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So, the skeptic may point out that I am basically suggesting developers ignore the very people for whom their games are made. Not exactly.
I suggest only that game developers ignore their hardcore fans. By hardcore, I mean anyone who uses videogame-related message boards. Like it or not, the people posting are not a representative sample of your community. There's a reason no one believes that girls play videogames despite constant studies saying the opposite. They have better sense than to dive into the acid culture that exists on most videogame message boards. They'd most likely just get asked if they're "hawt." There goes half the audience from that sample so many game developers listen so intently to.
I am all for interaction between developers and their customers. The Vanguard development team implemented feedback forms in their beta test that asked people what they thought of what they just experienced. It's a snazzy little trick, right there in the client. That is good feedback. Kind of. The only problem there is this: Only the hardcore beta test. How many vaguely interested Wal-Mart shoppers camp forums waiting for a beta sign-up? Not many, I would wager, but it is these people that end up paying the bills and it is they that developers need to keep happy.
Videogame developers need to avoid the temptation of showing off their toys until they're totally painted. Bean counters won't like it, but beta tests should not exist until the game is nearly ready. They should not be about development, only polish. If studios want to know what prospective players think, they should learn some lessons from other industries and show it to representative focus groups once it's done.
The nefarious trick for videogame developers is to ignore their community without telling them. It's evil, it's underhanded, but if you can still fool the hardcore into buying into your brand, so much the better. In order to get them, they need to think they were only this far away from getting their names in the credits.
It can be done. The trick is to have smart community relations people. These are people who can rationally use a message board to talk to players. There, they post, they discuss and they explain. They let the community know they're reading and that they're not wasting their time.
In reality, though, the community better be wasting their time. Community management is public relations when it's at its best and cause for reactionary development when it's at its worst.
Developers must learn to stick to their guns and see their visions through. Half-finished products are always going to inspire hate, and no mater how much it stings, making drastic changes in response to community complaints invites disaster. When the hardcore yell that something "sucks," developers must learn to tell them how much they love them and tuck them in for the night.
Dana "Lepidus" Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.