Thursday, December 29, 2022

Standing Stone Games: the perils of being part of a captive audience

I was recently reading the "biggest MMO disappointments" piece over at Massively, and one of the comments really stuck out to me.  MJ Guthry talked about how a close friend of his/ hers had their extremely expensive lifetime LoTRO account stolen, and after two months and many customer service requests Standing Stone Games has done absolutely nothing about it.   Normally I might be a little skeptical of this friend of someone I have never met, but this is Standing Stone Games.  That story not only tracks, I would be slightly surprised if it went any other way.  

I personally have been lucky enough never to have any issues I needed CS assistance with in LoTRO.  But I have had a handful of issues come up in the other SSG game, DDO.  I stopped submitting tickets over there altogether a couple of years ago because the chances of one getting resolved in a way that is helpful seems to be zero.  Out of something like a dozen tickets over the span of a decade, most of them were closed without any comment.  I did at least get comments on two. The first comment was "You weren't online when I checked so I have closed the ticket." Note that this was done in the middle of the day more than 48 hours after I submitted the ticket.  I do have a job, why on earth anyone would expect me to be on then I can't imagine.  

The other one said "I don't understand what you are asking for, ticket closed."  I submitted the ticket a third time, laying the issue out in enough detail that a mentally challenged elementary school student  that was only vaguely familiar with DDO should have been able to figure out what my problem was, and that one was completely ignored.*  It may still be in the system to this day for all I know.  I stopped paying attention after about the first two or three months after I submitted it.

I fully believe that the only reason SSG even has a ticket system is as an escape valve for pissed off customers.  They hope that most players will submit a ticket, give up after a while, and then forget about the entire incident that made them submit one.  This might make a slight bit of sense if SSG was some unknown studio working on obscure games no-one has ever heard of.  But they aren't and they don't'.

Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings are incredibly well known properties in fantasy nerdom, arguably among the two most important.  Right up there with Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Final Fantasy. The games themselves are also doing well.  The last set of hard numbers we got indicated that DDO and LoTRO alone have a "net revenue" of somewhere in the 10 million a year range.**  However, since then revenue has apparently more than doubled.  This is a company that could easily afford to have a functioning CS department.  They simply don't care to allocate the resources to it.  

SSG is also in a good position to get away with this because the two games they run don't have any real competition.  There really isn't any other MMO that combines the insane character customization of DDO with traps, puzzles and real time combat.  Probably the closest competitors to DDO in terms of character customization are City of Heroes, Champions Online, Star Trek Online and Project Gorgon.  Most of those are in a completely different genre, and the combat and gameplay loops of Project Gorgon are completely different from those of DDO. 

LoTRO is another game that for me has no real competition.  There isn't any other fantasy property I'm as invested in as Tolkien's Middle Earth.  Even if there was, LoTRO is an amazingly faithful realization of the source material that I seriously doubt will soon be equaled for Middle Earth, the Harry Potterverse, or any other property.  While you can quibble about some of the MMO mechanics, the world itself is a damn near perfect reproduction of the areas of Middle Earth that Tolkien described in detail.  Other areas that SSG has filled in itself, such as the depths of Moria, are very logically and respectfully extrapolated from the limited descriptions Tolkien did give.

SSG has a small, but essentially captive audience with these two games, and they act as if they know it.  The utter lack of functioning CS is part of a larger pattern where it's pretty clear that very little of the income of either game gets folded back into development or support staff.  That isn't to say that they don't put out new content.  In the grand scheme of things, SSG is actually better than average at putting out decent sized hunks of new content for their MMOs. 

The problem is that they appear to have no internal testing department.  They also tend to completely ignore player feedback on the test servers, to the extent that expansions get put out with bugs and balance issues that players have already documented.  They seemingly have the bandwidth to either create content or maintain it, but not both at the same time.  For example, the last big expansion of DDO, Isle of Dread, actually broke the reincarnation system for nearly two weeks.  That's a central gameplay loop in DDO. It would be analogous to the Alternate Advancement system broken in a way that prevents you from earning new AA points for a couple of weeks in Everquest, or all the raid dungeons at the cap being closed for maintenance in WoW.

All in all, the studio seems more and more focused on figuring out how to get the most money possible out of their big spenders.  For example, to celebrate the holidays they currently have a deal going where you get a free mount if you buy the $200 package for DDO points for the item shop.  However the mount can only be added to your stable on one server, it isn't account wide. Even their end of the year holiday sales this year only offered a 25% discount on their two most recent expansions, one of which came out more than a year ago.  Even giving the studio the fact that the total amount of content they put out in a year is usually pretty good, the quality control on it tends to be abysmal.  Recently the single most well known DDO content creator***, Strimtom, has even started begging the studio to slow down and take more time for quality control. 

Yet despite all that, I keep handing SSG my money.  DDO is by far my most played MMO this year.  LoTRO also remains likely my most played MMO of all time by a wide margin.  I do keep trying new-to-me MMOs and revisiting old favorites.  This year alone I have ventured forth into Everquest, Everquest 2, Guild Wars (the original), Phantasy Star Online 2, Terra Online, Destiny (also the original), Warframe and probably some others I am forgetting.  Yet it is the two SSG games that I always come back to.  Analogies to bad relationships certainly suggest themselves  . . .  

I don't mean to imply by all this that DDO and LoTRO are bad games, or you shouldn't check them out.  To my tastes they are both amazing games, which is why I have spent so much time in them.  I just wish that the studio seemed more committed to giving them the resources they need to flourish instead of constantly doubling down on milking the current player base.

*The issue I had is that one of the expansion bundles comes with a new pet, a pseudo dragon vanity pet,  and a cosmetic wizard hat that you can use once, and only once, for the pet of your choice.  One would naturally assume that the hat would work with the pet that it comes with, but that is not the case.  In fact, the hat is completely invisible on that pet. If you use it on an pseudodragon, you have essentially set the item on fire.  Keep in mind, this hat comes as part of an expansion bundle that was originally roughly $100.  Supposedly CS can give you a new copy of the hat if you make that common mistake.  However,  I was never able to get whatever random janitor they have going through tickets to even understand what my issue was, much less help me with it. 

**Based on 22% of 63 million in "net revenue" (= 13.8 million), which I assume means profit or I am not sure why they would have the term "net" in there.  Regardless, it's very hard to crunch the numbers that we have available and come up with a financial picture of a company that couldn't afford to pay a CS team of a dozen people 30K a year.

***That's admittedly a lot like saying the most well know species of kinorhynchan sea worm, or the perhaps most well known Czech silent film, but he does feature prominently in the tiny DDO community :-)