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Ask Massively: The customer is always...

Kevin Stallard

This week's Ask Massively is going to be a bit different. Instead of answering a question from my readers, I'm going to answer a recent post here at Massively. The CSM Speaks, but will CCP games listen? No, I'm not going to speak for CCP Games, creators of EVE Online for those of you who live under a rock. In the finest traditions of Zen philosophy, I'm going to answer a question with a question.

Should game developers listen to their players when making development decisions?

Only the most obtuse idiot would refuse to take customer feedback into consideration when developing or enhancing a product. I'm not talking about feedback in the "Suggestion Box" sense of the word. I mean "Should customers have a direct hand in determining which features of a product should be implemented or developed?"

The root of this particular evil comes from the phrase "The Customer is always right" which was popularized by Marshall Fields in the United States more than a century ago. As a quick and dirty thought experiment, I'd like you to go to the community forums of your favorite game and ask yourself "Are these the people I want designing my game?" If you filter out all of the "Nerf *insert some other player*" threads and all of the folks who swear that they're never ever ever going to play this game again, and this time, I mean it! You are left with a collection of over-analytical and borderline obsessive players who think that because they spend 12 hours/day in their favorite gaming universe, everyone should be forced to spend that kind of time in-game to achieve any reasonable degree of success within the game.

Is this the crowd to which game producers should be catering?

At the risk of being uncommonly generous in my praise of Blizzard and Brad McQuaid in the same paragraph, it is far more advisable for a game producer to have a clear concept and vision of how the game should be designed (a "vision", if you will) Blizzard dedicates an inordinate amount of time dealing with their users in the forums for World of Warcraft, but I don't think you'd find anyone there who would think that users have more than curory input into Blizzard's creative process. Feedback? Absolutely. But there is no illusion that "The Customer is always right" over there. Whatever you might say about Brad's second effort (Vanguard), his vision has been undeniably successful in EverQuest. In each of these games, the producers were most successful when trusting their own sense of proper design and not mindlessly giving players "what they want". Or, more accurately stated, "Giving the most vocal and obnoxious minority of players on the community forums what they say they want with no real regard to the underlying game-play issues that, if fixed, might make the game better for everyone"

With respect to the MMORPG industry, the maxim of "The Customer of always right" should be restated as "The Customer is always prone to seek quick fixes, bells, and whistles instead of a coherent long-term design plan that may result in greater success over the long term." Sure, it doesn't have the scansion that Mr. Fields' phrase has, but it is a lot closer to truth.

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