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The Think Tank: On MMO rollbacks

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Let's talk about rollbacks.

ArcheAge, Elite: Dangerous, Neverwinter -- whenever an MMO pops up in the news with a bug, there's usually an accompanying cry for a rollback, and each of these games has seen such in the last few months. Rollbacks used to be quite common, but modern MMO companies almost never risk them.

For today's Think Tank, I asked the Massively writers whether they'd ever suffered rollbacks, whether they'd lost anything, whether it was worth it, and just what they think of the whole issue.



Anatoli Ingram, Columnist
@ceruleangrey: I don't recall ever having been greatly impacted by a rollback, but I remember hearing (unconfirmed) horror stories from people whenever they happen. I can understand why devs might be reluctant to do them in all but the most extreme cases, since even if a lot of players are asking for one it's still guaranteed to cause less than positive press and hard feelings on some level -- especially during the launch rush, when many of the people you're about to take progress away from are trying your game for the first time.

Brendan Drain, Columnist
@nyphur: Performing at least a partial rollback after an exploit or major bug is the responsible thing to do. MMOs and virtual worlds rely on a principle of equity that says your time and effort spent slaying orcs and blowing up space ships should be no more or less valuable than everyone else's, and preferrentially allowing one or more players to skip ahead by a few weeks' or months' worth of play time violates that principle. I also don't buy the dismissive argument that MMOs are casual forms of entertainment and that the actions of other players shouldn't affect your enjoyment of the game. For many of us, our favourite MMOs are virtual worlds that we've chosen to invest time and effort into, communities we belong to, and often significant parts of our everyday lives.

In the recent case of Elite: Dangerous, up to 50 individuals were accidentally given billions of credits and officially allowed to keep them, skipping months ahead in progress in a game that's been out for only a few weeks. This event has polarised the community, with many players who think of Elite as an MMO being outraged and those who consider it to be a largely singleplayer game arguing that it's not a big deal. The problem is that Frontier responded to the bug as if Elite were a singleplayer game in which an individual getting a huge financial advantage out of nowhere makes no difference to anyone else, but the company still officially calls Elite an MMO on its store page and frames it as such in the media when defending its always-online DRM. I think that dissonance is what the controversy is stemming from.

The Elite situation is also baffling because the game's limited multiplayer gives it the ideal conditions for damage containment of exploits. Since there are no formal trading mechanics in the game yet and Elite doesn't have a player-run economy, the damage was almost entirely contained to the ships and wallets of the instant billionaires themselves. The obvious solution was to roll back only those few players who were directly affected by any failed database transactions and then compensate each one for the several days of play time lost. There have been plenty of similar cases in other MMOs that have all led to extensive rollbacks, and I think I prefer that to the alternative.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief
@nbrianna: I cut my MMO teeth in early Ultima Online, where server crashes and the ensuing data loss and rollbacks -- intentional and accidental -- were a weekly and sometimes daily occurrence because the tech and stability were just not there yet. Because of that, I'm admittedly inured to the boohooing of people who lose a little bit of experience grind time to a game-critical rollback. Man, I knew a guy who lost an entire castle. I think if an MMO is a serious MMO that wants me to take it seriously, then it's going to take its economy and its fair playing field seriously, and that means rolling back to fix exploits that have a dramatic and negative impact on the economy. I'll gladly lose a day or two of time if it means a stable economy for years to come. On the other hand, if the game is just another themepark that already pays no mind to a ridiculously inflated currency, then honestly, a rollback isn't going to save much anyway.

Eliot Lefebvre, Contributing Editor
@Eliot_Lefebvre: The question of rollbacks doesn't come down to "should they be in the toolset" so much as "how bad is bad enough." Rollbacks are like thermonuclear warheads insofar as first deployment is a game-changer; once you've shown as a company that you're willing to roll back for something, players know that there's always the chance that what they do will be reset. In an entire genre based on persistence, it's the most severe weapon in a developers arsenal. I think the modern reluctance to unleash them is chiefly a matter of developers realizing how severe a tool it really is, even when things get bad.

You can say, "Well, it doesn't matter to me; I wasn't exploiting," but a rollback affects everyone. If someone who did exploit a bug made money and paid you for something, do you get rolled back as well? Does the entire server get rolled back or just some people? How quickly can the company respond? If you leave too long between the bug and a rollback, then fixing the bug becomes closing the door when the horses are already out, but sometimes it's not immediately clear from the development side what's causing the exploit in the first place.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what absolutely should be rolled back or what shouldn't, and it doesn't extend solely to whether or not you feel as if it would personally affect you when it's a theoretical possibility instead of a tangible fact. Ultimately, it depends on how severe the damage is and whether or not the effects are going to linger or even out over time. Elite's recent issue seems like the sort of thing that may very well even out over time, but problems like ArcheAge's limited housing combined with a plethora of people unable to try and nab any of it... that seems like the sort of thing that should have been addressed with a rollback, or at least something beyond a shrug and an "oh, darn."

Jef Reahard, Managing Editor
@jefreahard: It's funny/sad how reluctant devs are to roll back even in the face of economy-destroying exploits. I guess we can thank all the progression addicts who would pitch a fit if their numbers dipped even a little bit. On a personal level, I would opt for a rollback if the screw-up was bad enough. Heck, I've probably been through multiples already given how long I've been playing MMOs, but they don't affect my day-to-day enjoyment anyway because I don't grind or bother with legendary RNG loot nonsense.

Justin Olivetti, Contributing Editor
@Sypster: I don't recall any situation where I was subjected to a particularly large (>24 hours) rollback, although I've weathered a few smaller ones with a calm acceptance of "hiccups happen, it's just a game, let's get to work." I can imagine being quite peeved if I had lost major progress or a significant piece of loot, but rollbacks seem so rare these days that I'm not scared of it.

And then there's the issue of compensation, which studios are getting better about for major downtime and/or rollbacks. When RIFT's expansion landed last year, there was a large rollback on a server I wasn't playing but had a character on, and Trion bequeathed me a nice chunk of store currency even though I wasn't personally put out. I wasn't complaining about that!

Larry Everett, Columnist
@Shaddoe: Some of the rollbacks in Star Wars Galaxies were legendary, from lost XP to disappearing cities. However, for the most part, save for at least one that I remember stemmed from server issues on Starsider, rollbacks ultimately turned out OK. Most of the time, they made things better and the game stronger in the long run. There are too many games now that believe that shutting things down or rolling things back to fix an issue will kill its playerbase. In reality, not rolling back is a short-term gain for a long-term loss.

Mike Foster, Contributing Editor
@MikedotFoster: I've never been one to care about rollbacks. I don't take games seriously enough to throw a fit about another player keeping ill-gotten gains or beating me in an imaginary race to the level cap. Games are entertainment, and I can't imagine my quality of life hanging on something a game creator does or doesn't do. That said, I can understand why those people invested in progression or in-game status would care, and it makes sense that developers would try to repair damage caused by server troubles, game bugs, or exploits. The most recent example (Elite: Dangerous) has me perplexed; it seems like a solution that will appease exactly no one while fixing exactly nothing. Rollbacks are an indelicate method of solving a problem, but I'd wager most players are happy to have them when something well and truly breaks.

MJ Guthrie, Contributing Editor
@MJ_Guthrie: As much as rollbacks sting (and really really suck if you happened to do/get something monumental in that specific time), when a major bug or exploit is found or something breaks, the devs should fix it. If that means having to roll back because there are too many ill-gotten gains to deal with individually, then yes, there should be rollbacks. Not doing it is like saying to the players, "Sure, go ahead and exploit because you really will benefit from it without consequences." And that message really chaps my hide!

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.

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