not, the ideas that you’re thinking of are not ideas that no one considered before now. It’s far more reasonable to assume that in the past 26 years of MMO development, your cool idea has been thought of and perhaps even tried… and it turns out that it doesn’t work.

“What if AI could create quests?” We already have that. It’s called procedural generation, and it’s pretty much the same as radio missions in ancient MMOs like City of Heroes and other old MMOs. We’ve had those systems forever, and they can be fun! But it turns out that they’re fun as filler content, and they’re just not as good as bespoke content. You can definitely fill in blanks with those, but they will not make up the entirety of a game’s flow very well.

“What if we make a player-run justice system to handle griefers?” Yeah, a lot of games have tried that, spanning the ages from Ultima Online to ArcheAge. It doesn’t work very well, for reasons we discussed at length the social penalty for PvP. It has been weighed and found wanting.

“What if you could take your fortune from an old game directly into the sequel?” Gosh, what if you could utterly ruin a game’s economy within minutes of launch? What if we had generational wealth in video game form? That sounds almost as much fun as chewing and swallowing actual nails.


Usually the response to these points come down to something along the line of “right, but what if that… but more.” I’ve literally seen people argue that procedural generation is nothing like what they envision for AI-generated quests before describing procedural generation. At best, these people are treating this technology as if it’s magic; at worst, they’re grifters pushing something untenable because it directly benefits them in some way.

But the thing about good ideas is that you can’t demolish them by coming up with edge cases. A truly good idea is a good idea no matter what. Asking questions and pointing out failures in those ideas can only result in a better implementation of an idea. As with so many other things, the real problem is not asking the questions but assuming that the answers are all based on magical thinking.

Yes, people are going to try to break a system. They will test its boundaries and find the ways to exploit it for maximum gain. That doesn’t mean the idea is horrible; it means that you need to figure out what those boundaries are early on and take care to address them before the system ever gets into the hands of players. And if those problems can’t be addressed, well… maybe it sounds good on paper but it isn’t good in practice.

More than anything, good ideas are not ideas looking for a use case. Nothing good comes out of having a hammer and finding something you can drive nails into; good things happen when you have something that needs nails and you have a hammer to do it. When you just approach situations saying that there’s some new technology and you can’t wait to find a use for it in this space, what you’re doing is at best chasing a gimmick and at worse making something truly unnecessary and unhelpful.

So ask questions. Try to think of edge cases. Whenever you see an idea that sounds too good to be true, see if you can break it – not because you want it to fail but because you want it to figure out how to make it succeed. And if asking those questions results in someone being angry or defensive… well, that probably says a lot about their overall goals.

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.
Previous articleTarisland sets its scene in new video with new animated art and more questionable narration
Next articleLord of the Rings Online says hello to King’s Gondor, farewell to Shadowfax

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments