Vague Patch Notes: How does an MMORPG studio rebuild trust it shattered?

bro you gotta trust me bro

Earlier this week, Pantheon cancelled its intensely stupid extraction shooter mode. Now, I don’t say that it’s intensely stupid because I dislike this sort of gameplay. I do dislike this sort of gameplay, but the fact of the matter is that there was basically zero chance of my playing Pantheon beforehand, so the existence of 247 had not materially affected my decisions, so neither has its cancelation. The developers admitted that they had screwed up and launched an ill-advised project, and now they want to figure out how to rebuild trust.

Which brings up a pretty good question that we haven’t really talked about, certainly not in this column: How do you actually do that?

I don’t need to tell anyone that breaking trust is bad; we’ve talked about it many a time, including me, and I’ve talked often about how important managing player trust is and how hard it is to regain once lost. But what we haven’t talked about is how you do regain it. As much as we all love the Trust Thermocline discussion, we know that it is possible. The question is how.

So first and foremost, having just linked that, it’s important to start off by explaining how MMORPGs are different from what’s under discussion in that thread. Essentially, it’s that an MMORPG is a game… and yes, I promise, there’s more to it than just the obvious.

Entertainment products have a different profile from products that you consume on a regular basis for other means, just because you can always say that you’re not having fun or enjoying something any longer and then, like… take a break. You are allowed to make a vow that you will never again play World of Warcraft if you like to do so, but no one is actually keeping track except to make fun of you when you do. It’s a bit different than, say, Unity deciding to turn full supervillain and convince people to stop developing on the platform.

However, that doesn’t mean trust doesn’t erode and cause problems. Since I already mentioned WoW, it’s worth noting that basically everyone looking with a critical eye at the latest expansion announcement (including us)┬áhas also done so with, well… doubt. Like, sure, all of these things sound nice, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

Basically however hard trust is to build, it’s harder to rebuild… sort of. Because it certainly feels like some studios and companies get their trust back pretty darn quickly. How does that happen?

Oh, this fixed everything! (It did not.)

The answer, ironically, is that a bit part of the difference is in how that trust is broken. Pantheon, almost certainly by design, stepped in the worst variant of that by breaking trust in a way that communicates something really damaging to fans: You do not matter to us any more.

Remember when we discussed which players really count in an online game? The fact of the matter is, as that column says, a studio is always going to be making that calculation. It is not always a bad thing, even. There are players who are, say, old-school wound-collectors still clutching to the notion that a willingness to wait through incredibly slow group formation indicated that they were a greater tier of player than others. These players want you to make them feel important again. And they are loud, but not particularly numerous, and are best told that their grievances do not matter here.

But when the studio says that a major group of players no longer matters? That sticks. And when the message is sent that the group of players who no longer matter are the people who are sticking with the game? Hoo boy, the knives come out. We’ve seen it happen with a lot of crowdfunded projects where the designers belatedly announce that they’re pivoting completely to serve some new audience, and it almost always comes with the assurance that this isn’t replacing the game the devs still haven’t delivered.

Whether that last part is true doesn’t matter. It still sends the message. So the question is how do you course-correct and repair after that? And I think the problem here is not that it’s impossible but that the problem presupposes the solution. If you were actually going to do the things that were necessary to rebuild trust, you wouldn’t have broken it in the first place.

As alluded to, Pantheon does not actually have a product. It does not currently have a playable live game for people to enjoy. The developers can say, “We’re sorry, we want to regain your trust,” but in order to actually accomplish that goal, they would have to start by showing a desire to regain that trust.

So here, then, is the problem. When you break a promise, the best way to start rebuilding trust is by actually fulfilling that promise… and if you were capable of fulfilling it, why would you break the promise in the first place?

Good job.

I realize that might sound a little bit overblown because it’s not like MMORPG development starts with studio members taking a knee before their lord and swearing they shall not rest until the Holy Grail is retrieved. (Maybe if you were working with Richard Garriott, he’d make you do that. I’d believe it.) But the fact of the matter is that what you announce as your launch priorities you are making a promise. It’s not the sort of thing you can usually litigate in any meaningful way, but you are promising what you intend to do.

The way to rebuild trust when you’ve damaged it is to fulfill your promises. And the studios that have gotten good at rebuilding trust quickly are the ones that have learned both to promise what they are confident about actually delivering and to promptly address anything they’ve failed to do with an attitude of culpability. Because the alternative is people doubting you more and more over time, until they just… stop believing anything that you promise.

For every promise you break, you have to keep two just to get back to neutral. That’s the tricky part. Rebuilding trust isn’t about undoing a mistake but about doing better than you did before you made the mistake. A lot of studios – the majority, I’d say – see “we reversed course” as the end of the discussion, as if just walking backwards would undo the damage instead of just being a step along the way.

Can Pantheon in particular rebuild trust? I don’t think so because I’m hard-pressed to see how it can deliver on the biggest broken promise to date, which is getting the game across the finish line. And the other big promise it has is in recapturing the sense of playing the games that inspired Pantheon in the first place, requiring a critical mass of players that various statements over the years the studio seems to know may not be there. It’s a promise relying on other people to keep it.

It’s a messy and slippery slope that’s harder to climb back up than it is to avoid falling down in the first place. And if you can do either… why wouldn’t you avoid sliding at all?

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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