author: Matthias Pawlikowski
Derailed Hype-Train - How to Regain Players' Trust?
The release of Darktide proved to be very problematic for the developers. Players are furious and expect much more, and Fatshark promises to fix everything. But it's not enough.
I'm excited to see what happens after the premiere of the "quiet" or "unexpected" hit from the creators of Vermintide 2. Warhammer 40k Darktide, after two betas and many turbulations, released on November 30, 2022. Thousands of players (100,000 at the peak of the pre-order beta is a lot) took their war hammers, chainsaws and bolters and landed in Tertium, a huge hive city slowly being consumed by Chaos corruption, to eradicate heretics in the name of the Emperor.
I entered the Darktide release with 35 hours already on the clock, which I completed during the pre-order beta beta – having a great time all the while. I gathered gear, unlocked some cosmetic items, leveled up my psyker and started the long wait for the release, which was supposed to give us the full content and lots of fun. However, I quickly realized that this game was going to have a hard time because not everything in it worked.
Road to release
Darktide's journey over the past two months has been engrossing. From great admiration and raising hopes of fans of the Warhammer 40k universe and coop PVE shooters alike, to a significant cooling of relations with the community, a large drop in popularity on Steam and a significant troubles on the Internet. But let's start from the beginning.
Our Darktide guide: character classes, penances, weapons and common bugs.
On October 14-16, Darktide's closed beta launches. The beta is only closed in theory, because to play it, it was enough to register via Steam. Players populate the servers and Fatshark celebrates. Even though at this moment, everyone already sees that the hardware requirements of the game are greater than the Emperor's ego, and the optimization is worse than the conditions on planet Cadia, Darktide beta turns out to be a hell of a good, playable sample of the game. I end up slaying heretics with random players for all weekend. Beta ends quickly, and players are left with a really good impression and hope that Fatshark will take care of optimizing the game, and we will all be able to celebrate on November 30, possibly in more than 15 frames per second.
On November 18, the pre-order beta starts. As was the case with the latest Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, only those who had pre-ordered the game can play – as Fatshark emphasized – an incomplete version of the game. The developers gave the exact outline of what we could expect from the beta, what we would be able to test and play (another thing is that they failed to keep some of their promises, but that's the charm of a beta).
The beta was fun at first, but questions, skepticism and finally – holy indignation quickly appeared on Reddit and the official Darktide Discord. Some players quickly reach the maximum level of 30 and ask: ok, so what next? Where's the content? Others noticed the somewhat suspicious decisions regarding game design, such as the random gun shop, which usually offers poor and uninteresting equipment. Finally others – rightly so – criticized the technical condition of the game, problems with connecting to servers, and even crashes or terribly low framerates.
Players then scrambled to answer all these problems themselves, in an effort to calm their fears. "It's beta, after all," they siad. "The lack of content is understandable, because we will get everything in a few days, as the game releases." You could see that Fatshark was experimenting, so it was natural to expect patches that would address the issues and adjust the mechanics. "That's what betas are for," people argued. "To fix technical issues, identify bugs, sort out the launcher, improve servers, and optimize the game."
At this point, Reddit and Discord were already boiling – more and more walls of text appear, often pounding the developers with difficult questions. There are also monstrously toxic, pathological posts – insults, hate speech, as well as quite comical reactions of the "It's all over! I demand a refund after 40 hours of gameplay" sort.
Fatshark, meanwhile, is improving the game – they issue smaller and larger updates, request patience and once again emphasize that THIS IS A BETA. The indignation is so great that in one of the updates, they introduce a capitalized "PRE-ORDER BETA" caption permanently in the game. Now, every screenshot and gameplay that players record has information in the upper left corner of the screen that it's an incomplete product, implying that a real feast and more everything is still ahead. And finally comes November 30, 2022.
How not to deal with social media crisis
Players who had participated in the beta and logged into the game on release day rub their eyes in awe. There are so few new elements of the game added that just a few hours more makes them completely sure they've seen it all. The BETA watermark is gone. We have the full version. And we have a vendor offering skins for real money…
Players hopefully run to the crafting vendor only to discover a "coming soon" sign there. "But wait" – they ask – "what in the hell is coming soon? THIS is the full release, right?" And yet, here it is – the sad truth; "coming soon".
The situation is not improved by the realization that the devs implemented a premium shop straight from a free-to-play game into a buy-to-play one, which offers outfits for real money, and looks and works way better than other vendors in the game.
Fatshark, seeing the players hands nervously twitching towards the torches, tried to calm the situation, of course ending up adding fuel to the fire. They give an interview to PC Gamer, who, by the way, in quite a dramatic manner entitles it: "We don't want to be predatory", which, when translated into player language, of course spelled "We've become predatory." In the interview, the developers tried to explain, among others, the fact that you can't pay exactly the price of a set with real money in the skin shop – you actually have to pay more.
Explanations and appeals for calmness, as usually the case at such times, have the opposite effect. The snowball was already released, and the players are casting new accusations with increasing ferocity, eventually aiming to prove Fatshark had committed a big fraud. People notice the marketing graphics advertised skins of the special edition that were not found there in the end (and people purchased the edition based on the impressions from these graphics), others ask about the extent of Dan Abnett's participation in the creation of Darktide, a game that apparently has no story; finally there was the crown argument: Farshark is owned by Chinese Tencent – the gaming evil personified, as they argued. But inevitable, players veered from the factual route, down towards absurd. One argument pointed out the fact that developers promised over 70 weapons for the release, and ended up giving us “only” 50.
Derailed hype train
You see, the lament of the masses of disappointed players, however justified it may be, resembles a collective hysteria. Indignation exceeds the limits of good taste, often hurting those who are least to blame – the employees who actually wrote, drew, and animated this game – apparently oblivious to the participation and significance of those, who were really responsible for the key marketing, sales or game design decisions. And so, the snowball keeps rolling on, and the anger starts to feed off itself, becoming a viral flaming that seems hard to contain. Turns out the derailed hype-train was carrying atomic waste.
We all remember Cyberpunk 2077 and we know that CD Projekt RED still hasn't managed to return to favors as "the good, honest studio." We also remember that when the beans spilled, CDPR could not do anything without further enraging the community. This created a bizarre bi-polar split at the time – on the one hand, CDPR's marketing was clearly implementing the plan envisioned before the release, publishing exciting posts, videos, screenshots from the game, encouraging comments, and pretending everything was fine, that Cyberpunk was indeed a game that met all the expectations.
Simultaneously, there was a huge wave outcry from players and media. Pardon the comparison, but it's a bit like the propaganda of authoritarian states delivered to the crowd that has already decided to rebel – the authorities may talk about successes, wealth, beautiful lands flowing with milk and honey, but the people who see and taste this alleged "milk and honey" on daily basis are any becoming more vexed. It took CD Projekt a while to stop this completely inaccurate, unreal and imaginary campaign and seriously address the problems with the game. In the end, people stopped – at least in part – getting mad, and started listening, because subsequent patches showed that CDPR was really working their asses off to get the game sorted.
We have the same situation here, if we properly scale down, that is. Fatshark assured that the game will be mended and further developed, but this has no effect on the backlash. And indeed, Fatshark walk their talk. Slowly but steadily, they release patches and hotfixes, addressing the most pressing problems (mainly those related to crashes, stability or connection). I don't think there's a different strategy here – no post, video nor stream can fix viral hysteria. It takes time and, well, work.
Is crafting a ticking bomb?
My only fear is that Fatshark has a problem with clearly communicating what they're doing and what they would like to do. On the one hand, when they encouraged participating in the Darktide beta, they clearly wrote what would be available in it. On the other hand, completely missing the crafting is a thing that will backfire even when it becomes available. Because, you see, this whole "crafting" thing in Darktide really boils down to the ability reroll weapon stats. There will be no blueprints to create beautiful weapons based on them – as in Diablo 3, for example. The point is that if we don't like a particular element of an item, we can go to the appropriate vendor and replace the feature with one that suits us better. I hope players understand what they are waiting for because if not…
An annoyed player is usually a random guy with a stupid nickname on reddit, but this guy can go wild in areas that I, for one, can personally no longer distinguish from punishable pathology. Sure, the release of Darktide turned out to be a disappointment, and Fatshark – in addition to creating an atmospheric, beautiful and hellishly well-sounding game – made a lot of mistakes. However, let's not become abusive. Nobody has the right to do that, and if you do it – stop it, it sucks.
Today's relations between players=customers and developers=/=publishers are so bizarrely complicated and full of hidden minefields that it's hard to support either side. The latter lie and make empty promises, and the former behave like wild animals. So yeah, try to be a regular fan, who just wants to play a game and enjoy it.
Of course, we have the right, even the obligation, to protest and expose the kind of errors and practices that happened with the releases of both Cyberpunk and Darktide. However, nobody will convince me that we cannot do it in a way that's way more organized, civilized and effective.