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Developer Perspectives: “The Customer” Is Not Always Right

By Sanya Weathers on September 11, 2009 | Columns | Comments

“The Customer” Is Not Always Right

"The Customer" is not always right, and neither is "The Developer."

The reason for this is simple. There's no such thing as "the customer" or "the developer" in the MMO world.

Speaking of an MMO customer as a single entity is madness. Even a small MMO has tens of thousands of customers. The only thing they are all certain to have in common is that they need to breathe air. The age span will run from toddler to senior citizen. The intelligence level will vary from illiterate cretin to Asperger-iffic engineer. There are a few incredibly good looking people, and there are a few, er, Morlocks.

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Most players are right in the middle of every possible bell curve. In fact, the divergence amongst the typical MMO playerbase is mostly found in their opinions about the game. If you've got ten thousand customers, and you ask them all for their opinions, you will have ten thousand different ideas on what the game really needs. There will be broad areas of agreement, of course, but everyone will have their own spin based on their wildly divergent play styles, the amount of time they prefer to spend on gaming, their class, their preferred visual style, how well they read, to what degree they prefer immersion, how fast they type, how much time they spend on consoles, their reflexes, their personalities, their past experiences with MMOs, and their socioeconomic niche. Probably their marital status, too.

And the nature of MMOs is that a benefit to one group either has no effect on another group, or does harm to that other group. It is simply not possible for all individual customers to be equally right.

Determining which customers are right would be easier if there was such a thing as "the developer." But there isn't. The developers are a microcosm of their player base, with the simple act of being developers making the differences more pronounced. A developer who comes from a console background is not used to the kinds of exploits a PC developer assumes a player will attempt. (Hint: No combination of keystrokes is too esoteric for a player to miss. If putting on the capslock and the numlock and typing &TffWZ while holding down the left arrow key will unlock a secret level, there will be guides to the secret level on eBay three days after launch.) Someone who was hired initially as a customer service agent will have one set of assumptions about players, whereas someone who was hired as a programmer will have another. These assumptions deeply color feedback interpretation.

You can't convince most players of this, of course. Most players are positive "developers" are a monolithic entity that marches in lockstep, a juggernaut of nerf that heeds not our cries. That's because a patch note has such a feeling of finality when it comes out. A mere patch note can't convey the shouting, the desk thumping, or the violent whiteboard scribbling. And no decent community manager is ever going to say, "Look, there were an equal number of us for this change as there were against it, and the producer was in the group that was for it." And no one in their right mind is going to say, "it was a tie and the producer flipped a coin."

Go ahead, imagine the most insane thing ever written in a patch note, and think about the fact that it's possible the only thing certain about it was that the old status quo was unacceptable. Good times!

Fortunately, it's not usually that way. Usually, the best thing for the game can be determined by someone with a big picture view.

However, the big picture view is not held by someone who is advocating for a particular class, a particular play style, or someone experiencing the game from a particular level. That rules out a huge chunk of the playerbase. The most cursory reading of an MMO-related message board will prove this to anyone with basic reading skills. As a former manager of mine used to say, "Who wants to be more powerful? Raise your hands. My god, it's UNANIMOUS."

But I'm not saying that developers automatically have that big picture view. Oh, lordy, am I ever not saying that. As I said before, a development team is basically a playerbase reduced to basic archetypes. That's why a dev team is usually led by someone with enough experience and cynicism to get above personal concerns, and why feedback is so crucial. And as I've said in previous columns, feedback comes in multiple forms. It comes via game data (how people actually use a product), it comes via polls or surveys (developer initiated feedback), and it comes via emails and message boards (user-initiated feedback).

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