By Emma S
In late 2014, to help a friend, I joined the team of Wander, the non-combat, exploration MMO, volunteering to help with mundane things like filling out paperwork and maybe playing the game a little to check out a few features. Nothing serious, I thought. I didn’t know that I’d soon be called in to help more often, to be company during work periods that would run late into the night, to be the in-house tester for the game, and to manage its growing player community.
I also didn’t know, then, that Wander would soon (and I hoped briefly) be made notorious by players calling it “the worst game on PS4 ever.”
I don’t have a background in game development or even public relations, but I am a gamer. I have a long history of playing MMOs, from World of Warcraft to really obscure Korean MMORPGs, and I’m not bad with a sniper rifle in an FPS. But at the time Wander launched, after spending six years at university on multiple science degrees, I was looking to embark on a PhD or medical school. A lot of the other team members weren’t from a games background either, which has made the development of Wander more of an adventure, but also at times incredibly tough.
Wander is definitely a niche game: it’s an MMO without fighting, XP, money, or a quest system, where your task is simply to wander through the landscape and discover the game’s world and story at your leisure. My first impression was that it was most definitely beautiful, and also different—not for everyone, but something I believed would find a place in the heart of a certain kind of gamer. Even in extremely early development, when we were still using the Unity engine, Wander was enchanting and incredibly immersive, especially on the Oculus Rift. I helped push for the decision to move Wander to CryEngine, which I think benefited the game immeasurably.
I worked side-by-side with the incredibly small, Melbourne-based Wander team (a core team of less than 10 people, three of whom were full-time) though long nights, getting excited when we made something work, and annoyed when it seemed like we failed Sony’s TRC (technical requirements checklist) for silly things like bugs we thought we’d fixed but had appeared again. I often wrangled two or three of our four PS4 devkits simultaneously for testing, and seldom had anyone to help me.
As the release date approached, nerves kicked in. Having to pass the TRC to meet the release deadline put us under considerable pressure. I started to doubt whether we’d make our deadline. I stressed about how our latest build was going to perform and, more generally, what the future would hold for the game. We were working towards bold, even ludicrous goals. How, I wondered, would a tiny indie studio made up of such a motley crew make a game on par with a AAA title from studios with hundreds of people and money we couldn’t even dream of? But I believed in Wander and its principles, so I tried to stay optimistic. I grit my teeth and kept working.
The Release-Day Hatestorm
Then came release day. At that point, I took over looking after social media, as the person dealing with it was already multitasking like a goddamned boss. Jesus Christ. It was beyond stressful. As I’d never done social media management or PR before, this was insanity for me.
It always went without saying that Wander would never be a mainstream hit like the Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, or Witcher series. What we didn’t anticipate was that its idiosyncrasy would combine with a host of unforeseen launch-day bugs to bring down a storm of hate on the game, and thus the team.
Never underestimate the tremendous wrath of an immeasurable horde of irate gamers. Within half an hour of launch, Facebook and Twitter had exploded with incredibly nasty comments. Though they were horrible, they were also honest. I hit the ground running. I read and answered every single post and comment as it came though. My stomach sank further with each passing notification. I felt was like I was being punched from the inside with every new comment.
We had an incredible number of error and bug reports, particularly for the PS4 version. We would soon discover that 97% of the crashes players were experiencing on that platform were due to a single line of code that was responsible for logging, which hadn’t been seen during the testing phase.
I was shocked by the volume of feedback. My anxiety levels would surge every five minutes as new complaints emerged. On one hand I had disappointed fans, who had been eagerly awaiting Wander’s release for months, and on the other, new players (justifiably) demanding refunds or venting their outrage. All were messaging me at once while I tried to troubleshoot for them and respond to as many comments as I could—all while trying to keep a positive demeanour when I was secretly dying on the inside.
The negativity wasn’t really personal — it was a response to our game, not to us — but it felt personal after reading the twentieth comment in a row about how shit we were. I refused to read published reviews or articles unless someone on the team told me to check one out. I avoided reading headlines as best I could, especially as I knew Kotaku and others had absolutely ripped into us. A Twitter user even told me a petition had been started on GameFAQs to have Wander removed from the PlayStation store because it was “utterly unplayable”.
At this point, our part-time programmer left because their freelancing work was picking up, leaving us with a single programmer, Wander mastermind Loki Davison. It wasn’t a stated part of my role, but as an empathetic human being, I now had to keep Loki sane while he soloed through the nights against our showstopper bugs. I’m a fairly resilient person, but on a few occasions I had to simply walk away from my laptop and just take a moment to breathe. In the rare moments where that didn’t work, I broke down in tears.
Getting Wander Back on Track
I sifted through player feedback to clarify what bugs we needed to address and what was the next step, and to relay new information to the programmers. To share information with players I felt like I needed an eidetic memory. I had to know how far down the patching process we were, when patches would be submitted and on what platforms, and which issues and requests they would address. I spent several hours writing the FAQ on the website by hand and making sure the information was correct. As I wrote comments and tweets, I read them aloud to whoever was in the office with me, just to make sure I wasn’t saying something I shouldn’t — that I was giving the right information. I was absolutely terrified.
Wander’s first live Q&A session was also my very first Twitch stream. The day before we ran it, I’d suggested the Q&A as a way to interact more with players, letting them get quicker answers while demonstrating that, yes, Wander does actually work, and this is what it’s supposed to be like. Because of the complexity and delays involved in getting PS4 patches released separately via SCEE and SCEA, it also gave us a chance to show all players the progress we were making in responding to feedback through our Steam patches.
These Q&A streams ended up being an almost daily thing in the first weeks after release. Nearly all clocked over an hour of broadcast per session, with the longest coming in at around four hours. The whole time, I tried to balance being forthcoming with players against a fear of pissing off Sony, who had supported us with visibility and moral support while we were making Wander. We were immensely grateful to Sony, and had been lucky to have them on our side. But in responding to comments that asked how the game even passed through the testing phase, it was almost impossible to give a straight answer without mentioning Sony or PlayStation in a way that might look like biting the hand that helps you, which is never a good idea.
It Was All Worth it For The Pizza
There were a few bright flickers during this dark time. The part-time people of the Wander team who came into help were pretty amazing and kind. I owe a lot of my sanity to them, especially our artist and sound designer, who was incredibly patient with me and my reports about things that needed to be remedied. People who shared our building rallied around us.
I found that if you just explain a bad situation honestly, sometimes people are willing to be reasonable and understanding. We even managed to get a few players who had initially loathed us to change their minds. I made internet friends with Twitch viewers who tuned in every time I hosted a stream. One in Germany even ordered us pizza just to make sure that we ate while holed up in the office fixing bugs and talking to players. It ended up being delivered mid-broadcast. I was flattered by the feedback about how I handled comments, complaints, and general interaction with the public, but frankly I had — and still have — no idea if I was actually handling it well or not.
As the majority of furious players were on PS4, I prayed that the first patch after release would be enough to calm some people down and help retain what supporters we still had. Thankfully, I was able to announce that we would submit patches to SCEE and SCEA at the same time and to confirm it by publishing patch notes, which seemed to generate a bit of goodwill. The North American patch was the first to go live, and the few responses I got to it seemed to be really positive.
Although we addressed the most critical issues first, such as random crashes and errors, and managed to fix other, more cosmetic issues such as texture pop, we still had a long list to work through.
At that point, I got a very well-written complaint about the game and for some reason, I let it get to me. I wasn’t angry, but I got upset. It was as though the resilience that I had been relying on had suddenly given way. It was nowhere near as scathing as a lot of other comments had been, but that one got to me and I’m not entirely sure why. I wish I knew. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back I guess.
Immediately after we submitted the PS4 patch, we started working on the fixes and features for the next one. It wasn’t until a while after release that I finally ended up getting more than four or five hours’ sleep in a single night. A couple of days later, the Europe patch went live. As this period of waiting and release coincided with E3, it passed relatively quietly, with players’ attention elsewhere.
Where to Next?
The list of things to do has never gotten shorter. The team face the delicate task of striking a balance between staying true to the ideas behind Wander while incorporating ideas and suggestions from players as we slowly but surely introduce more of the content and story that we’ve always had planned for the game.
This experience of working on Wander has been thought provoking in many ways. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I never knew I could handle such an amount of stress, that I had the skills to deal with lots of furious people who felt they had been ripped off. That I could use Twitter and Twitch effectively in a professional context even though I’d never streamed before and barely used Twitter. I now know that I can function incredibly well on less than five hours of sleep for an extended period of time, without caffeine. I wasn’t even that good in my university days.
I’ve also got a new perspective on how games are made and promoted. I’ve seen Wander go from an idea — through coding, asset creation, animation and testing — to release and its aftermath. I have immense admiration for everyone who works in the games industry, whether as part of a big studio or a tiny indie. Having only been a consumer of games before, now I’ve had a chance to look behind the digital curtain.
It’s been a baptism of fire, and it’s taken a significant toll on my personal life — an experience most in the industry, and indeed most artists, will surely relate to. I missed birthdays, dinners, brunches, coffees, and time with my family and friends. I got sick. I almost went broke. I had my car towed in the early morning because I’d been working in the office all night. I didn’t go home for days, or talk to my family to let them know I was still alive. I was barely surviving, but still functioning.
I wasn’t in it for the fame (or infamy).
I wasn’t in it for the money. Neither I nor anyone was being paid a cent — we’d run out of money to pay the team a while back.
I did it because I believed in Wander and the idea behind it.
I actually think Wander is a pretty good game once major issues are addressed, and I’m awed by the people who made it and what they’ve been able to do. But to appreciate it, you need an open mind towards games that challenge traditional paradigms. Being different made it easy for critics to make fun of us. I guess it’s entertaining to watch someone rip into a game, but if no one challenged the status quo, how would games grow and evolve?
We made and released a game with no backing and not even many personal resources. It’s been overwhelming, but at times also thrilling, to have jumped into such deep water. The game wasn’t in a great state at launch and that’s something we took full responsibility for as a studio. I’ve been completely transparent in our aims and focus. We had the community involved through the roadmap and will continue to listen to their feedback. A lot of changes people have asked for are already in the game.
Wander was never made to make money. I’ve been asked a few times if we know how many copies we’ve sold, statistics, metrics and whatnot. I do know but it’s really not a personal concern or a priority to me. I was in the fortunate position where my focus was the community and interaction with players — investing energy into helping improving the game is much better than into counting coin.
Wander’s gotten a hell of a lot better since launch day.
And what’s next for me? Well, I’m not sure my future lies in the games industry. Although I’m now a veteran at holding back hordes of critics I still don’t really see my skills being all that applicable. I’m not an artist and I can’t code. So I’ll probably go back to the career I studied so hard for, settle in for another postgraduate degree. I also have some catching up to do with loved ones. As of August 2015, I’ve left the Wander project entirely.
But concerning my professional involvement with Wander?
I have no regrets.
This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.