This month, former WildStar lead Stephan Frost posted an epically long Twitter thread about what he saw as a sad and frustrating “flat circle” of MMO development. It certainly was an interesting behind-the-scenes read about the struggle and race to get a functioning MMO out the door while building up (and keeping) a critical mass of players. He doesn’t seem very optimistic it can be done.
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines here that he’s primarily speaking of WildStar as the inspiration for this post. I think what rankles me — and others who read this — is that while many of his points are true, Frost was leaving out a whole lot of personal and studio blame for why MMOs (again, primarily WildStar) fail. He makes it sound like it was out of his hands, just a tragedy of a lack of funds and time.
But that’s certainly not the full story of the late Carbine’s MMORPG. WildStar is beloved to this day because it did a whole lot amazingly well — housing, animations, outfits, choice, races, vivid NPCs, marketing, holidays, and so on. However, all of this was severely hamstrung by issues that went far above and beyond what he talked about in his pity party post.
If I had to sum up, here’s what I see what helped WildStar to fail:
- It was clearly marketed and angled to the casual set — until you got to “elder game” when it switched up to be a brutal, take-no-prisoners romp. Even your standard dungeons were too tough and too frustrating for many players. Nobody appreciated this switcharoo.
- In fact, too many Carbine devs had it in their heads that we all WANTED hardcore design. Which wasn’t the scene then nor the scene now. So the raids and PvP warzones ended up appealing to very few people despite lots of resources going into them.
- It launched without a free-to-play or buy-to-play option and switched to F2P far too late. I remember interviewing Frost at PAX one year, incredulously asking why Carbine was pushing out a subscription-only MMO in this market. Carbine wasn’t worried, he said. Until Carbine wasn’t Carbine.
- There was a serious lack of cooperation and cohesion between WildStar dev teams, resulting in half-baked systems (i.e., Paths) that seemed more designed by committee than the result of a focused vision. Too much of the game was all over the place.
- For a story-driven experience, the standard method of quest delivery — the “Tweet-sized” quest chat — was terrible to relay narrative. Again, here’s a great example of how the studio was all over the place. It wanted to tell this amazing mystery with all of these woven threads… and it hamstrung itself from being able to effectively do so.
We could also argue that scifi is simply harder to market in this genre, although that wasn’t Carbine’s fault past choosing to go that route in the first place.
Frost made it sound like WildStar and other MMOs are simply doomed by the complexity of design and the difficulty of their construction, but we know from actual MMO history that isn’t true. Plenty made it out of the gate and continue to run profitably to this day. So perhaps it’s not a circle at all. Perhaps it was a bad trip with a lot of critical miscalculations along the way.