It is commonly said that game developers should listen to their players. Fair enough. It is taken as a corollary that developers should do what their players want in game design. That is often absurd.
Suppose that some players in a game wish to be able to attack other players whenever and wherever they want without restrictions. Other players in the same game want to never be attacked by other players except when they’re willing to pvp. For some of these other players, that would be never. One could argue that the developers should listen to both types of players, but they cannot simultaneously do what both wish.
Some games have separate servers with different rule sets for this type of thing. That can only go so far, however; there could easily be hundreds of separate issues that divide the playerbase. Separate servers for each combination of what various players want would result in giving everyone his own server. That itself would be highly objectionable to many players.
Going with a majority doesn’t work, either. The majority of the players in many online games will want about the same things. If developers in each of those games do what the majority of their players want, they’ll end up making effectively identical games. As a developer from Chain of Command memorably put it, if he simply went with what a majority of the players wanted, he’d turn the game into a poor clone of Red Alert. There’s nothing wrong with having some games that cater to the lowest common denominator of what many players want. But for every game to try to appeal to exactly the same subset of their potential players would be folly.
It actually gets worse than that. Going with a simple majority could easily result in stripping out the features that are the game’s very reason to exist. Imagine a lot of players picking up Darkfall without knowing much about the game, objecting to the free for all pvp, and convincing the company to take it out of the game. Imagine the same players picking up The Chronicles of Spellborn, and insisting that the company remove the skilldeck and not make players aim.
Rather, when designing a game, the developers must have some vision of what the game is supposed to be. Certain fundamental decisions about game mechanics must be set in stone, even if a majority of the players disagree. Players who don’t like the choices the company made can simply go play some other game instead.
It is critical that these decisions be made very early on. After release, it’s too late. Indeed, during beta is probably too late. If you design your game to appeal to players who hate grinding, and then a year after release add a ton of grinding, you alienate your existing playerbase. If you design your game to make pvp completely consensual, and then a year after release, make it so players can attack other players without consent in most places, you likewise alienate your existing playerbase. The same would happen for many other such seismic shifts—and also for the reverse of any of those decisions.
One could ask why the critical importance on some game mechanics being unchangeable. Three words: New Game Experience. There are players who like the “New Game Experience” of Star Wars Galaxies. Likewise, there are players who like the item mall in EverQuest II. Had those game design decisions been in place and public knowledge at the start of open beta, they wouldn’t be a problem. In contrast, to make such radical changes years after release is a slap in the face to players who put so much time and money into the games precisely because they wanted a game not to have those things.
That is not to say that developers should never make changes that players request. The best case is players suggesting little touches that make gameplay a little smoother or more convenient. Players can also provide valuable feedback on the relative difficulty of various content, or other play balancing issues. This doesn’t necessarily even have to be as the players intend: if there are class forums, and the forum for one class doesn’t have quite a few posts decrying the class as woefully underpowered, then that class is probably massively overpowered, and needs to be nerfed, and hard.
Player feedback can be great for bigger decisions, too, provided that they don’t fundamentally alter the game. If there are several reasonable possibilities for where to add new content in a game, a developer could do much worse than to pick the one that most of the players want. The key is a clear, public delineation of what is fundamental to the game and will never be changed, as compared to what is open to discussion.