More with Less
WildStar’s players are concerned. Last week, NCSoft announced layoffs across all western properties as it seeks to “restructure key operations,” with Carbine Studios being hit particularly hard. One report stated that around 60 staffers had been let go at the Orange County studio, representing an estimated third of the workforce. With the community still digesting the news that updates will now appear quarterly, it’s certainly a hard time to be a flag-waving fan.
It’s also an unfortunate cycle that MMO veterans will have seen before. Job losses followed the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic and, more recently, Elder Scrolls Online. A game takes more effort to build and release than it does to maintain and, without other projects to move people onto, it’s seen as inevitable these days that some will be let go. It goes without saying that I wish the best for all those affected, and I hope that they are all back to doing what they love soon.
What does this mean for the future of WildStar? In the short-term there shouldn’t be any difference – Drop 3 has just hit the public test realm and (fingers crossed) should go live in mid-November. New content for January’s update is also far down the conveyor belt, with previews of the Ice Box arena and Protostar Games dungeon shown at Gamescom earlier this year. As we move into April 2015 and beyond the future becomes more uncertain, with little known about Carbine’s plans. We know that Product Director Mike Donatelli has a roadmap; it’s just unclear what that roadmap looks like once Christmas leftovers have been cleared away and New Year’s resolutions have been both made and broken.
Quelling the Concerns
When I talk to other players about WildStar or catch up with the communities, a clutch of topics crop up that Carbine needs to address. The ambiguous statement around free-to-play – will WildStar move that way or not – has caused intense debate on both sides of the argument. Ideally, the studio will clearly spell out its intentions, even if it’s to confirm that a business model change won’t happen in the next 6 months or so. It would give players confidence to stock up on CREDD, instead of feeling paranoid that the currency may become useless. That said, I also think that the recent layoffs indicate that a free-to-play transition is much less likely to happen in the short term, and would probably be in the New Year at the earliest.
PvP is another big bone of contention. As former Lead PvP Designer, Kevin Lee’s departure is particularly troubling, as there’s no clear indicator of who will be picking up the baton. Although unranked battlegrounds and arenas have been reasonably successful, issues have continued to hamper more serious play. Warplots have been dogged with problems since launch. Open-world PvP took a body blow during the Megaserver implementation, with many EU players deserting the low-population Luminai server for the more popular PvE-focused Jabbit. This final topic, at least, is now being addressed, with Community Manager Tony Rey taking to the forums to announce that free transfers between PvE and PvP servers will be open for the forseeable future. Ultimately though, what happens if the player base settles on a particular server type? Could we be looking at Megaserver mergers in the future?
The third topic – that ‘Hardcore’ label – should begin to wear off once Drop 3 goes live. Yes, it includes a 5-player encounter against Koral the Defiler, and a 20-player open world raid to defeat the Dread Watcher, but there’s a ton of single-player story-based content as well. Apart from the questlines that run through The Defile – the new zone introduced with this update – the patch also brings in the conclusion to WildStar’s prologue and kick starts the main story with a solo instance named Journey to Omnicore-1. Veteran shiphand missions are also arriving in this update, bringing flexible and casual group instances to endgame play.
A Reason to Return
When I look at how WildStar has fared since launch, it demonstrates to me just how much the MMO landscape has changed. Single servers are becoming the norm. Raiding is having to slim down, not because people are finding it challenging, but because the roster boss is becoming the hardest one to defeat. The value of open-world PvP is being called into question, and may end up becoming a sandbox exclusive.
But the game has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. Carbine’s biggest challenge for now is to shout this message, not to those that are currently playing, but to those that tried WildStar and left. Carbine needs to convince players that it’s worth returning to Nexus, and that future updates will improve the experience even more. The mantra was always that the devs are listening, but the studio now needs to show that it’s responded to those messages.
As for me, I’m still checking in. A subscription MMO from a freshman studio with a brand new IP was always going to struggle, and some of the predictions have been painfully accurate. But it was the lore and world that pulled me in originally, and it’s this element that’s keeping me hooked. Further reveals, like the Loremageddon update on Granok and Chua, just help to keep me going. Beyond drop 3, I can’t wait to find out where the story goes.