From launches, to hype, and back again.
Each week, Chris "Syeric" Coke gives his unfiltered thoughts on the MMO industry. Taking on the news and hottest topics, Chris brings his extensive experience as a player and blogger to bear in Experience Points. This week he breaks down frustrating aspects of the industry, including the recent launch of Final Fantasy XIV.
Yesterday, for the first time since the game's release, I was able to log on to my guild's Final Fantasy XIV server. After eight days and one miracle patch, Square Enix finally seems to be making headway on an issue that never should have happened in the first place. See, this genre has a problem – a few of them in fact. One of them is launches. Another is the publishers and companies running these games. Today I want to look at what, in the words of Peter Griffin, really grinds my gears.
Stop me if you've heard this one. A major, AAA MMO releases and the servers grind to a halt. Said MMO's developer gets on podium and says, “Gee willickers, we couldn't have expected this!” Bollocks! If they “couldn't have expected” it, then why did they advertise so heavily? Why did they go on press tours and barrage us with emails, and screenshots and videos? Or how about this, why do they employ teams to drum up and anticipate launch demand? Couldn't have expected it indeed.
The state of MMO launches today, and always, is abysmal. Even in the best of times, it feels like these studios are caught with their pants down. Queues stretch on for hours and servers are added after the fact while players beat at the door. It's like the party-throwing teenager trying to glue together the vase when her parents are in the driveway. Meanwhile, the hastily taped up servers stutter and gasp as players spread out of the newbie servers.
FFXIV is the most recent example of this. You would think that a company whose first try failed so spectacularly that they stopped developing the live game, would want to make the best first impression. Instead, Square funded the entire rebuilding of Final Fantasy XIV and then seemed to cheap out on one of the most important aspects: launch servers.
Look, I get that there's strategy in all of this. Companies don't want to go broke buying new servers when the ones they have might work. They don't want to open up tons of new shards just to merge them later. None of this is the player's problem. We are the consumers, it's up to us to share whether we enjoy a game or not, period. All of the behind the scenes stuff needs to be innovated around. It's happening, just not at Square Enix.
"We Know Best" Design
Square's answer to the issue wasn't to look to its players. It wasn't to look to the industry. Instead, it looked inward. The result was a resounding middle finger to players who didn't sign up during the beta. Sorry folks, if you didn't reserve a slot prior to launch, you'll need to wait! Or, and try to understand this Square, I could give up on the game that wasn't worth playing in the first place. Rather than adopt a queue system, the company chose to lock down its servers entirely. No character creation, even if there were free slots to play.
At 8:30 Monday morning, I logged in to find every single North American and European server locked down. Every one. My only option was to play on a Japanese server. That's when it hit me just how out of touch Square is. Instead of providing the option to wait in line before playing with friends, Square thought it was smart to segregate its players into little islands, sent to float in non-English speaking waters. Or maybe it's that they knew we would take it. Square knows best. MMO companies know best. Right?
Don't ask Blizzard. Its track record is now terrible. Gamers told them that Pandas were a silly, teeny-bopper chasing idea. It was and they came. Gamers told them the real-money auction house was a bad idea for Diablo. It was and it came. Gamers told them we wanted classic World of Warcraft, instead we got hundreds of mind-numbing daily quests. We told them we wanted faster updates and instead kept pace with the latest glaciers. And let's not forget the whole Real ID fiasco.
Remember when Blizzard thought it was a good idea to force players into using their real names? That was one they listened to us on, or maybe it was the international press telling them it was a bad idea; or possibly of their community managers being relentlessly harassed. Or maybe a developer had a picture of his family on his desk while reading the forums. Any one of those is as good as the next.
I find its plight sorrowful, if truth be told. What was once a beacon of PC gaming let its head swell too large and its good will stretch too thin. It seems out of touch; industry shaker instead of industry maker, burdened by its own success. In perspective, the last groundbreaking release Blizzard produced was WoW itself. The twelve year old so enamored with it then is now 21 and likely to be starting a family of his own. Since then it has produced massive selling disappointment after massive selling disappointment. It has ridden its own coat tails as far as they can be ridden. Will players finally move on?
More importantly, will they ever stop buying into the hype?
The Hype and the Churn
The best and worst part about being an MMO player is the hype cycle. You're probably on ZAM right now because you're like me and enjoy reading about games when you can't play them. It's a vicarious experience, reading an author's preview. You imagine what it must be like to play through each quest and gameplay mechanic. Sometimes the author's enthusiasm seems to seep from their very words and that excitement fuels your own. We read articles, we watch videos, we listen to podcasts. Even after the games come out, we keep coming back; keep ingesting our community of content. More than any other type of gamer, we MMO players are connected to our medium. It's hard to imagine the MMO genre without it.
But hype is the predicate of fallout. It is the preceding wave before reality crashes the shore, reminding us that each new game is just a game, singular and un-answering to all of our subjective desires. It is easy, almost inconsequential, to say that no game can be everything to everybody, but with a little effort hundreds and thousands believe that it is the game for them, and that is enough. Their excitement, rightfully shared, adds more fuel to the fire than any marketing team would dare dream. Before long, players become advocates for their MMOs, many without ever actually playing them, and the hype cycle sweeps up masses with a convincing plea that each new feature is just enough to recreate their first MMO experience of joy and wonder.
That's what hype promises: a new beginning, a second coming onto the fertile land of your first MMO, but your fifth, armed with the experience to “do it right” this time. There is an old saying about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. We do, when we come upon a new, well-hyped MMO and before long the rose tint is gone and us we are left with a game, even a good one, which has failed to transport our inner children back to the discovery stage of MMOs.
The resulting churn is familiar. Players settle in or move on. Developers hired to bring the game to launch are fired and live teams take over. In the decline, players rage and burn freely. They declare games dying and dead and done. Sometimes they feel lied to and sometimes they are. The hype cycle itself isn't bad but the churn is. It is part and parcel of the MMO industry. It is also just as much the player's fault as it is the developers.
As players, it is up to us to temper our excitement. Hype is the rise and fall of expectation and reality. Do we feel bad that our new appliance doesn't actually revolutionize dish washing? Hype and excitement should be embraced because we love games, not because we're filling a hole. That is the trap of the hype cycle, one that marketing doesn't seem to care about and probably couldn't avoid if it did. Because we help construct it.
It's time to embrace expectation because we chose to. Put another way, when fun dries up one place, we need to step back into it somewhere else.
I play a lot of games. I review them as a hobby and own more than I have any right to. There is something special about the MMO community, something striking that keeps me coming back even when it's at its most vitriolic and I believe you're the same. I think it's the conversations. We're invested and bought in when other gaming communities shift in a dull breeze. I can share what grinds my gears because you've shared before me. I can air my thoughts and know that, at some level, you all understand that it's from a love of gaming. FFXIV might have annoyed me as Real ID did you, but isn't this, in part, what it means to be an MMO gamer? I think so. Now talk, here or elsewhere. Air your grievances, share your loves. Step into the fun where you find it.
Chris "Syeric" Coke
Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight