Friday, September 25, 2009

The MMORPG Customer Is Always Wrong?

WoW's ubiquitous Lead Systems Designer has an interesting quote on MMORPG's and democracy. Blue wall of text inc:
I understand how it can seem like a double standard where you feel you have an enormous mountain to climb to make your case, while we aren't obligated to do the same thing. That's simply because we're the ones empowered to make the call. I don't state that as a power trip deal, but I think sometimes players want to turn our approachability into this being a democracy. It's not.

We're not interested in developing under a system where we have to get community buy-off for our decisions. We don't think that will ultimately lead to a strong design. I don't mean for that to sound harsh. I'm just trying to steer you away from logic that ends up where we have to justify every decision we make or you can somehow get us to make the decisions you want if you just find the right knobs to turn.

The crab has the nerve to actually say it, but he's certainly not the only developer thinking it. MMORPG's are not a democracy, and we wouldn't want them to be - we have seen what happens when you let players make the design choices. That said, I'm seeing a disturbing trend of studios deciding that they don't even feel like being the bearers of bad news.

Is Silence Better Than Bad News?
SOE implemented changes in the latest EQ2 patch this week that gutted the rewards for contested raid boss fights and implemented a lack-luster but easy to balance racial trait revamp. The PR strategy was simply to quarantine all of the negative feedback into one thread per topic (something like 75+ pages on the former and 38+ on the latter), not respond unless there was a verifiable and fixed bug, and basically ignore the issue until it goes away.

Sony is not alone. Under the crunch time wire, Cryptic quietly didn't mention plans to completely revamp combat difficulty in Champions Online until it went live on the retail servers (once you've started your head start, they are your retail servers) with a single line in the patch notes. Faced with major server queues at Aion's head start, NCSoft did technically issue a statement, but Syp summarizes it as suck it up and wait it out.

There are two problems with this approach. The first is that the customer may always be wrong, but that doesn't mean that they're always 100% wrong. Contested loot may be a balance problem, but there is no incentive to scramble to race to the spawn point to attempt bosses on no notice if the loot is no better than instanced content you can attempt at your leisure. Aion might absolutely require those pesky server queues for longterm population balance, but they are also officially charging for a service that players cannot use at the moment.

The second issue is consumer confidence. For better or worse, the current generation of MMORPG's are based around progression for persistant characters. It's a problem if you decide you're going to wipe your battleground currencies after not having done so for your first expansion (a move that Blizzard had to reverse). It's a problem when your Champion is suddenly unplayable because you didn't obey a set of unwritten rules (e.g. take a defensive power ASAP) that didn't exist when you created it; sure enough, Cryptic insisted that respec costs were fine for all of a day before implementing free respecs. SOE planned massive changes to DPS across the board earlier this year, and reversed themselves when it became increasingly clear the player outcry would be even more damaging than the status quo (with hybrid DPS ruling the day).

(Aside: One has to wonder whether SOE will simply reintroduce the tanking/DPS changes under the veil of secrecy of its expansion beta NDA, not revealing them until the last possible moment. At least this would remove some of the issues with making changes of the scope they were planning mid-expansion, but it could make for a very volatile situation in February.)

Accountability and consumer confidence
It's no coincidence that changes like these are the ones that get rolled back. It's not a democracy, but that does not mean that there is no accountability. In the subscription-based MMORPG, your consumer confidence is your meal ticket.

That's why I find the veil of secrecy so puzzling. Do developers really think that players won't notice major nerfs if they appear on the test servers without any announcement or warning? Is it better to have players discussing misinformation instead of issuing a full and detailed explanation of the changes at the risk of aggraving those who disagree? Developers may not need their customers' approval, but that does not mean they should ignore it.


Gevlon said...

90-95% of the WoW playerbase wouldn't notice if certain spell coefficients are changed by -50 +50%.

Those who even UNDERSTAND what is the mentioned change are a small, but loud minority. Their subscriber money is small, but their outcry can make a negative hype. So the best is to silence them by revoking all information. They will notice the changes when they happen. They will either adapt or leave but won't whine too much.

The point is that the game is NOT made for them. It's made for the silent mass of "casuals". If those who know what hit rating is tag along, fine. If not, no one cares.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

It's basically what Gevlon said. Ask yourself, "Who is the average WoW player?" (Hint: Not people like you (or me), or the forum posters Ghostcrawler is responding to.)

The reason for the "secrecy" is that in the long run, it won't matter. The only issues still discussed years later are clich├ęs like "Paladins are EZ-mode!" 99% of the topics that were hot-button issues two years ago have been forgotten. Yes, there are new hot-button topics, but people will always find something to complain about. And, an active sub-community somewhere like official forums will act as an echo chamber; an issue seems important if a few other people repeat it a frequently. But, even a few dozen people are a tiny minority even in a game many times smaller than WoW.

Ultimately, players do have a lot of power. You guys pay the money that keeps our games running. If something is truly upsetting then you need to make the choice not to support that game anymore. According to the figures Blizzard regularly put out as press releases, millions of people think everything is acceptable enough to keep playing (and paying).

Not to say that "11M players means Blizzard can do no wrong!" But, from a business point of view, Blizzard is obviously doing enough right to keep people in the game. Therefore, having game designers spend more time justifying game design decisions may not be the best use of their time.

DSJ said...

The greatest problem a company can face from secrecy is not a backlash over changes. Sony kept their playerbase for EQ1 for a long time implementing changes to a live game that dismayed a lot of people. The problem with not having the back and forth between the developer and the player is that it breeds an attitude of insularity. The company in question eventually stops listening even to real issues and then begins to make design changes that lead to a cliff. Ask SOE what happened to them as WOW was being developed? I always had the feeling that SOE would be able to produce a game with the success of WOW but they simply didn't allow themselves to see what a good many players were asking for, they reached a point where they dismissed out of hand that changes were needed. SOE missed a massive paradigm shift in the direction of MMO design. The change from group centric to solo accessibility is Blizzards stride forward. There was no reason at the time that the success of WOW could not have been captured by SOE. Blizzard is no different from any other company when it comes to developing new products. Large companies especially get very insular in their thinking with regard to innovation. The threat to Blizzard isn't in uber guild quiting or casuals suddenly deciding today to stop playing. The real threat doesn't show up until you have a true game offered as competition that address the problems you're no longer paying attention to.

moonmonster said...

Thing is, what would be the point of soliciting or reading user feedback? The way things are today, people will whine and complain no matter what you do. How do you distinguish the 'I'm leaving if you do this' empty threats from the 'I'm leaving if you do this' actual threats? Might as well just do what you think is right, and reverse your decision if you see some actual data that it's affecting your bottom line.

Yeebo said...

Democracy is an imperfect system to be sure. However completely ignoring the wishes of the bulk of your player base is even more stupid. Witness Trials of Atlantis and the NGE. Neither game ever really recovered.

Further, regardless of whether you think your customers are mouth breathing idiots with no opinions worth considering, there is a good way to announce major changes (do it as far out as possible, let players know why the changes are being made, and try to get as many players as possible to come to your side ahead of time) and a shitty way to announce them (patch them in with little or no warning).

You'll get players rage quitting either way, but likely a lot fewer if you can get at least some of your player base to approach a major change with an open mind. Simply springing something on players absolutely will not get them to approach a change with an open mind. They will be expecting one thing and get smacked in the face by another.

Stabs said...

I think most people, even the forum trolls, can see that this is simply common sense.

Even our democratic governments don't actually run day-to-day decisions past a committee of eleven million.

It's just that in the heat of frustration players get focussed on "winning" the argument and lose sight of the fact they have zero impartiality, objectivity or overview.

Dblade said...

Brian and Gevlon:

WoW is a special case though, very few MMOs have a large base of mechanically clueless players. With most games even though the players dont post on forums, they do understand the mechanics and will notice very easily when a change nerfs a class to destruction.

If you think community input is not neccessary or may be harmful to good design, that's ok. However you better back it up with good design, not crap. If every update you introduce stuff that your playerbase ignores or actually hurts players abilities to have fun in the game, your point is pretty weak.

Beltayn said...

I honestly believe the game was a lot better off before this more open 'communicable' air. Instead of it really improving the game, all I see are changes made to appease the nerd-raging masses.

The chopper is a good example. Originally envisioned as a perk to engineering, the masses whined and QQd so much that it was eventually given to everyone. Unfortunately however it would end up becoming the ONLY mount you'd ever see anyone on. I mean, given the choice between a chopper and a regular mount... how many people would actually ride the regular mount? Few to none.

So Blizzard still had to balance it out. So they made it ridiculously expensive. They turned it into a gold sink. Hell, I'm betting most of the people who whined for it to be BOE STILL don't have one anyway.

So now, a mount that fits perfectly with Engineers... is iconic of the trade and is pretty much what every Engineer always wanted in their wildest dreams, is now almost never ridden by Engineers, because basically Engineering isn't the most profitable craft out there.

It's a sad design choice that takes away a lot from the game, basically because the developers listened to a bunch of whining kiddies who want everything at once.