I want to be up front about one thing first: World of Warcraft was, to me, a truly great game. It was. No matter how easy and trendy it is to take swings at the popular kid, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I had a few really terrific years in Azeroth. So as I go on to criticize aspects of the World of Warcraft phenomenon, I don't want to give you the impression that I'm filled with nothing but loathing for my time spent there.
There are many factors -- including plain old burnout -- that drove me away from WoW, but the one thing I never liked from my earliest days in the game until now was the attitude and approach that Blizzard gave. These were relatively minor flaws that became magnified with the game's staggering popularity and size, and they stand as proof that even great game designers can be blind to their own shortcomings.
Why do I bring up WoW today? Because with the unprecedented build-up to Star Wars: The Old Republic, I see BioWare teetering on the edge of these same traps that ensnared Blizzard and tainted that company's product. BioWare and EA may be betting on WoW 2.0, but if the people behind the scenes are smart about it, they'll take a lesson from history instead of discovering that they're just as prone to fumbling the ball as anyone else.
In my time blogging and covering MMOs as a journalist, I've seen studios that are absolutely horrid with communication (both with the press and players) and those that set examples that should be emulated far and wide. The studios I love the most are the ones that have devs trusted by their PR guys and have the freedom to be more open in interviews, the ones whose communication is as transparent as is humanly possible, and the ones whose inevitable mistakes are owed up to instead of swept under the rug.
I'm not quite sure which BioWare is going to be, but I'm fearful that that the studio will take a page from Blizzard's handbook: be as secretive as is inhumanly possible, never admit failings, and process every word through a six-stage PR machine.
What I'm saying is that there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and good MMO studios -- like good leaders -- should be careful of crossing that. Be confident in your product, sure, but not so much that you assume it's perfect and untouchable. Be humble with your efforts, but not so much that you're a doormat. An overconfident, arrogant studio is one that gets people cheering for its downfall, and an insecure one leaves the playerbase uncertain and prone to flight.
Which will it be for BioWare? I've seen the company dance on both sides of that line so far, but the temptation to allow the game's popularity to feed the corporate ego has to be considerable.
Having a great release product is one thing, but it is not the only thing. No matter how much of a spread the devs put on the table for launchsgiving, players will invariably look at it and ask, "What's next?" And fair or not, that question's got to be answered with something substantial.
Blizzard's always been known for two key traits when it comes to WoW's updates: the highest level of polish and the speed of a sloth. A sloth that died and is slowly decomposing downhill. For a long while, the quality generated trumped any player complaints about the enormous length of time between updates (and expansions), but over the past couple of years, we're starting to see this glacial pace bite Blizzard in the butt, particularly as the hungry competition -- like RIFT -- is churning out content far more quickly for its titles. Updates make headlines, updates keep players riveted, and updates show that a game is alive.
BioWare's promised an aggressive post-launch development schedule, and I hope this is backed up by action. SWTOR is not releasing in 2004, when the assembly line of MMOs was still being figured out by folksy inventors; it's coming out in a time when players expect and demand new content on a regular basis, especially when it comes to subscription titles.
I don't think I've willingly set foot in the World of Warcraft forums since about 2006, back when casual players were getting lost in that decrepit labyrinth while being chased by trolls and devoured for their precious common sense. The vastly increased playerbase of WoW meant that typical forum problems -- name-calling, flame wars, trolling, statements screamed in incorrectly spelled all-capital letters -- were magnified beyond what the mods could handle. It showed, and at a certain point in time Blizzard simply lost control of the community on its home turf. It's been struggling to establish a sense of order ever since, even going so far as to consider the controversial Real ID feature, but sane players who want to have an intelligent conversation have long fled that pit of hell.
"But Justin," you say, waving your lightsaber, "the SWTOR forums aren't nearly that bad! They're actually kind of useful!" Actually, I have no idea what you're saying, and I haven't spent much time on BioWare's forums to evaluate the junk-to-useful discussion ratio yet. All I'm saying is that right here and now is the best time to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of anarchy that will come, and if BioWare is smart, it will have a small army of moderators with good heads on their shoulders to keep it all in line. Once a forum goes bad, it's very, very hard to clean up, especially when public perception has judged it.
This last trap I want to address directly to BioWare. Hey guys? Not everyone's going to fall prostrate at your approach, kiss your feet, and claim that you sweat sunshine because of SWTOR. Some will, and those people are great because they have positive energy, boost your self-esteem, and are your solid supporters. But you're also going to have critics who both play your game and don't, and one of the worst things you can do is be condescending to them because they're not treating you the way you expect.
I've already seen you get passive-aggressive with those who teased you, misstated a fact, had legitimate concerns, or just plain didn't like the game. It happens to every MMO, and SWTOR is not going to be the exception. The only question is how you're going to deal with criticism -- fair or unfair -- and that is going to have a long-term impact on the relationship that you're building with your community.
I know criticism isn't fun; I've been on the receiving end of quite a lot of it over the years. The natural impulse is to treat it as an attack and snap back in various ways, including being sarcastic or mocking the other person. But falling into that trap makes you look insecure and is noticed by more folks than you think. The best approach to criticism is to genuinely listen to what's being said, to ask questions in return, to give a direct and honest answer if possible, and -- no matter what -- stay calm and friendly.
Your critics could be your enemies or they could be the best people in the world for your game. "Yes Men" don't help you make better games; constructive critics do (emphasis on "constructive"). Even a screaming loon, if treated with undeserved respect, could become a valuable ally instead of a bitter player with a grudge.
I'd also like you to keep in mind that critics can, and often will be, your biggest fans and your most steady players. People who are passionate about games tend to want to talk about the good and bad in them, after all. Respect, and not condescension, is the path to keeping them around for a long time.
I'm rooting for The Old Republic, I really am. I wouldn't say anything in this article if I didn't want it to succeed both numerically and as a terrific game experience handled by a company that avoids the traps of the past. You're about ready to step into the Big Leagues -- I just hope you're ready for it.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!