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What's on the menu?

Many moons ago, when I worked in retail and hospitality, they used to try and boil customer service down to: 'The customer is always right'. It is catchy, easy to remember and gets a point across. Of course in reality the customer isn't always right and I always took that adage to actually mean 'You should always try and please the customer whenever possible' as that for me, was much closer to the intended sentiment. It's a vital consideration of customer service, going that proverbial 'extra mile' always helped endear you to your customers (or at the very least mitigate against their ire). If someone came to your hotel or Italian restaurant you wanted your customer to have the very best hotel or Italian restaurant experience you could possibly provide. Whether it is in a motel, a five star hotel, a greasy diner or a top class eatery you try to do the best you can, and customers do adjust their expectations according to the surroundings.

Ok, so where am I going with this you ask? I'm getting to it....

The challenge we face as those working in the MMO genre is that, if you will allow me to continue with the restaurant metaphor, we as a genre haven't quite figured out how to best specialise our menus yet. In a great Italian restaurant the customer would have every right to complain about a poor Italian meal. In an Italian restaurant you expect, and have every right to expect, an Italian dish to be properly prepared, tasty and money well spent. What if the customer asks for Chinese food though? or Mexican? Would you then hold it against the poor Italian chef if they didn't get it right? Would you even expect the restaurant to try and facilitate the request? (How many restaurants have you been to that were able to prepare a dish just for you that wasn't on their menu, let alone not in their style?)

So how does this relate to MMO development and community communication?

Simply put the development and launch of an MMO currently seems very much like promising that your restaurant will serve excellent meals from many different styles of cooking.

When a game is in development it seems largely taboo to dare say that there is a play-style or preference that you won't account for. Sure, you very much focus on marketing and talking about what your game will do well, but it seems to be the norm that when asked - 'so what about ?' the stock answer is - 'Yes, we will of course have something there too, you'll hear more about that later'. Now, I am not for a second saying that people are lying when they say that, they invariably are not. The feature probably is planned, and someone, somewhere has a design for it, it's possibly even being worked on, it's just not the focus of the development. It is a feature that is expected, so must be done in some way....the question for me though is must it really be done?

Currently most big, hyped and mainstream MMOs are developed (and funded) on the basis of trying to appeal as broadly as possible. To try and match the appeal of the market leader, World of Warcraft (while no one explicitly expects, or states that they expect, to challenge the industry goliath, who wouldn't want to really?), they aim for as many features as possible and try to tell everyone that you personally will like the game. Whether you are a fan of PVP, PVE, Roleplaying, Tradeskilling or exploring...the game will have something for you!

The problem is unless you are a really huge project (with 50-100 million dollars and a few hundred people at your disposal) it is very difficult to achieve a good polished state in all those possible elements. At least to the point where you will satisfy the person who treasures that any given feature as the most important. Maybe we often stretch just a little too far. It is possible with a well structured and well funded team on that scale for sure, but you are increasing the risk the broader your focus gets.

You also have the side issue there of having your launch title being compared to game that has had five plus years of features and additions thrown into it. It is often the proverbial massive elephant in the room that people seem afraid to mention. The sooner we get away from trying to set expectations that any game can be a 'WoW'-killer the better, at least by direct comparison feature by feature. The players reactions tie into that too of course but more on that later. The point is that maybe we need to work past these fears of offending the mythical target audience. Which of course is a valid fear - if you really intend that audience to be 'everyone' - do you? Really?

If not, would it really hurt to go 'You know, we aren't going to have a tradeskill system, our game is about PVP' or 'There won't be any PVP in this title as we are focusing on having the best PVE experience possible'. You could even elaborate and explain that down the line, after launch, those are things you might add, but that it is important the title has a clear goal and focus.

Who do you think will be more vocal in a negative manner about your game - the person who you told upfront 'this isn't the game for you' or the person who you lead to believe would find what they wanted in the game only to later discover it wasn't really a focus and the implementation of the feature makes that obvious?

There sometimes seems to be though a genuine fear amongst developers, in particular when speaking publicly, of saying something, anything, that might turn someone off their game before it has even been launched. Personally, I think getting over that fear might just help us improve the genre and explore it's potential. Shouldn't we be asking ourselves 'why does Feature X have to be here?', 'Does Feature X actually improve my game?', 'Could I spend the resources needed for Feature X improving my core gameplay?'

Is it ok to not be all things to all players?

Yes, of course you want to maximise your appeal and attract as wide a demographic as possible, but doing it potentially at the expense of your overall quality level just because you are afraid some people might not like it, might be being too focused on the theoretical customer satisfaction for our own good.

Now before you go blaming the stereotypical 'evul' marketing folk, who many presume to be behind the whole 'don't say anything negative' communications, don't be so quick to judge. I think it is often the developers that are just as much to blame. We are usually ambitious types, and gamers just like you, and we would also love to match all our ambitions. We sometimes let those ambitions get the better of us.

Not that ambition is a bad thing in and of itself. We should let our imagination drive our ambitions. That's what fuels progress...however we do also have a responsibility to step back and make sure our actual targets and goals are achievable and are the best value for the investment. Trying to avoid the 'jack of all trades master of none' type situation is a risk that we all too often fall into. In our fear of not accounting for the mythical 'everyone' we often end up compromising too much, often rather than doing two things well, we end up doing eight of them adequately. 'Adequately' also doesn't always excite people. Personally, I'd like to excite and illicit passion from people with two great features than simply satisfy them with eight average ones.

Everyone likes to be liked at some fundamental level though, and it's still seemingly hard for many of us to say to people - 'This game isn't for you'. We shouldn't see it his way, after all our theoretical Italian restaurant isn't going to be banking on the customers who mistook it for a Chinese restaurant.

Players would also though have to be happy with our proverbial Italian Menu in our Italian Restaurant, and not complain to the poor waiter that there isn't any Chinese meals on the menu. Otherwise the compulsion from the poor Restaurant owner is 'maybe I have to add a Chinese menu' and thus we end up back at square one! So player expectations are a major part of this. MMOs are a strange breed in this repsect, other computer games genres have already split out into their genres (Sports, FPS, RTS, RPG, Action, Adventure etc) and even sub genres where you pretty much know your target audience. MMOs though seem to have developed across several play style preferences and we are still trying to work out what should be on our menus!

It doesn't get any easier with a live product either, not if you have set your stall out to try and appeal as widely as possible. MMOs are of course an ongoing affair, and once you have set out your stall you had best be ready to talk about it.

Look at it this way. Imagine you are working on a major update for the game you are working on. You might have the coding time and resources for two extensive features. The designers, artists, coders and management have all helped assessing the hundreds of ideas out there, down to probably a dozen or so you could do. All of these dozen ideas are really good ideas, all worth adding to the game, all have been mentioned by players somewhere on the forums, and all of them are possible. You just have to decide.

So generally what happens is you do an assessment, asking yourself a lot of questions - What is needed most? What area of the game needs the most attention? Which idea will reach the most number of players? Which idea will have the most replay value? Which will provide the most hours of fun? Which appeal to the broadest demographic? Maybe even when was the last time you addressed the section of the player-base that would like any given feature? Should you address an area that hasn't been looked at for a while or stick to the core gameplay? Should you try and expand on the types of features or stick to expanding the type of content you already have? Depending on the point in the life cycle of your product and your playerbase the questions and indeed the results might vary, but you will come to a decision you think is best for the game. people will go to work, and the results will be good, the results might even be ass-kicking awesome. You will be feeling all pleased with yourself, and can't wait to have people play the new features, but you will soon face a dilemma, you have to communicate to the players what has been prioritised, what is coming up, what you really want them to be excited about...that though inevitably leads on to the issue of what wasn't prioritised.

So once the information is released the focus isn't always on your two kick ass cool features, but rather the players choose to focus on the what you didn't do. Given that there will always be someone out there in forum land representing the playstyle you didn't prioritise this time around, you will have some people who disagree with your prioritisation. That is ok, we expect to disagree with someone out there on any given subject or update. The difference is how we communicate about what we prioritised.

All too often I see that almost every 'faction' in an MMO community believes that something is 'just around the corner' for them personally. Why? Usually 'because a developer has said so'. Of course what is usually omitted is the general time-frame or a relative measure of what 'soon' means in that developers schedules. Again, we seem to often exhibit that same fear of telling people that they just aren't the priority right now...and now it gets even scarier because these people are paying for your game, they are customers, we can't tell them they aren't right and entitled can we? They might stop paying then?

A valid fear perhaps, but in the MMO space I would inject two thoughts there. Firstly you will often find the needs and wants of one faction are quite simply mutually exclusive to another, sometimes you can't please both so you have to 'pick a side' as it were. Secondly I would return to the question we asked earlier. Who is going to be more annoyed at you? The person who you kept teasing with platitudes but never really delivered new content for - or the person who you told 'There won't be anything added in that area for six months at least'? Now the latter person might leave because they don't want to wait six months and the former may stick around for a few months due to the platitudes before quitting, usually a touch disillusioned. Which do you think is more likely to return to your game in the long term?

The platitudes are usually completely genuine as well. It is not evil manipulation (usually at any rate!) by cunning devs out to separate you from the contents of your wallet. Generally speaking the developers do really want to add all those feature as well. We are just like you, players of our games, and passionate ones at that.

So personally I do think we owe it our communities to be a little more transparent about what we are and aren't working on. We should try and get over our fear of offending people and work with our players to be able to be open about our priorities. That then will actually help us drive our prioirties better! The games will improve with focus.

It shouldn't be something we need to fear to say 'We want to make Feature Y a really awesome experience and that means we won't be looking at Feature X or Feature Z in the next six months'. Players are just like any other ordinary individual they like to know where the stand. It also doesn't mean you can't keep a hold of the fans of Feature X and Feature Z as well! The fact that you are focusing is usually appreciated by your community, and, the usual obvious trolls aside, the honesty is usually appreciated as well.

Being more open isn't as scary as it might appear at first!

Sounds great doesn't it? You would all love the developers to be more focused, and better communicators right? It is one thing for us to take the step to be more open and recognise our goals and objectives, for it to work we would also have to rely on players accepting that it isn't always about them personally!

You can help! When it comes to encouraging developers to be more open, your reactions to them can very much help! You see, part of what drives the fear of discussing things more openly is the reaction of the communities, in particular online. The usually animated and partisan nature of internet gaming forums doesn't help. While the communication is very much down to us, I can't blame anyone for having second thoughts about being more transparent with the players.

The problem is that players are of course owners of subjective, personal opinions, and in general terms do struggle to accept in an internet argument that their personal view, playstyle or preferences aren't the most important one.

It is ok to disagree! (I know I say that a lot, in the hope it continues to sink in!) It is also ok to tell the developers why you think any given decision is wrong. Just remember not to resort to telling them that you think they are stupid, poorly trained, incompetent or just generally questioning their genetic lineage. The most counter-productive thing you can do in MMO feedback loop is insult the very person responsible for actually making the changes you would like made. It's genuinely more effective to be constructive and patient...honest

It is slightly different with a live game, as you will have an already established set of content and features that you will have to support. Even though I would say that you can still be open with the players about the priorities within those features to your players. After all, it is not as if they aren't going to notice the lack of updates in any given area they happen to like.

So in closing (this little missive ended up much longer than I expected!), and returning to restaurant theme, I would really love to see more MMOs embrace their cooking styles as it were and not necessarily feel hamstrung by having to be all things to all people, and I would love to see the players embrace that. There will always be the big players trying to have broad appeal, but lets make space for the specialists too. The developers and marketers will only really start to be comfortable with that kind of focus when the players show them that such an approach can be considered successful. I personally have no idea where the genre will go next, or claim to have any savant like insight into it's future. I do though believe in focusing on what you do well, and that focus could allow for the genre as a whole to broaden, not narrow. Just like not all players have the same gameplay preferences, not all developers would focus on the same area.

I firmly believe that there is space for great Italian, Chinese, Greek, Indian and Mexican restaurants all right next to each other and all existing and profitable despite the presence of the big mall food court across the road!
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