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 is not planned, but is (or isn't) a good idea. Some have argued with me that all that does is disappoint people, but I always counter that I genuinely believe the majority of players appreciate the honesty, and in the long term, end up as happier players rather than being disappointed further down the line. Might they quit the game (and stop paying us) once I reveal that their preferred feature isn't planned right now? Sure, they might, but I firmly believe that they are also more likely to return than someone who has been told it might happen and it is being considered, but it never is and never appears. That person will quit in frustration and is less likely to return down the line.

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?


Rhazmuz said…
Personally, I do like the involvment and the debate you, Craig, have with the AOC playerbase.

Rearding how much info I would oiek to have, well I think its goes somewhere in between. I have writte on the EU forums about it before, but I'll just sum it up again.

I would like to know a little bit more of what you guys are "aiming" for beyond patch 6 as an example. I know we have the expansion comming, and patch 6 might even strecth into several phases and thus requiring alot of time into 2010, however surely you guys must have some ideas/paths you are aiming for in patch 7. I am not asking you to say it will be pvp lvl 6-10, pvp quest, addtional tier 3 encounetrs etc, I am just asking if it will be mainly aimed at specific pve like dungeons, will it be more general pve like new kind of quests, will it be focused on giving incentives to pvp, or the likes.

Another thing I would liek to raise, is the issue of how long patch 6 is intended to strectch. I know its a hard question, buit knowing you have talked about pvp towers and house of crom, patch 6 sounds very monumental atm, and knowing the previous post big patch patching history, it sounds a sif we wont really patch 7 drawing nearer for at least the first half of 2010.

Hopefully though, getting the exp out will make the entire dev team available for the patch making and thus speed up the process.

But to sum up, I personally would prefer to know more of the reasonings and ideas you guys have for the future, even if it means venting some ideas that might change in the way.
AmandaP said…
Nice read. I don't envy you that part of what you have to do. Personally I hate the forum trolls that hold every little comment as a promise of something. As always the actions of a few spoilers effect what happens to the rest of us. I would love to hear more about the early stages of design and what is considered.

I think you guys do a pretty decent job, much better than some I could think of ;)
Elementalistly said…
I think the issue lies in the fact that no information is presented for long periods of time...which is fine..But, then, when it finally comes, after such a long break of info, we find out...

There is NO NEW info.

Why post something that will mostly irritate at this point, as development on Age of Conan has been slim...VERY slim.
All the information did is rile people up even more, knowing that something that has been discussed almost since launch, becomes something of a maybe.

I know the whole "Super" patch thing you guys do at Funcom can be very cool and all that...but, at this point there is not enough in those super patches to alleviate the concern of long time players. Then when the patch has finally released, we end up with outdated content that no one wants anymore.

Now, I know this is off track, so let me get back.

The fact remains that information is certainly key, but when the information has no information and sounds like political speech, you would be better off NOT discussing it, and leaving it for all the magazines you do interviews with.
The player does not want to be "sold" the product, as they already bought it. One of the reasons I took a walk and talked with my wallet, was all the talk was empty.

Tell people the information only when you will implement it on TL, then tell them when it is ready to go to live. Save the rest of the "salesman" talk for the interviews.

PS: This might be why servers are kinda empty also.
Anonymous said…
A happy medium between announcing features and not announcing anything at all would be to have devs just chat about their own dreams/wishlists for the long-term (6, 12, 18+ months).

Blizzard was really good about this in their first 1-2 years. Blizzard delivered it through a graphical timeline that also gave a sense of how far away the ideas would be aimed in the game STORYLINE, not production. Lots of the stuff never happened, some didn't happen for 5 years, but it gave a sense of vision and growth.

Funcom could put their own spin on it with casual dev blogs or periodic interviews where devs talk about what THEY dream about -- "wishlists" -- without bringing in production details, priorities, etc. The tone would be very casual, "wouldn't it be cool if" discussion. The features described could be very high-concept: races to explore, new ways to design a city, a new branch of PVE content (e.g., "pve cities") or PVP content (e.g., battlegrounds).
Kenneth said…
I think I would prefer seeing information split into different categories.

1. On testlive and soon to be implemented.
2. Soon to come onto testlive, a little more vague and try to keep things realistic. Say too little rather than promise too much.
3. Under development, but is pretty far away. Give timeframe of "more than 6 months"
4. Visionary stuff, very much open for discussion and debate to see where we players could imagine things moving along. Sometimes with polls (with feedback) You can present alternative paths, and say we can do some of it, but far from everything.

Also id like some more "monthly developer news".
Give us some small details, show us their workspace or art or "short story" etc. It doesnt have to be much, but it would give us some "flesh to the bone"
Tommy said…
To answer your question, 'what do you prefer?', I would have to say "can I have both?". I know inside that I want new information about things that are further away from being released, but at the same time I know I will be disappointed if those features do not come. BUT if they do not come, I would like a reason for it from you.

Like e.g. in the beginning of Age of Conan, in the summer. The old game director, Gaute Godager, promised the Kingship update. That would contain /duel function, epic sieges (100 vs 100) in which you could get something secret that you in Funcom never revealed (wonders of the world, you called it) and last but not least, an ALLIANCE system. I was so happy to read that back in the days, and guess what? I'm still waiting. And I ask myself many times, what happened?

I don't want you to answer me why it went on hold, it was purely an example.
Anonymous said…
Craig, you should take a leaf out of Colin Cragg's "Friday with Means" for AO.
Anonymous said…

Sorry, hit "post comment" before finishing.

Basically, leave the whoopy-do fluffy stuff to the marketing team, focus on the details. Means does that very well.

Not that everyone is going to agree with stuff, but focussing on the details of what's in the pipeline (short-term, mid-term, long-term) at least shows you're focussing on what's happening in-game. Means is also very good at relaying issues that they are having, in development, with things people have been waiting for ages on. If it's an internal problem, let us know! We'd rather understand you're having issues instead of it being glossed over or not mentioned at all.
Craig Morrison said…
@Anonymous - Thats what we are doing with the weekly community updates. They just don't come from me directly and from the team instead. If you look through those updates you will see that kind of update is already right there on weekly basis. I agree that should always be there, which is why I asked the community team do it on a weekly basis with a production update from the producers. What I was getting at here was more the question as to how to approach the 'bigger picture' discussions
Craig Morrison said…
@Tommy That's exactly the dilema I mean, you were dissapointed by those features getting cut (and as to the why, I am fairly sure I answered that on the forums at some stage, but it's a simple answer - they were simply a little too complex and over ambitious and we had to cut them due to the amount of time and resource they would have taken)...I agree that if we mention something, and then cut it, we should explain why.
Craig Morrison said…
@Kakemonstret Do you think maybe it's just the presentation that means you think that isn't already done. Looking objectively at the schedule what you described is what is already on the forums right now this very minute.

1. The test server notes and imminent stuff
2. The next wave of things is also already known and announced
3. Under development is also known since we have the expansion coming
4. Here granted it is a little more vague, but almost every other forum topic we respond to amounts to exactly what you describe and we have mentioned many possible 'would be nices' do you think maybe we just need to find a way to present it? Or is it a case that even when we do it, in actual fact people will still want more?
BoA-Gert said…
Based on the question:

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?

I'd prefer to know about things that will definitely be added - just look at the Drunken Brawling comments at the launch of AoC for how people can react over a small feature (yes, it was/is a small feature given other things added or left out ;))

I'd like to know about things that you were considering but don't talk about them before they're worked on or at beta - from some of your Twitters/forum posts I have seen you follow this and I like it...talking about stuff that may have been added is better than talking about stuff that might get added ;)

But, saying that, it's also nice to get info on what is actually coming - Test Live is a good place but there is still some work to be done (recent issue that comes to mind is the Guild Renown for existing Guild Villages - there has been some dialogue and it is a holiday season...some more 2-way discussion will be good on this ;))
Zimbab said…
Hello mr. Craig. :)

Nice read, that really shows your way of thinking and i may say that i do agree with you even tho as a player i want more moreee moreeeeeeee :)

Anyways, all i wanted to say is happy new year bud, keep up the good work, and let people rant and troll all they want, that only means that they do care about your excelent product. :)

Happy new year bud.
Tommy said…
Thanks for the reply, Craig. My final stand though is to keep the information like you do now. In the end, that is the best for everyone. Those who dislike the way you reveal upcoming content on, are often just a small group. They just yell a lot louder than everyone else!

I think the weekly updates from the community team is a very nice addition to communicate with the players on the status of updates.

Happy new year!
Anonymous said…
I thin that once something is mentioned it becomes an "issue" and you have to keep updating players on its status if it changes or if just a lot of time passes since the last update.

As far as what to talk about, i'd say keep anything that is not likely to make it into the game under your hat. Those features that Tommy mentioned are a good example.
Anonymous said…
Speaking as a fellow MMO developer I can definitely understand where you are coming from.

I personally like the idea of having two different conversations, one deep conversation with players discussing content that is being worked on and about to be greenlit for a patch, and an overarching discussion on the state and intended longer term direction of the game.

The first discussion is specific. It should provide a detailed feature list as well as a summary of intended changes. Once the date gets closer and the intended patch candidate build doesn't fail then patch notes go up with all the numerical data that number-crunchers eat up.

The second discussion should be around too. It should consist of vague features to expect sometime in the future, maybe even the next patch. These features don't need definition, but getting people excited is important. Merely announcing these things can lead to very interesting forum chatter that will continue to assist PD in adding depth to these features, provided they can filter through the pages of worthless trolls.

Great post Craig, caught it on Massively. Will definitely keep reading your blog.

Anonymous said…
hi, please bring a new community manager for germany on the field. waldgeist is fatal and cost aoc a lot of gamers. he is the wrongest man in your team!
Anonymous said…
I personally feel the more open you are with the player base the more they'll feel involved and appreacitive. However, don't say you're working on something then months later say it isn't working out. Keep people up to date on all features. One monthly letter is NOT enough. It dosen't need to come from the director, but more communication is needed from someone. This will also serve to let you know what players want more as well.
Anonymous said…
The weekly updates are very lacking. Famine is an ok forum mod, but a developer he is not. I know the game industry is usually all about non-disclosure, but the future of MMOs will be open source. You could start with releasing the API, and I think you'd be amazed with what some of the community members can do for FREE in terms of content development.
Craig Morrison said…
@15:43 The weekly updates the community guys do actually come straight from the producers and myself - it's just the community guys who gather and deliver it.

On the subject of ope source...I am pretty sure that you won't see an open source MMO anytime in the near future, at least not a commerical one. While I never underestimate the gaming communities ingenuinity the expense and complexity of running an MMO is also not to be underestimated.

As I mentioned when talking about Metaplace recently I think there is potential there, but having looked at it extensively myself there are a lot of challenges involved in allowing even player designed content, let alone managing a true open source single MMO. Now the open source development of an MMO engine..possibly...if someone was willing to give away such tech to public (and that in itself would be a significant undertaking as a lot of money is required to even get a stable base platform up and running for these types of games) but the open source development of an actual coherent and established single world game, there I would be skeptical that the process could be managed effectively and stay stable.

I do believe in eventually opening up to player created content, but I am much more skeptical that an open source MMO would ever be feasible. Integrating new code in a project as complex as an MMO is far from easy, and generally is more efficient the fewer people are working on it, so to have a true open source enviornment would quite honestly scare me a little from a management point of view. You would need a very modular, very well established and isolatable code infrastructure...certainly not impossible, but I am not sure who in the industry would be brave enough to take that step, and have a good sound business strategy for making an actual profit from it.

Creating tools for player designed content on the other hand is possible (some have tried already) and I firmly believe that it is possible for a mainstream game to attempt it and succeed. The challenge there is usually the time and resource required is usually more than X amount of content generation, and while profitable in the long term, would result in a short term 'gap' in development while the content generation tools were developed....It is also not without it's own challenges as games like Ryzom and City of Heroes have discovered, it's not a magic wand to endless quality is an area that really fascinates me though.
BoA-Gert said…
Player generated content is good but I can't see how it would fit seamlessly into AoC - or if it was introduced, you would get "farming missions" like City of Heroes got; especially when Guild Renown goes live for AoC.

The only way I could see something like player generated content would be along the lines of the NPC guild village attacks that was one of the highlights pre-AoC launch. A fixed set of random mobs could attack a guild village with some player set parameters which limits the farming potential yet still giving some player control over content.

Interesting to see that you - and possibly Funcom - are interested in this area in MMOs...
Anonymous said…
How about player made textures voted on by community members and implemented by devs? There are so many complaints about tier gear color palets. It would be great if the community could vote on and even contribute to creating new object textures. There wouldn't be any time spent on developing new tools persay. Users can use photoshop for design work and you probably already have a basic 3D object viewer.
Zorvan said…
See that "Friday with Means" that Colin "Means" Cragg gives us every Friday for Anarchy Online, your old Alma Mater? Read through those. Then look through Means post history and see how he actually will jump in threads during the rest of the week and *gasp* discuss what's in the thread. Hell, sometimes he even just joins in a few minutes in a thread for fun, just like a regular Anarchy Online player. That's the kind of communication players want.

Just for a second Craig, stop thinking like a Game Director, and start thinking like that Anarchy Online player who created and managed the AOVault so many years ago.

You turned alot around in AO ( made a few boo-boos also ), and your greatest asset was the fact you started as a PLAYER.
Craig Morrison said…
@Zorvan ...browse the Conan forums and you will see I do the same there (albeit a bit split up as we have euro and US forums)...the only difference on Conan is that I let the community team do the weekly updates. I could do them myself, but I think it's much better to involve the community team and have them working with the devs to provide people information :)

Then I do the monthly letters as well. Conan is a little different that AO in terms of scale so I do have to make sure that the community folk get to do the weekly updates and 'own' that communication...that doesn't stop me joining in on threads at all, which is why I still do :)
Zorvan said…
@Craig 12:49

Okay, I'll look through the AoC forums. I've just returned to the game for the first time since launch, so I haven't really had the time yet to get fully up to speed. It's good to see you are communicating as discussed. It was one of the bright spots in AO when you continued to talk to us after your promotion to GD and was probably the reason many stayed playing who might otherwise have given up, simply because we could see development moving forward through your continued posting instead of being left it the dark waiting for "updates" sometime in the future.