When building a game, developers too often lose sight of “fun.” We have all seen it happen, especially in MMOs that have loads of content. With PAX having just ended, I wonder how many fans of the games they showed there actually got a chance to talk to the developers about the fun factor of their games? The game industry hides behind many curtains as far as dealing with fans goes. Community Managers, marketing executives, sales people, and customer support are all in place to keep you away from getting in the developers faces and yelling, “I wasted a month grinding to get this item and you just nerfed it!” Is the developer held accountable for that decision? It’s hard to tell. So this week I wanted to explore just how much player feedback developers take into account and how they react to it.
Back in the dark ages of pen and paper RPGs we had Dungeon Masters. If you have never heard that term basically that is what a game designer is today, a Professional Dungeon Master. When you played Dungeons & Dragons you were most likely friendly with your Dungeon Master. If the game took a turn for the worse or the DM did something that was unfair, you could stand up at the table and say, “WTF!?” (although, that term had likely not yet been invented yet). They had to answer right there on the spot. Whether the answer was good or bad they were held accountable for the decisions made in their game as the developer of that world. Somehow the problem got worked out for better or worse in the game and most times you continued playing.
This level of accountability has been sorely lacking in the MMO industry and perhaps it is time we called some developers on their decisions. If it sounds like I am trying to start the revolution, well, I am. I understand that you cannot be everything to everyone. You cannot please all the people all the time, etc. However, you can take a serious look at your game and ask yourself, as a developer do I really want to spend weeks at a time trying to accomplish one goal, or should we implement multiple goals that are easier to achieve over the course of those weeks. Make sense? Well it does to players. That is just one design idea to help players get more involved on a regular basis as opposed to holding the carrot so far out there that in order to reach it we have to run a marathon.
Beta tests are one of the most critical times for a game, and for an MMO it has almost become life or death. Many players I know love to get into beta, they love to see the game first and know what is coming when the game launches. Players are generally about advancement, and if you can get into the beta, you get a bonus for when you start to advance in the game. Player feedback is critical in betas. It is likely the best way to voice your opinion to the developers before the game is launched. The problem is that many games are going to be shipped as is by the time a beta test is done. There is very little time or room for change. Still as a player voicing your opinion in beta does cut down some of the walls that keep fans and developers apart.
Throughout this entire process the Community Managers steps in and works to be the voice of reason between crazed fans and egotistical developers. Imagine having to tell someone that their game needs to be fixed because players found these flaws. At the same time having to tell players, we can only fix these two flaws, we understand there are three more. Welcome the Community Manager, their responsibility is to the players as the voice of the community. As a player, running up to a Community Manager and yelling at them at a conference will not get you the changes you want. Engaging in a good conversation about the changes that were made to your class and how they impacted yourself as well as others will get you much further. Submitting concerns backed up by facts or examples will also get you noticed. The Community Managers are there for you as a player, and the good ones can even knock developer egos down a few notches when things get too extreme.
A great example of this is Sony’s Influencer Program. SOE runs this influencer program with some of their top players. They host a summit with devs, community managers, and players each year to discuss game issues. This type of program works very well and gives everyone a chance to strive for better game play.
For devs, beta tests have their highs and lows. The highs are people actually get into the game you spent years building and can finally explore. The lows are that they now can find every bug, exploit, loophole, flaw, and problem in your game. The key is to look for good feedback and seriously take it into consideration. We all know that there are deadlines for a game to come out and if a major flaw is found in beta it may not be fixed for launch. This should be communicated to players, not hidden. If developers got up and said, we know this is broken, it will be fixed in the first patch, players will likely respond positively and go along for the ride. You are communicating with them. You are working together on the game. We are back to the paper and pencil days when you could talk an issue out with your dungeon master and continue playing.
The other area that games can do a better job in communicating to their fans is by being honest about the type of game they are making. Again you cannot be everything for everyone and while devs will use this line to defend their game from rabid angry fans. They should also use it as a pre-emptive strike to defuse issues that might arise. Many MMOs make the mistake of trying to be too much as I said earlier. Also MMOs now have a bag of tricks that each game must have in it like PvP, Questing, Crafting, etc. If these elements are missing, players may not like it. However, it would be refreshing to hear a developer say, you do not get loot from quests. You can only craft or buy your loot in town. Or, our game is about PvP, that’s it, there are no dungeon raids, sorry. As the MMO industry goes through its growing pains perhaps we will see more games targeted to player types. Obviously you want everyone to play your game, but many MMOs who have tried to do this have lost players. Keep it simple, keep it fun, and be what you are. I am sure many MMOs would love to have five hundred thousand active players instead of trying to gain ten million and ending up with only one hundred thousand.
In the end the communication between developers and gamers can be improved. Player feedback is important and should be a focus of developers by the time a game goes into beta. You have the right to call them out and say “WTF!” You are the customer, and technically the customer is always right.