Time was, game developers created games in a vacuum, following no guidelines but the ones they invented. Many of them even had a kind of superiority complex they used to create games with obscure, maddening mechanics that made us bang our collective head on the wall. Fortunately, those dark days are over, and today's developers seem to have realized the antagonistic approach is no longer viable. Even better, they've realized that success depends on giving us what we want. If any holdouts remain who still believe it's a developer's rather than a gamer's market, well—their days are certainly numbered..
I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago while chatting with Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi at the World of Tanks Grand Finals in Warsaw, Poland. I was struck by something he said: “[Players] are our bread and butter. We want them to come and cheer and spread the news; we have to make sure they're taken care of. Some big companies, for them it's about the money. The money doesn't matter. It's about the players.” It occurred to me then that it's easy to say the politically correct thing when you're raking in cash as fast as Wargaming is. Still, considering how successful they are, they're clearly onto something.
Not that Wargaming's conclusion is unique. Guild Wars 2 makers ArenaNet have been working with their community from the get-go, engaging with them via the GW2 forums and implementing as many players' suggestions as possible. This has had a direct affect on things like the game's Living World content and the overall game's update frequency. Chris Whiteside, Studio Design Director said a few months ago, “Our developers work very hard to listen to the community, and work tirelessly to create content and features that they hope the community will love. Likewise, the constructive members of our community work hard to provide our development team with feedback that abides with our collaborative standards...This is a true partnership.”
Though Wargaming and ArenaNet represent examples of successful developer/gamer partnerships, it's definitely possible such things could have negative results. The whole “too many cooks, design-by-committee” thing could easily result in jumbled, directionless games full of pointless features as representatives on both sides wrangle to get what they want. Additionally, since forums are generally dominated by subsets of the player population—generally the most vocal ones—this makes it hard for developers to tell which information they should act upon. Choosing wrong can result in mediocrity—worse yet, it can result in the worst kind of pandering as metrics-driven products pay more attention to micro-transactions than fun.
As difficult as negotiating a player/developer relationship is though, in today's ultra-competitive, economically changing game industry, it's essential. A slew of MMOs shut down in 2013 and 2014 including Hellgate, Prius Online, Warhammer Online, Free Realms, Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and Wizardry Online. Others, like World of Darkness and Grimlands never even made it to launch day. Though more than just developer/community relations are to blame for these failures, they go to show just how hard it is in today's climate for an online game to stay afloat.
Knowing this, the most promising games are stacking the deck in their favor by looking to players during their earliest stages. Carbine Studios has been soliciting player feedback since the beginning and recently they overhauled Wildstar's chaotic, cluttered UI mainly due to the community's urging. Other studios have taken things a step further, inviting players to participate directly and take ownership of their favorite games either by contributing cash in exchange for in-game representation (Path of Exile) or by having players create and submit their own content (Trove). Not only have developers recognized the financial benefit of such measures, they've enjoyed the bond such things create between themselves and their communities.
MMOs are a reflection of our technology-oriented, increasingly interdependent world, so it's no surprise that collaboration defines the modern MMO development model. It's also no surprise that we expect a more active role in the making of these games. MMO players invest in our games more than perhaps players of any other genre; we spend more time in them, we become more knowledgeable about their context and history, we become more attached to our characters and in-game social circles.
I for one am optimistic about the new developer/player dialog. I like feeling as if my input has a positive impact on the games I love to play, and I believe the “survival of the fittest” phase interactive entertainment is currently experiencing will ultimately result in better games. So let me just say that the warning signs are there for you developers; talk to gamers, listen to them—if you don't, I expect you and your games won't be long for this world.