MWO: A Failure to Communicate

In the wake of PGI’s decision to go-ahead and implement 3rd Person View, Russ Bullock has issued an apology to the Mechwarrior Online community as a whole. Needless to say, this has not gone over well. But why is everyone - Goon, Pubbie, and all the people in-between - reacting so harshly to an apparent good-will gesture?

Well, the apology begins with a rambling and poorly-edited wall of text that should’ve been at least three or four separate paragraphs, so for the sake of readability I’m going to break it into its most salient points for analysis and discussion.

"Today I wanted to post an updated explanation on the recent patch which added the third person view into MechWarrior Online. Although we have long known this was a contentious issue and adding it to MWO was going to meet resistance, there was also a major failure in community management and communication."

We’re already off to a poor start here, with Russ throwing poor Garth Erlam under a proverbial bus. By placing the blame for the company's communication failures squarely on the shoulders of his community managers first and foremost, Russ has attempted to absolve both himself and PGI as a whole for a lack of communication that has lasted for over six months. This is especially troubling as Garth has done a credible job responding to customer concerns to the best of his knowledge and ability.

"I will endeavor to explain how we got to this point. A couple of weeks ago I created a command chair post about “Why Third person” which explains the process in which we decided that adding a third person perspective was essential for teaching new players how to play MWO."

For those of you unfamiliar, the sentiment of that explanation was a good one. Attempting to improve new-player experience is always a laudable goal; but PGI would have been much better served spending time and effort following War Thunder’s example and producing a series of brief but comprehensive tutorial sequences to help new players understand torso twisting, how to re-center their legs to torso or torso to legs, or the arcane arts required to create and change firing groups.

Viewed in this light, PGI’s extensive work on a complex and contentious system which adds nothing but unnecessary complications to the new player experience does little more than show that the company as a whole has very little idea what their game actually needs. In attempting to explain PGI’s continued communications problems, Russ has accidentally admitted that they actually have a communications epidemic.

"Here is where we made a critical error with the community and it wasn’t because we don’t care about the community but quite the opposite, you could even say we cared too much."

I don’t even need to say anything about this. Just remember: PGI hurts us because PGI loves us.

Russ then spends about half a paragraph explaining the design process behind the controversial Third Person View, which is very good information that would have been nice to have had two or more weeks ago as a part of some sort of developer roadmap discussing the general direction and reasoning for the path PGI intends to take. Instead, it’s given to us far too late and buried far too deeply in Russ’s initial wall of text to calm the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Third Person View.

"Once this design started to come into focus both on paper and through early test sessions I think the overwhelming feeling in the office was very closely along the lines of “Wow were going to split the community into two different buckets for this?”"

This statement has two strong connotations. The first is that the “overwhelming feeling” in PGI’s office was “This sucks, nobody is going to want to play this.” The second is that MWO’s player base has diminished so significantly in the past few months that splitting the queue would make games impossible to find. These are both symptoms of PGI’s communications epidemic. The first because if a system isn’t fun it probably shouldn’t be pushed out the door no matter how much money has been wasted on it. The second because if a game is losing players two weeks before launch then something is badly wrong with the game as a whole.

"The feeling was that the original design goals had not been achieved 100% but very close to it and it was feeling like a non-issue from a competitive perspective."

The equally terrifying implication of this statement being: nobody is playing our game competitively anymore, so it hardly matters that this new system will destroy any chance of the competitive players returning.

"It was the intention at this point to communicate all of these findings to the community [...] This communication just never happened and I can blame staggered vacation time for various executives to other management types but regardless it was a failure."

Intent only matters if it’s followed with action, and this is why the players are finding statements from PGI harder and harder to trust. There’s a lot I could say about this, but I think this reaction from the Brown Sea sums things up adequately:

"In the end Bryan put up a brief post after the feature went live which may have seemed like our attempt to sneak it in after the fact but it only came across that way because we missed the window we intended to use."

There are no words. Correction: There are words, but most of them are four letters long and would get you banned from the MWO forums if you used them.

"So here we are and all I can do at this point is reiterate that we truly feel we made the best decision for MWO and its future but this meant we needed to go back on previous statement and then we communicated it poorly to boot. […] there was never any meeting or particular moment at PGI where we decided that we would never provide the separate Queue’s for “Hardcore” […]. We simply decided that we felt it was likely not necessary and probably detrimental to split the community […]"

This statement is an admission that PGI has lied to its players. That it was done with good intentions does not change the damning nature of this admission, and worse, it also highlights PGI’s internal communications problems as well. In this section, Russ appears to state that the decision not to implement separate 1PV/3PV queues was made without any internal or external communication. While one might understand what Russ is trying to say, this isn’t the kind of statement that can calm a community. It’s a statement that only serves to highlight PGI’s allergy to solid communication.

"it’s not impossible that we will provide the segregation. But this is where I need to be real careful to not make the same mistakes again with some kind of promise."

"Please continue to get your hopes up for systems we’ll never implement; I’m starting to realize that the more carrots we dangle in front of you the less likely you are to actually quit."

"Since the patch went live we have played hundreds of matches, Ghost spectated hundreds more and have yet to see evidence of third person being used in any significant way."

The patch was released on 8/20/2013. This statement was issued on 8/21/2013. A single day isn’t anywhere near enough time for players to discover the best times to quickly toggle in and out of 3PV, or the best places to lurk where their blinking pyramid is least likely to be noticed. No matter how many times a match has been “ghost spectated,” the biggest thing this statement reveals is that Third Person View, like always-on Arm Lock and Throttle Decay before it, simply isn’t being used by people who know better. This likely means that, just like always-on Arm Lock and Throttle Decay, 3rd Person View actually serves as a newbie trap: a type of system that actively makes the new player experience worse as new players, who still lack any sort of tutorial to teach them such things, may not even realize any of these artificially-limiting features can be disabled via MWO’s menus.

To put this another way: If I were new customer, I would now have no way of knowing that MWO actually has a minimap radar. Let that sink in for a moment.

"I’m positive we will be more than willing to make any number of small tweaks and adjustments to third person as we go along."

I certainly hope so. You’re going to need a lot of them.

"In the end I think the community has shown amazing acceptance of our proposed direction of MWO if they feel it would be best for the future of MechWarrior Online and growing this great brand."

Target locked. Direct hit. All remaining good will destroyed.

"In Summary we apologize for the manner in which communication failed over the release of this major feature and in closing, it is still possible that a separate Queue will be created but the timing just isn’t right for that currently as we just need more time to gather conclusive facts about its impact in the live game sessions."

Taken as a whole, the reason Russ Bullock’s apology was ill-received is obvious: Instead of apologizing for anything tangible and offering their internal plan to help prevent such issues from occurring again; PGI has instead issued an apology to the Mechwarrior Online community as a whole for our continued failure to understand that PGI is going to continue implementing whatever they wish, regardless of any feedback they receive or evidence that suggests it might not be a great idea.

With Mechwarrior Online now about three weeks away from launch, this was a poorly-chosen time to implement a highly controversial feature. With little apparent effort taken to advertise or promote their game in the weeks leading up to launch, PGI has made themselves utterly reliant on both word-of-mouth advertising, positive reviews, and a strong new-player experience to bring in new customers. Antagonizing the “vocal minority” by breaking a promise from the earliest days of closed beta just weeks before launch curtails the first and also may very well cripple the game’s MetaCritic score. The game’s new player experience is in dire need of carefully-crafted tutorials not poorly-implemented vision modes that make the game harder for new players to play. Unfortunately, with launch rapidly approaching, crunch time is here, and it’s unlikely anything PGI does or doesn't do can make a meaningful difference.

Russ, I wish you and your people luck with review sites, because the way things currently stand you’re going to need all the luck you can get. And a capable PR firm. And a copy editor.

I'm a published BattleTech author who's also responsible for inflicting the "Let's All Play BattleTech and rewrite Inner Sphere history" thread on the Something Awful forums for the past 2+ years.