Wednesday, August 27, 2014

And no one dared...

Are game developers listening to their players?

If so, where?

If I had something that I wanted the developers of a game to hear, where would I go to voice my concern?  Now it's very unlikely that a lone individual would be privileged to get the ear of developers.  I'm not asking for that. But even if I merely wanted to join my voice with many others to get some attention on an idea, is there some accepted avenue to follow that has any chance of being effective?

I was piqued by a thought by Roger Edwards at Contains Moderate Peril that summed up the situation nicely.
"But the forums are not in any way representative of the LOTRO community. No gaming forums are. They are merely a platform for a vocal minority. So Turbine could, if they wanted to, completely ignore them."
As players, we'd like to think that developers are listening to their own forums, but we know that's probably not the case.  For one thing, game forums are traditionally wretched hives of scum and villainy.  It's amazing that any discussion takes place there at all, when the pass time is more likely to be finding out how quickly an original post can be torn to shreds over spelling or word choice or personal attacks.  The truth is that the contention and rancor that typify game forums have driven most of the thoughtful commentators away.

In that fabled Sapience quote, the one where he discussed how few raiders and pvper played LOTRO, the more interesting part was where he ended by saying that these minority groups were vastly overrepresented in the forums. You can't blame those groups for being vocal about what's important to them, but the community manager did give the impression that he discounted the feedback he was getting from his own forums.

Imagine the loneliness the developers must feel when they realize that their forums are awash with strident single-issue voices and social assassins.

I distinctly remember a moment in the pre-release forums of SWTOR when the discussion turned to flying mounts.  The overwhelming consensus was that flying mounts were entirely undesirable and the posters were quite open about why: it would minimize the viability of open world pvp.  Flying mounts were never a serious possibility for The Old Republic, but it became clear that many of the most visible posters were there to ensure that pvp was well represented.

I have a similar recollection about the announcement in no uncertain terms about the removal of tree form from druid healers in World of Warcraft.  At that time there was considerable negative outcry from many quarters but the decision was presented as a fait accompli.  Apparently, there was a thread somewhere on the forums, or even on Reddit, where the possibility of removing tree of life was discussed with the devs.  Since the consensus there was that it wasn't a big deal, ToL got the axe, so to speak.

Blizzard has the reputation of being tone deaf when it comes to player desires, particularly when shouted on the forums, but suddenly this extremely unpopular decision was actually presented as an example of the devs giving druids what they wanted.  The message was that if druids were unhappy, they should have participated more.  Ironically, the community managers then proceeded to scold the druids, who had finally been motivated to bring their complaints to the forum, for being too negative.

It wasn't too long ago that several bloggers when leaving major MORPGs (WoW, ESO, WS) had trouble completing the exit interview where they had a final opportunity to say why they were unsatisfied.  For most, the available list of reasons to choose from didn't adequately represent what they were feeling, and other options weren't available.

I think that many developers would like to listen to their players.  At least, they would like to know what players think, even if they can't always be accommodated.  But I'm not sure that they have any reliable method for receiving valid responses.   I think that well reasoned commentary and opinion by bloggers and gaming journalists probably has a greater chance of being heard than any single post on game forums.  (I, myself, am not in danger of writing anything well-reasoned, but I regularly read people who do.)

Bloggers speaking on similar topics can refine and concentrate thinking that has the possibility to reach employees working on games at all levels within their respective companies.  And it can reach them when they are likely to be receptive to ideas rather than when they are hunkered down and wading through the free-fire zone of forums. For example, opinions affected the thinking of SWTOR developers at the time. (Torwars is now inactive because the webmaster was hired by Wildstar).  Warcraft Hunters Union was able to bring ideas to Ghostcrawler at a time when hunters were going through some major changes.

Developers will admit that they like interacting with their players when they can do so in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and support.  Devs like their games, and they like reading about their games, and reading people who like their games.  That's the opportunity we have to be heard.

Blaugust is still going strong.  This is post twenty-seven in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

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