Friday, April 18, 2008

How-to know when a MMO is about to be Delayed

MMOs are a strange subset of the video game family that share the common ability of all PC games to ignore any sort of firm release date. This of course violates the tradition of console games which apparently make their developers sign blood contracts to get games out on time. This tradition of releasing games on time no matter how crappy was established by the first movie tie-in, E.T for the Atarti. Supposedly, it was so bad that it almost killed the console industry and forced Atari to fill a landfill with unsold copies. So it seems there is a precedent for allowing developers some power to delay a game if it sucks.

MMOs on the other hand have started running wild with this ability and abused it much worse than anything else on the market.... discounting Duke Nukem. It’s not uncommon for a MMO release date to be moved back two or three times. Heck some like Vanguard seemed content to do it over and over again until they just ran out of money. Others like Gods & Heroes even let the pre-order boxes go to the stores before they decided they would lose less money by just canceling the game. In fact in this day in age it’s really hard to even get a sense if a MMO is going to be pushed back or canceled. There are always guys in suits or well caffeinated spokesmen named Paul there to tell you everything is okay. Then bam! You got another six months of waiting.

All in All, you really have to blame World of Warcraft. How dare they show the world that a MMO can actually have a stable launch if they wait until the game is done. Now they have everyone copying them and screwing it up horribly. Look at Vanguard and Tabula Rasa which both suffered long histories of delays and still didn't release with any sense of being complete. It seems that the "whole delay until its finished" mentality only works if the original product was any good in the first place. If that's not bad enough you also got to look through all the hype and marketing to get a good idea if you're just plain being lied to about the release date.

So here is my gift to you fellow readers. Simply scan any developer interviews or Q & A sessions for the following terms I've listed below. For each term that shows up you can pretty much add on one month to the current release date.

"just working on the polish"
Nowadays the most common word used by MMO developers is polish. It used to be Next Generation but thankfully Vanguard overused it into oblivion and we'll probably never have to hear it again. If a developer is talking about polish then it means their game is still rough. The core might be there but it's going to require a little bit of extra effort. If a couple months before release a developer mentions polish more than twice then you probably get yourself a new release date soon.

"looking solid"
Ah, nothing reveals that your current beta build is mediocre then by describing parts of it as "looking solid". Solid by itself isn't that bad since it usually implies well tested and proven. But by describing any section of a game as "looking solid" it seems like a Freudian slip saying yeah it looks great but its crap to play at the moment. This is a key give away that the game is due for some "me" time and you’re not invited to join it quite yet.

"focusing on the fun"
The slightly worse version of "looking solid" is "focusing on the fun" which basically says all of the same things but tries harder to paint a rosy picture. I find it more annoying cause "focusing on the fun" is something you're much more likely to hear from a marketing person then a developer. It’s a psychological tactic to make the description of the current development work not alarm anyone. However, if you think about it, fun isn't really something you apply to a game right before release. I'm pretty sure it has to be part of the core game design.

"commitment to quality"
This one I really hate but it’s a bit more honest than some of the other terms. Basically if a developer or spokesman starts talking about their "commitment to quality" then they are trying to break the news of a delay gently. You know its coming but they're trying to be real sensitive to your feelings and thus are slowly leading up to the dreaded announcement. It's basically the "It's not you it's me" of delay justifications.

"working on balance"
This term is a sign that the development team has fallen into the trap of believing they can actually balance anything before players get their hands on it. I'm sorry but developers always suck at min/maxing or finding holes in the rules. And honestly they're so worried about NDAs being broken that the keep the testing population small enough to cripple any chance of finding obscure balance problems. This term can mean anything from a small delay to a large delay just depending on when the developers finally realize that they need "real" players to see how a game really works.

"sometime in the Fall"
A simple term used by marketing departments worldwide to trick players into believing a release date could possibly be in September. I hate to burst your bubble but it’s never September. Unfortunately, the marketing department for most MMOs use the same tactics that console games follow. I guess companies forgot that the majority of MMO players aren't dependent on receiving their new game as a present from Mom and can actually afford 50$ for entertainment.

"our definition of success"
Oh this one isn't pleasant to hear and it's used not only for delay announcements but also for cancellations. I think I last heard it when Microsoft and Marvel dropped out of their MMO with Cryptic. Luckily that worked out for us in the end with Champions Online forming. But we don't always get happy endings and this term in an official announcement is a sign that someone isn't happy. It means management knows that the current build would fail upon release and they are about to spend a lot of time fixing it or just going to cancel it.

"since World of Warcraft"
The number one excuse for any game delay seems to involve somehow blaming it on World of Warcraft. I mean it is totally their fault that standard operating procedures for MMOs no longer include crashing every hour. However, by the very nature of WoW being the 800 lb gorilla in the room developers tend to shy away from talking about it. If they do start mentioning it in any way then you rest assure they are about to try to redirect some blame for something they did which will piss everyone off.


Heartless_ said...

I'm surprised "Not until its done" didn't make the list :P

Relmstein said...

That's too obvious of a giveaway that they will delay the game.

In fact its practically Blizzard's mantra. I bet every morning they have all their employees listen to announcements via a podcast and they repeat "Not until its done" for ten minutes.