Wine me, dine me, supersize me!
Let’s start with the almost-obligatory quick dash down memory lane. Asheron’s Call, my first real MMO, had monthly content and fix patches, and while I complained about the downtime I also remember the excitement my AC buddies and I would feel on patch day. Nowadays, patch days seem to be little more than a service interruption and on the rare occasions when we bother to read the patch notes, it’s usually as a prelude to whining about what’s been nerfed or broken. When did we become so jaded?
Now, a decade and change down the MMO road, our demands have changed and become louder. Give me a game I can play alone or with others as I see fit. Give me a game that’s an FPS, with intricate storylines, multiple character and character-advancement options, a cornucopia of stuff to collect and battles with 5 or 500 participants. Give me new content to devour on a regular basis and update old content so it doesn’t get boring. Involve me so deeply in what I’m doing that I can’t put the game down, but make it so I can log out after 30 minutes (I do have a life, you know!) and still feel as though I got a good dose of entertainment.
Give me challenging goals and goodies to strive for, but don’t make it too difficult or hand them out too slowly or I won’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. Give me a huge world to explore, make travel mean something, but let me instantly hook up with my friends so that we can play together when they get online.
And give it to me for free, or for almost nothing, but I’m still going to bitch and moan that I’m not getting my money’s worth and that I’m being fleeced.
Oh, and give it all to me yesterday, kthxbai. We’re quite the reasonable bunch, we gamers.
Developing and running an MMO is like making Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner: weeks of preparation and getting everything together, half a day of kitchen slavery, panic when things don’t look as though they’re going to be ready on time – and everything gets devoured in under an hour. If you’re lucky, nobody will complain about food poisoning and someone might even thank you, but forget about getting any help with the dishes: everyone’s too busy dozing in the living-room.
These vast and engaging worlds with their complex mechanics that we now take so much for granted have to be created pretty much from scratch, and MMO creation takes resources: money, time and manpower. While it’s true that there may often be bloat or poor organization in the development system, someone still has to come up with the ideas, resources have to be begged, borrowed or stolen, and the mechanic, artwork or game system needs to be designed, hashed out, revised, hashed out some more, developed, tested, revised, tested and developed some more… You get the picture.
For one reason or another, a lot of games never even make it out the door. Studios come and go, more often the latter in the last few years. The games that do make it to release took a lot of time, skill, creative blood and luck to finally reach us. Getting everything for a game done right, more or less on time and as bug-free as possible is a mammoth undertaking, whether it’s done by 100 people in a glass tower or by 2 people in a cramped home office with kids and dogs running amok underfoot. And after that, keeping everything running smoothly while squashing more bugs (which, incidentally, are inevitable – you can’t write millions of lines of code and catch everything that could possibly go wrong, at least not on the first or third go-round), balancing mechanics, and adding more of everything to keep your locust-like players happy is no cake-walk either. I’m not even going to touch on distribution, servers, customer support and community-building, all of which are migraines in the making in their own right.
It’s true that in one form or another we pay for the service, even for games that are nominally “free” to play, and we do have a right to have certain expectations. But if we’re going to bitch and moan we should at least also have a basic understanding of what goes on behind the curtain. Just because we think Character Class A should receive lashings of awesomesauce or that there should be 28 new, complex, thrilling and mysterious zones to explore doesn’t mean that a) this would actually be good for the game or b) that responding to our eminently well thought-out and perfectly reasonable demands can be done as quickly and easily as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
We could even, now and then, show a little appreciation. And we could – and should – learn to manage our expectations based on what a few overworked people can do within budget rather than on what we think someone with a magic wand can pull out of thin air, for nothing and on-demand.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve done my share of complaining, I’ve picked apart games from the comfy depths of my design-armchair and listed what I think is wrong with them and what I think should be done to make them better. But I’ve also gotten to know a few developers, read what a great many more have to say about what they do, and thought about what actually has to happen behind that magical curtain of game-development to make my half hour of daily entertainment come true – and while it may occasionally even be fun for the developers, it ain’t cheap and it ain’t easy.
So, as E3 wraps up and an army of game company people go home and sleep for 3 days straight, here’s to all the overworked, often underpaid and always underappreciated people who make our games happen as best they can. Most of them really do care about our thoughtless fun. Most of them, after all, are gamers too – or used to be, before they got into game design and signed away all their free time.