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A Question of Quality...

Tim Dale

I do indeed have a Three Month Rule. It isn't a staggeringly complex philosophy, and very literally means that I just wait for at least three months after the launch of an MMO, before even contemplating taking the plunge myself. It wasn't always this way mind you, and once I was a very keen early adopter, filling in beta applications with the rest and generally working myself up into a right old frenzy at the merest mention of something new and something shiny.

Part of my current caution is definitely personal cynicism and a certain jaded worlds-weariness, but by no means all of it, and in many ways the Three Month Rule is very much a product of the MMOs themselves, a reaction to a regrettably lengthy succession of rushed and incomplete titles, often lurching out the door in a state of startled undress. Does the oft-repeated phrase 'It's an MMO, they're always like this' hold any water, or is there something fundamentally amiss with testing as we know it, when applied to the MMO?

I think my first realisation that something wasn't quite right with this particular industry came with the launch of pioneering sci-fi romp Anarchy Online. Coming out of nowhere to the then-fledgling MMO scene, Funcom's previous back catalogue consisted of The Longest Journey, a third-person single-player adventure game, and a handful of titles for the Genesis. From that background, to suddenly come up with Anarchy Online at all was a remarkable achievement, but one not without its flaws, and early adopters found a world with various technical issues and game breaking problems. I was there and largely stuck by it because of friends who also played, a kind of solidarity, but many would have been driven away by the troubles, perhaps never to return to MMOs at all.

"Most Tales of the Early Days seem to feature technical difficulties of some sort."

Since those days, far from having learned lessons from the evidently increased complexity of the MMO as opposed to the offline single-player game, the pattern seems to have become a repeating one, in various shades of severity. Early EVE Online was a different place to the dynamic Stackless IO world of today, and I distinctly remember paying my first corporation's start-up fees with free ISK that CCP themselves had felt it necessary to pay everyone, as compensation for lost play time due to server instabilities. Asheron's Call 2 had a fantastic bug in it that caused the server to collapse in a screaming heap if an enterprising group of players created a linked circle of vassalage (i.e, the king pledging loyalty to the lowest serf). The mighty World of Warcraft was a victim of its own success and was a nightmare of login queues for several months post-launch, until a balanced provision of worlds could be sorted out. Similar anecdotes range throughout our genre, and most Tales of the Early Days seem to feature technical difficulties of some sort.

After having been through a few of that kind of launch and those kinds of first months, you do become a bit leery of jumping right into yet another unproven and somewhat premature game release, certainly on day one anyway. In theory, this is what beta testing is supposed to sort out, but perhaps that is a naive assumption, and these days, the Open Beta is less about actual testing, and more about preview event and being able to play before everyone else, and for free.

Sometimes the beta test is useless as a testing method, but sometimes players do put the effort in; reporting observations, bugs, gameplay problems and the like. Whether these diligent comments are taken on board is another matter, when a game could be facing a specific and imminent deadline placed on it by investors. With game development costs spiralling ever upward, a development team might not have the luxury of postponing launch any further – the money needs to be paid back sooner rather than later. Increasingly though, it seems more and more MMOs are finding the confidence to delay, to push back dates, to only release 'when it's done.' While many players seem to greet this sort of move more with a kind of grudging respect than fury these days, this can still only be done so many times before something needs to be gotten out the door.

"That'll be okay, we can fix that later?"

Being an MMO provides something of an out. The very nature of the product means that fixes, adjustments and tweaks can all be applied long after the initial purchase and launch day, and again, and again until the product is right, but this can take time; several months in fact. Perhaps the convenience and availability of regular patching makes for sloppy quality control in the early stages of an MMO's life? That'll be okay, we can fix that later?

Given a few months to a year and the tens of thousands of paying man-hours of 'Gamma Testing' a new MMO gets, improvements take a while but do follow and an increasingly common pattern will see an MMO start very wobbly, but over the first year acquire the final layers of polish, balance and stability that were always meant to be there. When the first 'Come back to see how we've changed!' offers start being sent out, perhaps that is in fact, the optimum point to try a new-ish title for the first time?

So here I am, with a soured outlook and curmudgeonly approach to game purchase. Broadly, I'm all for MMOs; they certainly make up a significant proportion of my life, and new ones are always to be looked forward to. But nowadays, it is at arms length, and with faint suspicion. I've been burned before, so I let someone else take the alpha strike, climb the ladder and go over the top in front of me, deal with the rubbish and complain loudly. I let others pay to test, because I feel that I have already done my time on the front line.

The worst part of it all is that the Three Month Rule is a very selfish thing. It's great for me; I'll miss the early pioneer days of a server, which can be fun in their own right, but generally saunter in after the hard work has been done, to see a belatedly finished game for the first time, as it was meant to be. But if everyone adopted a similar policy, effectively boycotting anything new for three months, no MMO would ever get off the ground again.

So I can't help but respect the early adopters; those who know all of the above, and yet still put down the time and the money, the commitment and the potential, because without them, there wouldn't be any MMOs at all. It is indeed an MMO, and they are indeed all like this, but some of you are far more relaxed about that than I am, and I'm glad.

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