Monday, January 12, 2015

[WoW/Design] Whose Game Is It Anyway? Designers vs. Players

Alternative Chat has yet another great post for thought on social interactions in MMOs, pointing out the differences between what players want, and what designers need to do. It's hard to boil her post down into a single point, but the big themes I got out of it are designers are trying to make a game, and players want something the designers aren't giving them.

Or more to the point, the players think they want something the designers aren't giving them. If there's one thing I've learned watching the WoW community, it's that players are pretty bad at figuring out what they actually want. And to be fair, that's not the players' job.

A prime historical example of this would be the transition from Wrath to Cataclysm in World of Warcraft. Vocal players thought Wrath was too easy. Designers agreed, so they made Cataclysm harder. Whelp, turns out the designers missed the silent majority of players who didn't think the game was too easy, and pissed them right off to the point where many of them left. However, making the game easy again wasn't the correct solution--though if you asked those players who were saying, "5 mans are too hard!" they'd have told you, make it easier. But making it easier again would just lose the customers who enjoyed the harder content.

(Source) Corborus, The PUG Breaker. I can't count the number of times I've had random groups stuck on this boss.
That's not to say there aren't players out there who have good ideas. But as a designer, and heck as a programmer for other designers, the thing I've learned to do is ask what they think the problem is. Many folks love providing solutions, but as a programmer, if you give me a solution without telling me what problem you want to solve, I'll program what you think you want, but I can guarantee it won't make you happy. I've already seen that happen a few times on the game I'm currently making.

Context is key, and asking "Why?" over and over again until you can distill the actual reasoning for the solution posited is a better way to figure out if the proposed solution actually addresses the problem in a way that makes sense, or if the person is offering up potential solutions without actually thinking of the real reasons why. And those reasons can differ from player to player:

Let's take the statement, "Heroic 5-mans in Cataclysm were too frustrating."
Player 1: Why? Because we keep dying to bosses. Why? Because people don't know how to stay out of the bad. Why? Because they don't know how to play. Why? I don't know. My guildies don't have the same issues.
Once you get down to the bottom of it, this player probably had an issue with being thrown into the LFD tool with folks of differing skills/attitude/goals.
Player 2: Why? Because the dungeons are too hard. Why? Because we keep dying to bosses. Why? Because I keep instantly dying. Why? Because bosses kill me in one shot. Why? Because I can't react fast enough or I don't see the mechanic.
This player isn't at the skill level required to down the dungeons, and may never be, but they still want to do the content because last expac, heroic 5-mans were easy enough to do, but now they aren't. Or potentially some of the mechanics aren't as obvious as they should be.

So two player perspectives, completely different, stemming from the same base statement of, "this content is too frustrating." Once you start digging, you realize that you need different solutions, because while on the surface it sounds like the same issue, it's quite different once you get a little bit below the surface.

For WoW, solutions came about eventually by the addition of the buff for random groups to help offset communication issues, and later on in Warlords the addition of an automated skill gate to ensure they didn't accidentally walk into content that was too difficult for them. Also, the addition of further difficulty levels for raiding. Lots of different techniques to mitigate the "too hard" issue without actually necessarily changing the difficulty of the content for folks who were enjoying it.

Difficulty Levels. Not a new concept, but an important one for a diverse player base.
While Alternative Chat talks about how "designers are first and foremost making a living," and that the No Flying in Draenor issue illustrates the designers making decisions--no matter how unpopular--for the betterment of the game as a whole, I think the scenario is a bit more nuanced than that.

MMOs provide a unique opportunity in video games for rapid iteration of features. One-shot video games don't get this. They'll hear feedback on forums and the like after release, but the game is done, there's no more fixing it. Sequels can address that feedback, but MMOs are a fantastic opportunity for player feedback to be heard and acted upon. And player feedback is key to keeping the game engaging and keeping the dollars flowing for said designers making a living, because if your playerbase isn't happy, they'll leave, and take their dollars with them.

That's not to say designers should address everything players say. Sometimes players will never be happy, and sometimes you might have to decide, well, this 3% segment hates this part of the game, but this other 50% segment loves it. Oh well, too bad for that 3%. And sometimes other parts of the game fall apart without making an otherwise unpopular decision (like Draenor's treasure finding and flight).

So whose game is it anyway? Ultimately, it's the designers. They'll make decisions that are (hopefully) right for the game, to make it fun and to give it longevity. But they can't ignore player feedback, either. It needs to be taken into account in some fashion, or they'll end up losing a chunk of players.
#WorldOfWarcraft, #GameDesign


  1. That post can only be written by me with the PoV of a player, and my continued view from 'over here' is that Warcraft players just don't understand the financial restraints/constraints/considerations that sit inside the game making process. Therefore, when you see choices like no flying being made, many simply automatically assume the change is because the designers don't understand what players want, and proceed to educate them. The truth is that this remains a design choice, made by people you assume are fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

    I'm working on the nuances. One of my best mates works for a Software company, and he's encouraging me to use Twine to start my own design processes. If I keep hanging around with people like you, I hope I can begin to grasp more subtleties :D

    1. To be fair, designers aren't perfect. There's plenty of times they make poor decisions or have bad ideas. As Ghostcrawler once said, good designers just recognize these bad ideas faster.

      I think there's value in a player giving feedback, even if that feedback is shallow. The designer needs to uncover what is causing that feedback. The issue, in my opinion, comes when folks pitch a fit because it seems like they're not being listened to, when they are being listened to, but their ideas are summarily rejected.

  2. If you make a product for consumption, and ignore the preferences of those consuming it, then you potential put your product at risk.

    Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but the designers didn't design WoW for themselves. They designed it to be played by large numbers of non Blizzard employees. The consumers should be able to express their preferences, hopefully politely although mostly very poorly. Cadburys has reverted their product changes before based on consumer feedback. Blizzard has reverted announced plans based on consumer feedback (RealID).

    Players know what they want out of a game. Players have to adjust to changes, and some will like them, some will live with them and some will decide the game is no longer fun. All of that is okay and perfectly normal. 'Making a living' sometimes means making choices that go against your personal preferences because it will go a lot better in the market place. I personally despise tomato sauce, but if I tried to run a pie shop here in Australia without sauce, I'd be out of business super fast :)

    WoW has a broad enough player base that the designers can make choices and see how they play out, but they are prone to extreme swings on the pendulum when they go to rebalance something. They do make mistakes, they've said that. Hell they think flying was one grand mistake. The designers have to make a living by making a product people want to keep paying for, and I expect sometimes that means they make decisions they may not have done if the product was for personal use only.

    1. I agree with you that the designers are making a game for other people. However, I'd make a small change to one of your sentences: "Players know what they DON'T want out of a game," which was a large part of my point above. Players know what they don't like, and are quite vocal about it. To ignore that would be folly. However, players more often don't know what they want rather than know what they want. How can they know what they want when what they want may not yet exist? The famous quote often attributed to Henry Ford on the automobile states, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

      And as I mentioned, that's not to say players don't sometimes have good ideas. In the age of the Internet and crowdsourcing, get enough brains in one place on the Internet and you're bound to have some great ideas pop out. But it's not guarenteed, especially when many players don't understand the craft of game design.

      Games as art, art as products, games as products. It's always a super interesting intersection that is fun to explore. If you're a game developer on Barbie Horse Adventures, chances are you're not making the game for you, though there's an argument to be had that perhaps you should try to make it fun for you as well as the target audience if possible.

      If you look at some of the greatest artwork in history, it was done on commission: The Mona Lisa, The Sistine Chapel, most of Beethoven's work. They had customers who had specifications. This seems to clearly support the idea that one should listen to the customer. However, what were the specifications? How nitty gritty did they get? Was it simply, "Give me an oil painting rendition of my wife?" or did it get so far as to say, "You should use this precise pigment of blue for the eyes."

      For game design, it's much the same way. You ARE building a product to serve other people. However, the craft of making the game belongs to the designers, not the players. The players can provide feedback, but more often than not, they won't be able to tell you as the designer very much about the how, just the what they don't like. But hey, as you insinuate, sometimes the customer just really, really wants that pigment of blue for the eyes.

      Thanks for the comment, quite thought-provoking :)

  3. As everybody know no body is perfect as do designers are there are several of times they have literally bad ideas. But when they get the good or bad feedback from the players they should take them seriously make changes accordingly if the feedback in negative try to overcome that issue which causing these negative feedback.

    1. It's a question of signal vs. noise. If you're getting feedback from tens of thousands of players, you can't possibly give each idea/thought much time, so it becomes a task of sifting through all of that data to pick out the "good" data.

      Then on top of that, how do you determine if an idea is good or not? Sometimes you just have to implement it and try it. So not all feedback is equal; it cannot possibly be. Hence why unless it's overwhelming (i.e.: a lot of players are saying the same thing like the Blizzard RealID fiasco), or extremely well reasoned in a high visibility area, it's difficult to even consider it.