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The Long Kiss Goodnight

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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Could this be the end of WildStar? After a further round of layoffs at Carbine Studios, reportedly hitting nearly half of those working at the studio, and following it up with the vaguest of vague statements, players have been left reeling at rumours the game could be sunsetting in a few months. The impact of the shock remains to be seen, with Game Director Chad Moore only recently releasing a further statement on the game’s future.

Up until the announcement on March 11, everything seemed business-as-usual at the Orange County studio. A new week of Hoverboard zPrix was planned for March 16 to 24, complete with a couple of new rewards. The new zone of Arcterra was undergoing testing, and a launch on Steam was also mooted for sometime this month. And a new raid – Redmoon Terror – was being tested prior to release sometime later this year.

But, after Friday’s post-layoff statement, all of this seemed to hang in the balance. Would these still going ahead, or would they be scrapped? If the goal was to leave what’s left of the community in chaos and confusion, then the vague and at-times contradictory forum post did a bang-up job, because that’s exactly what happened. Between the torches and pitchforks, those players that remain were either sharing their goodbyes, or searching fruitlessly for answers about the game’s future.

This is a textbook example of how not to announce bad news. As players, we’re worried about our investment – of time, of money, of effort – and if that investment will still exist as the year progresses. What we needed to hear was clarity about the future: what content is still happening, when it will arrive, what has been cancelled, and what remains of the game’s long-term plans. Instead, the rumour-mill was left to fill in the blanks, with Polygon reporting that the game had just a few months before it ‘coasts into the sunset.

Considering that most of us here remember how NCSoft ‘remained committed’ to City of Heroes, Tabula Rasa and Auto Assault up until the publisher pulled the plug, and it’s easy to understand why hope for the future of WildStar is at an all-time low. After all, why cancel the launch in China of a game that you ‘remain committed’ to, especially considering it won ‘Most Anticipated MMO of 2015’ at the China Joy trade fair?

Unwritten Story

Vagueness aside, Game Director Chad Moore promised to provide an ‘update to the community’, although I’d argue that this is something the studio should have prepared before last Friday. That said, Moore did later clarify on Reddit that the Steam launch will be going ahead later this Spring. The promised statement also arrived later on Monday March 14, detailing some of those future plans.

First, the big news. Destination: Arcterra will arrive within the next three weeks, keeping that content treadmill turning. This will continue the Nexus Saga and provide a new endgame zone, complete with new world boss encounters. This at least will bring some short-term relief to players.

Further out, Moore states that work on Redmoon Terror is continuing. I can hear the collective sighs of relief from WildStar’s various raid groups, although there’s still going to be concern about both when it will arrive, and what quality it will ship with. After Dungeon & Raid Lead Brett Scheinert parted company with the studio the previous week, WildStar’s raid groups were already on-edge. Now that a significant proportion of his old team have been laid off, I think raiders have every right to feel anxious about the final result.

There’s also mention of other future content in Moore’s statement, such as the planned new zone of Halon Ring, and the previously unannounced Evil from the Ether expedition. But, apart from the planned addition of multi-queueing, there was no mention of PvP. From this, I can only surmise that there are no further updates, and no plans for further updates beyond seasons beyond the Halls of the Bloodsworn battleground update already in the works.

In the long term though, it seems as though WildStar will be a leaner operation, focusing on smaller changes with a reduced team. There are a couple of key elements in Moore’s statement, referring to ‘bringing players together’ and ‘encourage and reward player participation’. This probably means more live events, more social events, and tweaking content to be accessible to more people. If Carbine once had a sign that said ‘Hardcore’, then I think it just got thrown in the trash. Or set on fire. Or both.

Morton’s Fork

All of this above is precisely why Carbine Studios needed to be clear about WildStar’s future on the day of the announcement. We shouldn’t have to play internet detectives, looking at who’s updated their LinkedIn profile or posted on Twitter, and piecing together what we find. There is no point in asking for the continued support of players (and their money) without making it explicitly clear why. With many their favourite MMO like a second home, it’s unreasonable to ask them to sit back, stare into the unknown, and wait for the bulldozers to roll in.

Heck, if a player was watching the flow of bad news on Twitter or Reddit, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were cancelling subscriptions, spending their remaining in-game currency, and looking for somewhere new to plant their feet. It’s little surprise when the rumour mill suggests that those remaining are only there to help sunset the game in a few months, and to expect even more layoffs in the future. It’s possible that Moore’s statement will bring a halt to that, but several guilds have already announced their departure over the last couple of days. 

What Carbine needs to supply, and what the players need to hear, is a strong and continuous dose of honesty. It’s this unfiltered, open approach that won the studio huge plaudits in the early days of development, and it’s this approach that it needs to return to. No bland statements of being ‘committed to the game’, because you can be that right up until you flick the servers off. The truth – and more truth than is normally comfortable – is what’s needed.

Right now, credibility is at an all-time low. People are already chalking this up as the next City of Heroes or Tabula Rasa, and claiming this is a confirmation of how NCSoft treats western studios and gamers alike. Then there are others who want to see the game fail, justifying it as some kind of karmic payback for how those earlier titles were handled. Either way, faith and trust in NCSoft from Western players is not in a good place right now. Carbine faces an uphill task to avoid WildStar becoming the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Meanwhile, every western studio considering an MMO is probably looking at the chaos of the last week, with both WildStar and EverQuest Next, and deciding “Holy f**k, no way”. If Destiny and The Division have shown us anything, it’s that the only way to make a successful MMO is to pretend it’s not an MMO, and then market it to people who don’t know what an MMO is. As for genre diehards, we’re cynical bastards that would happily take a game that’s built specifically for us, stake it out in the sun and watch it die a slow and agonizing death, all the while mocking its perceived failings against our diverse and unachievable expectations while it gasps in futility for mercy.

Although we all have our opinions on how WildStar ended up in this state, I’ll save my own post-mortem for now. But there’s a bigger question that’s begging to be asked, about Western MMO development by big-name studios: is WildStar’s failure a one-off, or part of a bigger trend? Managing Editor Bill Murphy chimed in on the topic with this editorial, which is well worth a read in itself.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.