My last two columns have been a little bit on the negative side, and to be frank that's how I feel about MMOs right now. But I talk about it because I think the industry can do better. Also, I'm a community manager because I truly believe that our players can help us make better games. So this week, I wanted to talk a little bit, and in general terms, about how to deliver feedback for best results. I'm not going to name any games or point any fingers to the past. Just think a little bit about how gamers can best interact with and persuade game developers when they deliver their feedback for discussion.
Choosing the Right Soapbox
When you want to post feedback and make your voice heard, where's the best place to do it? Official forums are the most obvious place. They're close to home and you know for certain that the developers know the URL. But they're not always optimal. Depending on the population of your game, you might be a single voice among thousands of posters who never gets to stand out. Official forums are also governed by rules set by the company, and their effectiveness will vary by the level of moderation in effect and forum codes of conduct. It's unfortunate, but there are a lot of forums out there with rules that limit feedback, due to incidents with previous posters who were less than tactful with their feedback.
A number of small to mid-size external blogs and forums are popular with developers and you'll see some who are more comfortable discussing their game over there than in their own yard (but speaking as a community/PR guy, I have a whole other set of opinions about devs posting off the reservation). This may be more productive, as you'll be discussing the topic with people who are more invested with the game and a little more serious than the lowest common denominator of humanity that you may find on the official forums. I haven't seen a whole lot of continued dev interaction on larger network forums like IGN or, well, here at MMORPG.com (don't fire me, guys). Devs tend to only visit the large sites for news and reviews, but move back to official forums or third party for discussion.
Then there is social networking. Twitter hashtags are great for starting conversations, which are more powerful than single posts, but it's hard to know if you are reaching the devs at all in the flurry of tweets going by.
Be Equally Prepared
When you present feedback, you have to recognize that you are delivering a message to a group of people who constructed the game and have an intimate understanding of how each mechanic and piece of content was implemented. They can and will refer back to this knowledge whenever it comes time to debate issues about the game's current status and future direction. Quite simply, they have experience and expertise that the player can't match.
But as a player, you have something they don't: an intimate understanding of how game mechanics play out in the context of your experience. That knowledge grows exponentially with the experiences of your fellow players who can further contextualize the real-world execution of game mechanics. No developer or quality assurance can possibly predict every possible human input and variable that can affect their systems. But you've been adding to that data set just by playing.
The important thing to remember is that so far, you are armed only with stories, whereas the developer has the code and data variables for everything they put in the game. If you really want to get your point across, you should come prepared too. Screenshots are a good thing to keep in your feedback utility belt as they can often describe bugs and issues much better than words. Sequential screenshots or video are even better, as you can demonstrate your issue, what you did and the end result.
Remember that the game is persuasion and you'll need to build support for your case. This means that when you present it, you have to first win over the community. You don't necessarily have to get agreement from them, but their willingness to listen to you is key. It's hard to take a ranter seriously when half the post is insulting. The community marginalizes that kind of poster and that trickles down to the developers. The community doesn't want to pay attention to the guy who calls anyone who disagrees with him an idiot and neither will the developers.
Sometimes, you'll have the opportunity to meet developers at conventions or marketing and community events. This is a solid entry into getting your voice heard, but the opportunity has to be handled carefully.
First of all, don't even bother going to the event if your sole purpose is to talk to a dev about issues in the game. Your chances of getting their attention are good, but not great. They're busy running demos, talking to the press and handing out schwag. Their breaks are spent guzzling coffee and nursing aching feet. In short, their attention is hard to hold at these events.
If you approach someone at a con booth and tell them that you want to talk specifically about the issues you have in a game, you'll immediately invite a standoffish posture from them. You may not even be talking with someone who has any power to do something about the issue. Besides that, they're speaking from a script provided by their PR department which instructs them on how to evade such a scenario.
Instead, introduce yourself as a person who plays their games, enjoys it and has ideas. Ask them if they read any forums and make it a point to visit them. Try and get some kind of contact info for them to talk about the issue further. There's a good chance that even when you do write them after the event, you won't get an answer directly. But it all goes to establishing the credibility you need to get someone to take your feedback seriously.
If All Else Fails, Vote With Your Dollars
The magnitude of feedback will vary, from some minorly annoying things that you would like to see fixed to issues that break the whole game for you. If you've tried to express your feedback but the developer is still going another direction, then you shouldn't be playing that game. You've got better things to do with your time.
Not every forum allows them, but I see value in the "I'm quitting" post, particularly when it is better thought out than "Screw you guys, I'm going home." It's an exit interview, basically, and the opportunity for a developer to get inside the mind of the players they lost. If you quit a game with the intention of coming back when it gets better, it is helpful for the devs to know what "better" is.
I could talk all day about feedback and games, in a much lengthier column than this. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how feedback can be optimized both from the player and the developer forums. I feel like I scratched only the surface here but think we have the opportunity for a nice little forum conversation. Join me, won't you?