Player vs. Everything: Those poor, poor designers

Cameron Sorden
C. Sorden|05.01.08

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Player vs. Everything: Those poor, poor designers

I've gotta hand it to MMOG designers. They really kind of get shafted. They spend weeks, months, and years fine-tuning tiny aspects of gameplay that you never even notice or care about (like the amount of silver that level 12 murlocs drop), coming up with interesting quests, trying to innovate the game enough to keep us interested, and developing a stream of content that's regular and enthralling enough to satisfy our all-encompassing hunger for more, more, MORE! While they do this, they have to pay attention to a million other things: time constraints, budget constraints, balance considerations, community expectations, and their pushy producers who want them to get the job done now, even if it means they can't include all of these cool features they have in mind.

When they finally put the finishing touches on this labor of love that they've slaved away on for so, so long, they deliver it out into the excited arms of the community that's been eagerly awaiting the game since they announced what they were working on in pre-alpha. What happens then? Worst case scenario, everyone hates the game and it sinks like a stone to the trash pile of the bargain bin (along with the shattered hopes and dreams of the entire team that worked on the game). But even in the best case scenario, everyone loves the game for about two weeks until they notice all the little flaws that they don't like about your particular design. Then, they start picking it apart bit by bit. "Why didn't you do this this way?" they ask. "Why didn't you make this quest reward better? Why are Mages better than Rogues? Why isn't my +3 sword worse than a +3 axe against Ents? Here's how I think you should fix this awful, terrible, no-good, very bad game design."

But the thing is, nobody really cares why the game is designed the way it is. Designers get criticized for not responding to community concerns, but the truth is that you can't pick and choose which concerns are actually worthy of a response. Everyone feels like their concern is valid. If the designers took the time to come out and explain to every single person with a stupid idea why exactly their idea is so stupid, nothing would ever get done. The truth is that as much as you might think it would be cool if Mages could wear plate and melee next to Warriors, there's a very specific design reason why they can't. Similarly, more obscure choices have a design purpose too, even if you can't see what it is. Besides, even if you did explain to someone why their idea sucked, they would either stick to their guns (MMOG fanboys aren't known for their fair and rational natures) or just say, "Oh, you're right," and skip away whistling. You haven't really accomplished much, beyond wasting your time with an idiot.

This isn't to say that designers never make bad choices, of course. They do, frequently. No one is perfect, and there's no manual for awesome game world design. Given the hit or miss nature of MMOGs, nobody has any idea what makes these things successful, and the design choice that really clicks for person A might make person B hate the game so much that they quit and never play again. Of course, both person A and person B want to have their opinion considered, and both thinks the other is a moron and doesn't belong in their game. Nobody wants to listen to a speech about balance and fairness -- they just want what they want. And damn it, they pay money! The designers should listen to them! There are clearly very obvious solutions to all of a game's problems, and the moronic designers just haven't seen them yet (even though they get paid to think about this stuff professionally).

Fortunately, they don't take your money to listen to you rant (or they wouldn't be sane for very long). That's what they pay community people for -- someone else gets to filter the insanity and pass the decent suggestions up to the game designers, allowing them to live in a fairly sheltered environment that's free from vitriol and morons and focus on keeping the game fun and interesting for players. On the rare occasions that designers do venture into the forums, it's like watching a feeding frenzy. Interestingly, the level of negativity seems to be directly proportional to the size of the community. Lots of small games report huge success when they work closely with their community. Some larger games don't even want the hassle of forums.

I'm surprised that those designers who do watch the community and forums don't quickly rip all of their hair out in frustration. It seems to be a very "damned if you don't, damned if you do" experience. There are always unhappy people who tend to be the most vocal, and every change you might make seems to generate more of them. The blogosphere is even worse. Every jackass who thinks they know a little bit about online games (like me) has a million suggestions for how other people should improve games they've never worked on and will probably stop playing as soon as the next big shiny thing gets waved in front of their faces. It's like a big truckload of negativity driving into their house, over and over.

So the next time you think about slamming a designer for a choice they make, or putting forth the "clearly obvious solution" to a problem in a game, take a moment to really think about what you're saying. Don't just talk to talk, and don't assume that you know the answer to everything just because you've played a few games. A little humility goes a long way, and you might find that if you ask "Why was this decision made?" instead of assuming it was a bad one, you could learn something in the process. Finally, make sure that you take the time to talk about the good aspects of the game as well as the bad. Even though the concern you show when you complain about your favorite game shows just how much you care, it can be hard to remember that through the flames.

A little gratitude for these great games that we all like so much can go a long way in the mind of someone who's put so much into them.

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