This Just In: The Sky Is Not Falling

Welcome to January, the season to navelgaze. I’ve done my share:

The video game industry is not going to be immune from the Great Recession. The MMO industry is especially not going to be immune, as the only proven path to success for MMOs is in huge budget gambles that have missed more often than not.

But looking at the future is risky, since it hasn’t, you know, happened yet. So backyard pundits (you know, like backyard wrestling, but without the dignity) look back in angst-er at the year gone by. Here’s a typical sample.

If an apologist fan (or Bill Roper) of any of these games tries to blame the previous as to why these games never became a success then they clearly have a few screws loose. No, these games failed because their developers let it happen.

(You know, I can’t begin to describe the number of design meetings where people just keep saying “you know, we should just let this game fail. C’mon! It’ll be fun!”  In retrospect? We should have done that less.)

First, a tangent (well, another one, anyway): I love Hellgate: London. I love any game that has enough balls to put a colon in their name, but especially Hellgate: London, which never was really an MMO but pretended to be long enough to try to get a subscription fee that few actually paid. But why I love HG:L the most is the sheer amount of angry internet angst it generates.

Let’s not beat around the bush – HG:L was a bad game. The content was poorly written, the skill system was overcomplicated to the point of opacity, and as near as I could determine, the game consisted mostly of ruins, demons that jumped out at you, and the color brown. This would be why I did not buy it. I did not remain on message boards for six months or a year complaining about how Bill Roper personally raped my childhood or making oh-so-witty puns on the game’s name that people who still laugh at “Micro$oft” find clever. Why should I? It wasn’t a good game. There are other games which were good. I played those.

See – there *were* good games that came out last year. You may have heard of this “lich king” thing, for example. Sure, Blizzard could have run the Zone Creation Wizard 16 times, crapped out enough foozles to take you to the next Woozle Fairy Instance Run, and made 83 hojillion dollars. Yet, there were actually some zones in the expansion which are… really good. Sure, if you’re tired of killing orcs with a sword, it probably doesn’t do much for you – but for people complaining about how the world doesn’t change when you do anything, well, they’re working on it.

A few people, I’m given to understand, picked up the expansion. There were a few other expansions as well, if you like the whole kill orcs with a sword thing but still think Bill Roper raped your childhood back when he was doing voiceover work at Blizzard.

Want PvP? Well, there was this one game that came out last year and is still poking along, and there’s this other game that has this somewhat interested following coming out soon, and oh yeah, there’s this other game which has a new expansion and store presence coming up which is more than a little popular. I’m told you can even kill other players in that lich king thingamabob a few of those kids today are playing!

It’s easy to point at failures and laugh. I do it with great regularity, because I too enjoy easy things. And it’s true that new MMO development is going to slow this year.  It SHOULD. Huge megaprojects like Tabula Rasa that don’t have a clear goal and defined market will fail – and they SHOULD fail. Games like Age of Conan that release half-baked will fail – and they SHOULD fail. This is market evolution in action. If you’re going to compete in the marketplace, it’s a bit more mature than when you had twolettergames and nothing else.

But the market isn’t in tens of thousands, but tens of millions. There’s a bit of room to grow and prosper. Just not, you know, if Bill Roper raped your childhood.

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35 Responses to This Just In: The Sky Is Not Falling

  1. GTB says:

    I was kind of sad when Hellgate went down for the last time, because it was my favorite trainwreck of the intarwebs at the time. It was maybe even better than the phantom vs hardOCP, I’m not sure, but it might have been. I got the same secret and shameful thrill out of it that I do when i’m on the highway and I see a wreck involving a semi and four compact cars.

    Without hellgate, i’m not sure what i’m supposed to be watching now. Where is the next trainwreck? Sure, Conan is going down, but it’s dying quietly, like that sick great aunt that your family put in a rest home forever ago and nobody remembers anymore. Not enough drama there. Not enough absurdly vocal forum mods, or game directors with a chip on their shoulder. Tabula Rasa is dead, or in its last death throes (I don’t pay enough attention to know) but that was a game we all secretly wanted to work, I think. So what do we watch now? What’s next on the public chopping block/stage?

  2. dartwick says:

    HellGate was closer to being a good game than it gets credit for being.

    The complicated skill system appeals to a lot of players – although it was not balanced enough for a release game.

    The game play was actually fun – but it was repetitive and worse it actively discouraged grouping.

    And of course was the the who subscription system. Everyone knew it was not a real MMO. They probably could have had a lot of players if hey had said $5 a month flat rate to have access to the online servers. They ended up with a system that was over priced for what it promised and even the promise wasnt much better than the free servers.

  3. Openedge1 says:

    Wait….you forgot the bigger hate for last year…
    Funcom and Age of Conan.
    If you were to read websites and forums you would believe Funcom killed their first born, then proceeded to abort the fetus for the next.
    HG:L made the mistake of trying to pretend to be something it was not…but, Funcom? they created the current bailout crisis, and then ate Steak (with Gaute) as the rest of us ate Ramen!
    I mean…really. If you were to travel to mmorpg.com’s forums and read the posts in the AoC forums, or try to get some decent “reporting” out of even large sites like Kotaku (and the fact they even CLOSED down Age of Conan today and called it’s demise..I don’t know, but man, I think the hate was much harsher.
    Oh, and it helps that EVERY blog included in the silly 2009 predictions the “Closing” of AoC.
    Might as well call that one dead as well, even though I vote it most improved MMO of 2008!
    Sad really.

  4. Vetarnias says:

    Never played Hellgate or TR, but in a way it’s sad to see Age of Conan slowly dying. I only played it to level 40, but of all the MMO’s I played this one had the best realized world since WoW, and because it’s devoid of all the pop culture references of the latter game, I’d even say it’s superior.

    But Age of Conan is pretty much the House that Funcom Wrecked. Callous treatment of the community, beginning with their convoluted definition of “Open” Beta, empty promises, instances galore, the female avatar controversy (and worse still, in a game that could be accused of sexism without really trying), the huge letdown after Tortage, heavy-handed forum censorship, etc. — all of these played a role in the AoC disaster. To this day, I remain convinced that the game could have been a success (though not a runaway one) despite its glaring shortcomings.

    And I fear for Pirates of the Burning Sea as well (as per the HellForge article linked to), because it’s from a small studio and I have some sympathy for it, even though the state of the game appears to be precarious, to say the least. Even its supporters are forced to admit that only two of the four main servers remaining have any sort of decent population levels. Outside of the game’s players (or ex-players hoping to see things improve, as in my case), PotBS seems to be met with a yawn.

    As for MMO’s in a recession — I’m not sure. Considering that a monthly subscription to WoW is equivalent to two tickets to the movies that will last ninety minutes each, MMO’s might fare better. What it might not do, however, is expand outside of circles already aware of MMO games (despite their entry into the mainstream after WoW), and for those games that do get released, the market might just get even more cutthroat than it is now as people with multiple subscriptions might decide to cut down to one. Net result: Business as usual for Blizzard; not so good news for everyone else except maybe EVE and Warhammer.

    However, new titles better not ask for the latest in elite computing technology, or they’ll flop badly. People will maintain their internet access, but they won’t upgrade their rig. Not surprisingly, low system requirements has become World of Warcraft’s recipe for success. (Note that I am not an economist and don’t even work in this industry, so I’m just doing a bit of guesswork here.)

    Darkfall? Ten days to “release” and no download, purchase, subscription, or system requirements information announced. At the risk of repeating myself, yeah, right.

  5. JuJutsu says:

    Micro$oft?! hahahahahahaha now that’s clever

  6. Vetarnias says:

    Can’t wait for B£izzard.

  7. damn you, capitalism! says:

    @Vetarnias
    Consider me your anecdotal proof that low system reqs is (a part of) wow’s success.

  8. UnSub says:

    As I’ve said elsewhere, 2008 was an important year for MMOs because it helped kill the memes that 1) if you had enough money, you could out-WoW WoW and 2) that MMOs that launch survive. I counted at least 8 MMOs that closed / announced closure.

    It’s a painful process for those in the industry, I’ve got no doubt. But hopefully it improves the development focus of other MMOs because there are plenty of mistakes to learn from out there.

  9. Azaroth says:

    Howling Fjord was god damn fantastic.

  10. Hey there Scott,

    It brings me much elation to see the widespread internet response that my dear old acquaintance/rival writer Agamemnon (previously of Flagshipped.com) has managed to garner with his write-up of MMORPGs over at my website, Hellforge. He’s nothing if not provocative. I hardly agree with him on anything, but I’ll certainly give him credit for the storm he’s managed to brew up with his polarizing article that has, thus far, elicited responses from just about every MMO community.

    If anything, it’s managed to create discussion on the topic of whether MMOs are truly dead and dying with no chance of going up against World of Warcraft, or if there is actual room for further growth. I think that if anything, Warhammer has managed to prove, to a degree, that the market is indeed capable of growth.

    There’s little doubt that while the market is still growing, the saturation has certainly become an issue. With three superhero-themed MMOs available this year, for example, (City of Heroes, DC Online and Champions Online) it’s hard to fathom how much further the fanbase can be split to make each of these games profitable.

    Beyond that, there’s always the issue of burn-out and loss of interests. I used to be rather ‘hardcore’ as the colloquialism goes with regards to the amount of time I was willing to devote to MMORPGs. Those days have since passed. While I am, at times, drawn back into MMORPGs, I’ve managed to stay for no longer than the period of a month (as with my most recent foray into Warhammer) before I quickly lose interest despite everything the game has to offer.

    The ‘problem’ as it were, I think, has equally to do with a shift in the winds of player interest as much as it does with the failure of developers to create a compelling experience; simply put, we’re just tired of grinding.

  11. ubvman says:

    You know, he is not wrong about the whole, “the game failed because the devs let it happen” thing. A lot of these flop games had serious problems in Beta that were highlighted then that went unaddressed and unfixed to be released into the live servers. In fact so many of these so called “beta” tests seem to be alpha releases, having nothing to do with the gameplay, balance, bugs or fixes – just something that compiles, runs (without crashing excessively.. and even then) and could actually support multiple players.

    Well yes, MMOG development is hard – but people have been working on this genre since 1995. You would think that from all these failures (and supposedly from experienced devs and publishers) – that MMOs just showed up in 2004. C’mon, its the same mistakes repeated over and over again. Players keep on having to fight the same fight repeatedly to be heard “YOUR GAME IS BROKEN! FIX BEFORE RELEASE”- its “alchemy is broken” every single time.

    So yes, devs DO allow games to flop out of the gate. Almost all the time they DO know that the games have serious problems out of the gate, but fool themselves into thinking that the players won’t notice, it won’t affect sales/sub rates and it won’t hurt to patch it all up later.

  12. Larry Lard says:

    Vetarnias :
    Can’t wait for B£izzard.

    Because £ is not in ASCII, you risk problems with webpage encoding and suchlike. Sad but true.

    ubvman :
    So yes, devs DO allow games to flop out of the gate. Almost all the time they DO know that the games have serious problems out of the gate, but fool themselves into thinking that the players won’t notice, it won’t affect sales/sub rates and it won’t hurt to patch it all up later.

    It’s rarely ‘devs’ – that is, the people actually writing code – that get to make go/no go decisions.

  13. @ubvman
    Absolutely true. A lot of the problems in games like Conan and Hellgate could’ve simply been avoided had they paid more attention to what the users were saying instead of bringing an arrogant or haughty attitude to the table, as often seemed to be the case with Hellgate: London’s lacklustre storyline or the lack of LAN support, just to cite a couple of examples. There’s nothing better than reading that “Nobody gives a fuck about LAN” as a response to complaints.

    I can state that at least several of the critical responses to Hellgate, for example, were from game developers of other companies (posting semi-anonymously) as well as game journalists and guys like me, who had something of a vested, passionate interest (having spent years running a damn fansite) in wanting the game to do well. None of us wanted to see it fail, and even ‘anti-fansite’ websites like Flagshipped.com were, at the very least, hoping for improvements and increased communication between the developers and the users.

    There was a very stark contrast between the amount of communication that the developers of Mythos (also of Flagship Studios) and its players and Hellgate: London and its players. I would suspect that the reason for the extremely poor communication between the Hellgate developers and players was due to the fact that they had a complete slacker for a community manager who, for some reason or another, employed some very heavy handed methods in dealing with the community by banning anyone who showed even a suggestion of dissent to where the game was going.

    It’s funny how integral such a position can be to a game’s success.

    In contrast, the open communication between the Mythos team in Seattle with its players managed to garner a loyal following, whom until this day continue to support the company (which has since reformed as Runic Entertainment) in its present and future endeavors.

    It’s worth mentioning that the Pirates of the Burning Sea developers were just about the only ones who actually listened to the users and are today, at the very least, still managing to swim due to the loyal fanbase.

    Customer loyalty means a lot, and it’d have been nice if Flagship Studios’ marcom department realized that a year ago.

  14. Vetarnias says:

    Ian Miles “Sol Invictus” Cheong :
    @ubvman
    It’s worth mentioning that the Pirates of the Burning Sea developers were just about the only ones who actually listened to the users and are today, at the very least, still managing to swim due to the loyal fanbase.

    *Cough* I wish I could say that, unless of course “listened” means “not following through on what is suggested”. In fact, there is an infamous post in the lore surrounding the game about how the developers don’t really pay attention to their forums because only 5 percent of players post there. We sure have plenty of examples to demonstrate that this was true to a certain extent.

    Just take the issue of “superganks”, where the developers added into the game this brilliant idea where the defenders in a fight could get up to 9 ships while the attackers were limited to 6 ships. Everybody said that it would be easy to exploit: Present yourself as a group of 6 or less, with reinforcements ready in a nearby port. Someone attacks you, the other guys join in and you get a 6v9 fight. That was predicted and complained about when this was still on testbed. FLS brought it into the game nonetheless.

    Likewise, they dedicated so much time and so many resources for revamping avatar combat even though it probably was way down on players’ priorities list.

    Recently, the developers seem to have latched onto the idea that if the economy was dead, it wasn’t because of closed society (guild) production, funded by grinding, being the most efficient form of ship assembly line, it was because the economy was too complex. The economic problems were twofold as a result of closed production: Shortage of goods, and little to no demand for those which were posted. Prices were exorbitant because everyone had money as a result of insurance on sunk ships.

    So FLS set about simplifying the economy by getting rid of entire structures and components, much to the chagrin of some economic players who saw the complexity of production as a challenge. End result of FLS’s changes: Ships are easier to produce. Means nothing for closed societies — they’ll just need less accounts to do their crafting, and what they certainly won’t do is flood the market with goods, especially if they risk not selling. At the same time, FLS has never really bothered listening to players who have been demanding some form of buy orders for *months*.

    At the same time, FLS said they would remove insurance on the lineship bundle components used in endgame ships. When they were discussing the implementation of insurance in June as a result of complaints over the high cost of dying, everyone was telling them that to add insurance to “bundleboats” was a mistake because of their price tag.

    Just to give you an idea, a low-end level-50 ship could cost 100k, 200k doubloons, I can’t remember well, but a high-end level-50 ship, a First Rate “bundleboat”, could be worth over 10 million. A large chunk of the price tag came from the building fee, but as far as materials were concerned, a sizeable fraction of the cost came from the lineship bundles. FLS didn’t heed the warning then — in a nutshell, it was either don’t cover them or get rid of them altogether — and added insurance to all ships.

    Six months later, FLS wants to take away insurance from the lineship bundles themselves. Players who spent those six months grinding to get a First Rate are suddenly not happy to see that insurance will be removed from their precious endgame ships, and vow to organize a sinkfest in the red just before the changes are brought in — while those who were playing for the RvR aspect of the game are worried that faction imbalance will once again become an issue if bundleboats are hard to replace. So in that case, FLS just backtracked and said that the lineship bundles would be covered in half. Desperation? Perhaps, but definitely improvisation — it’s as though it really doesn’t matter anymore.

    But this was the first time where they actually listened to their players with such speed. Usually, they’d get around to doing what the players wanted, but only a few months later after they had brought their original idea into the game, or when it was clear there was no way around it.

  15. Vetarnias says:

    Oh, and one quick word about Darkfall:

    According to this link, it’s already the best MMO of 2008…

    http://contest.mmosite.com/gameprize/prizeitem.php?item=1

  16. pharniel says:

    Note that there are rumors of wh having the same ‘we know what you want, so shut up and get to liking it already’ mindset.
    see the f13.net graveyard.

    honestly with the serious amount of clownshoe development going on I don’t expect to be into another mmo until 2010 or 2011 (mayhaps just in time to join the bandwagon for blizzard’s next outing)

  17. Cedia says:

    “honestly with the serious amount of clownshoe development going on I don’t expect to be into another mmo until 2010 or 2011”

    Help me, BioWare, you’re my only hope.

  18. David says:

    I am sorry, but when I read your comment about the market evolving from two letter games, my immediate thought was yes we are now on three letter ones. (WoW, EQ2, War, Aoc, CoH) Does that make LoTRO two steps further on the MMO evolutionary curve?

  19. No.6 says:

    David: Yes, it (LoTRO) appears to be the first (but hopefully not the last) franchise-based MMO game that didn’t founder, as opposed to games based on Hyboria, the Matrix, or Star Wars.

  20. @Vetarnias
    Ah yes, MMOSite. There’s so much to be said about those guys. Apart from the plagiarized articles and the paid-for awards.

  21. Vetarnias says:

    @Ian Miles “Sol Invictus” Cheong
    And the broken English. I wouldn’t blame them for that if it weren’t for the fact that they’re bragging about having 18 editors on board. (I guessed it was either Korea- or China-based, but the name in the WHOIS entry means absolutely nothing to me.)

    But it wasn’t so much the site in itself that interested me in this instance, but rather that the Darkfall supporters are being out in full hype mode a week before the so-called release, trying to rig a contest to prove their game was the best pay-to-play MMO of *last* year.

  22. Agamemnon says:

    As Sol pointed out, I’m really not one to take a backseat when three of the four MMOs I wrote about accepted me as a beta tester and asked for my feedback. I feel, however, that it is worth clarifying what I meant by how developers of these four games let their games fail. As you sarcastically pointed out developers obviously don’t have meetings discussing how to drive their games into the ground. I thought, however, that the following points I made afterwards made it clear what I meant. It’s a little hard to not make it “personal” (I believe that’s what you called my “vendetta” (or, as you put it, “raped my childhod”) as someone who just wanted to know the truth about the people behind the curtain when I was writing for Flagshipped) when not only are your constructive questions purposely removed to make it seem like as if there is no criticism to the game, but when an active point of deception became clear for those at Flagship as well.

    So when we learned about how Bill Roper was joking and day dreaming at pre-release meetings with car magazines, joking how they were all going to be buying beamers after Hellgate released, rather than talk about the very serious problems surrounding the game, or when it’s also revealed that the community manager was actively censoring and banning critics off private forums (forums that were only made public after I pushed the issue), or when you tell your players to “just play online” when they ask for a feature of the game to also be updated, then you can see where I am getting at when I say developers let these things happen. There is a reason why I frequently use Bill Roper as an example and it’s not because I have a “vendetta” against him; it’s because there’s such mounting evidence to use him as the perfect example on what not to do in the industry. Would I perhaps have a “vendetta” if I frequently used Derek Smart as an example on how not to treat your critics (who, strangely enough, enjoyed my article)?

    And please, take note of the expression “caveat emptor;” the name of my blog. I suppose if I wanted to talk about how the birds are singing or the flowers are blooming, I wouldn’t then make my blog have a central theme about my personal opinion on what to look out for. Isn’t that the idea of being a critic? Isn’t that the point of hiring a community manager so you guys can figure out what the general ideas are of the players so you can improve on that?

    I’m not clear on this still. If I critique something, I’m “raging,” but if I give a game a thumb’s up, everyone just nods along with me, saying how pleasant I am. Am I not supposed to be exercising my rights as a consumer to offer criticism?

  23. The Claw says:

    If you loved Hellgate due to the angry internet angst it generated, then Darkfall is definitely the game for you. Hell, the puns on it’s name even write themselves. Darkfail! Dorkfall! DORKFAIL! See, it’s fun for the whole family, and that’s before you even get the manly free-for-all PvP and hairy-chested full looting.

  24. @Vetarnias
    MMOSite did that last year with Hellgate: London, too.

    They had a vote for the best game of the year and Hellgate: London was one of the listed games. Each user is allowed and even encouraged to vote as many times as they like, to show how much they care about their stupid little game of choice. It’s how MMOSite generates revenue and scams its advertisers, because it creates page impressions each time a user has to refresh.

    What’s funny was how Scapes, the community manager of Hellgate: London was actively urging the few hundred people who still played the game to vote on the poll, as if it’d make some kind of difference to the lacklustre sales of the game if it managed to win some lousy award from a poor website.

  25. Vetarnias says:

    @Ian Miles “Sol Invictus” Cheong
    But at least Hellgate: London was out by the end of 2007…

    @The Claw
    There’s just fun in that countdown to release as well. Aventurine promised an updated website? It added a grey border to the main page (but no release announcement). How the “community” can stand for such callous treatment is beyond me.

  26. Sullee says:

    The market evolution concept is nice on paper but it doesn’t hold water as you’ve presented. Mostly because the only point you are really making is choosing to mince popularity and financial success with quality.

    Your dismissal of HG:L is off as is your WoW fanboiism. The McDonalds analogy that people toss around is apt here.

    I’m not sure how anyone who slogs through the uninspired MOTS that is WoW can for a second knock the repetition in anything else. End of the day I would think the insiders would be beacons of insight rather than trying to foist off some good game (play) vs. bad game (don’t play) model that has no basis in reality.

  27. Sentack says:

    While in general, the whole statement, “The developers let it happen.” is clearly false. There are select cases where developers act irrationally or with poor judgment. And sadly, it seems that this happens a lot in the gaming industry in general.

    What causes these poor management decisions, is beyond me. I’m just in the software industry, but not in gaming. Yet I look at the mistakes made, and wonder what kind of work environment these people live in. Do the managers manage or dictate? Do they help or hinder? Do developers and coders follow more modern software development approaches? Or is the all mighty deadline still to blame? I don’t know. I really do wonder at times.

    Blizzard is one of those rare companies that seems to have the cash flow, and the structure to get things done really well. But I’m not going to say that if a company does everything right, they’ll have equal success. I seem to recall reading that, WoW’s success hasn’t float the MMO industry, but instead it leaches players from other MMO’s and drags them down, while rising above.

  28. The Claw says:

    “Yet I look at the mistakes made, and wonder what kind of work environment these people live in.”

    Sentack, my bet would be that they’re well into the desperation of territory where they approach every task with the desire to just get it done, with any care as to doing it WELL having been left behind long ago. That was the mindset most developers (myself included) fell into at a couple of the (failing) game companies I worked at.

    “I seem to recall reading that, WoW’s success hasn’t float the MMO industry, but instead it leaches players from other MMO’s and drags them down”

    That really doesn’t mesh with what I’ve always heard to be the conventional wisdom. I know mmogchart isn’t 100% reliable but if you look at http://www.mmogchart.com/Chart4.html they certainly estimate the total MMO subscriber base as having grown by roughly 10 million in the period of WoW being out there.

  29. Sheepherder says:

    How many players does WoW have? How many players did all other MMO’s have combined prior to the release of WoW? How many players do current MMO’s have compared to WoW?

    Most games leech players off to an extent, but they all seem to return back to WoW after their free trials for other games are over.

  30. Dirk says:

    here’s a thought for devs; listen (at least a little) to what your customers think. Sure, we don’t always know exactly the right way to fix something but when a good portion of people tell you “disables suck!”, then maybe you should listen or not be surprised when people cancel their sub.

    yes, I was just playing Warhammer… *sigh*

    Funny thing is, I just popped into the 10-day free trial in WoW and its amazing how smooth it runs, and how little bugs there are. I’m not a WoW fanboi but they are doing it right and making it fun, at least for short increments of time.

  31. bonedead says:

    What about SWG? People still act like their childhood was raped.

  32. […] Unlike Scott, I actually (superficially speaking) agree with this statement as to why Tabula Rasa, Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Hellgate:London failed (TR, AoC, PotBS, and HL from now now…) “No, these games failed because their developers let it happen.” […]

  33. […] that NCSoft employees “let” Tabula Rasa fail. Scott Jennings (aka Lum the Mad) posted a response as well. If you’re curious about how the rest of NCSoft felt about Tabula Rasa, go give both […]

  34. RJL says:

    Tabula Rasa is a tragedy because it will only re-enforce the established idea that only fantasy sells, and that nobody wants more twitch-based mechanics in an MMO.

  35. […] came LTM Scott Jennings: This just in the sky is not falling Huge megaprojects like Tabula Rasa that don’t have a clear goal and defined market will fail – […]

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