A beta is meant to hunt down bugs and tweak game design. However, it is not a replacement for alpha feature development. Mechwarrior Online‘s game-balance with weapons and mechs were essentially broken at beta. Network issues abounded, causing many players to experience Mechwarrior 3-style lag and rubber-banding. The rising chorus of complaints on the forums began to reach fever pitch. The initial goodwill of long-suffering fans to their franchise-rescuing developers melted like a creamsicle dropped on hot pavement in the middle of summer. Community admins clamped down hard with bans and suspensions in a bid to maintain some semblance of order, but to no avail. Rabid fans were gaining the upper hand on the forums.
More mech packages arrived, superceding the Founder’s Program in price and volume. Development slowed due to IGP’s decision to push “Flying Debris” Iglesia’s mech designs over core features to drive initial sales and keep the game’s sales momentum. Major release features like Community Warfare, the persistent multiplayer metagame where players could take part in battles for planets across the galaxy by signing up with factions and mercenary units, took a back seat to ever more expensive mech packs. Fans quickly saw the road both developer and publisher had taken. The player population began to churn more quickly.
The mech pricing low point (or high point, depending on your point of view) arrived with limited edition gold mechs selling for $500 each. That’s right, a game in beta, with a low player population (10,000+), selling mechs for $500. As the game approached official release in late 2013, Mechwarrior Online appeared to be in trouble. The game did work (and actual gameplay, albeit unbalanced, was fun) and players could join for free.
However, the devs had lost control of the community through ignoring player concerns, being overly defensive on the forums, and upsetting players by charging ever-increasing amounts for premium mechs. It looked like Infinite Games had discovered a goldmine with which to fleece Piranha’s ever-changing player base. But this state of affairs could not remain static. Something had to give.
Mechwarrior Online finally came out of beta in September 2013. The beta had seen the introduction of 12 vs 12 player matches, conquest mode (a bit like capture the flag), and the new, controversial third-person view despite the devs initially saying the game would be first-person only. But the game’s launch offered nothing new. No new mechs, no new maps, no new features. Worse, Community Warfare, the core feature everyone wanted and promised by Piranha on release, was nowhere to be seen. The playerbase was not amused, and the gaming press finally took notice.
We Totally Know What We’re Doing
Mechwarrior Online’s official launch was universally panned as a development milestone instead of a true launch. It ended up more of a soft launch than a hard lift-off. Game developers take note, this is one of the downfalls of using extended beta periods. By this point, the developer’s decisions were being universally criticized. The game’s social community had turned utterly toxic. MW:O’s official forums continually exploded with trolls and cynical player diatribes. Player clans and groups held informal town hall meetings to get developers to listen, but to no avail. By this point, many players (now former fans) saw the opportunity to become trolls on the game forums and in public Internet venues, such as Reddit.
PGI’s response to their passionate fans is a classic tour-de-farce in how not to handle a player community. Piranha and IGP decided to use a plastic, everything-is-fine, tone-deaf approach to community relations. To the fans, the companies appeared to be ignoring them, instead telling them ‘buy our stuff!’ There was little effective communication between devs hard at work and players desperately trying to get their attention. Instead of addressing the community’s poignant and impassioned vitriol, Piranha/IGP opted for the George W. Bush school of dealing with your critics: ignore them.
Like a neglected child, this strategy drove players to extremes to get Piranha/IGP’s attention. A campaign to “save” Mechwarrior Online grew on Twitter. Many players went from openly praising the developers to attaching forum signature banners openly mocking the company (Piranha Games: We totally know what we’re doing). A rambling podcast by the Piranha CEO, Russ Bullock, attempting to explain the company’s backtracking on adding third-person view did the company no favors.
In fact, IGP’s marketing ploys and Piranha’s notorious public relations also split the game’s Reddit community in two. The original subreddit, /r/mwo, became a toxic mess, filled with former fans obsessed with being hostile to Piranha and MW:O. More positive fans trying to stick with the game (and the developers) eventually moved to /r/outreachhpg. Members of each subreddit remain openly hostile to each other to this day.
One misguided attempt at community relations by IGP was privately co-opting a popular fan podcast No Guts No Galaxy into a public marketing gimmick. Piranha devs and employees soon appeared in exclusive interviews on the podcast. Yet, despite the raging hurricane of hate roiling on the forums, the dev interviews completely ignored player concerns by talking about unrelated topics. This would not have been so egregious had IGP’s buying the podcast’s influence (and the community’s goodwill) not been so obvious and gratuitous.
Faction Warfare And A Second Chance
Despite almost two years of learning how not to treat a player community, MW:O and Piranha Games managed to survive. In a testament to how die-hard the community feels about the franchise, and despite being utterly pissed off and divided, players continued to hang on, play the game, and pay for premium time and mechs. More importantly, Piranha Games got through the game’s troubled early development to learn from their mistakes.
In September 2014, Piranha Games announced it had bought back the Mechwarrior publishing rights from Infinite Games Publishing. This decision had an immediate effect on the MW:O’s development. Although two years late, Community Warfare arrived. The game’s subreddit community continues to be divided, but still exists. Though Piranha still releases mech packs, the pricing is usually far below the $500 ridiculousness of the gold mechs, and the Founder’s Program $120 top tier. Queue times are good, lag has been reigned in, Community Warefare/Faction Warfare has a dedicated playerbase, and the free to play model is working. Though no longer with a publisher, Piranha and the fans weathered the storm and have a bright future.
Next, we’ll look at a new Battletech strategy game by Jordan Weisman’s Harebrained Schemes due in 2017.