Thursday, July 28, 2011

Player Impact on Game Design

This is the first post in response to the comments posted here.

Syl encouraged me to blog on this:
- player power vs. dev power. how big should each be, what's the correct balance, when are they too high? Or: when is player impact still positive, when does it become negative / where should devs keep the ultimate say.

In my opinion player power, when it comes to the design process, is detrimental to the quality of the game. Optimally a MMORPG is designed by one or two masterminds. Two only if they can argue without offending each other - ever. No three-man constellation is ever stable and more masterminds mean too many bad compromises.

The masterminds need to have the entire game design (the big! picture) in their head at all times. They need to share a vision for the game that extends beyond "getting rich". They should be supported by a diverse council of at least five professionals who care enough to argue with them without having any authority / responsibility. The coucil should meet regularily and the masterminds should be required to defend their design decisions in front of the council.

The only way players should influence the game on a game design level is via professional community managers, whose job is to report the status of the community to the masterminds/council. When it comes to forums, I absolutely agree with Elder Game.

The feedback part of the community managers' task is twofold:
1) Gather the few brilliant posts on the forum, anonymize them, and pass them on. Passed on posts should be marked to incentivise thoughtful and concise posts.
2) Help with interpreting statistics.

Optimally, the players consider the developers to be 100% non-responding to player demands. Once players feel they can have an impact, they start to play the developers instead of playing the game. This is harmful for the game and - more importantly - it diminishes the players' fun.

Player impact should always be indirect; via the community managers or via statistics. It is very important that the masterminds know how to interpret statistics. If necessary they should be supported by a professional statistician.

Statistics should be used to refine and realize the original vision, not to increase the cash flow. The reason is that refining and realizing the original vision is the best approach to making lots of money. Whereas making lots of money as a goal, turns out to be bad at making lots of money. Obliquity.

I am not a supporter of Eve's CSM. It is a poor man's community management.


  1. In terms of *game* design, I absolutely agree with you. I genuinely believe WoW has, to its detriment, abandoned the ethos of designing towards a grand idea, and instead taken the view that designing things to get a good response * right now* is the way to go.

    Evidently that's lost them subs. But they still persist, ignoring the fact that when WoW was built up towards a grand vision (Vanilla and TBC) it experienced unparalleled growth.

  2. @drilski - I actually think the problem is Blizzard is not doing a good job of appeasing the customers.

    If you want a "great game" then you need to get an independently wealthy person to fund one single talented game designer to produce the game they want to play regardless of profit. Odds are, it would not be a game that I want to play but it would be consistent and good for what it was.

    If the game is trying to produce profit, then players have the ultimate power. The 1337 bloggers complain about "entitled" players. In fact, the proper adjective is extorting; i.e. the players are not entitled to anything but neither is the company entitled to revenue. It is rare to have people criticizing BMW, Apple or McDonald's for producing products that customer's want.

    I agree with the idea of not overly relying on forums. Such a tiny % of players post on the forums. Focus Groups and surveying randomly selected players would provide much more useful information than listening to forums.

    I rarely see people suggesting surveying non-players of an MMO. Like any subscription business, there is an ongoing battle to get new subscribers to replace the inevitable attrition. The question of how can the company affordably acquire new players and retain the players longer is much more important than how happy a few special snowflakes in forums are.

    Companies need to pick a target market and not try to make their product be all things for all people. But as long as the developers need the players income, the players have power.

  3. Because developers can't please everyone, the moment they begin to respond to player demands, they begin to actively tick off those who didn't get responded to. The message sent is "you're less important than those other players. You don't count, we deliberately blew you off."

    This will make those players not just dislike the game, but despise the developers. And let me tell you, nothing is less conducive to sending money to a company than knowing the money is going to support people you despise.

  4. [...] But they still persist, ignoring the fact that when WoW was built up towards a grand vision (Vanilla and TBC) it experienced unparalleled growth.


    The pernicious fallacy that just never ends. Nevermind how "grand vision" never seems to include things like overseas releases, a strong IP, hitting the correct Skinner Box level of rewards, being MUCH more dumbed down and solo-friendly than any other MMO before and since, famous advertising campaigns, etc etc etc.

    Clearly, the designers left in charge of this $800 billion revenue machine are simply out of touch, and every lost sub is a result of decisions that are coincidentally at the top of your list of pet peeves. That is just how these things work.

    Re: Original Post

    The irony of the Obliquity argument is that there is apparently some kind of moral difference between the goal of making money vs making people happier/improving the lives of more people/etc. I agree with Obliquity being easier - it takes far less effort for you to simply make a thing and have the people convince themselves that they like it, than it would to convince people to like it. That is the same concept behind leading people towards decisions that they then make themselves, rather than make decisions for them. It is hard making something one-size-fits-all; it is way easier making something and then having people convince themselves that it will fit.

    That said, I find it amusing that in a longer piece by that author, he quotes Sam Walton: "I have concentrated all along on building the finest retailing company that we possibly could. Period. Creating a huge personal fortune was never particularly a goal of mine." And yet that "finest retailing company" is one of the worst retailing companies to work for in just about every category, presumably to cut costs. Maybe the argument is that things have changed since Sam Walton died, but there seems a suspicious disconnect between doing something you have a passion for and knowing that the thing you have a passion for doing will also make you filthy rich.

  5. "It is rare to have people criticizing BMW, Apple or McDonald's for producing products that customer's want."
    That's because there is a great deal of competition in all of those markets. Don't like Apple? Buy a PC. Or an Andriod. Go to Burger King, or a fancy restaurant. Order a different burger, or chicken nuggets. There is a lot more choice. MMOs aren't so diverse, mostly relying on the stat-grind model, with those that don't having small population. Ad while there is some chicken or egg to argue, a small population in a game based on player interaction is a bad thing, which can cause more problems than the good game solves.

  6. @Azuriel

    Oh look, someone else on their high horse.


    See, I can make pointless little jabs too (which is ironic, considering you talk about "rational debate" in your post yet accuse people of intellectual laziness. How (un)remarkable.)

    Now, to actually address your point: you seem to devote most of your efforts towards saying why my viewpoint is wrong, and then conclude with "well no one really knows anyway, so let's all give up and just make random guesses." A strong IP maintained a single game for FIVE years? It would carry it for, at best, 6 months, and beyond that the vast majority of people coming in would most certainly not be there for the IP. If they were fans, they'd have picked it up early; if not, they'd be coming for something else.

    Overseas releases? You can quite clearly see that there's a red line marked WoW West, and even if you ignore the fact that post-2006 all of the lines show very similar trends, there is stagnation in WoW West just before it cuts out as an independent figure. And, let's not kid ourselves, WoW in NA was going strong without other territories as well.

    "being MUCH more dumbed down and solo-friendly than any other MMO before and since" Yes, that's part of the vision they had. I fail to see how that even merits a mention ("and since" is also particularly funny considering the tripe that's been thrown onto the market that even the average WoW player would find tediously easy.)

    You need only look at recent misfires, U-turns and the current staff to realise that WoW's current development are, actually, in a mess. RealID? "We want to keep things hard, and keep the progression curve" one week, but next Tuesday out comes a series of nerfs to raiding? Tom Chilton, architect of what was to be WoW's e-sports pinnacle (arenas) which has instead become a massive balance headache and gets very little if any or gaming coverage, now heading up WoW's development?

    Far from being "there are more fish in month Y, and the crime rate doubles, so fish cause crime," there is an *uncanny* link between design changes and total stagnation. Oh, and they're both intrinsically linked by, let me think, the game itself.

    It's also interesting to note that you have a little go at people pointing out how their gripes with the game link with sub numbers, yet you mention yourself that you supported WotLK's changes and, unsurprisingly, are defending them.

    Rational debate, you said? There it is.