When Carbine began to delay their patches and as I witnessed first hand the exodus of players from my server, I’d already spoken to my brother about the likelihood of layoffs. The massively multiplayer industry is cruel at times and more so when under the watchful gaze of a publisher that, like any business, is intent on maximising profits. Inevitably layoffs are always a result of cost cutting and as evidenced by ArenaNet and its staff avoiding the chop, often linked to a companies financial success. What is particularly harsh about this round of layoffs (which also affects several companies other than Carbine) is the fact that they come at a time when the company are attempting to turn around their launch misfortunes. Unless all 60 of those removed were under performing to the point where the removal of them wouldn’t be missed (unlikely) it hardly spells good news for Carbine or the game.
What Went Wrong With WildStar?
I believe there’s two major flaws with WildStar. The first is that it was released before it was ready and the second is that during its development the developers made the error of failing to revitalise the leveling process. To address the first issue, WildStar without question launched too soon. It’s Beta period was too short, level restrictions for those accessing the Beta were ridiculous and when the open Beta arrived the influx of players only saw the early stages of the game. As a result, what the paying public was seeing wasn’t a true reflection of what the game offered and on the same hand, the players let in through the gates were unable to really help Carbine in identifying issues that would only become apparent when you reached level 50. Gating players off in this way already lead many of the Beta testers and the public to come to the conclusion that anything past level 30 simply wasn’t ready for public consumption.
In many ways the players were right and after the first few weeks, the cracks started to appear. Although WildStar shipped with a great deal (Housing, Auction House, Dyes, Raids, Dungeons, Adventures, Ship Hand Missions, PvP and Arenas) almost all of it had some niggles. I suspect part of the reason for this is the fact that the current generation demand all these features but also that Carbine, as a relatively inexperienced studio, attempted too much and NCSoft demanded it in too shorter time frame. Everyone who had been playing WildStar throughout closed Beta (including myself) knew that the launch date was too soon.
The second problem at the heart of WildStar’s woes is its leveling process. Regardless of how good the quest text is or how beautiful the game world, it’s a pretty dire process. I must be a glutton for punishment because I’ve two level 50 characters but the process to get there was pretty arduous. Fundamentally the questing is only saved by the fact the combat is so good as throughout the entire process it peaks and troughs in speed. Up to level 16 it’s relatively quick and anything after that is as satisfying as eating glass. The final stretch to 50 isn’t much better (but is slightly quicker than levels 16 to 35) and all the while you’re still collecting this or killing that. For Guild Wars 2 to have launched before WildStar certainly crippled it out of the gates and I suspect that Carbine knew this but were also hoping that based on World of Warcraft's continued success people wouldn’t mind. Unfortunately for them it’s too late to rip up the rulebook and rework their leveling process because as it currently stands, it’s the biggest obstacle to new players getting their teeth stuck into the game.
What Were The Other Issues?
Besides the leveling process and the fact it wasn’t ready for launch, the game was filled with bugs or flawed game systems as a result of the early launch. Loot tables were too big, Runes were filled with RNG misery, Arena was rife with exploitation and win trading (and still is), there were no incentives to play Battlegrounds, itemisation was often bizarre (crafted gear better than gear obtained from Raids), Reputation farming a chore and the game running badly on a variety of gaming machines crippled far too many players. On top of that, time gated content left players frustrated (Elder Gems) and the Attunement process was downright ridiculous. Although Carbine have made some headway into alleviating players wishing to become Attuned, much of the above is still awaiting Drop 3 and beyond. As a result, there's very little incentive to starting out because you face so many difficulties.
How Will The Company Layoffs Impact The Game?
First and foremost my heart goes out to those at Carbine who lost their jobs. 60 people out of a team of hundreds is still a sizable chunk of a workforce. This wasn’t just a case of temporary staff being let go, but some big names who covered key areas of development such as Bitwise (the Lead Client Engineer), Rob Hess (Dungeon and Raid designer) and Ryan Moore (Senior World Artist). NCSofts full statement is the following:
Today we announced a restructuring of key operations within NC West. As a result of this restructuring, we are implementing staff reductions across our Western operations with the exclusion of ArenaNet. While decisions like this are always hard, they are necessary as we begin the implementation of a new strategy designed to strengthen our footing as a leader in global entertainment.
Moving forward, we will continue to focus on our core development capabilities and the intellectual properties (WildStar, Aion, Lineage, and Guild Wars franchises) that have made NCSOFT what it is today. However, we are looking to move into new business segments like mobile and tablet games as well as explore emerging technologies.
Again, the decision to reduce staff was not an easy one, and we sincerely wish everyone well in their next endeavors.
Other than guessing, I’d have to say that 60 staff will inevitably slow down delivery of content and the future development of the game. I based this largely on gut instinct (I’ve seen this cycle many times before) but also because Carbine had already slowed down delivery of content even with these additional 60 people. A certain amount of restructuring can no doubt bring fresh energy and clarity to a workforce but morale must undoubtedly be at an all time low in the studio. Combined with the fact many of the patches post launch introduced an abundance of new bugs to the game, I suspect there’ll also be a nervousness surrounding Drop 3 and all that hinges on it.
Can WildStar Recover?
In all honesty, I don’t think it can under a subscription model. As it currently stands WildStar has a poor reputation (much of it unwarranted) amongst many of the subreddits I visit and as a fresh IP. I would imagine there’s many players out there too unwilling to take a punt on an unknown quantity when they hear nothing but doom and gloom. Paying the cost of the game box and future subscription fees is a lot of money to gamble on, especially now that the PvP server is empty (further reducing their market appeal) and with Drop 3 still some way away. Combine this with potentially fewer updates than we’re already seeing and it’s going to become even harder for Carbine to justify their payment model. I’m not suggesting switching to Free to Play or Buy to Play is the answer, but both systems are a damn sight more appealing to players who are keeping one eye on the game. As someone who has spent a great deal of time playing the game and interviewing the team behind it, it pains me to see it struggle. There are some great features here and a truly beautiful game world. Unfortunately for Carbine they made some poor design desigions along the way while being at the mercy of a publisher that simply wasn’t willing to wait any longer. I think if some of the ambition for the game had been reigned in and its marketing adjusted so that it wasn’t screaming, “We only want hardcore players!”, its success might have been totally different.