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What Went Wrong?

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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WildStar had all the hallmarks of a promising launch: promising reviews and widespread critical acclaim, queues of players waiting to log in, and a burgeoning community that was excited by Carbine’s new IP. It’s difficult to imagine a better environment in which to fire up a brand new MMO.

But the story takes a turn. As I’ve talked to friends, fans and genre veterans, the same question keeps cropping up: where did it all go wrong? It’s not been an easy question to answer, as we all have our opinions on why WildStar came down to earth with a bump. But there are a couple of common threads: on pushing the hardcore angle too heavily, on botched QA that introduced as many bugs as it patched, and on servers that quickly felt deserted.

But there are two sides to every coin. In this week’s column, I’ll not only be asking what went wrong, but how WildStar could return to health.

The Drop

WildStar was one of the big MMO launches this year. After a delayed start to squeeze in more development time, it was easily one of the most anticipated arrivals. Carbine had done a good job of carefully building and sustaining a community, which became evident across social networks as the game went live.

However, a strong community is just a foundation on which to build. While many chose to board an Arkship in early June, significantly fewer are running around Nexus at the moment. Why they left isn’t clear, as Carbine didn’t run exit surveys at the time, leaving the studio with scant empirical data to work with. The only feedback was on those same forums and social networks, which complained of a grindsome experience and disappointing endgame, particularly outside of PvP.

I’ve already talked at length about the hardcore label that WildStar used, and how it likely contributed to the feeling that the MMO was targeted at focused raiders and heavy-duty PvP players. Problem is, we’re not the same MMO crowd we were ten years ago. We have families, jobs and responsibilities, while the new recruits are busy clocking up hours in all manner of MOBAs. Even so, some of the biggest names in raiding flocked to WildStar, both in beta and beyond.

Earlier this month, Death & Taxes has quit, without citing a particular reason. Most of their members transferred to Voodoo, which also ceased raiding two weeks later. In this more recent case, blame was focused at “glaring negatives that continue to plague the game,” without going into further detail. This week, Guild Umbra exploded on Twitter, claiming that they were “done trying to prop you guys [Carbine Studios] up.” Not everyone is throwing in the towel, however, with Enigma declaring continued support for the game.

One final criticism is that servers currently feel empty, and this is where hindsight is particularly painful. Many of us were nostalgic about the old days of server pride but, in truth, WildStar should have launched with megaservers. Housing is so incredibly feature-rich that there are very few reasons to head to a hub, which significantly reduces the chance of bumping into other players. Importantly though, servers that feel empty will quickly become empty, in a self-fulfilling prophecy. This should dramatically improve when megaservers are introduced, particularly if the upcoming holiday events persuade us to spend more time in the capital cities.

The Climb

This is not the end of WildStar. I’m still hoping the studio can turn things around, and there are early indications that it’s heading in the right direction. But it’s not out of the woods yet, and careful nurturing needs to happen so that the game can flourish.

That nurturing begins with an improved QA process that captures bugs and delivers good quality updates to the live servers. It’s a problem that the studio has admitted to, with live producer Geoff Virtue detailing how Carbine hopes to achieve it. Early indications are promising, but there’s been a knock-on effect with the speed of new content. After expecting new content every 4 to 6 weeks, the studio has switched to a ‘when it’s done’ approach, which is likely to be a tough sell for those paying a monthly subscription.

I’ve also talked about how Carbine can use the introduction of Megaservers (allegedly coming very soon), the opening of the Defile and the start of Shade’s Eve to reinvigorate and relaunch WildStar. It will require careful planning and some smart marketing, but it can be done. Drop 3 stands to be the most momentous occasion in the MMO’s short lifespan, and it seems like an ideal opportunity to bring new players in and old players back.

Crucially though, Carbine needs to learn to pick its fights with care. An MMO cannot be all things to all people, so it makes much more sense to focus on the areas in which it is naturally strong and build a tight game around it. But to do that, the studio needs a vision of where it wants to take WildStar, how it wants to shape it, and how it can bring us all along with it. To do that takes leadership, but it’s unclear where in the studio that’s coming from.

With the executive producer’s chair still empty after Jeremy Gaffney stepped down, I can’t help but feel nervous. A ship needs a captain to steer it out of dangerous waters but, despite the crew’s best efforts, I fear they might just be circling the maelstrom.


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.