...alarmist headline time...but now that I have your attention with shameless topic tactics, it isn't that far from the topic at hand...how do you think that developers can get the best feedback from their communities?
It is one of those questions that can cause some of the most headache inducing situations for developers, in particular for MMO games, because as I have covered before, the genre is a unique one in that it tries to cater to many different play-styles in a way that few other genres do. You have fans of raiding, those who want to team, those who want to solo, those who want to PVP, those who want open world PVP, those who want structured PVP, those who just want to socialize and roleplay, those who want more 'sandbox' style features and those who like the more guided questing experience.
...that's a lot of different preferences...
Then we, as developers, are faced with the challenge of how to process all the wants and needs of all those preferences and create content updates and patches out of it. We use a variety of methods for gaining feedback, but before we get to that, lets look at how the communities have traditionally communicated with the developers.
Appearances can be deceptive...
Ever played an MMO and looked at a set of changes and thought 'what the hell are they thinking?' I know I have. In particular in the days before I worked in the industry and was myself faced with all those demanding and tricky questions about what to prioritize. The difficulty for many is separating their own personal likes, dislikes and preferences from that of the proverbial masses. We can't always be in the majority, and by and large, gaming communities often struggle the most with this area. The camps are quickly established. There are fan boys and there are trolls, and everything in between. The blindly loyal can often give just as misleading feedback as the 'sky is falling' alarmists, and the pragmatic middle ground doesn't get as much of a look in as it should.
The key thing to remember is that the dev team is usually pretty much like a cross-section of the player-base. It contains lots of different opinions, lots of different preferences, but always underpinned by a real desire to make as many people happy as possible. The problem comes in identifying exactly what that is.
The silent majority
The challenge is getting the feedback itself, and finding a way to get good, impartial and grounded feedback. Official forums can give you some insight for sure, and it is great for identifying the 'hot topic' issues, but by the same token it only represents a (usually very small) minority of your players. It is also usually a skewed portion, containing more veterans and experienced players than it does newcomers and more inexperienced players, who are usually the majority of the player-base. So while we do indeed get great indicators from the forums, and as an ex-community person myself, I'll always defend having them.
Why do I say defend? Mainly because they are something of an oddity from a business point of view. They are a forum which is dedicated to allowing users to be vocal, and share their issues, far, far more than they share what they love about your game. Even though the majority of forum users do genuinely enjoy the game, the inherent nature of the internet works against that and the focus of the discussion invariably ends up on what can be improved, or the flaws, or what would be good to add rather than about what is already good with the game. Not everyone knows how to read that, not everyone understand the culture of internet forums. To the outsider looking in you might wonder why a company would allow such a forum to exist. I have often had family members who aren't that interested in gaming, take a look because they are interested in what I do, and invariably they come back asking 'how on earth do you put up with that without getting suicidal?'
..there will be the occasional day I wonder myself, but usually I can smile, and report back that you just have to understand them, and by and large they mean well. You just have to know how to translate the forums...
...but should we have to?
More honesty might help? An oft requested direction from forum users for sure.
the problem there is that many developers are already very honest in their official communications, but in doing so, there will always be a group of users that don't like the message, or don't agree with the direction and we get back to the good old issue of not being able to separate your interests from that of the majority, or the overall best interests.
How do we even find out who the majority is?
The feedback game
So what do we do to try and find out? We use various avenues of feedback. We communicate on the forums, we do surveys and market research, and lastly, and most importantly, we play the game!
As we already covered, the forums are great for identifying issues.
Surveys on the other hand are great for getting a more balanced overview. It is something we don't always do enough of, but every time we do, it is always good to see the feedback because usually it provides a more honest appraisal of how good and bad things actually are.
We all know it's not cool to be positive on forums. It's not cool to admit that really deep down, you like the game (yes, even those of the bridge dwelling persuasion). That is why a survey can be good, both as validation, as it can allow users to report on what they like as well as what they dislike without fear of forum retribution, and as a way in which you can get a better picture of who that elusive majority may be.
It can also help us developers on the occasions where we genuinely aren't sure who the majority is. Sometimes the forum feedback can be so vociferous, and we can see some of it in game but not a convincing amount, doing a survey can allow you to get a great overview that allows you to confirm or disprove the severity of certain topics.
I think as developers it is something we should be open to doing much more.
Play the game, play some more, and then play some more...
It really is one of the greatest misconceptions you will hear quoted by gaming communities, that the developers don't play their own game. I mean we must not do so right? Some of the things we decide on just mean we really must not actually play because it is so opposite to what you think? It's an ok admission, because we have all thought that at some stage in playing MMOs. Generally though my experience is the opposite, maybe I am just lucky in terms of the MMOs I have worked on, but a good percentage of the developers play their games.
Sometimes over the years, you definitely have to remind them to play more, and keep up to date, but they are pretty good at spending time in game to see what the community is thinking.
It really is the best way of keeping in touch with how your gamers are thinking. It cuts through much of the exaggeration of the forums for example, as if say the current hot topic is let's say 'the loot tables are completely broken in X dungeon' nothing beats actually going and trying it for yourself...or better yet, having found it before it becomes a hot topic! (although that's usually a challenge as players are generally pretty swift on such things ;) )
Usually what you find is that the root of the issue is genuine, if not always the severity.
So a developer really has to keep up to date with their to have any real chance of making the right decisions.
One final word...
Ok, two final thoughts before we get on to the question of the day...
There is one important element of this. In wanting to find the majority we aren't aiming to only tailor to them. Unless your game has a cut and dry massive majority (which in my experience few MMOs have) then you want to be able to try and cater to as many sections of your player-base as you can. The reason the data and feedback is important is in establishing exactly what order you should look at those things in.
...as always it is about trying to find that ever elusive balance. We don't always get it right, so the better we can become at finding out what players are thinking the better backdrop we can have.
Secondly though, and more importantly, the developers also have to balance that all without the trap of falling into design by committee. Developers must use that feedback to assess their own ideas, creations and directions to see if they fit in loosely with what the players feel and think.
That is an even harder balance and one of the key ones for creating content and updates for an MMO. We also want to be able to surprise players in a positive way, not just a negative one. Developers are creative folk, and they want to inspire fun, and create content that keeps people happy and playing. It is though, their creation, and the best of those creations are the ones that fuse their creative energies with the general desires of their players.
A developer who thinks they know better, and doesn't seek to understand their players, will generally not create good content, and likewise the developer who desperately tries to only please specific requests will not be creating the best content possible either.
Knowledge as they say is power, and lets roll in another cliche, and say that with great power comes great responsibility. That's the responsibility that comes with making content for an MMO. We need the knowledge though to be able to master that power and use it to fuel the process.
Ok, I really am cheating today, so lets go with two questions...
...so the first question of the day is simple - how would you like to see developers collect feedback, and do you think that you, and your fellow players can cope well with an actual constructive discussion, as you might end up in a minority? Or is it best that the developers try and decide those things behind the scenes and you make your playing decisions based on the outcome? Or somewhere in between?
Whose approach to communication have you liked the best and why?
The second question is a little more to do with approach. Given that all these opinions exist, and we do usually try to include something for all, as often as possible (within the confines of your given project and it's areas of focus) what approach do you prefer from developers in that regard? Do you prefer to see updates that have a little bit of everything or would you rather some things were dropped from certain updates to focus on one area? Even if that meant there may be months before what you personally like is worked on again?
Even after many years building update cycles and deciding priorities I honestly struggle to decide what is the best answer there. Usually you end up with a mix of both, with some updates trying to have as wide a coverage as possible, and some being very focused...but I am curious to see what you all think?