So Guild Wars 2 had some problems with the process to unlock its siege turtle mount. As launched, it required players to take part in a supremely challenging large-scale event that was subject to griefing behavior. It wasn’t great, which is why a week later, ArenaNet announced significant changes to it. But the situation evokes the obvious question of whether or not anyone involved in the development of this content even spared two seconds of thought for the average player of GW2 when building it because let’s be honest, it is not hard at all to see how “unlock a coveted mount through a extremely difficult meta event” was going to result in sadness and trolling.
I don’t mean to drag GW2 specifically here, mind you; I don’t think it was a malicious design decision, just a mistake in how the developers balanced an endgame task already being altered for more balance. But it serves as a good reminder of something that seems to occasionally be missing in MMO development, and that’s developers remembering to actually, like… play the game they’re developing. Especially at the level of most players.
Let’s be realistic here: It’s completely understandable why someone might not want to play an MMO at home after working on it all day.
You might think that sounds ridiculous, but think about your own job and how much of it you want to do when you’re off the clock. As much as MMOs are supposed to be fun and as much as this is an industry you get into because of love rather than to make the big bucks, if it’s your job, it’s still your job. You still spend all day thinking about this game. It makes sense that you might get tired of thinking about it at home.
For that matter, you’re probably in a different position from a lot of the most dedicated players. You know what’s planned for next month, the next few months, and so on. Whatever the playable version of the game is, you’re used to the game as it exists in the future with more refinement and improvement. It’s like watching a movie you just finished editing; you already know what it’s like from intimately assembling the dang thing. It doesn’t have the same escapism.
However – and this is a big however – playing the game is kind of important because it’s really easy to assemble something that makes perfect sense on paper but completely irritates actual players when they sit down to play the content. It’s not precisely QA, but it’s an important step of actual refinement, noticing and correcting issues that are only clear when you’re sitting down to just play this thing.
For that matter, it’s important to understand where your overall culture is at. There are countless issues with EVE Online’s latest cash grab, not the least of which is that it’s predatory and exploitative in all the ways that I called out the last time I wrote about predatory monetization practices. But it also suffers from the fact that it’s something being sold that players aren’t asking for. It’s not just a cheap money grab; it’s grabbing for money in the wrong way, which makes it more transparent to players.
You might argue that this can be hard to pick out because there are a lot of different venues where fans can express their feelings across social media, blogs, official forums, and in-game chat. This is correct. The fact that it is difficult does not change the fact that it is important. If anything, this is where community managers specifically prove their worth: because they’re at least theoretically capable of figuring out how to distill all of this feedback into understandable points.
Waiting for someone to politely show up at your front door with a folded note offering feedback about what players want is officially waiting until it’s too late to fix the problems.
Of course, there are plenty of games where you know for a fact that the developers play the games they make. But that can also cause certain problems because it’s just as important that the developers are aware of the level where most players are operating. The majority of your playerbase is always more casual than the most dedicated players, no matter the game or the balance.
When talking about Magic: the Gathering, designer Mark Rosewater mentioned at one point that the team actually put limits on how many people could be recruited from the game’s tournament scene. Tournament play and how a given set would feel when playing at a competitive level is an important consideration, after all. But it’s not the only important consideration. A set that’s fun to play at the high end but downright miserable to play at the “sitting around a kitchen table” level is just as much of a failure as the inverse.
And yes, sets have still wound up in that position, and the team has marked those as mistakes to be avoided in the future. The goal is to design something fun at all levels, not just for the top end.
I’ve talked a lot about this as an issue affecting World of Warcraft’s ongoing development. It seems rather obvious to me that the current leadership is designing with players in mind; the problem is that it’s a very specific and narrow group of players who are playing at the game’s highest level, not the majority of the playerbase who find structured content like high-end M+ and raiding to be unenjoyable. The result is a game that’s increasingly designed for a very narrow slice of its audience, which results in an increasingly smaller audience willing to put up with exactly that.
That’s not to say these games should ignore that there is a high-end audience who wants to be playing this content. It’s just a matter of giving commensurate development time to the size of the audience. Content seen by 5% of the players should not get 95% of the development time, even if the plan is to just trivialize it and scale it to lower difficulties. You need voices who are speaking about a more casual play experience as well, to give weight to that need.
In fact, this is one of the reasons playing your own MMO is as important as it is. It’s a chance to meet people and see people who have different priorities and goals in the game, to break out of your own narrow rut and be reminded that other people might want different things out of the game that need not be mutually incompatible with your own goals. It reminds you to create an environment that allows and celebrates a mixture of gameplay styles instead of just designing for the small audience in your head that’s verified when you talk to a room full of people who all have the same experiences and thoughts about the game.
Designing a good MMO means breaking out of your own echo chamber. You might not agree with every other viewpoint and every consideration, you might be willing to mark certain styles as being the wrong way to play the game… but you need to be aware that they exist first. And you need to be playing your game to pay attention.