How do you like your information?
One of the challenges of talking about the production process in the public sphere is the balance between getting people excited about what is in production, and being realistic about what people can expect, and more importantly, when they can expect it. I have written here before about some of this when discussing the goals we set ourselves for our games, and whether we should strive for broad appeal or focus in terms of the features we offer. Here though I wanted to share some thoughts on the communication itself. What is it you, as a player or a subscriber, most look for in the communication from the developers and how that effects what we can, and can't, talk about.
One of the most frequently asked questions I see whenever I discuss the future plans for the game (as we do with my monthly community letters) is why we can't, or don't, talk more about the details of things that are a little further way in the production process. Talking about new content that is imminent is fine, because generally it is available on our test servers and people can see for themselves, as well as by reading the various release articles and preliminary update notes. We are of course though always working on what comes beyond the next update, and people are quite naturally very curious about those possible updates too.
As I got into the discussion on the forums again after this month's letter, I felt a more lengthy exploration coming on, so here we are!
Now firstly I'll explain a little about why I approach these things the way that I do. It can be a pretty delicate balance, you definitely want to excite people about the things you have planned. That goes without saying as a lot of time and effort, not to mention passion, from a lot of people goes into the planning and implementation of new content and new features, and it is only natural that we want people to know what we are working on. However you also have to consider the risk of letting people into plans that might not work out, and have them disappointed.
I am not talking here about the feedback or iteration process, that I have covered before, and it is vital, and we have many means of getting good feedback, both internal and external, on the features and content as they are developed. Here I am purely talking about the timing of the public communication.
At a fundamental level the question is whether people are happier knowing about possible content, that might not happen, or might change, or will they be better off not ever knowing what might have been?
Now it would be easier all around if certain people didn't hold developers to almost everything that is mentioned as if it was a promise set in stone. The public space can be a very hard place to discuss possibilities. Many times the simple act of acknowledging an idea as a good one is held as a promise that it will become a feature. With the genre we work in appealing to so many different preferences for gameplay there are countless good ideas out there, there are countless good ideas that the designers come up with, there are countless good ideas that are posted on forums, or emailed to, or mentioned when we talk to players on the test servers. We can't do them all at once.
Now here I have had numerous disagreements down the years, both internally, and with fans and players on whether it is right to even communicate priorities. Personally I have always tried to be as open as we can about something that we know isn't a priority, but might be looked into at some stage. If considered objectively, or some might say a touch cynically, you can very easily argue that it is better to just not comment on those things. People might be happier in the short term still believing their personal preference might be a priority rather than knowing it isn't. I have tended to prefer to explain that it
That's all well and good, but it presents me with a slight dilemma. In terms of the early release of information I then find myself on somewhat hypocritical ground, and the proverbial boot is on the other foot. When it comes to possible features we are considering I prefer to wait until we have a firm plan so as not to disappoint players if we talk about things to early and the plans don't work out exactly as we had planned. So here I actually remain vague even when we are actively pursuing an idea until such time as we are sure of how it will work.
One of the designers had a good metaphor for it a little while back. If one of your friends planned to buy you a brand new top of the range car for your birthday (yes, this hypothetical friend is very generous!!), but then had a last minute hitch that meant they had less money to spend and had to get you a slightly lesser model, would you rather have known what they originally had planned? If you didn't know you might be perfectly pleased with their gift, but if you knew what was originally planned but didn't happen, you can't help but be disappointed even though the gift in itself is great. It is still natural to dwell on what might have been...
People often chastise developers for 'over hyping and under delivering' and some times it is most definitely deserved. Sometimes though it is also born out of the genuine intention of sharing the process with the players. Designers are players too, and they think their ideas are cool and they want to share them. Sometimes they have people like me over their shoulder holding them back until we are sure, sometimes they don't, sometimes they try and convince me we should talk about it anyway! It is often not a deliberate attempt to 'hype', it is just the enthusiasm of a passionate creative type who thinks it will be cool and doesn't consider the effect of what happens when it doesn't work out.
We have definitely seen games in the genre, our own included, suffer from revealing too much, too early and then disappointing people. We also see the opposite and see some developers attacked for not revealing enough. Even with a live project like Age of Conan we still have to strive with that difficult balance everytime we choose what to discuss. Too much information and people are resentful of 'broken promises', too little and they want more information!
Personally I try and maintain as honest an approach as I can, and tell people that I am indeed deliberately not talking about any given feature because we are waiting until it's ready. It works for some people, others dislike the style.
So what do you prefer?
Would you be able to handle the potential disappointment of knowing about the things that were worked on but didn't work out, or would you rather just know about the things that will definitely come?
Do you have a preference for how and when you would like developers to present information to you?