Sunday, 21 June 2015

Ill Communication

The recent furore over the Heart of Thorns pre-purchase and its incomplete features list, along with the exposure of my own inaccurate understanding of one of its features, highlights just how confusing the whole process has been from the start. Jeromai summed it up perfectly in a comment

"Their whole information distribution chain is more than out of whack, assuming that we know what the devs know, that we're going to comb through every last medium (social media, Twitch, Youtube, livestreams, blogs, beta sneak peeks, god knows what) in order to put together the whole picture of what the expansion contains."

This is becoming something of a common complaint among what might be called the traditionalist faction within the wider MMO audience, the kind of people who write long-form posts on blogs or take the time to read them, along with the small minority of players who visit a game's official forums. There's a tendency to feel disenfranchised rather than empowered by this new, democratized distribution of information.

When Daybreak Games recently decided to move discussion on the beta for the Rum Cellar DLC to reddit instead of the official forums there was consternation and anger among the very conservative EQ2 fanbase. It turned out to be a storm in a teacup, of course, since the beta itself was over in the blink of an owlbear's eye and, as this thread gleefully confirms, no-one used reddit as instructed anyway, least of all the Daybreak devs.

EQ2Wire supremo Feldon summed it up in the thread thus: "Community/Marketing announced something. The EQ2 devs fulfilled their obligations and posted on Reddit. In addition, they continued posting here, on a platform with which they are familiar and comfortable".

When the genre was younger there was supposedly less diffraction, with the options for communication being limited to the official forums, in-game communications and a handful of  game- and topic-specific websites. For quest information on Everquest back at the turn of the century, for example, you might have turned to Allakhazam, to EQAtlas for maps and to Caster's Realm for spells. If you played a monk or a rogue you would, perhaps, keep Monkly Business or The Safehouse bookmarked. Warriors would visit The Steel Warrior, Druids The Druids Grove and so on. I'm not sure that every class had its own dedicated website but most certainly did.


Many guilds also hosted their own websites, either independently or often via the guild and character database portal Magelo, use of which became almost de rigeur for a while as people would demand to see your Magelo profile before allowing you into a group. Even I had a profile there although I never really used it for anything.

Somewhat surprisingly, most of those decade-and-older portals listed in the previous couple of paragraphs are still up and running in one form or another, although Caster's Realm folded its tents in 2010 and The Steel Warrior finally went dark just this January. Allakhazam evolved into the Zam network, itself now under threat, while EQAtlas, which creator, Muse, stopped updating around the release of the Planes of Power expansion, can still be found at Allakabor.com.

All of these and many more became sources of not-always reliable general information. In the course of a heated in-game discussion over some arcane point of game mechanics or lore, evidence from one or other would often be cited as "proof". Often, though, it was nothing of the kind, just hearsay given spurious weight by the imprimatur of a well-known name.

When Mythic launched Dark Age of Camelot, along with the game came The Camelot Herald. It was an official companion website that tracked and recorded in-game activity at realm, guild and character level and it was brilliantly fronted by Sanya Weathers. Although, now, it looks like something carved on stone tablets, at the time it seemed revelatory - actual, direct, immediate communication with the people making the game! It was a huge difference from what we'd been accustomed to, trying to wring some kind of meaningful response out of Abashi on SOE's whineplay gameplay forum.

From then on the floodgates slowly began to creak open. The arrival of WoW brought an exponential growth of interest in the genre that co-incided with the beginning of the social media age but, just as the wider world took a while to get up to speed with always-on, instant mass communication, so did MMO gaming.

At the launch of Warhammer Online in September 2008 blogging was still in the ascendency and MySpace was about to peak. By the end of the year the best days of all three were already behind them. New media, new games, new ways of communicating, all were coming online faster than anyone expected and many could handle.

Not much more than half a decade on the world has changed almost out of recognition. Not only are there hundreds of MMOs and millions of MMO gamers but your granny skypes you from her tablet, your boss checks your Facebook page, Robert Smith follows you on Twitter and your cousin just tweeted he quit his job because he can make more money Twitch-streaming Hearthstone.


It's a full-time job just keeping up to date. And everything's connected. You never know who's reading or watching. Just this week I noticed an unusual uptick in views from Facebook, which turned out to be coming from a link on the Villagers and Heroes FB page to my mini-review of the game's revamp. One of the devs even popped in here to comment, which is the kind of notice every blogger hopes to get, although only when they've been saying something nice about someone...

It's the modern world and its hardly surprising entertainment companies especially want to grab a share. Partly it's the thrill of the new and partly it's fear of being left behind. There's a lot of push and a lot of pull. You only had to watch Dave Georgeson doing his Livestreams to know he was in his element. I doubt anyone had to persuade him to pickup a mic and stride around a stage. More like hold him back. His former sidekick, now successor, Terry Michaels, on the other hand, looks like someone shoved him out there with a cattle-prod.

When it comes to efficiency, though, well, who knows? Are ArenaNet, to get back to where this ramble began, really making such a bad job of communicating with their audience? Worse than the rest? Probably not.

Like almost every media company these days they try the scattergun approach, firing seemingly random broadsides across every available social platform. It means fragments of detail sometimes burst and fade in some corner where no-one happened to be paying much attention at the time.

To counter such anarchic, if orchestrated, spontaneity, however, they post rigorous and meticulous pieces on the official website, all of which they hyperlink through the game's own launcher. It's hard to claim that they don't exercise due diligence to their non-paying customers.

And yet, for all that rigor, even immersed, committed players like Jeromai and myself end up feeling we're in a fog, that we must have missed something, that we don't really feel on top of our brief. If the people who are paying attention feel this way, what of the reported 90% of players who never follow out of game sources at all?

Well I can only offer anecdotal reportage but from the lively and frequent conversations I've participated in in map chat from Wayfarer Hills to Lion's Arch, my impression is that, while some people have a vague idea something is going on, most haven't even noticed. The in-game pop-up was quite possibly the first time some people had even heard of Heart of Thorns and some of them still don't know what it is, far less what it means for them.


In game this week I heard people arguing vehemently that the expansion will be free, that it won't cost more than $10, that you will be able to buy it for Gems, even that it's a new game entirely. I heard people say they'd already bought the $99 edition and others saying they would never buy it at any price. I heard quite a few people asking, nervously, if they had to buy it and what would happen if they didn't. Mostly what I heard, though, was confusion and misinformation.

I've played a fair few MMOs as they've passed through the expansion cycle and I don't think I've ever heard the public channels as uncertain and ill-informed as this over the simple release of a boxed expansion. That's only the background noise, though. The expansion and whatever it does or doesn't bring can at least be pushed out into the long grass of later in the year. By the time the release arrives we will know what we are getting so all decisions can be deferred until then.

On Tuesday, however, something happens that cannot be shrugged away until later. An elephantine pre-expansion patch drops, filled with changes that will rework the mechanics of the game and necessitate a complete re-appraisal of every character. Anet went to the unprecedented lengths of emailing the entire draft patch notes to every accountholder a week in advance, presumably on the grounds that the thing would take a week to read. The chances of more than a handful of players actually having read them are infinitesimal.

I like a bit of chaos so I'm quite looking forward to it but not everyone will be so sanguine. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Could ANet have done more to soften the impact? Well, you can always do more but in the end it probably isn't so much the channels that companies use that matter so much as the intent with which they use them and the willingness of their players to pay attention. Despite the proliferation of platforms I'm not sure that's much different to how it ever was or that it can ever change. They've done as much as they can and it won't help a lot.

None of which, of course, either explains or excuses the absence of a basic list of contents on the Pre-Purchase box. That's just daft.






2 comments:

  1. They emailed us the coming patch notes?!

    ... Case in point. I guess I should go open that mailbox tonight. (Though I did catch Dragonseason's posting on Reddit.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Someone reposted them in a thread on the official forum too. They're in unedited draft form with typos and errors though so at this stage probably might as well wait for the finished version.

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