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How feedback works and why it matters

Matthew Rossi

Lately I've seen some forum posts that confuse me. Perhaps it's because these posts themselves seem confused. Posts like this one, where Librily the worgen mage accuses Blizzard and World of Warcraft's development team of soliciting feedback that they don't actually look at. I find this especially odd on a forum where community managers regularly engage with posters, and I wanted to address what feedback is, how it works, and why it matters now and going forward.

Frankly, it is impossible to look at the design of Mists of Pandaria and not see how much player feedback has influenced the design of the expansion. The 85 to 90 game is everything Cataclysm was not -- it all takes place in a seamless new land, it removed flying in order to provide player immersion, it works the Horde/Alliance conflict into the storyline. It is in every way the result of player feedback being constructively weighted and utilized responsibly. By that, I mean that the game's developers clearly looked at what players were saying they liked and disliked and worked to find ways to address player concerns.

What they didn't do -- what they have never done and cannot ever do -- is simply go to the forums, see who yelled loudest, and give them everything they wanted. That would be absurd design by mob, it would produce an unplayable game full of broken classes and most importantly of all, it would not be fun to play. Games require a ton of work to produce, especially a game like World of Warcraft, and the amount of effort behind the scenes to bring what we get to see and experience does not allow for that kind of design even if it were desirable, which it is not. Game design is not about giving the players everything they say they want, nor is it about doing everything they say as soon as they say it.

Let's talk about how good feedback works, the difference between opinion and fact, and why taking the time to make a well constructed argument is worthwhile even if you don't see any signs of it changing anything.

The line between opinion and truth

First off I'm going to quote a post by Daxxari that I think addresses some of this elegantly and well, and then I'll go into more detail.

Daxxari - Sick of Blizz Lies about hearing feedback
I'm not interested in citing the entire massive list directly, but World of Warcraft has a long history of adjustments in response to player feedback. A couple simple recent examples would be raising the Arena and Rated Battleground base point caps or the upcoming changes to the way that Pandaria faction reputation is gained by alternate characters on an account.

When something you feel strongly about hasn't been changed, that doesn't mean that we've dismissed feedback. In fact, sometimes we really like a suggestion, but implementing it doesn't quite fit into the schedule yet, or there are technical or design reasons why it doesn't fit into the game yet. Sometimes, we want to wait til we can implement a more elegant solution. And, of course, sometimes we simply disagree that a particular change is the right course for the game. Nonetheless, in none of these cases is feedback dismissed - it was still taken into account during the decision making process.

This strikes at the heart of the issue - listening to feedback does not necessitate acting on feedback. There are many reasons for this. For one, just because you dislike something or love something doesn't mean everyone does, and Blizzard is going to try and make decisions for their game to maximize the enjoyment of as many people as possible. If it were up to me, there would be no paladins. Do you think people playing paladins right now would like my vision for the game? Do you think they would support my arguments about how any class that can perform tanking, DPS and healing roles is overdesigned and risks 'one man army' syndrome? A great many players like playing paladins (they're one of the most popular classes in WoW) and no amount of angry posting on my part would change that salient fact.

We have to be careful when offering feedback to not assume that our opinions are self-evident fact, and any dissent from said opinion or lack of immediate change to fit our opinion is malicious. Blizzard didn't just dump CRZ not because they hate you and are stubbornly keeping a bad feature to spite you, they kept CRZ because they believe that it's an emerging feature that they can improve with time and feedback. Look at the original implementation of the Dungeon Finder and its improvement in Wrath of the Lich King to see a feature that went from everyone refusing to use it to becoming a feature absolutely everyone uses. In fact, love them or hate them, we can't ignore that Cross Realm Zones are themselves a response to player feedback. They were born out of a desire to address players' issues with empty low level zones.

Tell them why

There's also a big difference between listening to feedback and figuring out how to implement it. It took years for Dungeon Finder to be implemented. Features like Raid Finder, CRZ, and the current reputation system are all constantly being looked at and evaluated, as are all of our class performances in raids and dungeons and while soloing/questing. If you don't believe the game is constantly changing and evolving then I have no idea how to argue that it is, based on just the past year's fairly massive changes to every class. The changes to the talent system over the years (including the most recent complete retooling) show that Blizzard is making changes, and those changes are often obviously in response to player feedback. It comes down to how the developers can make use of that feedback.

Daxxari - Sick of Blizz Lies about hearing feedback
It's true that the forum population represents a relatively small chunk of the overall player base. It's also true that the kind of player that's apt to post on the forums doesn't necessarily represent all of the vast and incredibly diverse World of Warcraft community, but that doesn't mean that the feedback here isn't useful. We do realize that forum goers are often our most invested, passionate players. We appreciate you guys, and what you have to say matters.

That said, election polls and the forums are different in several key ways. Among them--and I don't want to get into how statistics works in detail (especially since I'm not an expert)--but I do know that the forums are what is called a 'self selecting sample', and that trying to derive representative statistics from such a sampling is an excellent way to get skewed results.

This is where the nature of that feedback comes into play. While passion for the game is useful in allowing us as players to get to the heart of what we enjoy, allowing passion to overwhelm reason isn't useful, and confusing opinion with objective fact leads to making assumptions of malicious intent where there is none. The presence of a gameplay element one doesn't enjoy despite your having expressed that lack of enjoyment does not equate to mendacity on the part of the developers in their stated desire for feedback. Indeed, the game as it stands today is so clearly a result of feedback gathered from multiple sources, analyzed, and prudently applied that any argument for the inverse seems wildly counter-factual.

In this case, emotions expressed well are helpful, but excessive emotions expressed at the expense of reasoned argument does no one any good. One can feel better after venting one's spleen, of course, but This sucks offers nothing outside of the brute fact that someone thinks something sucks. It doesn't explain why, it doesn't offer any understanding of how that opinion was reached, and therefore it doesn't give the developers any sense of where the process is failing in its intent. Tell them what you don't like, why you don't like it, and where specifically you feel that it doesn't work, rather than just baldly stating that you don't like it. And furthermore, don't expect them to immediately drop their coffee mugs, gasp in shock, and run to change the game to conform to your vision. With anything as big as WoW, change takes time.

Mists of Pandaria is here! The level cap has been raised to 90, many players have returned to Azeroth, and pet battles are taking the world by storm. Keep an eye out for all of the latest news, and check out our comprehensive guide to Mists of Pandaria for everything you'll ever need to know.

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