Imagine if your phone company declared that Tuesday was maintenance day. Sometime on Monday night, if they remember, they will post the details of whether tomorrow will be a "rolling restart" day, with a random 15-minute window of downtime between 8 and 9 AM, a regular maintenance day (perhaps 6 hours of maintenance, from 8 AM to 2 PM EST), or an extended maintenance day with 8+ hours of scheduled downtime. Of course, all downtime estimates may be extended at any time without notice or revised estimates, and no compensation of any kind will be provided.
This would end poorly. People would leave that phone company in droves. The United States Congress would probably be involved within the week. And yet this has been the standard maintenance schedule for World of Warcraft for the last four years now.
When a game is not just a game
There are, of course, a number of differences between my hypothetical phone company and an online game. Not having telephone service for the better part of a day would be crippling to businesses, and potentially life-threatening to anyone who needs a phone to call 911 during that time. By contrast, online games are "just games".
Scrabble is also just a game. When you go to the store and buy a Scrabble set, you own your shiny new game. Your game does not go away if the publishers go out of business, you decide not to pay them a recurring monthly fee, or you are banned from international tournament play for whatever reason. There are limitations to your rights; for example, you cannot make a knock-off, post it on Facebook, and expect not to hear from the lawyers somewhere down the line. You can, however, freely resell your one copy of Scrabble via a yard sale, EBay, etc.
Your MMORPG account lacks all of these aspects of physical ownership. Indeed, companies are quick to point out that you are licensing the use of their software, and that they own your characters (some microtransaction game somewhere is going to lose a lawsuit one of these days for nerfing some item they were happily charging real world cash for), i.e. that your MMORPG is NOT a game which you own, but a service.
Are we setting the bar too low?
Tobold writes that MMORPG customers are remarkably tolerant of, well, poor service. We will complain, some unhinged minority of us will apparently post that they wish snipers would kill Scott Jennings over class balance issues, but we tend not to take our money anywhere else.
Part of that is because of there isn't anywhere else to go. There are a limited number of triple-A MMORPG's out there, and a given player can probably rule out half of them based on playstyle preferences. Part of that is physical reality; apparently online games requires more downtime and maintenance than global telecommunication networks. (Technology is strange like that.) Some things that are inconvenient for certain players (e.g. not being able to play on Tuesday morning, having a bit torrent patch download clog your home network) are more convenient for others (at least the downtime is off-peak, and the downloads are faster if you've got the bandwidth).
Still, I can't help but wonder why the default response anytime someone raises this question is "it's just a game, you shouldn't get worked up over it" and not "why isn't the service better?"
P.S. This post was originally inspired by the Warhammer EU open beta debacle, perhaps the best summary of which is at The Greenskin. If you are at all familiar with the incident, I highly recommend the following video linked via the Greenskin coverage. It's like the modern version of the famous Fangtooth, Pally CM video.