Experience Points: What Grinds My Gears

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.

Launch Debacles

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.

Final Thoughts

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

Comments

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All about perception, not cost.
# Sep 11 2013 at 10:49 AM Rating: Decent
5 posts
In today's technology server hardware is probably one of the cheaper costs. Hardware and bandwidth are cheap.

The problem with setting up enough launch servers is political - companies today expect to have a massive drop off a few months out of the gate, which would then entail mergers. Player pushback and a perception of failure over server mergers is highly feared.

Ideally, they should start going to a dynamic server model... Like Guild Wars 2 has: overflow servers activated when a place is full. You can then have what on your end is multiple server mergers, with the customers non-the-wiser. So you don't appear to be failing when concurrency has the natural post-launch drop off.
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I disagree
# Sep 11 2013 at 12:39 AM Rating: Decent
1 post
Well written article. However i feel the server issues were handeled well. Sure it took a week and a half, but come on. You can't say they didn't communicate the problems effectively. I specifically remember several responses from Sqeenix. Their first was an in-game message regarding the problems. They specified the cause and even propsed a solution which was implemented the following morning. If i remember right the first patch was within two days of early access. (That whole 'optimization' patch)

While i cant flat out disagree with any of what you said, I believe posts, in the context of the first half of your article is the general attitude that contributes to the animosity between players and devs in the west. Our relationship with developers is generally bad across the board with American games. Is this due to dev team incompetence? Or are mmo players typically whiny litte ******* about everything? An mmo launch, no matter how bad, generally has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the game itself. Yet frustrated players propogate bullsh*t, implying the game is not worth buying when that just isn't the truth.

edit: Just to be clear, im not accusing you of saying the game isnt worth buying, alls i'm sayin' is its silly to criticize a game over launch issues when A: everyone anticipates them, and B: propose that a game company taking the cheaper route by using less servers isn't the players probelem. Hardly anyone recognizes that the very nature of a good mmo depends on a shared responsibility between the players and the devs. Devs release patches of new content, fixes, and balances. Players foster a community worth getting to know.

Edited, Sep 11th 2013 3:03am by snugglepuffz
This happens too often!
# Sep 09 2013 at 1:35 PM Rating: Decent
2 posts
Don't forget Diablo 3! Tons of negative articles were written about their launch.... and this hilarious gif which could seriously represent every MMO launch.

http://www.g2play.net/store/files/public/D3servers.gif

P.S. The new Sim City is a MMO. That's why it suffered the same launch fate.
For the most part, a good article!
# Sep 07 2013 at 11:41 PM Rating: Decent
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You should really do some fact-checking before you write your articles, or at the very least double-check phrasing. FFXIV was not taken offline for three years, it was offline for around nine months while the relaunch was ongoing. The game continued to run since launch in 2010, and even picked back up a subscription model in 2012.

The remainder of the article is pretty accurate though. Great job!
For the most part, a good article!
# Sep 09 2013 at 5:04 PM Rating: Good
9 posts
You're right. I was thinking of active development and changed the phrasing to represent that. Thank you!
EA -vs- SE
# Sep 07 2013 at 3:51 PM Rating: Good
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When SimCity launched it was horrid. And EA did little to help for a decent while. XIV was patched within a week or so, are the bugs worked out? Not all of them, no. But I do give them prompts for delivering a high quality game and actually addressing that they made a mistake. Other companies would've waited until delivering the first patch.

I, for one, am excited about the future of this game. Stumbling doesn't break a game, but not acknowledging mistakes and fighting back at your customers (still refering to SC's launch), will downright kill one.
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# Sep 07 2013 at 1:36 PM Rating: Good
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I agreed with your post until you started childishly whining about the Pandaren.

*rolls eyes*

Seriously? Whining about Pandaren? The same Pandaren that have been in-verse canon since Warcraft 2?

The story was written well, the Pandaren themselves don't all THAT cartoonish, and they don't act like little kids. I honestly don't see the problem with Pandaria.

"Mind-numbing Dailies"?

Better than staring at the screen going "Meh, nothing to do..." like in Cataclysm. If you weren't a hardcore raider, once you got to Level 85, there was......what, again, to do? Right, nothing.

You'd log on, do your 30 minutes of dailies and log off because there was literally nothing else to do. At least in Pandaria, you have Heroics that aren't ridiculous, and you have Scenarios, you have Pet Battles (what next, are you going to say that it is "Too Pokemon"?), you have Brawlers' Guild (though they made a huge mistake in making it a giant gear-check), etc, etc, etc.

And you're whining about "Mind-Numbing Dailies" and "teeny-bopping pandaren" or however it is you put that.

Oi.

You were doing so well with your post, too, until that part.
Not Just MMOs
# Sep 07 2013 at 7:42 AM Rating: Good
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I have been playing MMOs since early 2000 with Ruins of Kunark. I have been stuck in ques and server lock outs countless times, i dont mind ques like you said at you know sooner or later your going to get in.

This doesnt happen with only MMOs. This happened when sim city came out. they were overrun with players and in no way did they have the server capacity. It took them about 2 weeks to get things right. They didnt think people were going to buy this new sim city...come on people there hasnt been a sim city in years. I used to play sim city way back when it came out on my crappy pc. (50mhz IBM processor i think maybe lower) so needless to say i was excited to get a new sim city(after sc4)



So there I am downloading the game, it finishes downloading i double click the icon and i cant log in all servers are full to capacity. I think ok no worries i will play offline. WTF no offline mode thats what really got me (i guess thats the "DRM" product?) So i just spent 50 bucks or whatever it was for something i cant use. ***** you Maxis :)

So yes this is happenig everywhere and its annoying as ****. I did play LOTRO at launch and it was ok just a little crowded and buggy. So i just waited a couple of weeks for a patch while dabbling a little and jumped right in while things worked themselves out.
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Nice Precedent
# Sep 06 2013 at 7:04 PM Rating: Default
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As a player of many MMO launches, I've seen this rant before. It fills every forum for weeks around every release. But there are two things that always irritate me, especially after so many big name launch problems. First, why are people still surprised? Since Aion, I have generally made it a point to avoid MMOs at launch. Sometimes I'll even play them if there's an early access/open beta, and sometimes I'll even buy them ahead of time and just wait. The only exception I've made to that in a long while has been FFXIV, since apparently I was nice to a puppy or something and haven't had any major issues logging into my server.

But the second thing I don't understand, and this is really the big one, is how people (like the author here) seem to understand the reasons behind the issues, but then basically say they just shouldn't be there anyway, because they don't want them to be there. Unfortunately, this is simply not reality, and cannot be reality. The tech is simply not there. Demanding publishers of software "Innovate around" a physical technological wall is doing nothing more than crying because the sun should rise in the west so we can have a better view from our bedroom window.

Yes, you are allowed to be angry and upset. Reality sucks sometimes. However, these types of launches are unavoidable. If dozens of servers that will be empty in two months were the solution, people would not take issue with going to the JP servers. The problem is that they want to play on the server that their friends are on, and there's no way around that. And for the people that are OK with going to soon to be empty servers, empty servers are far more of a death knell to an MMO than not being able to log in due to server capacity issues.

There are too many people logging in at any MMO launch. People want to play the game they just bought. They want to get to endgame. They want to get the most out of their "free" sub time. A server can only take so many at once. Then after a few weeks, people slow down, they play less. Now a single server can hold 2-5 times the number of subscribers as the max, because they're not all on at the same time. These are all well understood facts. Be upset at the universe. But stop feeling you're entitled to reality bending to your will.

Nice Precedent
# Sep 06 2013 at 9:42 PM Rating: Good
9 posts
Thank you for your comment, but I have to disagree. You're right that there are issues players should expect at this point. But do we then not talk about them an accept the status quo? Should we give up on voicing our discontent with, for example, FFXIV's archaic and rigid way of answering demand -- play alone on a non-english speaking server or don't play at all? I can't accept that, and not even just because it flies in the face of the social connections which keep MMOs afloat; something the Square should desperately be seeking from fans with this release. As consumers, it is our job to stand up and share when we're unhappy. Who are we really aiding by not speaking up? Certainly not ourselves.

And there are better ways to handle a launch. The tech is there. Simply locking servers was a terrible, non-thinking option that was purely modern Square being modern Square; completely out of touch. As gamers, we know about mega server technology. We know about overflow servers. And frankly, we know that queues, while not ideal, at least allow you to get in and play with your friends. We'll deal.

It isn't a sense of entitlement that drives the backlash. It's a sense of being completely unheard and when responded to it's with PR tripe that assumes we haven't paid any attention to how these things go. When one company says "sorry, we didn't expect it," maybe that's okay. When it's almost every MMO, that's another situation entirely. Behind the scenes, thousands and thousands of dollars are being thrown into launch preparations. To simply write off your problems as unexpected is lazy and disrespectful to the knowledgeable consumer.

Edited, Sep 6th 2013 11:43pm by Syeric

Edited, Sep 6th 2013 11:45pm by Syeric
Nice Precedent
# Sep 10 2013 at 6:56 AM Rating: Decent
9 posts
Syeric wrote:
Should we give up on voicing our discontent with, for example, FFXIV's archaic and rigid way of answering demand -- play alone on a non-english speaking server or don't play at all?


As a player who had to relocate to one of the Japanese servers, I can state that we're definitely not playing alone there. In fact I'd call it a positive thing, as it helped us build a sense of community. We have the largest Free Company on the server. Mostly english speaking, although we happily accept any Japanese players that want to join us too.

Syeric wrote:
And there are better ways to handle a launch. The tech is there. Simply locking servers was a terrible, non-thinking option that was purely modern Square being modern Square; completely out of touch.


Although this isn't limited to Square, I have to say that the largest complaint I keep hearing about the company is that they simply don't communicate with the players or listen to what the players have to say. During launch troubles the forums were raging with complaints that could have been soothed by simply having someone from the company post/tweet/whatever about what they were doing to correct things. Instead we had silence. I believe changing that approach to their player base would correct a large number of MMO launch difficulties for any game.
Nice Precedent
# Sep 07 2013 at 7:35 AM Rating: Good
9 posts
"...there are issues players should expect at this point."

Absolutely.

Our realization of that fact should not be unnoticed by the gaming companies. It is us who they serve in the end, and should they listen, then they will be a success beyond their wildest dreams (ie..WoW with over 15 mil players after Wrath of the Lich King).

Or they can refuse to listen, like some many have, and end up groveling in the pits of FTP (so many examples its not going to be listed, but start w/EQ and end with Aion and Neverwinter)

15 million people dropping 15 bucks a month into the bucket adds up fast. This is the goal they need to keep their eyes on, because that means they did it right.

Just follow the money.
Launch
# Sep 06 2013 at 6:03 PM Rating: Good
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I've felt burned by a couple of mmo launches myself.

Server capacity is something that has been botched many times (even EQ's last progression server launch, that is to say an ancient game relaunching old content, didn't properly deal with demand).

If I was running a launch I think I would just give the "cool" server names to the beta servers and run a slew of "b" and "c" servers for the launch as needed, with the clear statement that "b" and "c" servers would be merged into the parent server if population falls. If population stayed steady then a "b" or "c" (or however many letters deep you wanted to go) server would earn its own "cool" name.

Fictional Example: Everquestnext has a beta several called "Muglwump". First day of launch you would see:

Server Status
Muglwump Full
Muglwump B High
Muglwump C Medium

This also builds in cross-realm, realm groupings and such in a way that is easier to understand.
Wow.
# Sep 06 2013 at 11:29 AM Rating: Good
1 post
The best article I have seen written thus far on this whole debockal. Absolutely fantastic article.
Wow.
# Sep 06 2013 at 1:39 PM Rating: Good
9 posts
Thank you :-)
mmm hmm
# Sep 06 2013 at 10:20 AM Rating: Good
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Making me remember why I never play any game with an online component at launch. Smiley: lol

Wait a couple of weeks, or until it goes F2P. Save the frustration and hassle. Smiley: cool
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