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The Think Tank: How do you feel about community involvement with an MMO's development process?

Shawn Schuster

A game's community has become more important to the development of modern MMOs as studios are paying more and more attention to what the players actually want versus what publishers want. This is evident in games like EVE Online with its player council, and Kickstarter has opened up a whole new avenue for the players to influence that dev process.

But sometimes, that player influence isn't always for the best. In the famous words of poet John Lydgate, "You can't please all of the people all of the time." Yet many developers still try. So I threw the question out to the Massively staff to get some fresh opinions. Should we all be able to play the part of an armchair developer, or should we leave the design up to the paid designers?

The Think Tank How do you feel about community involvement with an MMO's development process
I think it's a great idea, but I've barely ever witnessed a game that actually allows players to input anything. Developers no longer want to host live events out of fear of irking a single player; the teams seem too paranoid to make any real changes to the games they make. There are a few exceptions, like MUDs and other indie games, that still do things the old way and allow players to actually have a say in development. We'll see a few attempts at player-created items and stuff like that, but that's nothing new and it's not development involvement.
The Think Tank How do you feel about community involvement with an MMO's development process
I think developers have to walk a fine line when it comes to asking for and responding to well-intentioned but often terrible player feedback. I don't like how "representative" player councils in EVE Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Lord of the Rings Online operate(d), for example, and the WildStar councils worry me for similar reasons: They put too much power in the hands of a small group of individuals, and depending on who chooses those representatives, they are usually either too ineffective to be taken seriously or so effective that they wrest game design from the hands of the developers.

Community feedback is awesome and should absolutely be pursued, but devs should focus on eliciting that feedback on forums and through polls pushed into the game and to former players, not from councils that exist to promote either the game or themselves. And they've got to be careful not to ask questions they don't want to hear the answers to (or can't afford to address). And nope, I don't think that providing feedback constitutes free labor.
The Think Tank How do you feel about community involvement with an MMO's development process
I don't think we've really seen community involvement with an MMO's development process outside of EVE. And even then there should be air quotes around community because the CSM is very tight with CCP and also very specifically aligned with certain segments of the playerbase. Players did revolt after monoclegate/Incarna and supposedly forced CCP to rethink its approach, but that seems like a pretty isolated case, and it certainly wasn't an intended instance of community-influenced development.

The community is almost entirely responsible for the funding of Star Citizen, of course, but there's no involvement in design decisions or actual development because Roberts and company are making whatever the heck they want to make regardless of where the money comes from. I prefer this level of community involvement because good designers generally do know better than players when it comes to the nuts and bolts. That said, I love the fact that SC's crowdfunding approach has been as successful as it has because it means that sandbox fans and other marginalized groups can now have their own little islands in the sea of mass market crap.

I'm also excited to see AAA companies finally coming around and (re)-embracing player-generated content. Whether we're talking about Star Citizen's private servers, Cryptic's Foundry, or some of the stuff supposedly coming with EQ Next, it makes sense for both creative players and company bottom lines.
The Think Tank How do you feel about community involvement with an MMO's development process
This one is complex. Developers are seeking community involvement in a number of ways, some of which work and some of which do not. Player feedback, for example, is notoriously flawed by the individual player's perception and bias. When a large portion of the community agrees, however, it gives devs a starting point for positive iteration on a game's design. Feedback has to be taken in the right quantities and with the right understanding for how it manifests -- remember that for every one complaint about any given game feature, there are 10 players quietly enjoying it.

On the technical side, I've spoken at length about the "soft launch/paid beta" phenomenon, but here's my opinion for anyone who doesn't already know: It's a scam that allows developers and publishers to excuse faulty work, receive free beta testing instead of paying for a QA team, and live in a fairytale wonderland where a game never needs a hard release date. The money keeps rolling in, but there's no accountability. I understand looking for feedback or needing help with a stress test, but asking players to pay for the privilege of suffering an in-progress mess is just one step too far.

Strangely enough, the victims of deeper player involvement in the development process are often the players themselves. Constant re-designs sparked by a dev team's lack of confidence in its own ideas are a bane to true fans (see: Firefall), and modern MMO players can rarely expect a finished, polished game delivered on a hard date that doesn't first have some sort of early access nonsense. The more devs rely on fans for things that should really be completed in-house, the worse the experience gets for the true believers (read: those who care enough to buy early access).

In summary: Bringing players in on the development process is a lot like building a bomb. Mix things in the wrong proportions and everyone ends up burned.
The Think Tank How do you feel about community involvement with an MMO's development process
I think, for the most part, more people say that they want in on the development process than actually participate in it. Alphas and betas are no more than early access these days, and player councils are popularity contests.

I'm all for community involvement being taken into consideration, but not every single idea being implemented to the letter. Game designers should act as a filter to accept player feedback and shape it to their own ideas. We're never going to get innovative games if the same squeaky wheels keep affecting every new game. And how long do those squeaky wheels stick around after launch, anyway?

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.

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