Well, as anyone who still cares knows, Cornered Rat Studios finally got the big 1.2 patch out a week and a half ago. The good news is that it actually fixed some of the things that were really bugging people. Time to get in the game has been considerably reduced. Grenades and binoculars (both useful implements of modern warfare) finally showed up. Buildings don’t disintegrate so fast; rapid building construction and tree growth are making the place begin to look less like a moonscape and more like the Ardennes Forest. Nearly everything was tweaked (perhaps 10 per cent of the current bug list, is one estimate). All and all, it certainly didn’t make things any worse.

The bad news is it may have been too little, too late. This last week has seen the beginnings of a small exodus of players from the servers. Whereas last weekend’s peak traffic was in the same 3,000-3,500 range it’s been since the game launched, this last weekend it has struggled to get above 2,000. If it came close to 3,000 at any point, I missed it. Conservatively, we could be talking a 20 per cent reduction in the active player base, post-patch. Now some of that may be the 1,000-odd inner circle of closed beta testers (which I’ve affectionately taken to calling the Marmots in honour of their l33t bug-quashing abilities) still bashing away in their Fortress of Ineptitude at v1.21\’e2\’80\’a6 it’s hard to tell how much. But their absence wasn’t this obvious in the runup to the last patches.

Why are people leaving now? The patch is certainly part of it\’e2\’80\’a6 if only because it couldn’t possibly have lived up to the expectations that had been placed on it. Another part has to be the reviews this game is getting now. How can you extoll the virtues of WW2O to your friends when PC Gamer (never a font of harsh reviews) gives it a 50/100 (crediting it for its “mind-numbing tedium, frustration and irritation”)? When Computer Games magazine gives it 1 star out of 5? The game is somewhere close to Battlecruiser 3000 on the All-time Craptacular Games list in the public mind right now: and gamers don’t like looking like chumps.

Okay, that’s the good and the bad: what about the ugly? Well that would have to be the blade in the ribs by publishing company Strategy First this week. President Don McFatridge (yet another victim of unfortunate naming) told that third games magazine (what’s its name, the one Arc writes for?) that SF took no responsibility for the decision to publish, which they placed solely at the feet of developers Cornered Rat Studios, or their closely interrelated online gaming arm, Playnet…

We could have launched in three months and it would have been better. We were willing to give Playnet more time. We did NOT force them to publish. They felt they were ready.

Ouch. Coming after months of CRS/Playnet officially saying publishing on June 6 was either a “joint decision” and fanbois claiming the completely premature launch was all SF’s fault, that’s gotta hurt.

But the real reason people are giving WW2O a rest has to be that it still isn’t a very good game. Two months after launch, this new persistent world has never been anywhere close to persistent. Instead of One Big War, there’s still the same multiple shards, with bored players fighting meaninglessly over the same few acres of Belgium as before, practicing for a real war, with real consequences, that is nowhere to be seen.

How buggy is it? Here’s a partial list of bugs, all unfixed from launch, that players still have to cope with before they get INTO the game:

**Every time you put the CD in, it tries to install the game again.

**You cannot click off the intro movies.

**The settings menu has a Help button that doesn’t do anything.

**The same menu saves your settings file in the wrong place, so your changes aren’t saved anyway.

**Whenever you use the keyboard mapper, you will likely end up disabling your Quit Game key.

**The Play shortcut doesn’t send you to the Play webpage.

**With infinite screenshots to choose from, the loading page still shows the same damn climbing-into-a-halftrack screen every single FUCKING time. It has imprinted so far on my brain, to the point that last night I reconstructed the entire scene during dinner with a platter of mashed potatoes and a spoon I stole from Tick.

I’m not even going to talk about the bugs IN the game. (It should be noted that all the problems above have been solved or worked around, through no small amount of undocumented fan ingenuity… but you have to know where to look to find the answers for what otherwise seems an unplayable mess.)

I’m not going to say anything about the frame rates, either. If you don’t like them, buy a better computer, or stop playing. If you do, though, make sure it has 384 MB of RAM. That’s how much memory the game really takes up, before the leaking starts. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And don’t expect to fly online unless you have a 800 MB CPU and a 32 MB graphic card. Fortunately that’s not a particularly expensive setup to buy these days: but you have been warned. (By any reasonable standard, that’s the point at which the pilot graphics and frame rates will just begin to not suck.)

Okay, let’s get realistic here: what does the future hold? Well, you can forget this game simply dying off, as even some diehards at the better boards are beginning to doomsay. It won’t. These guys at CRS/Playnet are zealots. They do not care about tawdry concerns such as MONEY. It is their most lovable affectation, in fact. That’s why this game is still going to be free to play for at least another month: as John “Killer” MacQueen of Playnet said in one of his more uplifting posts on the official message boards:

There’s no way we would expect folks to pay a subscription fee for WWIIOL until the major issues are ironed out, AND basic features are included…like:

1) Blue and Purple Skies 🙂

2) CTDs

3) Ranks / mission

4) One persistent game world

Just so you know what we are thinking on this 🙂

Just speaking as a gamer, YOU’VE GOT TO RESPECT THAT KIND OF CLASS. Given minds like that at the helm, the worst case situation is that this sim sputters along, with development money coming from the staff’s shifts at the local convenience stores, adding a little bit more whenever they can, for years to come. Like its progenitor Warbirds, the flying MMOG. Eventually they’d start charging, get a few thousand diehards, shut down everything but the one big server, and have some fun together for a few years. There’s no honour lost were that to happen. At those numbers, the whole game could be run on a single 25 Mbs pipe, and with the remaining fans easily good for $100K gross a month in fees, they should be able to keep that level of service, along with a skeleton development staff, going almost indefinitely, assuming they got the investors off their backs with the better-than-expected box sales. (One expects the publishers are seriously considering switching distribution to mail order like Warbirds’, too; whether any future supplements should even see the inside of a store has got to be a big question mark in their minds about now.) About a tenth the overall size of Asheron’s Call at its height, true; a commercial failure, possibly; but still not too a complete disaster.

What about the best case? About the same, really. For clearly, what the game is now bumping up against is the limits of what is possible in the MMOG genre without any actual persistency in your game. The soldiers have no careers, no meaningful goals. Hence they have no reason to play. Killer is right that this must be fixed soonest. Fortunately, the decline of player numbers and the steadily rising capacity on the biggest server (Test) seem to be coming close to intersecting now at about the 2,000 mark. So the technical limitations that prevented persistency from being implemented heretofore may end up vanishing, ironically enough, if the desertions continue.

Once that’s done, the next big question will be how many times can we play over the Battle of France (historically itself only a month long) before it gets tired? Given the current size of the game world, and the pace thus far, my guess is that if the “war” (ie, the persistent world) were to launch tomorrow, one side or other could force a reset by bagging the entire virtual Belgium in about a week. Then there’d be no choice but to do it again\’e2\’80\’a6 and again. But for how long?

THAT’S the big problem now. In two months of patching, CRS has managed to introduce five new equipment/soldier types into the game, on top of the 22 it started with. Six more, and they’ll have caught up to the promises on the box. Now let’s be optimistic, and say they still have the resources to up that pace, to one new tank/plane/whatever a week, along with accompanying terrain, etc. At that rate, they could be caught up to the box cover as early as mid-September.

The next logical theatre, assuming they do abandon Belgium at some point, is Africa\’e2\’80\’a6 if only because many of the vehicles and soldiers can be painted sand-colour and reused. But they’ll need a minimum of 20-odd new fully fledged model/character types, not to mention whole new terrain, to switch fronts like that\’e2\’80\’a6 even at the same optimistic pace given above, we’re looking at next February before Rommel can ride again, and the game can renew itself. That’s also assuming no major resources are diverted to the mythical “naval expansion” which, given the complete absence of even a screenshot of any kind to this point, seems essentially to have been vaporware all along.

To make even that date, though, the devs will have to resist any urge to perfect any kind of game balance before the “real war” begins: that would be wasted effort at this point. With half-a-dozen or more runthroughs of the Battle of France to come before the theatre switches, with each side able to lose some and win some in this iterative Blitzkrieg simulator… there’ll be plenty of time for tweaking.

Note that this is all just conjecture based on their record thus far. And for a few thousand Warbirds-style diehards, that pace will be fast enough… maybe. But a lot of regular gamers will have left the game long behind them by the time that khamsin rolls into town. 2002, Africa\’e2\’80\’a6 later that same year, Russia\’e2\’80\’a6 2003, Normandy? Maybe. By then I may have a computer good enough to allow some flying time, even.

Is there a BETTER case than this? Something that would change that prognosis by more than a month this way or that? Not one easy to see from this vantage. Having given the last two months of my spare time to this game (and with the prospect of several more years of the same) I’d be ecstatic to be proven wrong. But I don’t think I will be.