The Community Has Spoken: How MMO Creators Balance Development Plans with Player Feedback
Community and player involvement are the backbone of any good MMO. One of the huge issues we face as a Community Management team, and as a game developer and publisher, is that all of our players have an opinion on pretty much every aspect of our games...and they're not afraid to let us know about it! What's the issue, then? Well, when you have the largest free MMO in the world in your game catalogue with millions of players, that's one hell of a lot of opinion to attempt to digest, respond to and factor into game development.
Here at Jagex Games Studio, we place a great deal of value on community satisfaction and player response to our games. We genuinely believe in our loyal community, and very much want to give them what they desperately desire, demand, deserve, even dream of...but that's not that easy to accomplish. As a game developer with a huge community, we have multiple aims: to continually produce interesting, challenging and playable content, as well as respond to player feedback, and, where possible, to incorporate player feedback and opinion into our development schedule.
Maybe it goes without saying, but we value our players and their opinions more than anything. They are our dedicated heroes who care about the game and the company a lot, and let's face it, they provide the funds to enable us to invest both in current games as well as develop new ones. Without our players, we vanish.
So what's the issue? The problem is that the content teams have plans, ideas and designs of their own. After all, shouldn't they as professional game developers? Don't forget, too, that the owner and CEO has an overriding strategy for each game.
The crux of this then becomes how does Jagex as a company (and specifically the Community Management Teams) sift through the hundreds of thousands of suggestions made every year in order to ensure that the Content Teams are taking on board player feedback so that the game is relevant for all players? More importantly, how can we ensure that players know that they are actually listened to, and that their opinions, suggestions and feedback do make a difference to the game they know and love?
In 2009, RuneScape players made 21 million posts on our forums. This means that players were writing in at a rate of 2,300 posts per hour, 24/7. Of these, 124,799 suggestion threads were created with an average of 3,284 suggestions posted per week!
The most important thing to Jagex is to make sure our players don't feel like just another number in the crowd of fans and players, and for them to keep coming back with enthusiasm and excitement for our games. So, over the years, we have adapted our approach to try to elicit feedback and suggestions from groups of players, such as clans, high level players and volunteer moderators.
While not perfect, we feel we are on the way to striking a balance between being able to hear relevant feedback, and responding to them by including suggestions into actual game development. Unfortunately, we simply can't incorporate every suggestion and idea that players send us. From time to time, we even have to turn down ideas that we all really like.
We want to involve our players in the decision making process, and also give them a chance to speak to our top decision makers directly. In the last year, since Mark Gerhard became CEO, we've really opened up channels of communication with players, as well as adopting a much more direct, honest and frank approach with the information we give out. With regular updates coming out every couple weeks or so, we're able to act quickly on feedback and suggestions.
There's a ton of activity that goes on behind the scenes that most players may not know about – so here's an idea of the things we do to listen to player feedback, and how we actually feed that through to the content development teams:
- Listening to specific communities, such as clans, language communities, fan sites, volunteer moderators and high level players. We have dedicated staff members for each of these communities to work with them to help them grow, and understand their needs – we're also looking to restructure our forums to facilitate discussions between groups of like-minded players.
- Direct interaction with players through game update feedback threads, live Q&As with Jagex decision makers and community managers, developer blogs and in-game chat channels. By opening the lines of communication and making sure the community has access to our top leadership within the company, we've created a dialogue where players can ask any question they want and feel a sense of personal interaction with the people behind the scenes of their favorite game.
- Listening to opinions on game updates, polls and suggestion threads. We're increasingly establishing new ways for players to give us their input. These include asking for suggestions on specific development areas in the suggestions threads, polling players so we can gauge popular opinion, and processing all feedback that comes in regarding game updates to help content teams determine if they need to tweak an update.
Our teams make big efforts to incorporate as much player feedback as possible into our games, even though we have our own thoughts and plans. We strive to ensure that the voices, opinions, feedback and suggestions of our huge player base are heard.
We all need to keep this into perspective, however. Players may suggest something which would cause balancing issues, limit future content, or benefit cheaters and real world traders. When players make suggestions of this type, we have to have in mind the overall game and what's best for that.
Despite all of this, we have a nagging doubt that players in general still feel that their suggestions and opinions are ignored and not considered. There's more for us to do to ensure that this is not the case, but at the end of the day it's simply not feasible for us to take note of, and respond to, every single suggestion given the sheer size of our playing community.
Where we can do more is to be more open and honest with our communities about what works and what doesn't. We can also be more transparent about how we ensure that Community Managers and developers get to hear about the best and most popular suggestions made for our games.
Finally, let me leave you with this: many of our Jagex staff play RuneScape and our other games, and they are just as committed to gameplay as the majority of our players. A great many of their suggestions are echoed by the content development teams all of the time. As a result, the game is often shaped by players, which is also a major part of our success.
Part of why we've been able to build games that appeal to such large audiences is the fact that we have put player satisfaction at the top of our priorities, and have invested increasing energy and focus to this area in the last year. The community management approach we have at Jagex is constantly evolving, but always with the player at the forefront of what we do.