Really, it's just one of those events during which everyone starts rational yet slowly but surely slides down into the multi-colored stomach of hysteria. It's why MMO communities pre-beta tend to be tight, intelligent and excited, but from beta through launch they lose their cool and become a morass of screeching monkeys, flinging poo every which way in a vain effort to be heard above the noise of the zoo.
Mind you, I've been one of these monkeys, so I'm not excusing myself from this metaphor.
So if you're wondering why the blissful excitement of anticipating a game has fractured under the weight of inconsolable insanity, I'm here to walk you through the 10 phases of how and why this happens for most major MMO launches.
Phase one: Obsessing over scraps of information
Just like the way MMO players devour in-game content like locusts stripping the landscape bare before the farmers can grow more crops, so too fans eat up, digest and eliminate every tiny scrap of information that comes out before launch -- and then demand more from the devs. Unless the dev team decides to stop working on the game itself just to feed the insatiable need for stunning reveals, this information never comes fast enough for some folks.
Phase two: The long dark night of the soul
Sooner or later during the development process, things go quiet on the studio's end for a good period of time. Typically this is due to the fact that the team has a whole bunch of work left to do and little finished product to share with the fans, although this does not stop the Chicken Littles from coming out -- often with the same level-headed perspective that is seen on Jerry Springer -- to interpret this silence and how it's going to doom us all.
Happily, at this point there is a greater ratio of calm folks on the forums who smack down the stupidity, and life goes on as normal.
Phase three: The game-changer
Sooner or later it happens: The developers announce that Feature X will not be making it into the game or has been significantly changed from its original version. This is a natural part of development and testing as the team figures out what and what does not work, but the news will nevertheless devastate a handful of players. People hate change so much that change to something they've never seen before will still be disconcerting.
It is here where the grassroots of an insurgent uprising is planted, because hell hath no wrath like a player who doesn't get exactly everything that was promised, assumed to be promised, and imagined to be promised.
Phase four: The announcement of beta
This is a watershed moment for the game because it flips a switch in fans' minds from "abstract idea" to "OMG IT'S GONNA HAPPEN!!!1!" The days when beta was merely about bug testing and players allying with the dev team to create the best possible game are so ancient history that schoolchildren learn about it in class right after the fall of the Roman Empire. Instead, the herd becomes obsessed with getting its hands on the game just to see if it's good or not, and general tizzyness is inflicted on all.
Although this phase is marked by a lot of positive excitement, madness is a very real danger for those who absolutely, positively must get into the beta or their lives will be over.
Phase five: The explosion of interest
Sometime around beta -- perhaps a little before, perhaps a little after -- the hype afterburners kick in and the interest in this MMO explodes. Suddenly, the forums see a surge of new blood, blogs pick up the scent of a potential hit, and the media devotes more time to covering the buildup.
It's all very typical, although long-time fans who've had the forums and the devs all to themselves now have a few hundred thousand new roommates to accommodate. And while most of those interested in the game before this phase were most likely fans, now there are looky-loos and nay-sayers who are there solely to figure out just why this game is bad and how they can sink their teeth into that failure. Also around this time, a vocal and prolific member of that MMO's community will decide that the devs aren't paying enough attention to his brilliant suggestions, and he will up and quit in a dignified matter -- by which I mean "throw a hissy fit."
Phase six: Prognostications, predictions and prophecies
Fans of any hobby or entertainment venue love to get into the prediction game as though they have secret insider info or psychic powers that enable them to know the future intimately. Likewise, nothing ever stops MMO players from hooking a thumb under their imaginary suspenders and lecturing the rest of us on just how all of this is going to pan out. It's going to get a billion subscribers! It's going to be canceled in three months! It's going to be so niche that you can keep it on your knicknack shelf! It's going to revolutionize just how you press buttons on your keyboard!
And they know this because... well, I have no idea. Maybe time travel technology has been perfected and I'm unaware. I lost my subscription to Circuits of Time magazine when I moved.
Phase seven: Fantasy meets reality
It's a truism that the longer you anticipate something with only sketchy information and no first-hand experience to draw on, the more disconcerting it will be when you finally encounter it. Our brains are great at filling in the blanks with imagined details, and so I suppose it's inevitable that fans end up with a mental picture that does not quite jibe with the real thing.
This sets the stage for a jarring moment when fantasy meets reality, which usually happens as fans finally get their hands on the beta. On some occasions, it's a pleasant surprise -- the MMO is far better than they'd imagined or contains a few rare surprises that haven't been spoiled by the marketing team. But most likely, the game itself is different, and it's up to each player to determine whether that difference is acceptable or a good reason to overturn desks and light things on fire out of sheer nerdrage.
Phase eight: Comparing it to World of Warcraft
Like sands through the hourglass, so too are the days when every MMO beta is plagued with people who log in with the express intent of comparing this game to World of Warcraft. Yes, I get it, WoW's been kind of big, and for some narrow-minded players, it's the only MMO they know and fathom. But it just annoys the heck out of everyone else when someone insists on referencing WoW every two minutes in zone-wide chat. It's quite possible that back when chess was first created, the initial testers had a guy in the group who would whine, "World of Warcraft has far better PvP!"
It's a specific form of trolling that helps no one except those looking to spoil the party. But who's trying to be balanced at this point? Not me, that's for sure! GO BACK TO WoW, YOU AZEROTHIAN JERKS!
Phase nine: Battle royal
As everyone counts down the weeks and days to launch, the guards flee the asylum and the patients come out of their cells shrieking and frothing at anyone who will listen. Whatever usefulness the official MMO forums had is now gone as a full-fledged battle royal breaks out between the positive faithful and the negative heretics. There is no middle ground in this conflict, just extremes that must be adhered to lest the other side get in a valid point. Blood is drawn, bones are shattered, and the word "sir" is bandied about as a sarcastic reference.
Phase 10: Bleary-eyed exhaustion
While the battle never quite dies down -- nor will it for the remainder of this poor MMO's lifespan -- the bulk of the fans become fatigued by the rollercoaster of anticipation, hype, beta, arguments, analysis, and overexposure. Exhausted from the build-up, players retreat to their happy places and try to rest up, wondering whether they'll ever be able to enjoy a game for what it is rather than what the community surrounding it makes it out to be.
Heh. Good luck with that.
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.