Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: The Evolution of a Patch Note
How patch notes come into being, or at least how they should. This week, Sanya looks behind the curtain.
There was once this… patch note:
“Class adjustments have been made.”
This is a terrible patch note. What class? How many classes? Were the adjustments global for the class, or situational changes that only apply to dungeons or instances? Adjusted which way? Why was it adjusted? How much was it adjusted?
Imagine this instant messenger exchange taking place every time a crappy patch note like that appears on a community manager’s desk:
Community Person: Hey dude.
CP: This note. “Class adjustments have been made.” No soap, man.
CP: What class? What adjustments? That’s not a patch note, that’s a /taunt at our players.
A patch note has multiple functions. It informs the players what changes have been made, and it serves as documentation for the development team. To post less than full information is to actively harm both sides of this MMO paradigm. And while some would argue that to post exact numbers and formulas would cause trouble, I say “BAH” to them.
First of all, players can and will achieve marvelous feats of reverse engineering with or without the patch notes. They might as well have accurate data to start with. I’m not advocating that anyone post the server side reckonings, but how much does it really hurt to just post that such and such an ability has increased by 5%?
Second, if there’s no record of the degree of an intended change, it’s not possible for anyone to run intelligent tests. And for reasons that probably relate more to Asperger’s Syndrome than we really want to admit to ourselves, the MMO niche has a lot of players ready, even eager, to produce spreadsheets and complex formulas. Harness the insanity, because there is no way to duck it.
Of course, if the reason you’re afraid to post numbers is because there are too many factors going into one equation to give a cut and dried formula, you can certainly say so. The sort of player who sits down to reverse engineer armor ratios will respect that, and the casual patch note reader won’t care. It’s not that hard to say “X, Y, and Z are the primary factors and A, B, and C, are minor factors.”
What’s the next step up the patch note evolutionary ladder?
“Caster classes and tank classes have been adjusted to better clarify their roles in close quarters combat.”
Better, but still almost meaningless. Players assume that all adjustments are nerfs. That’s because players are not insane. If it’s an improvement, a producer or an executive of some flavor does the posting, not the community weenie, and it’s not buried in a patch note post. Being coy with terms like “adjusted” is a waste of time and insults the reader’s intelligence.
Instead of being coy, why not provide the background? Players skilled in reading between the lines will see a note like that and think “Oh, right, the devs must have realized that dungeon instances for eight man groups in the level 30 range are unplayable because casters suck up aggro like bums suck up Thunderbird.” However, the kind of mind that will make such a leap is a slightly paranoid, vaguely unstable mind that will eventually lose the ability to understand direct statements. Too much coyness in patch notes creates people who don’t believe you when you say the sky is blue.
And again, there’s no information on what to test, and in what context. Return to the chat between our community person and our producer:
P: Dungeons in the 30-40 range were nearly unplayable. Casters were building up agg faster than tanks could taunt it off. We think the problem was in the Jazzhands Sparklebutt chain.
CP: The first move in that chain is pretty big, and the progression is linear, right?
P: Right. I don’t know the exact details. The way the designer explained it to me was that now the first move is small, and it doesn’t grow in a straight line. The fourth step does exactly the same damage as before, so the casters won’t care.
CP: Nothing. What about tanks? The note says both casters and tanks.
P: Minor modification to deal with the aggro issue – all tanks now do 1% more damage and taunts are 5% more effective.
After more discussion, and explanation that the people who were nerfed could use assurances that it’s not a killer, the patch note evolves to this:
“The Jazzhands Sparklebutt progression has been changed to create less aggro. The final step in the chain still does the same amount of damage.
“Tanks have received a minor bonus to taunt, and a very, very minor bonus to damage.”
But a really good patch note can’t be written without some input from actual players. That’s because it is highly unlikely that top quality producers/designers/coders/community people have played every possibly iteration of every class in the game. (If they’re that good at their jobs, they simply don’t have time. And it’s not enough to just play the class, for as we all know to our sorrow, there’s a world of difference between a fire specialization and a water specialization, or a sword wielder versus a two handed axe wielder.) There’s no need, anyway, if they’re willing to trust specially vetted players to glance over the notes and try the changes on an internal server. If this player group is working closely with the actual QA team (bugs submitted from this group go straight into the bug tracker, QA works with these players to duplicate bugs, etc), the power of QA is magnified.
Let’s face it, even if the QA team is big and powerful, it is possible to verify that a game change is working exactly as the documentation says it is… and have it still be horrible in terms of the public’s perception.