You’re wrong and should be ignored, but don’t worry, you’re loved.
If you’re reading this article, you’re likely a hardcore videogame fan. You read message boards, and you’re not afraid to tell developers what they’re screwing up. I’m here to tell you that if you’re a member of a specific videogame’s community, your opinion should be ignored. Your thoughts must be digested – it’s hard to ignore loud screaming – but discarded.
It sounds harsh and definitely won’t be a popular opinion, but the most dangerous thing a developer can do is listen to his hardcore community.
The hardcore can and have led developers astray. Before a game undergoes production, developers write what’s called a design document. Detailing various technical and operational aspects of a game, it functions as the team’s battle plan, but it’s hardly a static document. It is fluid, evolving as development progresses. It is on the strength or weakness of these documents that good or bad games are born.
Too often, though, perfectly good games get confused, turned around and bashed over the head by those who claim to love them most. It’s tragic, really. They enter beta, with all their bright ideas and shiny new toys and then some 14-year-old screams, “This sucks!” At a company with strong leadership and vision, this is read, digested and considered, but rarely do they succumb to the mighty weight of one 14-year-old and a few of his buddies. At a not-so-steady company, a post or 10 like that can be fatal.
Welcome to a world of reactionary development. Every time the community screams, the developers shift focus and try to put out that fire. Suddenly, the game is no longer in development, but rather in commercial service, and this is wrong. Testing phases are for testing and there is no way to say with any idea of accuracy that something truly does suck until all the spices are in the pot.
Games are huge undertakings. Clever designers, like good cooks, need all the different ingredients to work together for the final result to be appetizing. Like cooking, you cannot just go “voila” and have the whole friggen game there. It takes time, it takes massaging, it takes patience.
You, my hardcore friends, lack patience.
The hardcore, for the most part, play games in beta the way they’d play any old game they got from Best Buy. They try to get better, they try to win. When they find something boring, they scream and yell. Yet, for some reason, those egocentric screams are fatal.
It is extremely hard to build a work of art while people piss and moan about how much they hate it. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci with a group of art critics in his studio as he painted the Mona Lisa. He’d end up with a brown canvas. When too many people are yelling contradictory opinions, and developers try to accommodate them all, they get a brown canvas; something that is entirely innocuous, but completely pointless. These are also known as unremarkable or – dare I say – bad games.
Yet it happens every day, and I blame the increased importance of online communities for the current dilution and sameness of so many games, especially in the MMOG genre.
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.