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A Call For Greater Transparency

Jason Winter Posted:
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MMO players come in all levels of ability. We all have our own take on what parts of a game are “too hard” or “too easy.” What's difficult to understand for one person is ridiculously simple for another, to the point that the latter person will make fun of the former for his lack of understanding. I like to think that I'm reasonably tolerant of new players and am willing to help them along, but even I have my limits as to how much I'm willing to put up with folks who don't seem to have the capacity to learn some of the most basic aspects of a game.

The people who make games, however, still see those people as potential customers and will do what they can to attract them. Every time they see a post on a forum saying, “I don't understand X,” they'll make a mental note that maybe they should make X simpler – even when it seems as basic as knowing how to move with WASD. When they get enough of that feedback, and when they conclude that it's negatively impacting their bottom line, they'll make that change, even at the risk of alienating their core players.

The “New Player Experience” in Guild Wars 2 has come under fire for these exact reasons the past few months, but the rage from the veteran community seemed to be dying down as we all anticipated the new Living Story installment. Then, along came “Gemgate,” which re-lit the flames of discontent. Really, players wondered, are there people out there who can't understand this totally simple interface for converting gems to gold?

ArenaNet quickly vowed to partially reverse the change, but the misstep still served to further drive a wedge between the company and its veteran community. I like to think we understand and accept that ArenaNet can and should take steps to draw in new players – growing the game is good for both them and us – but can it be done in a way that doesn't create an “us or them” mentality?

I'll agree with the often-quoted statement that we veteran players have overcome clunky mechanics in early parts of the game to the point that they now seem natural and any changes – even if they're objectively simpler – seem more complex to us now or limit options we're used to having. Many of the recent “new-player friendly” decisions have accomplished their goals by removing or simplifying mechanics that older players have gotten used to.

Still, that doesn't mean the old ways should be outright replaced. At worst, they should be supplemented with an “easier” system for those who need it, but the “complex” system should be left in place for those who are accustomed to it. The gem/gold conversion system is a perfect example of this. Let people who want to buy 367 gems do so, but go ahead and keep the “increments of 400” interface for new players or as a shortcut for players who want nicely rounded amounts to buy something specific.

And this should be obvious, but... gems represent real-money currency. Any time you change how people deal with money, it needs to be abundantly, sparkling, crystal clear what you're doing, probably well in advance – i.e., no “stealth patches.” Even though the main bone of contention was about using in-game money (gold) and not actually spending cash, it's going to ruffle 10 times as many feathers if you mess with it.

Even if you do explain these changes well, and at length, as Colin Johanson did in regards to the NPE, is that enough? Player confidence in gaming companies is at an all-time low, so just saying, “We did this because some people wanted it, trust us” just doesn't cut it any more. It's not that I think Colin is lying, but could he and ArenaNet do more to “prove” his point?

Regarding Gemgate, could we see some of the feedback that led to this decision? Could we see the e-mails to customer service from confused players, the meeting notes discussing the changes, or some measure of the number of players who found something confusing? Otherwise, it's like when we hear that “only 10% of players raid” in most MMOs – something the veteran raiding community never accepts. We'll never get exact numbers, like “19,628 people raid” or “we got 3,729 e-mails,” but why not present us with something like “9.7%” or “14.8%” so we don't think you're picking a nice, round number out of nowhere because it sounds good? Some people might still think they're making it all up, but at least it would help quell the “I can't believe anyone is like this” talk. Sure, you could argue that all of this is confidential information, that no company is obligated to give us that much of an insight into their inner workings and processes...

...except that they do it all the time, when they want to go into intricate detail about their quest/event design, sound recording, voice acting, and so on. This isn't a phenomenon that's exclusive to ArenaNet or Guild Wars 2, but remember all the blog posts and videos about the game that we drooled over prior to launch, that went into great detail about why the game was different and why ArenaNet was making the decisions they were making? What happened to those? ArenaNet used to be forward-thinking, telling us what they were going to do well in advance of doing it and displaying it for all to see. Now, they seem reactionary and defensive, keeping their responses to forums and other easy-to-miss spots, as if they have something to hide.

Granted, talking about how an MMO developer conducts its business and makes its money is a different matter than talking about gameplay. Yeah, it would be a little dry and boring for a lot of folks, and I wouldn't suggest a weekly show, but without some kind of occasional transparency, many people leap immediately to the worst-case scenario: The game is dying and/or those nasty, greedy devs are just trying to squeeze more money out of their (increasingly becoming pay-to-win) cash shop. Or, they're just incompetent and are making decisions based on nothing. Would their business be irreparably harmed with the occasional, “Here's how we do focus group testing” or “Here's some of the feedback we get on how to use the Gem Shop” video or blog post, with exact examples, in line with any “deep dive” articles that explain in-game mechanics? I doubt it.

(Side note: If ArenaNet or any other MMO dev would like to talk about how they make their “unpopular” decisions, like implementing new-player experiences or eliminating raids or changing cash shop practices – to present their side of the story and try to increase player trust in their methods – I'd love to turn it into an interview/article.)

I'm all for making MMOs accessible to a wider bunch of people, and I obviously don't have access to numbers that indicate how successful or unsuccessful the recent measures in Guild Wars 2 have been. Maybe the people complaining really are just the “vocal minority” who don't matter nearly as much, from a purely financial standpoint, as new players, even if you count blogs, YouTube videos, general goodwill, and other such contributions from those players as a source of “invisible” income.

But I think that if you can appease the angry mob with relatively minor concessions, such as better communication and a tiny bit of inside information that shows that you really are making the right decisions and not just “screwing people over,” you should do so. I've worked for companies that were, shall we say, creative with the numbers we revealed to our customers and business partners, so I tend to assume that a company that conceals that kind of info also has something to hide. I'd like to be proven wrong.


Jason Winter