Vague Patch Notes: Pivots don’t work with MMOs

Bye, I guess.

So we can pretty much confirmed now that Pantheon’s goose is thoroughly cooked. Yes, I know, the folks at Visionary Realms are claiming that when they have a livestream, it’ll clarify everything and you won’t be mad any more, but we all know this doesn’t work. Our article even cited a number of other crowdfunded games that have tried a pivot to a secondary project that have utterly failed, and there’s no reason to assume it’s going to work here. Heck, there’s even less reason to assume this will work because “battle royale” and “hardcore throwback to EverQuest” go together like orange juice and toothpaste.

But in the comments, a reader posed a relevant question about why studios keep trying this and questioning whether it has ever worked. And the answer is basically no. Just like relaunches, pivots do not work. It is currently not working out for Temtem right this very moment. And so it’s time to dig into that a little bit more because I’m sure you’ve already thought of a couple potential counterexamples, but that doesn’t actually refute anything. These kinds of pivots simply do not work for their intended purpose, and they don’t work for a good reason.

If you’ve never seen it (and it’s a bit buried now), the excellent Vintage Geek Culture once ran a series of articles about dead fandoms. One of the fandoms the author cited was the Legion of Super-Heroes, which he noted failed in part because of continual reboots. The thing is, reboots are a good idea when you have a core Thing for people to latch on to but the continuity or other series baggage has grown too big for people to enjoy it. They don’t work when you’re dealing with something that is a niche product with a dedicated fanbase.

Pivots are, pretty universally, an example of exactly that. They are MMOs in various stages of development with niche but devout fanbases trying to do something else in order to have mass appeal. And just as with reboots of other media, this is a bad plan. You blow up what kept that dedicated fanbase sticking around, but you also still don’t have a core thing that appeals to a large audience.

Need an example? Look at The Secret World transitioning to Secret World Legends. However much it might be nice to wish or pretend otherwise, at the end of the day TSW‘s biggest problem was that combat just wasn’t fun, and when that is your only way of mechanically interacting with the world, that’s a problem. (“But what about stealth and puzzle missions?” Please, point out the skills you gained from leveling up that made you better at those missions. I’ll wait.) So the idea was SWL would fix the combat!

What is oddly excluded from discussions of the many ways in which SWL failed is that SWL’s combat is still terrible.

won't you let me live

The pivot to action combat did not fix the actual problems that the game had. Sure, combat is terrible in different ways than before and the entire thing has been wildly changed, but it isn’t actually good now. It’s bad in different ways. And the big problem is that nothing in the pivot was explicitly designed to rope in new players. “Bad combat that’s different bad combat” is not appealing to a wider base.

Could the combat have actually been made non-terrible? Maybe, but the big problem here was always going to be that the game had been designed from the ground up to focus its appeal on the stories being told. In order to make compelling crafting or an explorable open world or all sorts of other things, the devs had no existing foundation to build on. A pivot to another combat system is solving a problem in theory, but only if the new combat system is actually good, and since the new system was basically designed to change the combat but keep it recognizable, it was kneecapped from the start.

“But there have been successful revamped MMOs! Look at Final Fantasy XIV!” Well… no because that’s your sole example. There haven’t been any others with overhauls quite so extensive (reinventions are another story). And the thing is that the example still doesn’t hold up because FFXIV did not actually pivot in any meaningful way. If you go back and look at old discussions of how Tanaka was designing FFXIV version 1.0, there was a lot of talk about making it a game about group combat and the mechanics of having parties engaged in battle. That was the idea. Lots of abilities and specifics have changed, sure, but the game didn’t pivot to be unrecognizable in any fashion.

In fact, the core exception of a game that actually started out as one thing and then became something entirely different is Fortnite. And even that is, in and of itself, kind of a fluke of history more than a recipe to be followed, and it wouldn’t have bankrupted the company had the survival game’s post-launch battle royale mode not taken off.

I hate so much about the ways you choose to be.

There was a weird environment and set of incentives in place in 2017, and it was pretty clear if you were developing a game or just watching from the outside that there was clearly space to take on the genre of “put people in a box and shoot at one another.” This alone is not surprising, since pitting players against one another has been a staple of “we need some kind of multiplayer” basically forever. And there was, to be honest, a window of time in which you could pivot your survivalbox into a battle royale and make some of your money back, assuming you had a lot of it to begin with.

Of course, that was also because these were survivalboxes that basically already encouraged you to be playing a battle royale. H1Z1 wasn’t intended to be that, but it came out of the gate with the systems that it needed for this mechanical pivot and gameplay that wasn’t tremendously compelling otherwise. It wasn’t really a pivot so much as a different gameplay mode, and that’s really what Fortnite’s battle royale started life as. It had just hit early access, and Epic had just enough time and space to push that out quickly.

But that was also then. There was a narrow window when this was possible, but that window has since closed because Fortnite effectively became the brand leader and sucked out the oxygen from the room. There are a couple pre-existing titles that are still hanging in there from inertia, but there is not a big open environment for people to expand into.

And… you get the vague sense that people know this. I don’t mean to suggest that the people in charge of Pantheon are all clueless and need my wisdom or else they will be out of luck, even before the obvious joke that they are already out of luck. We all have points in our lives and careers when we realize that we have a bad plan, but it’s the only plan available to us, and so what else are we going to do? I don’t imagine this is all that different from developers trying to pivot to save a faltering title.

It just doesn’t work. And quite frankly, in this case particularly, I think there would be more dignity in just admitting that’s what happened. Sure, it wouldn’t fix all of Pantheon’s problems, but it would be more fair to the long-suffering backers.

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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