When we authored a list of games people might love in 2012, it struck me as almost comical that we were able to name them so specifically. Of the 10 entries, only two were on the market at the time, yet as an outlet, we could go into pretty good detail on them all. I began to wonder, why is it that we know so much about MMOs so early in the process?
This isn’t the norm for game development. Console games and non-MMOs tend to really only receive this attention in the last year before their launch. Assassin’s Creed 2 should hit shelves just about a year after Ubisoft confirmed it. Bioware’s Dragon Age was first announced in 2004, but again, they remained relatively quiet until last fall.
There’s a reason they use this formula. Obviously, hype is a necessary part of the promotional machine. People need to be aware of a game, and the console gaming marketers have worked out how to build that hype. They work hard to get people excited and bring them to their peak just as the game becomes available.
MMOs on the other hand take years. Sometimes they’re announced out of necessity (hiring), sometimes it’s financial (stock prices) and sometimes it’s just bad planning.
While this isn’t something someone at an MMORPG coverage website should be saying: there is no good reason we should know so much about these games so early.
Want an example? Think about Star Wars: The Old Republic, then look at our forums. There are already entrenched opinions on what Bioware should or should not do. Some have decided it's a terrible idea destined to fail, some think it's going to be the ultimate savior of the genre and may even topple World of Warcraft. Both opinions are equally hysterical at this stage. Aside from a limited demo and some info they’ve doled out online, information remains limited. Anyone here played it? I thought not.
The Internet is a powerful thing and when its citizens several years to toss possibilities around in their minds, they come up with expectations so large that no company, not even Bioware, can ever hope to meet them.
It’s telling that regular game companies fight so strongly to grab attention and build hype, while MMOs companies often talk about "managing expectations." Fact is, they have to.
In some cases, the hardcore MMO community – such as most people reading this column – too often become fans of the genre, not the games themselves. People spend years on the forums, thinking, talking and wondering about a game. When it actually comes out, they’re already burnt out. This isn’t universal by any stretch, but there is a segment of the market that does this.
And guess what? It’s not their fault.
MMO companies need to learn that what limited benefit that comes out of a super early announcement is more than offset by what can go wrong.
I don’t care who you are, at more than a year out, you have no idea when you’re going to launch. Fans have picked up on this. MMO launch dates have become such a farce that “delays” may not even be a bad thing anymore, since no one bought that original date in the first place.
More time also means more lies. It’s not intentional, but when your Associate Producer promises perma-death three weeks after you rented office space, you’re kind of stuck with that. Some games never live down the promises of people who were designing right on the message boards.
And then there’s just fan fatigue. Four years is a long time and some people will visit your official forums 14 times a day between the day you tell them you’re making Master Blasters Online and the day you finally release it. I cannot stress this enough. It doesn’t matter how awesome a game is, nothing can stand up to that kind of hype.
Not everyone out there is making the same mistake. Anyone know what ZeniMax Online is working on? We heard that the studio had been founded and it’s not hard to narrow down the list given they’re part of the same family as Bethesda (developers of Fallout and Oblivion), but we do not officially know what they’re doing. They do the bare the minimum amount of press necessary to recruit talent and I honestly do not expect that to change until they’re within a year of launch.
God bless them if they pull it off. They’re one of the few companies out there that at a glance has the resources, history and talent to make a really great game. Yet, compare the web buzz to Bioware’s and you know there is a big difference. No one has false assumptions and expectations (well, less so). Sure, they’re running under the radar right now, but the moment they unveil their game, that will all change.
MMOs do need to come out of hiding a bit earlier than most games due to the need of external QA: see Beta. Too often it’s a marketing ploy, but there are real issues that need to be nailed down in the process. Sure, to get a Beta going, you need to admit what you’re doing. That’s why, in my opinion, games should ride that initial wave of announcement hype straight into Beta.
If they do that, people don’t have time to get carried away. They’re in, they’re playing and they know what they’re dealing with. The game still has to be good to succeed, but plenty of hugely hyped games have failed. A confident company will let the game speak for itself. In fact, I’d argue the bigger the hype, the higher the bar, and the more likely a game is to fail.
Look at Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. They’re not bad games. They have their flaws, especially at launch, but there are plenty of games out there that have bigger flaws and don’t get half the flack Mythic and Funcom do. The fact is, people expected so much, that when these games admittedly disappointed, there was no going back.
High expectations are great when you meet them, but they’ve gotten so out of control in recent years that only one game has met them: World of Warcraft. And as far as the tradition hype channels go, they were a lot quieter than most until the time came.
It’s natural to get excited and love what you’re working on, but while that sounds great on paper and feels awesome at first, the pre-release phase can also be emotionally draining and distracting. The constant abuse for each decision is tougher to swallow when the project is just eating money. After launch, people know where they stand. Before launch, it’s all up in the air. This amplifies complaints and opinions, and leads developers to put undue weight on what might be a small, but vocal, minority in the community.
So, as much as it pains me to say it: MMO developers need to keep those lips sealed. The pitfalls are too many, the benefits too few. While it might be less fun for reporters and fans alike in the short term, the games themselves would be better served by silence. And when games are successful, it's more fun for everyone.