Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gamers and Developers: A Love Story

Communication between gamers and developers is a tough issue. Most people outside the industry (and plenty inside) have no idea how tumultuous live development can be. I can tell you that in previous jobs I've had experiences where one day I'm working on a feature and the next day it's been cut or de-prioritized. This along with other concerns often makes it difficult to communicate with the end user in a way that a) doesn't get their hopes up about a feature they want, but may not see the light of day and b) still engages those users in a way that makes them feel accommodated. It drives both sides crazy. Gamers end up feeling like their investment isn't being rewarded and that they're just being used, while developers end up resenting what they see as "entitled" users who think they know better how to make the game, but are never happy with what they get. Better communication can often help everyone to reach a happy middle ground, but the signal to noise ratio on the internet is lousy and it always has been. Add to this the logistical issues of time, money, manpower, and the need to please the largest audience possible in order to get the biggest return on investment and you're always going to end up pissing someone off and making others feel as if they're being ignored.

I know a lot gets said within the industry about games being art and how dare anyone not think of games as art, and as a designer I agree: games are art. There are degrees however and not all art is created equally. Speaking musically (because I can always analogize things in regards to music) I've come to realize that what we normally refer to as "triple A" games have way more in common with pop music than they do with punk rock while audiences seem to expect a more punk mentality regardless. Mainstream pop music wants to reach the widest audience possible and (to me at least) ends up sounding watered down and bland. There's something for "everyone", but if you're looking for an 8 minute drum solo then you're probably out of luck. Punk rock (real Punk rock ... but that's a whole other discussion) doesn't care about the broadest audience. The philosophy there is "the right people will get this". Is there great pop music? Hell yeah! Is there lousy punk rock? You bet! The same goes for games and when you're dealing with live development on games that are essentially pop music (every game I've ever worked on) you're never going to please everyone.

There's no right way to foster better communication between gamers and developers. I've often been heard to rant that developers should give gamers much more information about the process of development. I'd love for people to really see how the sausage is made, but that's not my call. I like to think that maybe if people saw that just because you can come up with the "perfect" answer to a problem doesn't mean it can be done, they'd be more forgiving. Game development involves a lot of compromise and often frustration. Gamers always feel like their prefered feature is the most important and "why doesn't someone just put this in the game?" To be honest, I know plenty of designers who feel the same way. I personally have designed at least as much content that has seen the light of day as hasn't but that's how pop music gets made. For every 10 tracks on a top 40 album, there's maybe twice as many that didn't make the cut, but that there is probably some (albeit smaller or more dedicated) audience for.

If developers tell you everything they're doing as they make or support a game, there's going to be things that you're really into that just dissipate and when you get people excited about something and then pull it away, it never ends well. I can remember this exact thing happening with Ultima Online back when I was in college when they had proposed a radical and (to me at least) interesting sounding bounty/good/evil system to help curb (or gamify) their player killing issues. The system as it was discussed never went live and they ended up going for a simpler option of splitting the world into PvP and non-PvP mirrors. On the one hand I appreciated the openness and on the other hand I felt cheated out of a system I was looking forward to. In hindsight, I have to assume that the system wasn't all it was cracked up to be and didn't solve their issues in the manner they desired.

You can only ever say too much or say too little and when opinion is already turned against you (warranted or not) the outcry is almost always going to be negative. The more negative the gamers are, the less the developers want to talk to them and the less both sides talk to each other, the further apart they get. If you want real discussion and insight into development, say nice things. Sometimes developers don't have all the information they need. Sometimes developers don't engage enough with their audience. Sometimes developers think they know better than their customers, but developers aren't out to get you and most of them are pretty good at what they do. If those things weren't true then they wouldn't have jobs and you wouldn't be playing their games to begin with. Publishers (in my experience) don't manipulate studios (at all) or as much as the public thinks they do and being that this is pop music, developers are here to make money as much as they're here to make art.  They don't want to be taken advantage of or undermined just as much as gamers. Show them respect and they'll show it right back. Sensationalism and misplaced outrage will only fan the flames and I personally would much rather we find a way to make better games together.


  1. Good write-up, I appreciate the music analogies. While I understand the hesitation in announcing content that might not make the cut, I do feel like the communication from Bioware on SWTOR updates has been frustratingly sparse. On the other hand, it seems like anything you guys do or say ends up getting flipped around in some negative light, so it probably seems like a hopeless gesture at times. Hopefully a better balance can be achieved in the future. I would like to think that it's only small vocal minority of gamers that act like complete asshats, but I could be wrong.

  2. "Better communication can often help everyone to reach a happy middle ground, but the signal to noise ratio on the internet is lousy and it always has been."

    I think that's crucial here.

    On the internet, both sides, gamers and developers, appear to each other as if they were this diffuse mass of people, people just don't get to talk with each other one on one. There's usually other people who coordinate the communication between both sides, and if there are gag orders in place, it makes it even harder to begin with.

    In order to feel like they're being heard, gamers increase the noise if they feel their questions are not being answered (and to block out other noise from other parts of the gamer spectrum, people constantly telling them that their issue is far less important than theirs and how dare they ask questions)and developers start to wonder what's wrong with people.

    Unfortunately, gamers feel like they have to fight for developer attention all the time, because viable information is few and far between, at least it often enough feels that way.

    Both sides, gamers and developers, would they talk to each other directly, would not have that many problems, I think.

    The internet is a horrible medium for communication in this respect, but it's the one most often used, maybe because it is so mainstream as well, to use your imagery, reaches the maximum of people in the shortest amount of time.

    With that comes noise though, as unfortunate as it is. I don't think there is any indication this will change, in the foreseeable future, unfortunately. Not in the way communication is organized between both sides, it's just the perfect breeding ground for misunderstandings and confusion that come on top of the noise you've been talking about.