Like many of you, I was enthusiastic about the promise of Rocket’s ARMA 2 mod, DayZ. Zombies weren’t completely played out at this point and the notion of trying to survive a zombie apocalypse alongside other players in a persistent world really scratched an itch I wasn’t sure any game developer was ever going to address. Unfortunately, DayZ (the mod) had numerous issues, not the least of which was the game’s terrible engine, but there was a silver lining! Rocket was hired by Bohemia Interactive and given his own team to work on a standalone version of the mod. I don’t really need to go through the rest of the story, but suffice it to say, things haven’t measured up to expectations.
Along the way, many developers looked to jump on the bandwagon, churning out a number of crappy imitations or games equally unfinished but with a ton of “potential” to be something more. In what was a bit of surprise for me, SOE eventually announced H1Z1, officially throwing its hat into the ring. Like DayZ, SOE wanted to release the game to fans early and essentially co-develop it alongside them while taking their input along the way. I have to admit, my first reaction was to roll my eyes. Likely for the best, H1Z1 never materialized as quickly as SOE promised.
Instead, we finally received the Early Access version of the game last week and the response to SOE during the game’s first 24 hours was so brutal that I was having flashbacks to the announcement of Star Wars Galaxies’ New Game Experience. Players couldn’t play the game for the vast majority of the day, then once things finally started going and players trickled in slowly, something happened that threatened to bury the game before it ever got started. Everyone knows about “Airdropgate” now, but to sum it up, SOE botched both the communication and implementation of a feature put in the game that had significant Pay-to-Win implications for the title.
With players already mad about their inability to play the game, SOE president John Smedley doing his company no favors with some of his responses on Twitter/Reddit, and gamers everywhere eager for some new schadenfreude to partake in, this story almost ran away with itself. The next morning, all I could see on various gaming sites and forums were stories not about the quality of H1Z1 as a game, but about the P2W airdrop feature. On the game’s subreddit, the debate, if you could call it that, was far more granular and informed, but on other sites and forums, it was easy to see that many gamers who weren’t tuned into H1Z1 were forming their first impressions on the title based on the torrent of P2W complaints coming from those who were. H1Z1 was in trouble, and in today’s day and age, your game probably won’t recover from this sort of trouble if you don’t regain control of the conversation quickly.
SOE quickly went into damage control mode. SOE president John Smedley was now far more conciliatory, even announcing that the studio would be offering no questions asked refunds to anyone who wasn’t happy. On the design side, SOE announced its specific plans for adjustments to the airdrop feature, which sounded completely reasonable to me and at least most players who were paying attention. Additionally, SOE wasted absolutely no time making improvements to anything else that needed immediate attention. Things were still out of whack on the technical side, but it’s been nothing but rapid fire patches and communication over the last couple of days. While H1Z1 is still a pretty barebones experience as a game, it’s sitting on a much more solid foundation than DayZ was at the same point in Early Access. It’s simply more accessible and more fun.
The real tragedy of all of this is that SOE narrowly escaped losing its chance at enjoying the more positive discussions and press all due to a disaster it essentially brought on itself. Don’t get me wrong, H1Z1 is still a completely derivative experience at this point, but what sets the game apart is that no other persistent zombie survival game has actually had a real shot at coming out of the other end of the tunnel better than H1Z1 does. SOE, for all its flaws, is a studio that knows MMOs and online game development. H1Z1 has PlanetSide2’s powerful Forgelight engine powering the project and a community team that is laser focused on listening to feedback from players, as we’ve seen with the Roadmap in PlanetSide 2. H1Z1 simply has a ton going for it in terms of structural advantages and it helps that it’s fairly fun already.
SOE clearly thought it had a great idea on its hands in airdrops, and perhaps it was, but the furor over the P2W aspects was so great that it ensured no one could appreciate the underlying merits SOE was sure it nailed. Remove the P2W stuff that was in the initial implementation and you’ve got player-generated server wide events that are sure to be contended. I get it. As a bonus, they also serve as ripe fodder for awesome YouTube clips that will quickly get shared around. They’re fun, they generate buzz, and players pay to deploy them, which means SOE gets additional revenue. I can see why SOE was excited about airdrops, but I also understand why no one else cared when John Smedley took to Reddit to defend the feature as a whole. Until the P2W stuff was removed, airdrops were seen simply as a cancer that would be the ruin of a game that many were so eager to enjoy.
The problem is that SOE didn’t actually leverage the explicit benefits of Early Access, you know, gaining feedback on your game’s development, to put this potentially controversial feature through its paces before deploying it to the live environment. Airdrops are the sort of feature that you want to open up to discussion with a developer blog and get feedback on before going live. Nothing matters more in a survival game than the availability of items and resources. It’s an incredibly delicate balance. If you’ve got a cool new feature that can potentially disrupt that balance by allowing players to essentially on-demand order items, you’re going to want your community’s feedback. Heck, I would have even set up a public test server to get players to really beat on it and make sure it’s in the right place and as awesome as can be before it launched. There was no reason to rush airdrops.
Instead, SOE decided to be OK with guns and such in airdrops and simply stick the language in a big wall of text on what to expect in H1Z1 Early Access. In an era where many game developers try to pull a fast one on gamers with shoddy Free-to-Play practices, quietly changing (or clarifying) your position on something like this is going to really stir people up. If SOE had simply said, “Hey. We’ve got this really cool feature in airdrops. These are our plans. What do you think?” the message it eventually got would have been loud and clear and the crisis would have been averted. Hopefully SOE won’t need to learn any more lessons like this the hard way. I’d really like to see one of these games reach its potential someday. I’m almost convinced this sub-genre of games is cursed.