The Soapbox: Own your game's mistakes
No, stop. Don't go consult the PR team. Don't talk with the community managers. Don't spend time explaining why those issues aren't really issues. Just say it with me. Your game has some pretty big issues. I don't care what game you call your own; it's still replete with issues, including ones that by all rights should have been fixed months ago. Just say that with me, and then possibly follow it with a "sorry."
There. That wasn't so bad, was it? Kind of liberating, actually. There's a lot to be said for owning up to the failures of your game and admitting that some things are just plain wrong. I can think of great reasons to just take a deep breath, eat crow, and just say that part of your game is a mess.
It's a big boost for the players
The fanbase for MMOs as a whole is kind of horrid. We've reached a point as a community when every new game is seen as part of a zero-sum equation, where liking World of Warcraft means hating everything that's not present in World of Warcraft. It's childish and immature, and it creates an atmosphere where every game is trying to puff out its metaphorical chest and look bigger than every other game out there.
The only way to change this is to create an environment in which people can point to other games and have confidence that others will understand that we can all like different things. And part of that is developers acknowledging that yep, this feature isn't all that great.
If the crafting in your game is a bit lackluster, admitting that the crafting here is kind of perfunctory compared to another game points people who want that kind of crafting toward that other game. It also removes some of the pressure to keep comparing your game to something else because it's been acknowledged that the crafting there is better. There's no shame in it. I wouldn't think less of someone for saying that EVE Online's space combat isn't as active as Star Trek Online's because that's not the goal of the game. You're not trying to create the best-ever space combat; you're trying to make a form of space combat that works within the framework of your game.
Players are going to draw this conclusion anyway. Wouldn't it be nice to validate them by saying that they're right?
It shows humility
This may be entirely a function of my job, but the truth of the matter is that I discard about half of the things developers say out of hand. I don't hold it against them; I'm just used to hearing spiels about how revolutionary a game is going to be and how many options it will give players and so on and so forth that I just ignore a good chunk of it. When the game comes out and launches with about half of what was promised, I am thus pleased. A really good game gets up to about 65%.
Still, I'd love it if a developer was careful enough with his promises that I could actually believe the entirety of what he said. This was just about the case with the sadly departed Paragon Studios; you could ask a question and get an honest answer with minimal spin. Admitting that your game has flaws goes a long way toward giving your future statements merit because you have thus established yourself as someone who speaks with honesty and integrity. You don't feel the need to claim that things are fine when they aren't, and you don't claim that the game will do something it won't. It's a whole new world.
It's also worth noting that "competent and fun" is generally a better target for games than "revolutionary and genre-defining." Most games that achieve the latter aim for the former. Just for the record.
It allows for more learning from future mistakes
If you haven't already, I want you to take a moment and read a small portion of the shutdown notice for Earthrise. More specifically, I'd like you to take careful note of the fact that said notice spends plenty of time blaming big publishers for the game's failures rather than blaming an actual game that was not fun to play.
Honestly, I can't speak to how great the game was or wasn't. I know that the best reviews I saw of it claimed that it had a lot of potential but a huge number of rough edges at launch, and there were a lot of people saying it just wasn't worth the time. And that seems like the sort of thing that would really be responsible for a game shutting down, yes? That the game itself was not fun to play?
As long as you're locked in the mindset of your failures being the fault of someone else, you're not going to be able to fix them.
The poster child for this is (probably) Final Fantasy XIV, which launched in a very rough state to awful reviews. Square-Enix reacted by admitting that this was a mistake, pulling in a new design team, and setting out to completely rebuild the game to be what it should have been from the beginning. We don't know exactly what the game will look like after the re-release, so there's the distinct possibility that not enough was learned, but it's a clear sign of a developer being able to admit to a goof and deriving a lesson in the long run.
It's the truth
And your fans really need to hear it.
I like the heck out of Final Fantasy XIV, but I'll also gladly point out the issues that the game has, up to and including the point that the game is sometimes 30% brilliance buried under 70% fundamental mistakes. There's not much you can say to get me to quit playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, but the game's endgame grind leaves much to be desired, and the rather linear path through the game could use a bunch of widening. I'll play City of Heroes until it's not there any longer (which is much sooner than it ought to be), but you won't hear me saying nice things about PvP.
There are always going to be fans who try to work around this issue by ignoring it and plugging their ears and claiming that everything is fine, no need to worry about it, la-la-la I can't hear you.
Remember how I mentioned above that the whole idea of MMOs being in a race to be The Best is pretty harmful? This is the flip side of that. Your game is not inviolate. It was not handed down to you from angels on high who produced the most perfect structure of all time. And the people who would claim otherwise need to know that you don't consider it infallible.
So we're all on board? Great. Now all of you file out of the room because I've got to explain to comic book writers that it's OK not to write another huge storyline that changes everything.
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 and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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