Player Feedback-Feedback

I had a really hard time coming up with a title for this one that didn’t sound dumb and corny, and to be honest…I’m still not sure I stuck the landing!

Anyways, the other day, a tweet caught my eye from one Terran Gregory, the machinima mastermind manipulating modeled mannequins making massive masterpieces (okay, got the alliteration out of my system!). It struck an interesting set of thoughts for me, and I felt it was worth talking about.

Now, I have to start this post off with my own mea culpa, because at this point, I’ve written 629 posts here, and many of them are critical of Blizzard and what the team there makes. I do want to say that I am certain that at some point or another, I was guilty of the very thing mentioned in this post, and I think that warrants an apology in general to the game developers out there.

Having said that, I think there is a perception that developers don’t care, specifically about player feedback.

We discuss it a lot here, and I do stand by the idea that sometimes it feels an awful lot like player feedback is neglected when making changes to a game. Blizzard, who I am specifically going to focus on here today, especially gets this statement made a lot because they do a lot of public testing. As players, we are outsource QA – running through the game in a prerelease state, making bug reports, and attempting to give feedback about how things feel and play. Broadly speaking, I can say for myself and a sort of aggregate of players I talk to and interact with that feedback feels ignored or discarded because we often see the same cycle of feedback being met with minimal response, any communication that is made often falling into a sort of defensive crouch of “don’t worry, when you see it for real, it’ll be great!” and then the feedback players submitted being true, accurate, and making the game a lesser product for it. Would I say the developers don’t care? Well…if I were being hasty, sure.

I do think there is a distinction, though. The impression I get from most of the designers and developers I’ve spoken with over the years is that it is rare that someone will stand up vociferously for a system they don’t like – so when you see the team at Blizzard pushing back on critique of the game or their designs, it is almost always from a place of care. A lot of the things we don’t like about WoW aren’t solely Activision corporate edicts or foisted on the development team, but are instead systems and designs that someone made, that that person or people care about, and believe in. Now, you might, perhaps rightly, dunk of the designer who looks at Azerite V1.0 and went “nailed it!” – and I think there’s a point to which some criticism is warranted.

This also extends to the sort of weird exception to things being labeled timewasters or bottom-line chasing in gameplay design. I don’t even hate the Renown system in Shadowlands, in fact, I think it’s one of the least offensive forms of time-gating in WoW, but it is also a clear artificial gate to progress, to force you as a player to engage with content on Blizzard’s terms – over a prolonged period. This is obvious when you consider how Renown catchup works, when it can even be triggered, and the far more open nature of catchup in terms of activities that offer it. I find the idea that anyone would say “nope, not a timegate,” to be silly. It is obviously there to slow me down, and it doesn’t serve any other purpose. I almost would argue that I preferred the old way of timegating where it was just invisible – the Broken Shore quests come to mind. A lot of things are quite obviously built into WoW to facilitate longer play, and denying it looks silly. Even if I believe that you really like and are invested in the idea and believe it makes things better for players – we both know it also just takes time and prevents a run on Renown.

This obviously is a sort of fraught topic, because I do agree that I think players are often quick to state that developers don’t care about the game, but I do think there is a case to be made that player feedback is often ignored and I think this is the point where players, rightly, have some ground under their feet on the “don’t care” point.

Still, I think things could be better on both sides, and it comes down to something quite simple.

Communication

This has been something of my hobby-horse for the year, but I think the big thing I would love to see Blizzard get better at is communication. Part of the reason I think people often so easily turn on developers is that they’ve grown less likely over the years to come out and explain why something is built the way it is or to explain the creative process behind a controversial design. I’ve harped on this point a lot, but one of the things I think that WoW had with Ghostcrawler is someone who was willing to step in front of players and articulate the design motivation when things were both popular and less-than. Even when his disclosures and discussion would amount to, “we built it for x reason, we like the design, no changes are planned,” just knowing the reason things were the way they were helped a ton, even when players still didn’t like the result. I get pushback when I say that too, but I firmly believe it – the best gift we got from Blizzard was a communicative development team.

The thing that I always find myself feeling is that the game was much larger when Ghostcrawler was doing systems design, and he wasn’t even the game director or in a role that high up. He was just willing to engage players directly and speak openly and honestly with us. I know that his job was a hard one at times and players often didn’t always engage with him in good faith (or even human decency) but in retrospect especially, I appreciate what he did and tried to do.

Far too often, we’re waiting for live Q&A streams, influencer interviews, and the like to even hopefully get a smidge of the rationale behind a design. One of the bolder moves I actually really liked in BfA was Ion ending the 8.2 patch preview video with an admission that design on BfA was not hitting the mark with players and that the team had dedicated to improving player perception. I would say that while late-BfA was not everything I wanted it to be, it generally had a pretty good quality offering on the table and the content design got a bit closer to what I liked – still too many systems and RNG levers for my taste, but not awful.

I hate to invoke the name of FFXIV here, but it must be said that the Live Letter model is a powerful one for that game and I think it helps a lot that communication from the development team is reliable, predictable, and consistent – we get a pretty standard two live letters per major patch, with a minor patch one that details additional changes, and then YoshiP fleshes that out with press interviews. It is actually similar to what the WoW team was trying for in BfA, but they didn’t consistently deliver on streams and the Q&A streams can often feel too stilted and filtered.

On the other hand, I think players often have a greater role in improving the feedback chain than we might admit. In the blogosphere, I think we might deny that for good cause – most of us blogging about games are writing our critiques in detail, with fuller breakdowns and more usable anecdotes and data. But we also all know of and have seen player feedback in cruder forms, and I would hazard a guess that a lot of player feedback, whether public, private, on social media or through in-game tools and tickets, veers towards dangerously unhelpful. Sometimes, hell, I’ll get a comment like one on a post a few months back that was just “This expansion BLOWS anima CHUNKS.” And, I mean, thanks for the engagement, I guess?, but also – why the caps on “blows” and “chunks?” Was that emphasis necessary? In what way does this help me interpret the comment? Jokes aside, I feel like that has to be a good bit of the feedback received.

I think a big part of it is understanding what you like, don’t like, and being a more critical and interested media consumer. As a completely benign example, my wife and I recently started watching the US version of Masterchef from the very first season. I’ve never watched it before and my wife has only previously seen later seasons. I’d argue the show isn’t particularly good, but yet I enjoy watching it. Why? Well, it is a fun show to yell at – to talk shit with my wife about the contestants, to question their blunders, and to riff on how awful the judges are sometimes – Gordon Ramsay, sure, we all know that guy, but Graham’s overuse of the word “yummy” and the way in which he disappears from the show after season 4 due to sexual harassment allegations that caused a contestant to be erased from the show on air (allegedly), and Joe Bastianich’s weird dead eyed expressions and the way he big dogs contestants early in each season by eating their food wordlessly and walking away after making a face. It’s fun to identify when they start weaving in fictionalized drama – in season 2 (which we’re on now) it becomes obvious the show has devolved into a reality show and there is a clear villain for the season at each point, whose on-camera interviews are pointedly bad and followed by another contestant noting that the season villain is a bad person. It’s fun to discuss if we’ve ever had the food on-screen, and to wonder about fancy ingredients, even though no food television produced after like 2000 is allowed to be informative or educational, it’s all just contests all the way down.

Okay, lengthy Masterchef shitpost aside (Masterchef recap blog when?), I like engaging with most media I consume critically, to understand what I like and dislike about it and what ultimately draws me to it regardless of the actual quality of the underlying material. Much of this blog since BfA has been me shaking my head at WoW’s game design while continuing to play, and explaining how that contradiction actually makes some modicum of sense, most of the time. I think that it is a skill one can develop, and I think more gamers would be better-served in getting their message and requests for developers out if they better understood why they dislike something and how to articulate that clearly.

At the end of the day, I think there’s a lot of value in developers learning how to better engage with players in modern times to meet criticism of their work and to share the idea and motivation behind their work, and for players to learn to better understand what draws them to or repels them from certain things and to be able to explain that. Neither party stands to benefit from a dismissive attitude, so why not honest engagement?

Also – stop bullying game devs on social media, clearly. (I’m sure no one reading this does, thankfully!)

9 thoughts on “Player Feedback-Feedback

  1. I’m sure almost all game developers actively want to produce good work they can be proud of and that players will enjoy playing and say nice things about. That can’t really be in much doubt, can it?

    The question that puzzles me is, if that’s so, why do so many changes in so many games appear to work so badly for so many players? I mean, I realize you can’t please all the people all of the time but the kind of feedback that we commonly see for many, probably most mmorpg developers is negative. Sometimes it’s polite and constructive but it’s still pointing out what doesn’t work rather than praising what does.

    Is that because developers mostly get it wrong and only get it right later when players have given them notes? Are players just never satisfied, no matter what? Or, as I suspect, is it just a lot more fun to complain than it is to compliment? Maybe if all the silent, satisfied players would make the effort to speak up when they’re happy about something the overall impression of the developers competence and judgment would seem a lot different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an interesting wrinkle, because I do think there are genuinely players (particularly in WoW land) that believe that developers don’t want to make good work, or are content shuffling out cash-grabs if it means their paychecks are larger. I definitely disagree with that, and I think it’s worth pushing back on.

      I could probably write a whole post on your second paragraph alone, but it is something I puzzle over frequently. From my limited scope, I think WoW gets hammered on this a lot because it tries to please a lot of masters and wants to claim it does so well. If I compare to FFXIV, for example, that game has PvP, but it is just bad. That being said, the team on that game rarely even talks about PvP and changes made to PvP are very small in scale and rarely warrant more than a line or two as a throwaway in the Live Letters. Blizzard still tries to have everything matter, at least it seems, and I think that draws out some ire from people who don’t engage with the game in that same way. There are obviously more layers to it than that, but I think that is a good tip-of-the-iceberg for me.

      To some extent, I think players often believe that change is easier to make than it might be – I know I’m also guilty of this at times. Sure, it’s theoretically easy to remove borrowed power systems from WoW, or to add customization like talents to FFXIV, but what is the effect on the rest of the game? Right now, if you pulled the covenant system out of the game, the design of Shadowlands falls completely apart as nearly all endgame activities tie back to it. Likewise, if you add talents to FFXIV, it clutters up the current progression of skills you unlock as you level up and could potentially unwind the fairly spot-on balance of jobs the game has accomplished.

      And I do think it is sometimes fun to criticize more than to commend, and certainly easier. It is much easier mentally even for me to say “I don’t like that” instead of “it’s good.” I think there’s also definitely a sliding-scale component, where the current state is judged against some past state and a verdict ends up harsher or softer because of it. I think ARR is easy to laud compared to FFXIV v1.0, and Heavensward is easy to celebrate next to ARR. Likewise, WoW is easy to criticize as having deviated formula from *insert each individual players preferred expansion here* and that “it was better back then.” I’d argue most “bad” things I’ve played are actually still good on some level, they just don’t stack up – and when that is in-comparison to a past state of the same product, it makes sense to me because there’s disappointment baked-in.

      For newer MMOs, it’s a lot trickier, because there’s a pretty wide and disparate swath of people who engage with MMOs, all wanting different things, and as games get closer to launch or new content and consolidate onto a vision, someone is going to feel left out. I think that’s a lot of it, at least – I don’t know of another genre with such a spread of activities enveloped within it that could draw out the same level and variety of responses.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmm. Most of my reply here is directed toward the first paragraph here, and similar sentiment in the post itself.

        I wouldn’t perhaps characterise my beliefs as being that the developers don’t care. But… I do believe they have higher, conflicting priorities.

        The goal has seemingly swung a long way from ‘what is fun’ toward a heading of, ‘how much will the players tolerate’. Alternate Advancement (AA) systems *can* be a lot of fun. But the WoW application over the last few expansions has veered toward further gating of progression behind grind. Grind upon grind.

        I don’t mind a gear chase- hell, let me rephrase that — I *love* a gear chase. I’ll run like a hamster on a wheel for well designed incremental progression systems.

        But I’m very much over being railroaded into systems haphazardly implemented in the name of keeping players retained for more months rather than for fun. And I know how paradoxical that might sound, but it certainly seems that there are ‘enough’ players out there willing to reward this design with the outcome intended by the devs, so I don’t imagine we’ll see an end to it any time soon.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I think the problem is that developers are not representative of players. One has to be passionate and committed to do game dev, and that likely pushes them into being more like the hardcore fringe of their customer population. So to cater to their typical customers they have to think outside of their own preferences, which is hard.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The idea that it’s all cynical engagement metrics or Activision-Blizzard executive meddling always sounded silly to me.

    I think it’s a case of system designed to meet the goals of the design but fun isn’t the primary goal of the system. Shards of domination aren’t made to be fun. They are made to promote going back to the raid each week to upgrade the shard. They are made as an incentive to follow their railroad track of required gameplay. They’re a way to push players around.

    Players resent them because they don’t want to be pushed around. They don’t like required gameplay. They don’t like being told to go to Torghast each week when they don’t find Torghast fun. They don’t like having to go get the same conduit again from M+ to raid or vice versa. They don’t like being shoved around for the end result to be a toy that isn’t fun. If I said soulbinds and conduits are fun I would be a liar.

    Looking at Shards of Domination I don’t see designers that care. Perhaps, they do care but I see design to meet checkboxes and if it does more damage it’s done.

    Renown is an example of one of the worst presentations I’ve seen. Renown from “1-40” how goddamn exciting. Next patch “40-80”. You can present the same thing in far more interesting ways but, as is the case with many of these systems, they don’t even bother to put the window dressing on anymore. Renown could be presented as “rebuilding a relic” or “empowering a sanctum” but no it’s “1-40”. The new M+ scoring system. Do they take the idea of military rank levels as a representation of progression? Nope. Just another number.

    I don’t think Ion going on another apology tour will work this time. Seems a significant part of the playerbase and content creators are really just sick of this stuff. I’m sick of it. The poorly thought out systems that aren’t fun. The cynical timewasting activities for a scrap of power. That every expansion has some gimmick failure like island expeditions or torghast that get little development time after launch and go to the graveyard at the end of the expansion. Just sitting there empty except for collectors who want to go around killing everything in one hit for a 1% drop chance item. No level sync functionality to keep them engaging. An MMO with more game in the bin than game to play.

    I don’t believe the developers want to engage with the playerbase. They’re not interested in criticism even from the people who can articulate it. If they wanted to communicate they would. My perception is that it’s an inward looking culture rather than outward looking.

    What my mind keeps coming back to is that this game is 16 years old. It’s a game that now feels like it’s designed by template and yet at the same time it feels like it’s designed by people who are inexperienced. People who don’t have much emotional intelligence in how systems feel. People who don’t know the lessons learned from the past. People who want to put their own spin on old designs resulting in designs that don’t work. This brings me to tier sets. We want Legion tier sets but I have this feeling that unwelcome modifications will be made.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I don’t believe the developers want to engage with the playerbase. They’re not interested in criticism even from the people who can articulate it. If they wanted to communicate they would. My perception is that it’s an inward looking culture rather than outward looking.”

      Specifically going to comment about this bit. I get what you are saying, but over the years I’ve become close friends with a number of developers that have worked on many of the MMORPGs that we have played over the years. The thing is… it isn’t so much that developers don’t want to engage with the community in general, it is that most of them are afraid to. I’ve seen the death threats that friends have received and you can only get so many of those before you stop wanting to put yourself out there.

      There has also been a great chilling effect from the marketing departments of game companies. There was a time when having an outspoken developer was good for your bottom line and drove player engagement. Now it is often times considered a liability because they might be deviating from the approven “company line”. PC and MMO gaming specifically has transformed from a tribe of scrappy underdog creator led studios… to multi-billion dollar business that often times tied to publicly traded stock.

      The end result is developers keep their heads down and keep plugging away… while trying to avoid making the marketing or hr departments mad at them or doing anything that is going to inspire being publicly pilloried or worse.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think there is very much a difference between feedback that brings up an issue and then examines why it is a problem and feedback that is negative without any reflection.. Even feedback that suggests a solution without reflection isn’t very helpful, and all the more so when so much of it has all the depth of “this isn’t fun, make it better!” Happy/unhappy as an aggregate measure has some value, but only when it has a context.

    There is also certainly a big difference between examining issues on your blog or complaining about things on your guild Discord and going to the official forums to complain. I too like to examine why I am not having fun or why something just isn’t working for me. I do not write that with the idea that a dev will ever read those posts.

    And even good feedback, something well reasoned and thoughtful that manages to rise up in the sea of negativity, doesn’t always fit with what the dev team has on their plate at any given moment. Even the WoW team is constrained by time and resources.

    In some ways the current state of affairs in retail WoW doesn’t seem all that different from other titles. EVE Online is currently seeing a lot of fan complaints over the direction CCP is going and, as a company, I feel they are a lot closer to their fan base that Blizz is. But the accusations are the same, that the company doesn’t listen the the players that they’re all about the money and so on. WoW is just so big that it gets a lot more coverage. I think EQII has had an ongoing player revolt in their forums for a decade now, but you wouldn’t know it because the player base is so small and concentrated.

    I am pretty sure most devs care about their games, but when the forums are a wall of unreasoned negativity it becomes easy to dismiss all feedback. As a dev you know that the forums only represent a small percentage of the player base, you start to recognize the same names returning again and again to complain, and there is always somebody who agrees with whatever you are doing, so you box it up, put it in a corner, and carry on working towards the team plan.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Some random thoughts.

    I think the part of the feedback problem is that it seldom feels like Blizzard acknowledges if they changed something based on player feedback. It feels like pulling teeth when they do acknowledge something instead of being graceful about it. It becomes a slap fight over who was ‘right’ about problems. Credit for good ideas, for the passion for trying to make Wow (or any game) better needs to go both ways.

    Some of the devs have issues with expressing their enjoyment of the game. Ion, for example, does not come across as someone who loves to play the game. He always seems like he’s presenting a legal briefing to an upper level college class. That there is no passion to leave work and join the rest of us playing the game. We remember the gaffs and disconnects — “You think you do, but you don’t” — more than any of the excitement of sharing things with the players or the desire to actually being playing the game with these features.

    Another issue is it feels like it is the devs who are most tired of the way Wow is. After all, they live the game and its problems in a way the players never do. There’s a lot more incentive to make big changes, to keep the game ‘fresh’ day in and day out for them than there is an outcry from the player base for big changes. I suspect the player base would be happier with lots of polished systems, small changes, than all of these massive powered power big changes. Blizzard seems to be hooked on making each X.0 release a sequel rather than just expanding, honing the existing systems that people are happy with.

    Liked by 1 person

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