I couldn't help myself today when reading this thread over on Massively and had to jump into the resulting thread with an answer or two on the subject of how much developers listen to player feedback. Those of you who read regularly know that it is a subject close to my heart, and I can rarely resist an opportunity to discuss this subject with people.
The question at hand...
Do developers care about player feedback, and why do game forums usually bemoan the fact that they are 'never listened to'?
It was a good discussion, the type I really like to see and take part in, lots of interesting and constructive viewpoints on the subject.
The funny thing is that the developers usually feel that they are pretty much always already listening and reacting to player feedback. Almost every change that goes into the game comes off the back of a player suggestion of some variety or other. From speaking to other developers over the years, I have rarely heard anything different.
The perception problem we often face with this subject is two fold really:
The opinion divide
Firstly, there are a lot of opinions out there, and while the proverbial 'you' as any given player might feel that X, Y or Z is the 'most needed' there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, (or even millions if you are Blizzard) of other players who might have other opinions. So just because any given feature wasn't something 'you' (or the group of 'you' represented by a portion of a forum community) asked for, it doesn't mean it wasn't asked for.
The 'what I like' bias
The second issue is that there is always an inherent bias when it comes to class requests that the devs have to shift through and figure out the actual situation by research and playing because the 'forum view' of any given class is usually a pretty partisan, biased discussion (in both directions), and often presents us with a 'no win' situation community wise, as whoever we 'please' we end up displeasing someone else who thought their issues were more important (even if we will get to them later and it's just a matter of priority)
Boiling it down...
So really, given all the different opinions out there, that situation - where doing X makes Y happy but angers Z - is pretty much true for everything a developer does. It takes different flavors, but it is usually consistent. It might not be at the feature in question that raises someones ire specifically, but it may be that any given group feels the resource should have been spent on something else.
It has been the case as long as I have been involved, release solo content, and the team players complain they need more, release PVP content and the PVE players claim they should have been preferred, add role-play features and the hardcore brand them a waste of time, add raids and the solo crowd feel hard done by. So what you usually try and do is to at least balance the schedule of releases so that over a period you have added something for as many as possible...and of course that only applied to your game, if you cater to that wide a variety of playstyles, but most MMOs do to some extent. The more niche your game is in terms of mechanics, the easier it becomes in theory, as you have less interests to cater for...
A Community would face the same issue as a developer...
Any situation where players got to choose, would also face exactly the same issue. A community allowed to make it's own choices would probably very quickly learn that 'their' viewpoint was not necessarily a majority. (Especially if the game in question was not home to a specific, clearly defined, majority interest and was split between hardcore and casual, PVE and PVP etc)
That is often the hardest thing to explain to any given section of a forum community.
We do listen
So honestly, player feedback is usually driving virtually every addition we make. I can't remember the last time we added a feature that wasn't somehow born from player feedback. The problem we face with this particular topic is usually the diversity of interests attached to a game, and finding that 'right' schedule of additions to try and please as many people as possible is genuinely one of the toughest challenges we face as developers.
Do we listen too much?
One of the questions asked in the thread revolved around whether developers should listen at all, and should focus on 'their vision'. I think some games definitely do that, and much depends on the team and individual involved. It is important that a dev team isn't just trying to do everything players ask (otherwise, as a few pointed out you would end up with the type of car that Homer Simpson designed), but the two things aren't mutually exclusive of each other.
In our case we generally take player feedback as an inspiration for the area upon which we should focus, or an area that needs improvement, and then the designers set to work on it. It also isn't really about not wanting to innovate either, it is more that a players perception may not account for any number of things a developer has to also consider, or any set of technical considerations they have to account for etc
I firmly believe though that there is a happy medium to be found here. After all, it is players we are aiming to please, surprise and delight, so we do base our efforts on what we think people would be interested in, and then try to make it as fun and interesting as possible.
So player feedback is always one of the most important ingredients to the decisions on what to put into that schedule...it just might not be 'your' specific feedback as it were...and even if it is the primary influence, it is often just that, an influence, rather than a directive that we as developers follow. It is one ingredient that gets thrown into the mixing pot when creating content.
Lastly as an aside to the entire conversation, as an ex-community manager myself, I have always loved the idea of a truly community driven game. A game where players got to vote on its features might be really interesting. While I am not convinced that a great game would come out of such a set-up (I fear it would in the end suffer from a little 'design by committee'), and it would probably be very hard to get funding for as a professional project, it would never the less be a great experiment in community building. I played a few Neverwinter Nights module 'worlds' not long after that game out that tried just that with some interesting results...it would definitely be cool to see such an endeavor on a larger scale. I am not sure I would want to make it, but I would sure as hell want to play it...