Hype is a dangerous commodity within online communities. It is sought, and disliked in equal measure. Like an addict, there are the highs before the lows. The slow, steady realisation that the rolling stone of excitement may, more often than not, find itself brought to a halt by an immovable object, known as reality. To ride the wave of hype is a publisher and developer dream. A free underbelly of excitement that ripples through forums and conversations, spreading its tentacles thick and wide until it strangles itself, succumbing under its own weight of expectation…
Often a rudderless ship, hype cannot ever be fully controlled. Developers and publishers certainly try (some with more success than others), yet it is the choice of the targeted audience as to whether they choose to play along. These anonymous individuals capable of making or breaking an online game, through words and wallets, with only one of three outcomes. A fanfare, a slow bleed or swift end.
APB was the latter; a travesty of game design and the swiftest demise of an MMO in history. The media rumblings that something wasn’t quite right coming long after tester pleas. For all itsfaults, the hype surrounding APB remained at fever pitch until its opening moments. Where APB succeeded was in retaining its own hype for as long as it did. For all that it was on paper, and for all that it lacked, the very nature of a developers control within an MMO allowed Realtime Worlds to be in a privileged position; to hide its problems.
Non disclosure agreements (NDA) and closed BETA stages are the shackles which bind a community to secrecy. Those lucky enough to be part of them are as passionate about being chosen, as they are about wanting the best from the product. Community members acting as spies and ‘ratting out’ those who choose to break the NDA are common place, in order to prevent unwelcome fallout. These strict controls are manipulative as much as they are necessary. There are those that do speak out in the blind hope of revealing the truth, but these pleas often fall on deaf ears. They are tainted as disgruntled BETA players, or liars by the public community (whether through denial or ignorance) while those under the NDA tend to shy away, for fear of reprisal and revocation of access rights.
Staff from Realtime Worlds have spoken out on the studios demise, sighting complacency and ignorance as the deciding factor in APBs shortcomings, yet it was surely hype (the inevitable sales this achieves) and the prospect of riches that played its part. For all the issues that the game may have had, the self-contained BETA forums held the key to the reality of APB, a reality Realtime Worlds chose to ignore. Yet it wasn’t until the Open BETA, days away from launch, that these issues reared their ugly humiliating heads. The hype finally meeting the immovable object.
Public exposure of MMOs is a dangerous act. A master class of marketing is necessary to ensure hype surrounding the product not only continues, but builds further momentum. Dummy terminals and strict control of content reduce the prospect of this ever occurring, these contrived showcases only ever display the game in its best light. The fear of a single attack from a reputable media source can send shockwaves through community boards and newsletters. “It’s early BETA” and “it’s 10 months away from release” are wheeled out as defensive mechanisms to fight the reality. This denial from the public community and betrayal from the developer are common place as one supports the other. In truth the games foundations are probably built on nothing more than sticks and sand. For as long as the hype continues, whether publically or privately, the publisher and developer hope to tap into this, to secure as many willing addicts-of-hype as possible.
Age of Conan, Star Trek Online, Champions Online, Warhammer Online, Global Agenda and Aion (to name but a few) have all utilised the sneak-peak marketing process to drum up excitement about their product, while retaining incredibly strict NDA’s, allowing the developer to truly hide their products shortcomings. And yet despite all this, and as someone who has certainly been guilty, the products are inevitably purchased. For all their faults, the captivation of a new MMO is too alluring for those searching for the next World of Warcraft.
Having been part of the Aion Chinese BETA, it was interesting to read the European forums eagerly awaiting the game. The disparity between the information told by the developers, and the reality of the gameplay was enormous. The blind faith shown by the games community, having never had the opportunity to play themselves, was staggering. Hearing a developer state there would be a revision to the quest system to ensure no grind for a Western audience made me smile at the time, knowing the exact opposite was the truth. Based on the time frame to launch, and the fundamental mechanics of the game, this was an impossibility. The hype continued.
Inevitably, the premise of hype is not restrictive to MMOs only. All games attempt to drum up a level of anticipation and excitement before launch, but many do not offer such public access as that of MMO’s and often ship in much better ‘state’. There is the fundamental expectation that wrongs can be made right with the post-product support that an MMO requires. This is evidently why players pay £35 for the product, and £10 a month in fees. “We’ll patch it later.” however is becoming an uncomfortable phrase within the genre; an easy escape route from the restrictive time frames and lack of foresight that developers and publishers show. Yet this no longer matters once the addicts-of-hype are already on board, for their money has been spent. A success in the eyes of the marketing department.
Warhammer Online should not have launched when it did, as it was at least one year away from being the product it should have been. Yet I parted with my money, despite playing the game throughout the BETA process, having seen the game for what it really was. Did I buy into the hype, alongside 1 million other people on the back of “We’ll patch it later.”? I think I did.
It will be a brave developer whose hype is built on truth, as opposed to half-truths. To finally abolish with the NDA’s and allow the community to see the product for what it really is, warts and all. Perhaps only then will we see a greater quality of MMO and less disappointment from their respective communities.
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