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You aren't the center of the universe...

...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.

The question...

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?






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16 comments

AmandaP said...

I agree with you on surveys. There is usually too much forum testosterone flying about for people to be honest there. With an anonymous survey people can safely report what they actually think without being ridiculed for it on the forums. It is why I stay away from all but the friendliest of forums these days (reets retreat ftw!!)

Bratz said...

I would have citied CCP as a great example, but recent events have shown that backfires too. At least if you ask peoples opinions don't just ignore them totally like they have done, and then have the sheer audacity to list up their entire dev teams worklist, all on things the players don't want. Maybe there is such a thing as too much honesty :p

On the second question I think you should focus, and do more frequent updates. Preferably monthly (although that seems beyond you guys at Funcom and your snails pace) so you could do one area each month.

HegeB said...

I think the best way to get feedback is and always will be to spend time in the game, as you say. Not only playing the game, but being active in one or more guilds, finding those few players that almost never speak, but when they do have a wonderful balanced view simply because they watch and listen to others every day. Those guys or girls will never post anything in a forum or even participate in a poll because they think for some reason their opinion doesn't count.

Anonymous said...

Rather strangely, I feel that MMO developers should take a step back from their community and build something according to their design and vision for the game. There are far too many different voices and factions within the community for a single game to appeal to all of them. I'd much prefer it if a company designed something and stuck to their vision. If I like their vision I'll play it and if they stick to their vision I'll keep on playing it.

But when they try to please too many different groups the game ends up as a hodgepodge of different things.

For a few examples of companies (Identified by game) that do this really, really well look at games like EVE Online, Entropia Universe and so forth. They have a game style and the players that enjoy that style will play those games. There are, of course, many more failures for these types of games. I acknowledge that.

Once they have this core vision I believe the game itself provides the best method for initial analysis of what works and what does not work. The engagement of players in the content is one measurement. But the game also provides the vehicle to reach all the players and to communicate with them. I'm surprised that no developers are actually building survey and informational gathering tools into the game itself to query their players.

So, in summary:

1. Communicate and proof of concept the designer vision.
2. Build that vision based off general feedback and creative drive
3. Stick to that vision
4. Use the game to data mine and communicate with players

Blinker said...

I think that developers should have a vision, BUT, they do also need to know their players once the games go live. After all we are the ones paying to play and while I think most of the reasonably minded players understand that there will always be different opinions, we also don't want the game to radically depart from what its is *cough* NGE *cough* as long as you don't do that I say the devs vision is the best one, because we will never all agree :p

alaskandesign said...

I think this is a good assessment of the various avenues of feedback. One thing not really mentioned that I dislike about the surveys is that they are very black and white, and I rarely think about things in that way. But, I know when you are using radio buttons and check boxes, you can't include all the grey areas between.

I think constructive discussions are more likely to happen on a smaller scale, where a bit of the anonymity is removed. I best like the idea of gathering information from in game, as I think players tend to be a little more honest in game, and aren't always trying to "1-up" each other as they are on the forums sometimes (again, especially if the audience is small), and where they don't think devs might be lurking.

The forums are like this angry mob that can rally people behind an idea that may not be best for the game. So as others have said, I too want the developers to be able to maintain a vision and know when to listen, and when not to. That worries me sometimes, but it sounds like you are careful with this.

As for the updates, I think you have to have a mixture depending on the change. If a change is major, it has to be the focus, and that usually leaves little time to add changes affecting other areas of the game. But if the changes are small, then having a more even spread seems more appropriate.

Firnwind said...

Feedback can be a fickle thing to collect, especially from forums as, as you mentioned, most issues are very exxagerated. But surveys or more direct ways of gathering seems to me have a more balanced view.

To the second question, most games have a vision they outlined which was what attracted the players there in the first place, so while of course listening to general feedback on should stay true the "essence" of the game you made.

And I much prefer updates with a little bit of everything as this shows that the game is growing for everyone, not only for a selected few, because promises only keep you so long.

Erik said...

Open part of the game for community development. (mods) After a while you will identify what mods work (based on popularity) and what dont. i.e. let the community do the trial and error.

Implement what works.

Examples here is GUI, HUD, Logs, bragging rights, search for groups, Guild management, etc.

Playing the game is a very nice method, but becoming really really good in an mmo is a full time job. Therefore devs will never have the innsight that "leet" players have on what works and what dosent.

ibrock said...

It's a mixed bag: respond too readily to surveys and you may end-up with a watered-down version of the game that pleases only the most tentative or luke-warm players; OR ignore community hopes and ideas and produce a game that alienates both the loyal and the jaded players a game retains.

Surveys are also a risk in that players may use them to divine developer intentions. In the last FC AoC survey, we were asked a little about free to play: now there's a few threads on the official forums in which posters are convinced that FC is going that route ( and I hope not) cz it's the model in Korea where the game just launched.

Yes, I believe that developers should ask and listen (e.g. NA and EU players are feeling the grind in Khitai; AoC players want better debugging and performance) and I believe that developers should respond (e.g FC is tweaking rewards in Khitai and FC is dedicating a development cycle to improving engine performance.)

The most important thing is to apply creative and effective solutions. Yes listen to feedback (surveys, forums, focus groups, and subtle comments left in your blog ha ha) but don't react in a knee-jerk manner.

Remyx99 said...

Developers taking direct and indirect feedback ingame is something I seldom see. I don't understand why.

As an MMO there is several benefits to taking feedback every player can easily reach. Examples:
Have a good but still basic web browser in the game, Great for random surfing on the interwebs when waiting for other players, and you could have direct linking (Homepage or equivalent)to the community page and/or forum. Easy access = more players on the forums (and possibly more trolls)

An other way to easily get feedback is in direct and a good flow of surveys. What I mean with this is also to keep it ingame and easy to access. It is possible to have a button that goes to a "future updates" or "developers ongoing work" where you the developer post what is going on in the pipeline of updates and changes, then a survey of what the player think of the coming updates.

Keep the possible places for feedback extremely easy to get to, for all players. That is usually ingame and a place where they always see it even tho' they never intend to use it.

Just keep in mind that not all feedback is good feedback. Norwegian trolls roam in the woods...

Kendrick said...

Quite simply?

Simplify it.

If you want feedback from your players, solicit the players directly in game. On log in, have a simple question/answer survey in which YOU give the player what options to answer.

This does two things:
1. It allows you access to the players actually playing the games (and not playing the forums).
2. It allows you to ask the player a specific question and give them specific options to answer with that you KNOW you can do.

This needs to take no more than 30 seconds for the player to read and answer. And if it doesn't apply to them (don't ask a barbarian about necro changes, for example), then don't ask them.

Forums are bad places. Terrible places. They're scary places filled with trolls. They're feeding grounds wherein the trolls can get whipped up into a frenzy the first moment they feel like they've been personally slighted; as if you, Mr. Morrison, went to their home and slept with their wife, ate their food, and then took a nice steamer on their living room floor.

And to top it off, you 'slapped them in the face' (a favorite troll complaint) as you left.

If I were a community manager? This is what I would do:
First, shut the forums down.
Second, prohibit ALL employees (except community managers/mouthpieces) from talking about the game their working on using their personal blog/twitter accounts. That's what your community team is for. Let them do their job.
Third, all game announcements, news, etc would be done through what is essentially a really fancy blog.
Fourth, have your community manager encourage outside forums and websites that are created by your community/fans. Have well built fan site kits. Have your community managers patronize the sites that get the most traffic and police themselves the best. How? Give them occasional 'you heard it here first' info to break. Post on their forums. The good ones will rise, the bad ones will close.

What I'm trying to say is you need better control of your feedback mechanism. Your surveys that you recently put on the AoC forums were a great start. If you make a post on the forums that says 'What would you like to see next?', you're going to get hundreds/thousands of posts of pie in the sky dreaming from armchair developers that you likely can't do. Instead, have a short, simple survey that takes very little time (a couple minutes, tops) to answer but only contains options that you KNOW you can fulfill.

Quasigrue said...

I do like surveys, myself. Aside from the ability to give feedback anonymously, I think it provides a connection. A well done survey can be personable, can make someone feel like they're really communicating with the powers that be and can be tailored to be more focused (probably preferable and more useful) or general (allowing for open responses) as needed.

In terms of forums, I don't know if there's really an ideal approach...a lot of it really depends on what your conduits are.

Designated reps for certain classes can seem good, but if they don't all respond with similar frequency or if certain personalities are more aggressive/abrasive than others...it can create discord. I like X, not Y.

I think Blizzard's Ghostcrawler is a good case study. He's been the most consistent voice for WoW for some time. He seems relatively responsive, good at provoking discussions, can be blunt and dismissive...but not TOO blunt or dismissive. A lot of this revolves around the man's personality and exposure...though putting all that on one individual, I have to wonder if he's due to snap sooner or later. :)

Community icons - in some games (thinking in particular, WoW) it seems like for every subdivision (class or whatever) there will usually be one or more people who become focal points to discussion, people respected by their peers for representing particular viewpoints. Probably veterans, better communicators, more prone to using data points to make their arguments. When identified, when they get responses(whether in agreement or disagreement), they get validated and in a sense, those who hold that person in high regard are validated. You don't kow tow to them, but if you do occasionally respond and respect their points publicly, I think you mute some criticism and get people responding more positively. I think focus groups with these people can also be useful. The key is to identify the right people...

I don't think there's a formula...it's about picking the right tools. If surveys are interesting, and people feel like some kind of positive communication comes about as a result, they can probably be powerful tools. The right community representatives, communicating reasonably frequently, providing consistent, informed responses...even if they are just saying "No".

I think the balance of power should always lie with the developers, but there should be communication enough to convey a sense of respect for differing player opinions. The devs should not be afraid to say no...but carefully pick topics where they can say "no" and why they're saying no.

The devs should be able to pick what they focus on, but if players are complaining about something else, they should be able to step up and communicate why they're not focusing on that.

Again, there's no formula, it's about being creative and flexible and intelligently responsive to whatever issues are at the forefront.

Quasigrue said...

I do like surveys, myself. Aside from the ability to give feedback anonymously, I think it provides a connection. A well done survey can be personable, can make someone feel like they're really communicating with the powers that be and can be tailored to be more focused (probably preferable and more useful) or general (allowing for open responses) as needed.

In terms of forums, I don't know if there's really an ideal approach...a lot of it really depends on what your conduits are.

Designated reps for certain classes can seem good, but if they don't all respond with similar frequency or if certain personalities are more aggressive/abrasive than others...it can create discord. I like X, not Y.

I think Blizzard's Ghostcrawler is a good case study. He's been the most consistent voice for WoW for some time. He seems relatively responsive, good at provoking discussions, can be blunt and dismissive...but not TOO blunt or dismissive. A lot of this revolves around the man's personality and exposure...though putting all that on one individual, I have to wonder if he's due to snap sooner or later. :)

Community icons - in some games (thinking in particular, WoW) it seems like for every subdivision (class or whatever) there will usually be one or more people who become focal points to discussion, people respected by their peers for representing particular viewpoints. Probably veterans, better communicators, more prone to using data points to make their arguments. When identified, when they get responses(whether in agreement or disagreement), they get validated and in a sense, those who hold that person in high regard are validated. You don't kow tow to them, but if you do occasionally respond and respect their points publicly, I think you mute some criticism and get people responding more positively. I think focus groups with these people can also be useful. The key is to identify the right people...

I don't think there's a formula...it's about picking the right tools. If surveys are interesting, and people feel like some kind of positive communication comes about as a result, they can probably be powerful tools. The right community representatives, communicating reasonably frequently, providing consistent, informed responses...even if they are just saying "No".

I think the balance of power should always lie with the developers, but there should be communication enough to convey a sense of respect for differing player opinions. The devs should not be afraid to say no...but carefully pick topics where they can say "no" and why they're saying no.

The devs should be able to pick what they focus on, but if players are complaining about something else, they should be able to step up and communicate why they're not focusing on that.

Again, there's no formula, it's about being creative and flexible and intelligently responsive to whatever issues are at the forefront.

Adamo said...

The main question is:

Where has the heart and the soul of aoc gone?

million feedbacks cannot answer that.


You need programmers that CAN put their hearts and theirs souls into the product -

and less assemblyline-workers, that code here a bit...and there a bit....and again here a bit...

Don't get me wrong they work hard but the game still is not "rounded" up in gameplay and that is exactly what the player feels after some time.


But as long as your gameplay designers with great ideas get a big "no" from programmers...think this to an end yourself.

Where are the people that hardwork to realize their own ideas?

In my opinion we can watch a big world operating company failing - as a result of its own profit thoughts-internal structure.

Big companies are good to produce plastic and other products, and less entertainement...

Here, simpy things have to fit, you cannot "seminar"- people to do this job so easy.


But sometimes "bad" things also can bring something new, too...so the next small garage gamemanufacturer possibly gets a new chance for a great idea...


all the best.

Adamo said...

@ Amanda

[quote]I agree with you on surveys. There is usually too much forum testosterone flying about for people to be honest there. With an anonymous survey people can safely report what they actually think without being ridiculed for it on the forums. It is why I stay away from all but the friendliest of forums these days (reets retreat ftw!!)[/quote]

Believe it or not, you can't imagine what oestrogen sometimes is able to harm, too...

Karl said...

Feedback is hard because you have to consider two things. First is the sender of the message and second is what they’re saying. Forums are a way to find out what’s important to a vocal few, but they rarely represent the whole community. In fact, I often tell new MMO players to avoid any official forums for at least 3 months. That way when they read them, they have enough first hand knowledge to process all the negativity.

Surveys are decent, but there are two dangers in those as well. As long as the survey is constructed well (bad questions skew results) and enough players respond to provide strong confidence that the sample represents the population. In short, a poorly worded survey or a low response rate can lead the team in the wrong direction.

When it comes to surveys, I prefer the “Which of these is most important to you?” style things. I like feeling like the game designers and developers have ideas and are in control of the game. But I also realize that limited resources means that tradeoffs have to occur. Even if my #1 priority isn’t implemented in the next major update, it feels good to know that our input was solicited.

The best game feedback experience I had was in Anarchy Online several years ago. I was invited by ARK to participate in a roleplay round table discussion. They hosted us at their base and we had an hour long talk in-game but out of character about the state of RP in Rubi-Ka and how Funcom and/or the ARKs could help. Several good (and a few not-so-good) suggestions were given. A few of them were even implemented. I know that I and the other participants all went back to our guilds / friends and told them that Funcom was really listening to us. It did a lot to improve the morale among the RP community.

As for the style / content of updates, I prefer to see big changes to a single aspect of the game to a smattering of little changes to everything. However, if Update 9 addresses a new feature of PvP content (for example) then I think Update 10 should focus on something else. Those of us with a mature point of view about these things can understand that even though my area of the game didn’t get any love this time around, that doesn’t mean the devs have forgotten about me.

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