The Soapbox: Credible currency

Sometimes the bird flies away, and sometimes you unchain it and smack it in the head and then complain that it left.

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

With all of the other crises hitting the gaming world, it's easy to have missed the fact that Lord of the Rings Online has started selling statted gear in the cash shop. It's not endgame gear, of course, and it's mostly there for low-level players to get a minor boost. Really, as has been said by others, it's not something all that unusual, nor is it game-breaking in the slightest. It's just a convenience thing.

It's also something that Turbine promised would never be done.

I don't have an issue with the sale of low-level armor with stats on it, in Lord of the Rings Online or in other games. What I do have an issue with is the matter of credibility, the one currency that every company starts with and loses over time. Credibility is something you have to spend carefully, and every so often, a company spends it wrong. And the results, in the long term, are never pretty.

Now don't these fine folks look trustworthy?

The fundamental principle of credibility isn't hard to understand. When the community is told something by a developer, community members want that response to hold true. If a community manager says, "We'll have a response for this issue soon," then the team needs to provide exactly that. Naturally, there are going to be people who disagree with the exact definition of the term "soon," but that's exactly why a vague timeframe is being used. Some people will argue it's not soon enough, but as long as there isn't a specific timeframe, no one can say that the target was missed.

On the other hand, if the same manager says, "We'll have a response for this issue in an hour," then something had better be ready to go after 59 minutes because otherwise that's a hit to your credibility. That's something that players can point to as an example of failing to deliver on a promise, and a pretty simple one at that.

Remember Warhammer Online's blowback from Bears Bears Bears? Paul Barnett described a situation that players were used to and didn't like -- specifically, the questgiver surrounded by bears, a questgiver you've killed bears to reach, a questgiver who then asked you to kill more bears for a quest, disregarding all the bears you've already killed. Or asked you to kill different bears because those weren't the right bears.

It was funny. It was astute. And when Warhammer Online launched with precisely those quests, it was an enormous problem.

Oh, sure, there were Kill Collectors... who were just as persnickety about what kind of bear you killed as any other questgiver ever had been. And there were full assortments of quests asking you to kill 10 bears, but they had to be the right kind of bears, and... yeah. Making the promise was fine, but the developers completely failed to deliver on that promise, something players would point to on every further evaluation on the company's promises.

Now, to be sure, there are people who will disbelieve promises no matter what. There are people who will complain about nearly anything and everything, there are players who will claim that every problem is gamebreaking, and there are gamers who will call every misstep the death of a game. Credibility is fluid like that. There are fans for whom no developer misstep will sully their mental picture, and there are self-proclaimed fans who mostly delight in complaining. But if you promise that something isn't in your game and then put it in your game, people are going to notice, and people are going to raise questions about your game's performance.

It's one of the major reasons why so much emphasis is put upon the launch of a game or a service. If launch is a mess, people establish in their minds that the game is a mess. And it's a lot harder to convince people that things aren't as bad any longer after the damage as done -- fool me once, shame on you, etc.

Credibility is a high price to pay for fashion.

That's the fundamental currency of the developer. It's credibility. It's the belief that things will be put right, the belief that your class will be balanced, that the developers are listening, and that attention is being paid to the needs of the community. And while it's hard as heck to gain credibility, it's incredibly easy to lose it for large chunks of your audience. Announcing a release date that you can't meet hurts a little. Announcing a release that you never make hurts more. And contradicting yourself is like falling on your own sword.

So now, we come to the issue of the hour, which is that Lord of the Rings Online is going to sell items in the store, items the developers explicitly said would never be sold in the store. I don't play LotRO (it lost the poll, see), and so I don't really care about the specifics of the stats. (If you do, our most recent installment of The Road to Mordor did a great job of outlining the issues involved, and I suggest you read it for an insider's perspective of what the gear looks like in its impact.) But I do care about the fact that Turbine has just cashed its credibility chips out.

Ask yourself this: Can you believe another promise from the company? Can you believe the developers when they say anything about not paying for something? Or will it just sound like so much bleating?

As a developer, the worst thing you can do to your credibility is throw it away needlessly. There were ways that this stat armor could be sold without being a huge blow to Turbine's believability, but the company opted for none of those methods. Now the company is backed into a corner, and about the only thing that it can do to try and scrape its credibility back together is to reverse the decision -- something that appears unlikely to happen, to say the least.

This won't be the death of the game, of course. There are players who will keep playing because they enjoy the game, and that's fine. But it's going to be harder to attract newer players, and the players who stay will be that much more likely to leave. As fluid as credibility is, it does have an effect on player faith, and if the players fundamentally believe that what they dislike about the game is never changing, it can much more easily eclipse whatever they do like about the game.

And that has a much higher cost than a few points in a cash shop.

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!