When you buy a game, do you own that game? Legally speaking what you’re buying is not really the game itself, but a licence to access the game, to use it and enjoy it. You aren’t allowed to change it, resell it or in any way do with that game something which is not specified by that licence.
This has always been the case, even back when games were only sold on physical discs and cartridges, but now games are distributed digitally. Thanks to Steam, PSN, Xbox Live and other platforms the developers of a game can reach out from across the internet and change the game that you’ve paid to play in any way they’d like to.
In general this has been a great thing. It means that if the game you bought is broken in some way the people who made it can fix it. But what if you really love a game the way that it is? What if you don’t want the changes made? Is there some point where the developers go so far with those changes that the game you had before is effectively gone?
What happens when a game is being sold as a service? Free-to-play, subscription-based and online-only games come to mind. These are all questions we as modern gamers will have to grapple with.
Just Somebody That I Used to Know
The game that got me thinking along this line is called Paragon. It’s a free-to-play MOBA, which by now is a game genre that isn’t exactly starving for titles. Paragon does have some things that set it apart from games like DOTA and League of Legends. For one thing, the game is played from a third-person perspective while adding verticality into the 3d space, but mechanically at a high level the game is still a MOBA.
As I am sure many of you have heard, Paragon recently announced that they would be shutting down in April. Strictly-speaking Paragon was not a final, released product. In 2016, the game went into early access and in 2017 the open beta went live. You guys already know my feelings about beta practices from my older video “De-beta-ble: Are Game Betas Really Betas Anymore?”, but I do understand that Epic Games have covered their butts when it comes to consumer expectations.
Still, since players first got to get a taste of of Paragon, the game hasn’t just been polished or tweaked to get it into a serviceable state. Epic have essentially thrown out and redone Paragon’s core mechanics an equivalent of two times. Turning it into fundamentally a different game altogether.
There’s little doubt that the game we saw in early access was pretty broken, which is not unexpected. I was there during the travel mode days, the complaints about extremely OP ranged units and how clunky the action-MOBA idea was the way it was implemented at the time. If Paragon was going to follow the usual AAA process games like these do, Epic would have simply tweaked the balance issues and called it a day.
Instead they changed the heroes from the ground up, the map Legacy was redesigned into Monolith and all the strategies early access players had begun to work out were now useless.
As a gamer, I have been a part of games that have reworked their mechanics. League of Legends being the most recent example, after their entire rune system was reworked. So for me at the time of Monolith, no problem. It was a big change and a bit unusual, but from here on with such a big fix any further work should be minor, right? Well as I already said, the game received yet another massive reworking. Mainly because the building mechanics were borked. The next big update completely replaced the card system in the game and once again re-balanced every hero on the roster. Basically, if you’ve been with Paragon from the start of early access you’ve basically played three different games already. Which in hindsight, was a very unique experience to be a part of.
Everything is Problematic
So now we have to talk about whether this is something that we as fans and consumers should find acceptable.
First off, I acknowledge that since the game was in early access and now in beta, Epic is fully within its rights to change the game as much as they want to. They could have converted into a dating simulator if they wanted to. So this is not about whether Epic has the right to change the game in these ways. If this was a finished game sold as a final product, then I’d probably say with a 100% certainty it’s wrong, but that’s not the case here. Not to mention Epic Games is even offering refunds.
As things currently stand, The real question is whether what the company did was smart or not. Given that this was a free-to-play competitive MOBA, the people who sign on in the early days were incredibly important. Remember that free-to-play games have very few people who actually spend money on them. Most people play for free or for very little cash, while a few “whales” spend a lot of money to be competitive or show off their dedication with cosmetics.
I’ve had this hunch that a lot of those whales got hooked in the early days while the game was in closed beta. These people were likely to have a competitive edge over the crowds who flocked to the game when the open beta releases to the general public.
If you pull the rug out from under the people who are just starting to learn winning strategies in the game by redesigning the core mechanics, you run the risk of alienating them. It’s not just that these early players are going to be a source of whales either. These people also act as evangelists for your game. They provide the word of mouth that brings more casual players into the fold. Losing those people can be what causes the very death of what you spent so hard to build. Don’t believe me? Go take a look at Bungie’s Destiny 2.
Stages of Grief
There are a lot of assumptions and expectations that go with labels like “early access” and “beta”. There are of course no rules that say you need to do things like everyone else, but to me “early access” means that you’ve got the concept for your game down, but the content is incomplete or needs to be polished. A “beta” means the game is close to it’s final playable state, but the bug hunt is now on in earnest and the final quality controls have to happen.
In neither of these cases does it seem like going back to the drawing board is something you expect to see. Maybe that’s the real issue here. Epic made these changes while an active community was playing the game. It would have been a different thing if they had shut the game down for a little while and launched it in a second beta or something like it, but because people are actively playing it it could be seen as a disruption.
Over the last couple of months during Paragon’s huge changes, I stayed active in the discourse of the game. I would actually say I spent more time talking with others about the game than actually playing it more and more as time went on. I’ve had some real good conversations with not only my friends who also used to play the game heavy, but with other community members of Paragon as well.
For The Greater Good
To Epic’s credit, I can not really recall any developer who would be bold enough to change their game’s core as late as they did. I think it does tell that Epic really wanted Paragon to succeed and was willing to pull up the roots in order to get it there. But, as a developer working on my own game and I’m sure even you have realized:
you can’t redo a house’s foundation while a family is living inside of it.
While I do feel that these core changes is what started the doomsday clock for Paragon, I believe it leaves us with a powerful lesson: Game Development is difficult. The more complex a game is especially a MOBA, the harder it is to balance and find where its problems lie. A lot of times, gamers will give self-centered feedback with quick one liners without actually thinking about the implications of that change. Changing one thing will almost never fix a game without impacting something else.
Game development is like a system built with all these smaller gears. Changing the size or position of one gear will impact how all the other gears will work as well. While I think many of the Paragon community never took this into account, I think Epic didn’t take into account how vast their changes would impact their game. It’s usually never a good look when you don’t seem to have your shit together when you first show your game to the world. That general lack of preparation shows in other places as well, such as the server meltdown during a New Dawn patch day, preventing potential players from logging in for hours, Agora’s map size, travel mode, towers, card rework, jungle economy changes, match time and the infamous Deathball which haunted the game for months.
Add on top of this the current ignorance many gamers have about game development and you have recipe for disaster when updates are talking more about new skins than balance passes. Many gamers are ignorant of the different disciplines that work on a game and how their schedules may end up differing from one another during active development.
I know that a part of the community is upset Paragon is going to be shut down soon, but I can’t help but feel some of the backlash is a bit overkill. I understand that everyone’s time is precious, but didn’t we all get something out of it FOR FREE? Outside of perhaps those who bought founder packs, I can’t really be as angry at Epic as I would be if I picked up No Man’s Sky day 1. The offering of refunds for in game purchases is a good gesture as well. If anything, I would say I’m really just disappointed Epic couldn’t figure it out.
Some may say Epic didn’t even try to save Paragon which then I would say, have you even been paying attention to the game’s entire development? Sometimes you realize that the house was built wrong from the get go and needs to be demolished. Even though the journey is coming to an end, did we not have some incredible times during it? Through the highs and the lows, I can still recall the multitude of hilarious moments the crew and I had playing together and all the great moments I had meeting brand new content creators in the community and the passionate talks I had with the developers.
For full transparency, Epic did fly me out a couple times for Paragon and every time, I was always willing to give them honest and sometimes harsh feedback about the current state of the game. I know some will of course feel I am being too kind to Epic due to them flying me out. Its fair to perhaps take everything I say with a pinch of salt, but I don’t believe anything I’m saying here is biased or unreasonable. If anything, I feel my experience is especially important to share, due to it allowing me to see both sides of Paragon over its lifetime and enlighten me on even my own ignorance of gaming development at the time.
The question you have to ask yourself is what sort of developer behavior you find acceptable and will support with your hard-earned money or valuable time. Too bad now, we all know the answer.
We didn’t execute well enough to deliver on the promise of Paragon. We have failed you — despite the team’s incredibly hard work — and we’re sorry.
Even though this is a sad time for the community, I honestly got a lot out of it. To be honest, if it wasn’t for Paragon, I might have ended up being a totally different person. You know, sometimes people ask me why I play games that have been labeled “mediocre” or that have low popularity. While it’s hard to believe, I think games like that and games like Paragon where things don’t pan out are vital for anyone who wants to become a developer. They are shortcuts of knowledge that allow us to learn from the experience and failures of others. Yes, its always good to look at those games that succeed, but I’ve always felt there is a wealth of gems that can be found in a game like Paragon.
R.I.P Paragon. Thanks for the memories…