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“The Customer” Is Not Always Right

Sanya Weathers Posted:
Columns Developer Perspectives 0

User-initiated feedback is usually negative. When was the last time you wrote a letter to a company because things were going so well? You didn't. You continued to enjoy yourself while the fun was pouring in, because that's what you're supposed to do with your entertainment mediums. And you don't really need to send love letters about how great the product is or how great the service is (although, I, um, okay, I print those letters out, and I keep them in a binder if they're for me, and I email them to the whole team if they're about the game, because I'm human, okay, sheesh) . The best love letter in the world is your subscription, or your decision to shell out on a microtransaction.

Though, as a side note, if you get great customer service, please do say so in a followup ticket. That kind of thing can make a huge difference in the life of someone who mainly eats ramen. By "huge difference," I mean "promoted." In the dog eat dog customer service pool, where there are only but so many promotions, a few letters of commendation can have a big impact on someone's entire career. You can literally change someone's life with a one sentence ticket. Use your power for good!

Anyway, feedback. "The" customer" is not always right, but it's certain that individual customers will be right about their areas of expertise. Feedback is important to any game company that wants to make money in the long term - it's the only way to ensure that every facet of the game comes to the attention of the decision makers. And feedback is the canary in the coal mine. It's the only way developers have of seeing if they're on the right road before subscription numbers start to fall.

With all due respect to my colleague and his column on Wednesday, the idea that there is no accountability from the developer to the customer is insane. A for-profit product has accountability built right into it. If the developer does not give players what they want and need (which is often different from what people say they want), they end up shutting down. This isn't a D&D game in a basement. If the DM sucked, you walked away and didn't let him DM again. You might possibly have made fun of him the next day, and suggested the "monty haul campaign" be renamed the "Erik Johnson campaign." But his life wasn't ruined because he didn't pay attention to feedback. He didn't lose his job or his reputation, and no one foreclosed on his house. It is that serious.

Can studios do a better job of communicating? Always. Even the best, most customer-oriented development teams out there don't always do a good job indicating their ultimate goals for the product (besides "keep it running forever"). Can I point to a number of failures in this regard, including my own? Yes.

A community person's job is to be a conduit of information in both directions, not a fireproof shield for a cowardly developer to duck behind. The community person should be as transparent as possible - but with a degree of focus so that important information isn't lost in the noise. And the community has to trust that the community rep is a professional who passed on all of the information, after distilling it down. I see so many people say "Oh, he plays X, he isn't going to pass on feedback about Y." Or, "the producer clearly favors X, therefore Y will never get what it needs."

Aargh! No! This is a business! It's like any other business! The manager of your local McDonald's might really like chicken and hate hamburgers, but he's not going to take hamburgers off the menu, and he's going to fire the grill guy who spits on the Big Mac!

Anyway. You need to have a certain amount of trust. You need to believe that you (and your subscription money) have value to the developers. It is simply not possible for every piece of feedback to be personally acknowledged and responded to. To think that "if you're not acknowledged, you were unheard" is lunacy.

If you don't understand the way these games are made well enough to realize that your feedback is crucial, and if you need a personal response to believe that you matter, the scale of an MMO may be too big for you. That is not an insult in any way. There are many, many smaller, independently owned and funded games out there where you as an individual can get the interaction you want.

But even with a smaller game, there's going to be a developer with whom the buck stops. A car with multiple steering wheels being used at the same time doesn't go anywhere (and if it does manage to get out of the driveway, it usually crashes really quickly). If you don't trust your producer or president or designer or your community person to make the best possible decisions for the game, the best recourse you have as a customer is to not give those people your money.

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Sanya Weathers