WARNING: the following blog post is written in my usual slightly sarcastic and humorous tone, meant to accentuate the importance of an issue through slight exaggeration. Reader discretion is advised.
Dear Sony Online:
The Planetside 2 launcher wouldn't load. After browsing forums and seeing other people had similar problems and suggested directly over-writing a bad installer with a new launcher executable, I tried that and managed to get the game to launch. However, now it crashes on me at 98% during the launch screen. At this point I realized trying to get your game to run wasn't worth the effort.
-A Free 2 Play gamer with TONS of other options to play.
Churn It Out
I've read articles here on Gamasutra talking about Churn, the point at which players leave a game, and how important it is to identify and mitigate. However, most of these articles discuss player churn during the first few days or weeks of gameplay, trying to identify what game design issue makes players leave.
I also remember reading an article by someone from Pando Media Booster who was talking about churn during the download: that if players get ticked off with your download or registration process, they might abandon your game before they even get that far, losing you a potential customer.
Today I'm talking about an issue similar to the latter: churn due to technical flaws in the game.
PC gaming has a history of being quite techy and nerdish, with a large portion of the more intelligent population troubleshooting their own games, often with great success. See the recent issue of Dark Souls for PC being "hack/fixed" with a higher internal render resolution within moments of release. Not to mention all those mods that "fixed" broken games along the years.
But PC gaming is coming into the mainstream, especially with the rise of F2P games, and that puts a big onus on game companies to cater to less technically-minded players. It also puts a greater pressure on the part of game creators to make their games catch their audiences a whole lot faster. F2P gamers don't have any commitment yet: they haven't plunked down sixty or fifty or thirty or - heck - ANY money for the game. They lose nothing the instant they bail.
You've Got One Chance
One chance to impress me. That's all you've got these days. The instant I deem your game sucky, unworthy of my time and money, I've got a whole massive field of other options to turn to. The F2P gamescape is more competitive than channel surfing: the instant I'm disinterested I can press channel-up and go to the next game. An intractable crash bug on load? That's crucifixion right there.
Planetside 2 is the equivalent of seeing ads for a show, scheduling the time to watch the show, writing down the time and channel and setting an alarm, and when you do finally tune in you get this:
It doesn't matter that it might be my fault. You certainly aren't going to get away with telling me to turn my TV on and off or re-plug the cable or fiddle with the antenna. I flip around and I can watch every other show out there, so as far as I'm concerned, it's your fault.
Maybe if I did uninstall Planetside 2 and follow an esoteric shopping list of instructions and rituals I could get the game to work. But I don't want to bother. The responsibility for making a game work falls with the game's creator now, not the player, and the player is far more empowered to enforce that responsibility. We can just walk away.
Game companies need to make their games dummy proof. They need to have their patchers catch and handle errors rather than just dumping players to the desktop and leaving them to search knowledge bases in the hopes they can troubleshoot their own errors. If a file is missing, if something is ill configured, the game has to figure that out and fix it and do so in a way that keeps the player's attention there long enough for the fix to happen.
In other words, the game has to actively prevent player churn.
Your Launcher Lies!
Here's the specific issue with Planetside 2. I downloaded and played the beta client way way back when the game first had a beta. That client languished on my hard drive until today when the game came out. I figured I'd just run the beta client and let it patch to the full version and I'd be off with a much smaller download than reinstalling the game from the ground up.
Boy was I wrong.
I know I'm wrong to think I can get away with that. I know from experience, from over thirteen years of MMORPG betas, that this isn't how things work. I know that game after game says "please uninstall the whole beta and redownload the launch version." And I know that's what Sony would tell me if I actually contacted their support.
But that doesn't cut it.
I don't want to uninstall and redownload. That takes time and I'm impatient. And it takes bandwidth and I have capped internet. And I know that the vast majority of that data is assets that haven't changed.
I also know that I've gotten away with it in the past. Star Wars The Old Republic was a short patch from beta to retail, even with waiting half a year between the two. I'm pretty sure Rift went straight from beta to full, and I'm pretty sure I did a similar hack on FFXIV.
But the real thrust of this is that the game launcher has a "validate files" button... and when I click it, everything validates. If everything validates, then why is it crashing? If all the files are right, then it can't be because I just reinstalled over the beta client, right?
Who's Gonna Fix It?
So maybe I could fix Planetside 2 by scrubbing it clean and doing a full redownload. But it's too late. I've already churned out. If Sony wants to get me back, they've got to fish me out: I'm not swimming back into their net. I went in, the bait was foul, and I left. It doesn't matter why and it certainly doesn't matter if it's my fault.
With the F2P revolution also comes a massive flip in who's going to fix problems. It's not up to the gamer to fix them anymore. It's not the case that we're going to go to all ends of the earth to fix someone else's laziness and get a game to work. No, we're just going to go to another game. A game that just works. A game with a sufficiently intelligent patcher that ought to be able to go from any mishmash of files to reconstructing a crash-free operational game client.
Ball's in your court, Sony. You've got an embittered but still potentially interested client lurking on the periphery. What marketing strategy can get him to try the game again? How will you make sure it works this time?
How will you Reverse The Churn! (~bum bum bum!~ dramatic music)
Come to think of it, that would be a cool web drama. Game publishers compete to get players to log back into their F2P titles with all sorts of personalized incentives, while the contestant has $100 to dump into the winning game. I'd totally watch Reverse The Churn. And I totally just copyrighted that. Interested producers can contact me.