George R.R. Martin is by all accounts a great fantasy author, and his lengthy work A Song of Ice and Fire is considered by many as one of — if not the — premiere fantasy series of the past decade and a half. Unfortunately for his fans, the latest book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, has been ‘forthcoming’ for five years now. This has led to increasing discontent among readers, and as Wikipedia concisely puts it, “The delays surrounding A Dance with Dragons have polarized some of Martin’s fan base, questioning his commitment to finishing the series.”
A year and a half back, a fan of Martin by the name of ‘Gareth’ wrote another extremely famous sci-fi/fantasy author, Neil Gaiman, asking if Martin’s long hiatus was professional and if it was appropriate to feel anger or disappointment with the delay. Most relevant to this here post was one of the questions Gareth posed:
With blogs and twitter and other forms of social media do you think the audience has too much input when it comes to scrutinising the actions of an artist? If you had announced a new book two years ago and were yet to deliver do you think avoiding the topic on your blog would lead readers to believe you were being “slack”? By blogging about your work and life do you have more of a responsibility to deliver on your commitments?
Gaiman’s summed up his response in six words: “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” An artist, Gaimain continued, works at his own time and has entered no binding contract to meet the demands of his fan base. Put another way, the purchase of the first book in a series does not obligate the artist to finish said series.
This past week, there’s been some (alot? an insignificant amount? I can never really tell) of hubbub concerning Bioware’s The Old Republic. A post in the TOR forums, “Engaging The Community: Good or Bad?“, has grown to 19 pages, with Massively bringing further attention to it. The initial poster, one DroidLife, shared his concern about the ‘secrecy’ and ‘silence’ surrounding TOR:
I stumbled across this blog by Luke Halliwell where he talks about the reasons for the All Points Bulletin catastrophe, and one major point he is making is that the attitude towards engaging the outside world during the development process was severely lacking.
I feel there is to much silence on these forums and fear that the same culture of secrecy dominates the TOR team. I wonder if it is not better to engage the potential consumers to a greater degree and show off elements of the game more often than to withhold information out of fear of showing things before they are “perfect”.
There is talk of a spring release, and still we have yet to see any lenght of actuall game play or insight into how the game is going to work.
The argumentation seems to go something like: “A failed MMO has been accused of failing because of secrecy. In my unilateral opinion, TOR is engaged in a similar form of secrecy. Ergo, the chance of TOR failing as an MMO increases in direct proportion to the length of time this secrecy continues.”
I have some issues with this line of reasoning. There is a latent assumption that 1) APB’s failure can be monocausally traced back to alleged ‘developer secrecy’, that 2) Bioware is doing the exact same ‘secrecy’ thing (which is debatable), and 3) that — and this is really the whole foundation upon which this argument is based — secrecy, i.e. not providing ‘enough’ information (whatever ‘enough’ might be), is inherently bad.
If the thrust of this post isn’t obvious yet, then here it is explicitly: Bioware is not your bitch (yet).
There will come a time when Bioware will be your bitch. Unlike the purchase of a book in Gaiman’s example, the purchase of a game should compel a game developer to fulfill (and continue to fulfill) some basic obligations toward their players. In a single player game, patching is the most obvious obligation, with multiplayer support a close second. Given that playing an MMO is conventionally predicated on the player continuing to give the game developers money, an MMO is (well, should be) bound by an even more stringent ‘social contract’: server stability, reasonable up-time, and continued support in the form of new content are basic tenets that sprung to my mind.
But we’ve not reached that stage yet. Bioware has taken no money nor begun to provide any service. They can take any tack they want with the release of information. I think the largest mistake naysayers are making is that they believe a lack of information-in-the-hand corresponds to a lack-of-content. Yes, it might behoove Bioware to release certain information in a certain way — but, reiterating my initial point, they are still under no obligation to do so.
Halfway through writing this post, I debated scrapping the whole thing. Reading through the 19-page thread, it seems that level heads are prevailing — in that sort of environment, what need is there for a post like mine? For every ‘this secrecy is teh doom’ post, there’s four or five that recognize that either Bioware isn’t yet obliged to provide information, or that Bioware is actually doing a pretty good job keeping future players abreast of developments.
To be fair, though, Bioware’s previous releases have had their own PR missteps — anyone remember Marilyn Mason, or the cursing Jack? But even sans a perfect PR engine, Bioware has delivered in the past, and I don’t see any immediate cause for panic now. If Bioware’s lack-of-information really does turn out to be a lack-of-content — well then, that sucks and that’s a cause for anger.
But in the meantime, Bioware isn’t your bitch.