Thursday, July 25, 2013

Betrayal and The Gaming Contract

There are really three parallel questions to be answered:
  1. Compatibility. Do the developer’s goals for the game coincide with what I want out of the game?
  2. Performance.  Is the developer competent to create and manage the ongoing game experience?
  3. Trust.  Can I trust the developers to provide me with information that is timely and reliable.

Very often when people complain about a game, they are complaining about one of these three categories.  Successful developers do all of these things well.

Compatability   (or, These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…)
Compatibility means that the developer is making a game I want to play.  There’s no point in complaining about the shortcomings of a game when the developer had no intention of creating the kind of game you’re looking for.  No amount of pleading will make SWTOR a vehicle combat game.  If WoW: Pandaria is all about dailies and faction rep, demanding that it provide 10 levels of questing content is missing the point. 

Not surprisingly, this tends to be the biggest source of player-complaints about games.  The devs aren't making the mmorpg that I want to play, therefore they are doing it wrong.  The recent trend with MMOs is toward more diversification and niche-development, so if a given game isn't for you, there ought to be many others to try.

The key here is that the developers have to communicate clearly what kind of game they are providing. They get into trouble when they try to be all things to all people, or when they seem to promise something that they really have no intention of delivering.

What’s more frustrating is when a developer has a stated goal for a game that they just can’t get to work.  They’re doing exactly what I want, our desires coincide perfectly, they just can’t get it right.

Open world PvP in SWTOR comes to mind.  The designers had ambitious plans for the planet Ilum but they could never get things to work as they wanted to, and in the end have all but closed down the place, opting instead to push warzones as their working PvP experience.

This last category is harder to define.    Players spend a good deal of time with a game.  Success in an MMO requires a commitment of time and money, of negotiating with family, and balancing work or school responsibilities.  And MMO's are based around systems that delay gratification to a great degree.  Players need to trust the makers of the game that all this time and delayed gratification will ultimately pay off with a reward in player satisfaction.

MMOs aren't games that you can jump into and experience at all levels, they require time in game, prior planning, careful management of resources, developing relationships with fellow players.  Players make decisions that have ramifications that play out weeks and months into the future.  I must choose to grind dungeons now, for tokens to buy gear, that allow me access to raids and other high end content months down the road.   MMOs are fundamentally based on players' decisions to guide the development of their characters.

When players choose an MMO, they are very aware of this gaming overhead.  It's part of what makes the genre so appealing, but also part of what makes players so prone to voicing their opinions in the first place, and ultimately wary to commit time to a game when they aren't sure of the outcome.
When they discover that their effort has been wasted, or that sub-optimal decisions have been made, players feel ill used.  When this happens because the devs led them to believe one thing was going to happen when something far different was really intended all along, they feel betrayed.  Players need to be able to rely on what the developers are telling them.  Without trust in the developers, players can’t feel confident in making any decisions

And this feeling of trust must be present in their other two relationships with Developers as well.  They feel lied to when developers rely on half-truths to avoid revealing their lack of performance. 
Players feel betrayed when the design goals of the game seem to change dramatically leading to a loss of compatibility.

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