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.
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!)