I've often said that an MMO is at its most popular before it's launched. That's when all we have to go on are lofty promises and tantalizing tidbits of information, which allow us to craft the perfect game in our minds, unfettered by a reality that rarely measures up. The most poignant statement along this lines is the lamentation that a game had “so much potential” – in other words, that it sounded great on the drawing board but than the developers screwed up by actually making it.
I thought Guild Wars 2 did an admirable job of building itself up prior to launch, explaining in great detail vital mechanics and why they were in the game. Developer articles on things like healing and death and the game's races were like “must-see TV” to rabid fans like myself. During slow times, when there wasn't much news, I'd go back and read pieces I'd already read multiple times already, often finding details I'd missed earlier. What's more, everyone seemed so enthusiastic about things. The developers were sure they were making something great and couldn't wait to tell us about them.
Not everything worked out exactly as planned, but enough did to keep most players happy about the game and feel like Guild Wars 2 was unique and special. The flow of information continued apace after launch and through to the launch of Heart of Thorns – which, unlike the base game, has been almost universally criticized for failing to live up to its promises.
Both “pre-launch” periods were – if we're going to be honest – attempts to convince us to spend money on the products. The big difference is, that, after GW2's launch, we still received regular information on upcoming features to entice us to keep paying attention. Since Heart of Thorns, though, that communication has slowed to a trickle (unless you count the latest items up for sale in the Gem Store, which never lacks for announcements). It leaves a lot of players feeling like they've been abandoned or ignored, that now that the company has our money, we can all just piss off.
And a lot of us are doing just that.
Spiting the face
Heart of Thorns didn't come off too well; that much is clear. Personally, I'm not really that upset with how Heart of Thorns' actual content turned out. I like the new zones, and I like that ArenaNet tried to do things a little differently. I can see the argument that there was too much hype, whether related to the size or quality of the zones or outright misdirection like the legendary weapons, and I agree that ArenaNet needed to change how it approached things like that.
But completely cutting players off isn't the solution. That's punishing us for your mistakes and is about as misguided a policy as can be contrived. There can be a middle ground between “hype everything to the moon” and “tell them absolutely nothing.” As Obi-Wan Kenobi would say, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
I just had to write a piece about Evolve going free-to-play, and one of the points the developers made in their letter to the community was that they're “going to ratchet up our communication” by “continually updating our social channels, our forums and our website to let you know how it's going.” Communicating more has always been more desirable than communicating less. That's PR 101. No consumer, of any product, wants a company to talk to them less, and it does nothing positive for your product, yet ArenaNet has made the baffling choice to do just that.
“Sure, but if they say something and don't deliver 100%, people will rage about 'broken promises.'” That's true, to an extent. The legendary weapon fiasco is a very obvious, though totally understandable, example because of how directly the number of legendaries we'd get was stated. In that case, criticism is fully warranted, and a company that shies away from it is one that's unwilling to admit mistakes.
What about a fuzzier case, such as a dev mentioning how a new feature will be out in June and it's delayed until July? Or, to take a more GW2-ish example, saying that an event will “change the world” when the actual change is relatively minor? Yes, some people will chafe at that. Some will get outright angry.
But we've all been on the internet long enough to know the difference between “some people are mad” and “white hot rage.” Everything you do will make someone mad, every promise you make will seem “broken” by someone, even if it appears to be fulfilled on the surface. That's not a good enough reason to say nothing. If relatively few people are upset, then you probably haven't done something wrong. If a lot of people are upset, then you're communicating poorly or underdelivering. In neither case should you punish the people who are pointing out these flaws.
It isn't 1997, and people aren't that new to internet forums or game development. Huge swaths of people are not going to flip their wigs if you miss a deadline by a few days, or even weeks, or if you promise eight new things and there are only seven – and those who do will often be talked down by the more rational members of the community (yes, they do exist). But ArenaNet has fully caved into this fear and, instead of examining how they do things and finding a balance that can work for everyone, they've taken their ball and gone home. Darth Sidious would be proud.
Fear is the path to the Dark side
I still like the premise of Guild Wars 2. I like the cosmetic endgame, horizontal progression, dynamic events, and so on. And the game still looks beautiful, four years after launch. Sure, there are some ways in which the “GW2 vision” didn't come along perfectly – the 'zerker meta, overreliance on zerg content and needing stacks of 250 of everything – but I still prefer 90% of what it does over a typical themepark quest-grind MMO, and I think most GW2 players would agree.
What I don't like is feeling unvalued as a customer, and that's how it's felt in recent months. Sure, that can make me sound entitled, but game companies can feel “entitled,” too. I'm under no obligation to continue supporting a game that I don't like, for whatever reason. There are plenty of other choices out there, and Guild Wars 2 no longer has that death grip on my attention span like it once did. My continued interest, and that of many others, is no longer a given. I now need to be convinced to give a damn, and nothing's being done to make me feel that way. If that continues, that's fine; I can find other means of entertainment.
I will say this, though: The people on the front lines of the marketing and community team are not to blame. They don't set the policies, they just do their best to pass information up the ladder and hope their superiors will take action. I've been a community manager, and I know how difficult it can be on the front lines. But right now, even their best efforts are being met with harsh opposition, as in the case of one employee who was downvoted into oblivion on a Reddit thread recently.
As a policy for shipping new content, “When it's ready” is fine. As a communication policy, it's an abject failure and needs to change. In 2011 and 2012, long before anything was “ready,” we got regular doses of hope – or hype, if you prefer – to keep us interested in Guild Wars 2. Now, when that same thing is needed the most, it's not forthcoming. It's a crisis of ArenaNet's own making that's been compounded by poor decision-making driven by fear of criticism – and perhaps even doubt in their own capabilities – rather than the exuberant confidence that the blog articles of five years ago expressed so well.