As development of MMORPGs go, advancement seems to happen incrementally and slowly as the games themselves are complex and fickle beasts of design complications. What's more is that we, the fans of the games, are just as complex and fickle ourselves. But there's a simple beauty to this relationship between gamer and game developer. We heart each other. Because at the core of it, the developers are just like us only with grander technical knowledge of the bits and pieces that must fit together. What we bring to the equation is a sometimes brutal, sometimes glorified sense of devotion to any developer that "gets it" and values our input in what really is a service industry. In that line of thinking, and in light of recent hubbub around a few games, here are five things every developer should remember about their fans.
#5 We're vocal
I don't necessarily mean that we speak aloud here, but I'm sure if the forums of any game were recorded not with keyboards but with microphones the results would be the same. MMO gamers are a highly vocal bunch when it comes to talking about their favorite, least favorite, or even as of yet un-played games. We love to talk-talk-talk (or type-type-type) about your projects probably more than you do. You should definitely know this by now, and when it comes to the relationship between developer and gamer... we really just want to know if you're listening. That means you need to have forums, and your CM staff should be all over the blogosphere and community site forums as well. Track your users. There are plenty of examples why you should listen to your audience in any entertainment project. With that in mind, let's move to number four...
#4 We don't always know what we want
Just because we're vocal about the things we'd like to see changed doesn't mean we know what the ramifications of such a change are. If we claim we want the game to be harder or easier, that doesn't mean you should up and give us what we want without a lot of testing on your own. The most successful companies seem to be those with robust metrics at their disposal. I would argue that reading too much into the numbers and statistics risks making the games soulless, but in the MMO world when the success and prolonged life of your game depends on subscriber happiness... metrics are your friend. So while we may spout off on the forums and on our blogs about what we don't like about your game, don't always think it means that aspect needs to be overhauled. We could just be cranky.
#3 We are tied to these games
I hate to bring it up for the nine billionth time on the internet. But does everyone remember what happened with the Star Wars Galaxies NGE debacle? The aftermath of that patch may be something SOE never fully recovers from in the eyes of the MMO hardcore. Their company is likely going to be tainted by that one decision for years to come. And it's all because someone somewhere thought it wouldn't be a big deal to completely change the heart and soul of the game in a vain attempt to piggyback on the success of WoW. We are absolutely in love with the games we latch onto. We may complain, we may subscribe and unsubscribe more times that we can count, but rest assured that we very much love the ideals your game presents. Hopefully we never see another NGE. Hopefully we've learned enough from the fallout of such a cataclysmic gaming event that no developer will ever deem it wise to try and completely change the soul of a game on a whim.
#2 We want you to succeed
Despite how many hate filled posts the average community manager must sift through each day, this is the truth. We want you to succeed. We want your game to be the game that latches onto us and doesn't let go. We want your take on a virtual world to be our virtual home. But that doesn't mean we'll be very accepting of bugs, imbalance, blatant disregard for recurring issues, or even a lack of communication from the studio itself. We're like your classic overbearing parent from any number of back to school specials. We critique and watch every step you take because we just want you to be the best that you can possibly be. Why? Because it means we'll have a product we can believe in and support with our wallets. So while it might get crazy from your point of view and we may seem like zealous nuts, all we really want is for you to keep your job so that you can keep entertaining us.
#1 We're fickle
This is number one, because despite all the others, this truth can't be ignored. We're a really unpredictable bunch of gamers. Perhaps the only thing predictable about us is that you can't quite gauge how we'll react to most anything you as a developer say and do. One current trend? We hate hype. And yet oddly, we are quick to pronounce a game dead if it's been quietly developed for a while without a multitude of press releases crammed down our throats. I almost wish more MMO developers would take the Bethesda/BioWare/Blizzard approach and only reveal things when you're set to reveal them and otherwise keep all information under tight lock and key. I understand the trouble for smaller companies is that they might need the exposure, but announcing things like, "We have seen 6,000 new characters created this hour!" is not exactly news and we don't really care. Give us real info or give us nothing at all. It's better to keep us guessing.
Where was I going with this? Oh, right. We're fickle. Something we hate now we might love later, and vice versa. For all I know, next week the general consensus on hype might be that we want more, more, more. I'm simply saying that as a culture we are ever-changing, and as developers you need to be exactly the same way. The alternative is being the Rolling Stones of game development. Sure they still tour, but when was the last time they had a hit? I'm not sure you can live forever in the MMORPG business on past successes. Just ask a few of the genre's original luminaries for proof.