Wednesday 14 July 2010

It is better to listen in order to understand than to listen in order to reply.

APB is going through some changes:

“Vehicle Handling: We’re already underway on a major overhaul to vehicle handling to make cars more responsive and less slippy overall. You’ll still be able to power slide around corners in stylish fashion, but steering is more responsive overall and easier to get the hang of early on.

Combat: We’re looking at almost every aspect of combat – how it looks, feels and sounds, as well as weapon characteristics and tactics. Weapon changes will be put up on the Public Test World to get some feedback in due course.”

All of this but a few weeks after launch.

An all but too familiar story in the MMO industry.

I wonder if many MMO developers wilfully ignore the feedback they get during the testing phase in the hope that a large percentage of their player base is wrong, or whether they’re simply interested in bug reports and don’t even hear the more wide-ranging complaints with respect to the design of major sections of the game. Look at the vast number of tiny angry claws that it took to nip Activision Blizzard on the toe before the corporate behemoth withdrew the giant foot that it had decided to plunge into the Sea of Selfhood, with respect to RealID.

The lesson I think some MMO developers really need to learn is that, whether they like it or not, when players complain en masse about a design decision, the developer generally should take some note of it there and then, thus saving themselves a lot of time and effort when they have to make the change post-release anyway. These developers may roll their eyes when a large proportion of players complain about one aspect or another, but like it or not, these are the people you need to please with your game, because they are not going to complain vehemently about fundamental aspects of the system and then simply say “Oh well, I’ll just subscribe for a year or so anyway”. They’ll pay the box price, and when the included time comes to an end, they’ll just up and leave.

It’s not tourism, it’s consumerism.

Saying “We’re listening to our players and making sweeping changes” after you have already launched your game is extremely disingenuous: these issues are no different to the ones that were mentioned in beta, it’s just that now the players are able to reinforce their complaints by voting with their wallets, which seems to be the only way to get a developer’s attention, to state categorically “no, really, your game is broken in ways X, Y and Z, whether it hurts you to hear it or not”, and then leave. When enough players do this the forum suddenly lights-up with developer posts with words such as ‘overhaul’, ‘restructuring’ and ‘redesign’, and phrases such as ‘fundamental changes’, ‘a new focus’, ‘looking at all aspects’ and ‘listening to players’ feedback’. Unfortunately by that point the only people reading those posts are the dedicated few who were already committed to playing the game anyway, so the next set of developer posts generally contain ‘server merges’ and ‘free to play’, sometimes followed shortly after by ‘closing’ and ‘goodbye’.

The lesson that still has not been learnt is this: after beta is too late.

MMO developers need to break this cycle of beta testing being the glorified equivalent of demo disks on PC Magazines; they need to drop the NDA secrecy; they need to remove the pedestals from the holier-than-thou would-be-rockstar types in the company who are more interested in bathing in the frothing adulation of the game’s ‘number one fans’ than listening to what impartial observers are telling them; they need to stop pandering to the websites that just want to release exclusive details of the game first in order to generate advertising revenue, and instead perhaps start to foster relationships with the MMO community in general; they need to employ celebrity-blind community representatives: people who can touch and feel their way around what a community is saying and thus filter out the distractions provided by fanboys and trolls which often appeal to the ‘celebrity’ that a community management position can foster, so that the community representative can instead present the precise shape and substance of issues and concerns to the development team – but importantly the developers need to listen to that feedback and, where remotely possible, act upon it.

Or not. You know, it’s your game after all. You’re the big development studio. You know best. Just don’t be surprised when nobody plays it and you’re merging servers after three months, however. And don’t blame it on World of Warcraft, lordy don’t do that, when the game is there for all to see, all the things that work and don’t work, in a game that is fast approaching its sixth year of solid subscriptions; I’m afraid you’ve had more than enough time to get walking on your own again, that old crutch simply can’t be used in any valid way anymore if the genre wants to progress.

APB isn’t failing because they tried something new, it’s because in trying something new they started anew, and thus made all the same mistakes that had already been made in games like Tabula Rasa and WAR. They’re not alone of course, Global Agenda being another recent example. There’s a wealth of information out there, written by people who do so for fun and enjoyment and because they are passionate about these things, and not for a salary or other such remuneration. They write with a wealth of experience in what works and doesn’t work for them as a player, and seemingly too many game studio types ignore such feedback as being the ravings of the clueless, to be ignored by the all-knowing Industry clique.

Yet these people do know something, they know where they’re going to spend their money next.

Instead of trying to convince them to spend their money with you through flashy E3 stands and rhetorically-gifted front men, instead of employing bloggers who are clearly chasing the goal of ‘being in The Industry and lording it over others’ rather than ‘making great MMOs’, instead of talking at players and pumping hype at everyone through a fire hose, instead of trying to tell players why they’re categorically wrong about the things they don’t like, and instead of believing in the illusion of your own superior celebrity, take a step back, stop, and listen. Actually listen, take the Feedback Radio and adjust the frequency regularly, stop listening to the Yes Men show on 104.5 Fanboy FM for a while, maybe try Constructive Criticism hour on 98.4 Radio Impartiality instead. Granted there’s a lot of white noise out there, but the strong signals are there too and easy enough to find, if you would only choose to listen once in a while.

No comments: