['MMOG Nation' is a regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about player expectations in advance of the launch of a MMOG's launch.]

Pirate Ship Last week, I spent some quality time among my adopted people. While playing videogames may have become an accepted part of American culture in recent years, I've been doing the hard stuff (Hunt the Wumpus, table-top RPGs, even tactical wargames) for a long, long time. Indianapolis, IN was the adopted home of the nerd last week, and along with my hearty band I braved the obstacles of gamer funk and three dollar sodas for the chance to reconnect with my roots. This year, as at the last few Gen Cons, several Massive developers had their wares on display. The Burning Crusade stood cheek-to-jowl with the World of Warcraft CCG in the Upper Deck booth, while Mythic was displaying that title's illegitimate lovechild across the hall.

The MMOG I was really there to see, though, was Pirates of the Burning Sea. Pirates is an upcoming massive title that weighs more on the side of Jack Sparrow than the YoHoHo experience you're hopefully already familiar with. Once the title is out of testing, players will sail the waters of the Caribbean, accomplishing many and sundry nefarious deeds. There are three Old World nations to tweak off, a whole bunch of rum to run, and almost two dozen ships to captain. It's a yarring good time ... but it set me to thinking about the realities of a Massive game pre-launch.

With development times measured in years and half-decades instead of quarters, nothing will break your heart as badly as a crappy Massive game. Today I'm going to be talking about the inflated expectations that long MMOG development times can build, why I think Pirates has fulfilled player expectations, and what future titles can do to ensure that high hopes stay grounded in reality.

(Click through to read the full column!)

Expectation Trauma

As game development schedules and budgets grow, the trauma of failed expectations is becoming more common. Just a few years ago, though, Massive games were the only way you could be sure your hopes would be dashed if the end result didn't measure up. Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) is often trotted out as a prime example of this, and I have to grudgingly raise my hand in the SWG Anonymous support group. SWG was in development for over three years; SOE was still named Verant Interactive when the game's name was announced, if that gives you any perspective. The amount of potential the title had, the extremely long development time, and the rabid Star Wars fanbase made the resounding thud when it hit the pavement that much harder to stomach.

As much a disappointment as SWG is, what really stung for many fans was the four long years of waiting. With such a long time-span to get their hopes up, any title would have had a hard time measuring up. The problem here is not so much with the fans, unfortunately. You can't help but get excited when developers are promising you the world and some cake on the side. Every modern game title has this problem, to a greater or lesser extent. PR firms and marketing people get carried away, and push the developers up front to talk about what they're working on.

Fans and the enthusiast press take their words, usually couched in terms of 'we're not sure this is going to make it into the final game', and spin them into rock-solid promises. Who remembers when Fable was going to be the greatest RPG ever? Or when World of Warcraft was going to have 'Hero' classes and player housing? The same people the marketing folks are trying to get onboard will turn on the game, and quickly, when the feature list is much shorter on release day.

The modern MMOG industry also faces the reality that a game may be worked on for a considerable amount of time before being changed drastically or cancelled. Microsoft's Mythica had a fervent fanbase a few years ago, and the cancellation of the instancing-heavy norse fantasy left a large community with nothing to rally around. Tabula Rasa, too, had begun to attract a good-sized crowd when Garriot and Co. began their drastic revamp of the title. In an industry whose entire purpose is to foster community, the danger is ever-present that the players will feel betrayed or let down by the actions of the developing company.

Drink Up, Me Hearties, Yo Ho

The enthusiastic crowd surrounding Pirates of the Burning Sea, though, seems to have little to worry about. Pirates is a great example of a game that has followed through with its numerous claims. Seeing the demo at Gen Con, the element that came through most strongly was the freshness of the ideas these guys had developed. More than just a checklist of features, Pirates is shaping up to be a truly unique offering in the Massive space. Combat, for example, combines some of the best elements of the real-time and strategic genres. Instead of 'hit A and walk away', a pirate captain will be simultaneously piloting his craft, keeping an eye on the wind, making sure his target is within range, working to keep his target in his firing arc, and trying to stay out of the firing arcs of other ships.

It sounds complicated, but this involved situation manages to be challenging without being confusing. Likewise, the gameworld itself exhibits signs that design goals have been met. Questing and player-run businesses are already in the game, and the folks at Flying Labs' booth were happy to discuss the intricate process by which a port's national allegiance can be overthrown.

The key here is that the developers haven't made any promises they couldn't keep. Pirates has been in development for quite a while, to be sure, but as far as I can recall almost everything they've promised since the game was announced is now there in the Demo to try out.

Keeping it Real

Keeping community expectations realistic is, in my view, the key to making sure there is as little disappointment as possible when the game is finally released. As a comparison let's quickly look at Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes as examples of how this can be done correctly, and how this can be done badly.

SWG RiotGalaxies launched, finally, after several release dates were suggested and then missed. A badly restrictive NDA kept Beta players buttoned up until about twenty days before the game launched at retail. Player complaints flowed into the community, but by the time they were allowed to speak openly the discs were already being pressed. Fully community examination of the game effectively didn't happen until everyone was in and breaking things.

The game launched without Mounts, Vehicles, or Player Housing, three features that the community had been assured since almost the first week that the boards were up. An entire class was added to the game mere weeks before launch; Beta tester complaints centered around the fact that they were not, in fact, being allowed to test the game. The launch of Galaxies reflected the entire period of time pre-launch (and many would argue post- as well): lots of big promises with no follow-through.

City of Heroes (CoH), on the other hand, learned its lesson early. While an early version of the game was applauded by fans of the title, developers quickly realized they'd promised too much on an untested concept. So, after announced they would be making massive changes to the game, they shut their traps. Months passed with very little information coming from the Cryptic Studios mouthpieces. While the community waited they theorized and debated; what they did not do was inflate their expectations. When the information did begin to come, the phrasing was not 'this is what we plan to do', it was always 'this is what we have done, it's in the game already'. The NDA on CoH Beta testers was lifted a full seven months before the game was released to retail.

Players inside the Beta, and outside in the community at large, were able to fully examine the state of the game before the company put discs on the shelves. The beta even ended with a surprise: the Rikti invasion. The event, while a little rough around the edges, will probably go down in the annals of MMOG history as one of the most entertaining end-of-Beta moments ever. Right up there with the death of Lord British, the CoH Beta event is still talked about by players to this day; an unpromised event that was simply done, keeping player expectations low and allowing everyone to be pleasantly surprised.

The Best Policy

The combination of honesty and surprise is what future Massive titles should rely on to ensure the loyalty of their community. If you can step onto your boards and say that you have just implemented x, y, and z, the players can move forward knowing they'll see it in the final game. Don't reveal everything, of course; that's why surprise is such an essential element to success. In most Massive games, every last detail is catalogued and indexed. Offering new experiences should be what the genre is about.

The appeal of the unseen is very strong. Gamers become fans very easily: just mention a new style of PvP, or promise an interesting twist on raiding. Despite the temptation, the goal of game developers should be to manage player expectations. Don't promise what you can't deliver. If you can help it, don't promise anything at all: the marketing people may hate it but your players will love you for it. The bottom line is that games live and die on player perceptions. Promise the galaxy, and only deliver the solar system, they'll never let you live it down.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]