Sunday, December 23, 2018

Voting With Your Feet

I had it in mind this afternoon to post something about what looks disturbingly like ever-deteriorating professional standards in online gaming. The immediate prompt for this was the truly spectacular mishandling of the "Early Access" launch of Wildcard's Atlas but heaven knows there's no shortage of recent examples.

I've never played a Fallout game in my life but even I feel let down by the bug-ridden, barely half-finished mess that is - by most, if not all, accounts -  Fallout 76. I get a contact low just reading about it.

In a game I do play, Guild Wars 2, this weekend saw an astonishing error of the kind that gets people fired - or at least moved to a non-customer-facing department, where they can't do as much damage to the company's reputation. I'll try to keep this simple for the benefit of those who don't follow World vs World.

The North American WvW league comprises four tiers, made up of twelve "worlds". Before consolidation due to falling population there were originally twenty-four worlds and eight tiers. Those twenty-four were resolved into a dozen "hosts" and a dozen "guests".

Host/guest status is determined by activity and can change. A "World", meaning one of the three named teams in a match, can be a single Host or a Host plus one, two or even three Guests. The idea - seldom achieved - is to come up with teams of equal size.

This is known as "World Linking". A "link" lasts two months, changing on the final Friday of every even-numbered month. The new linkings are based on how activity is deemed to have changed over that period.

Because the last Friday in December falls bang in the middle of the holiday period, ANet decided, as they did last year, to bring the re-linkings forward by a week. Whether due to taking it at a rush or because of staffing issues related to the holidays, this attempt to clear the decks went disastrously wrong.

On Saturday morning I got up to find Mrs Bhagpuss already in WvW, doing her dailies. I asked her who we were linked with and she showed me on screen. Yaks Bend was linked with Maguuma. And Dragonbrand. And Ferguson's Crossing.

I could scarcely credit what I was seeing. Granted, Yaks Bend has been wallowing in Tier 4 of late, kept from the very bottom of the table only by the raddled shell of the ineptly revived and callously abandoned Sanctum of Rall, but even with most of our "fight" guilds having left the server over a leadership dispute and our current leadership in hibernation in a concerted effort to drive our activity metrics down (a process too arcane to explain), we have been unable to shift our rating below Very High or Full.

There was no way on Earth or Tyria we should have received three links, let alone two of the strongest available, Mag and DB. I booted up my PC and checked the full re-linking. It was bizarre. Where we had too many links other servers, nominally less active than us, had none at all. Either someone was having a Wintersday ho ho ho at our expense or there'd been a major screw-up.

On the forums I found a lively discussion, to put it euphemistically. Many players had expressed confusion or outrage before someone with a cooler head thought to re-post the official links that had been announced at reset.

Suffice it to say Yaks Bend was not supposed to get an early Wintersday present. Somehow we'd been joined not only with our with intended partners, Ferguson's Crossing, but we'd also acquired the links meant for Crystal Desert and Gates of Madness as well, while those two unlucky servers were left to fight on alone.

The whole sorry shambles was rendered even more embarrassing by the long-suffering community rep Gaile Gray, a long way out of her depth trying to understand the intricacies of an unfamiliar game mode, letting her patience slip and coming perilously close to blaming the messengers. It wasn't pretty and still isn't.

The upshot is that nothing can be (or at least will be) done until the next reset on Friday, December 28. Few people care about match results in WvW any more but people do like to be able to play, especially over a holiday period when they have free time. Queues of 200/50/50/50 on all four borderlands at one extreme and not enough to fill a squad on all four maps put together at the other really isn't conducive to festive fun.

This is just one minor tale from an ever-lengthening catalogue of disasters afflicting online gaming. While it's certainly true that there were always bugs in every update and that the always-on nature of MMORPGs meant players got to see the rips in the tapestry more often than players of offline games ever had, I really don't think things used to be as bad as this.

Atlas, the precipitately-announced, astoundingly over-ambitious survival MMO from ARK developers Wildcard, managed to stagger into Early Access last night. It currently has an Overwhelmingly Negative rating on Steam, based on more than five thousand reviews.

It's cheap and I was going to buy it although the 100GB download was putting me off a tad. I read a few dozen of the reviews and, obviously, now I'm going to wait. Anyone would.

It's all very well, a game being rough and ready in Early Access - we expect that. I wouldn't expect it to be feature complete, either. I would, however, expect to be able to log in. Given that I would just have paid $30, I would also expect to have bought something other than a re-skin of an existing game.

When Wildcard said that Atlas was "made from the same DNA, so there’s a lot of stuff in there from ‘Ark’ like the building mechanics and unlocking new things you can do" I don't think many prospective purchasers thought they meant it quite as literally as turns out to be the case. A Steam reviewer called Jeff explains:

It's a reskin of Ark that is somehow WORSE than Ark. If you look in the games install folder, there are folders literally called ScorchedEarth and Abberation just reusing assets from Ark. And on top of that, if you have a controller plugged in, scroll down to the bottom of the options on the main menu. If you scroll down 1 more past that, there's another invisible menu option. Hit A or X or whatever on your controller, and it opens up THE ARK MENU. It even shows options to choose which Ark DLC you want to play, edit map options, etc. The best part is that under that option, you can see the choices for all of the types of Ark worlds, and theres one addition to that list! Ocean. That's right, this game was built as a DLC of Ark. It functions through Ark's menus, and in that menu it is classified just like Ark's released DLCs.

I could go on. There are, as I said at the top, no shortage of examples. As online gamers we seem to have drifted to a point where developers feel they can throw anything into the water in the expectation of a feeding frenzy and time after time we prove them right.

If we're lucky, over time, the rattletrap wreck we bought might get fixed up until it runs. When that happens, as it did with No Man's Sky, somehow we feel we've done alright. Everything is forgiven and, what's even more disturbing, forgotten.

Azuriel at In An Age has provided two first-rate posts on the subject, particularly focusing on the way anyone with the temerity to complain finds themselves on the end of egregious accusations of "entitlement". Both posts lead into excellent discussions in the comments. Wilhelm has a great rant on the same topic, with particular attention to the concept of gaming as a service.

At this point we might begin to wonder how we got ourselves into this parlous state but I suspect we all know the answer to that. We created a demand for unfinished, barely-working games by consistently paying for them and trying to play them even when they didn't work.

I'm as guilty as anyone. I not only paid for Landmark long before it was anything much more than a barely-functional tech demo, I paid more for it than I have ever paid for any other video game, before or since. What's more I enjoyed it and even now I would say I got my money's-worth and then some.

As I type this, I'm logged into GW2, where I've been playing World vs World happily despite the entire structure having been catastrophically broken by what would seem to be sheer incompetence and lack of care by the people in charge. And I'm going to play it some more, too, and enjoy doing it.

I don't have anything clever to add to the discussion at this point. I'm not even convinced that I would prefer to go back to the days when games were sold as a finished product and by and large worked. Even now I might well prefer to have Early Access to a shaky build immediately rather than wait anything up to a couple of years for a fairly stable version.

That said, there has to be some kind of floor to this process. We can argue about whether something is "good enough" yet to take money for and whether we're fools or saints for putting up with shoddy products and terrible service but the games do have to work well enough to provide some minimal level of entertainment, don't they? Or at least allow you to log in.

If we fall below that minimum standard we might as well just send the developers our bank details and invite them to help themselves.

Hmm, strike that. Probably best not to give them ideas...


  1. Some people in our EVE Online corp were very much hot to trot on Atlas, and there was nothing but moaning about it last night. Forbes even had an article about it, calling it the worst video game launch ever, which is a pretty steep item to prove.

    1. I still plan on trying it. It looks interesting and I don't particularly care if it re-uses anything from ARK because I never bought or played ARK so it will all be new to me. I'm going to wait a while though.

      It's just crazy that they let this happen after making such a big fuss about keeping it secret until they were ready to launch. Why not wait til they were *actually* ready? It just seems so unecessary. And why launch (even Early Access launch) the week before Christmas anyway?

  2. Here’s the part that boggles me extremely in the WvW posts from Gaile you linked. She keeps asking the forum goers to verify if they really mean “hey, this is broken, it’s a real bug” as opposed to “this is broken, this sucks, I hate it” type of complaint. Apparently if the quantity of feedback that keeps stressing the former than the latter, then it’s worth reporting the thread for someone more conversant in the topic to take a look at, else dismiss as unfounded.

    Um, haven’t they ever heard of logging in to check for themselves? Objectively check before sending the message higher up? It either suggests laziness (crowdsourcing reports from disgruntled users is easier?) or the lack of any such testing/simulation tools/accounts for those lower down the totem pole (such that they have zero choice but to crowdsource reports) or both.

    But then you realize that she’s been with the same company for 18 years. She was a lot sharper and on the ball in GW1 days, but I think those days have passed and priorities and policies regarding their customers/community have changed over time.

    1. Yes, I skated over her responses because I don't really like to rag on her since she's clearly in a vulnerable position, but her replies are positively bizarre. Unless she was out of the office, replying on her phone, I can't see any possible reason she couldn't just tab up a) the official forum post and b) the game and compare the two. Unless she doesn't have a GM account that lets her log in to any server, which would be ridiculous.

      Even on the WvW forums, which are as salty as they come, Gail generally gets cut a lot of slack but I've noticed that increasingly she seems vague and confused about a lot of things. Which, let's be honest, just about describes the general situation at ANet over the last few years.


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