Player-Developed Games

Player-driven development is on the rise.  Smed from SOE stated that it’s at the core of who they (SOE) are and who they are evolving into. Generally speaking, I think I like the practice of truly listening to players and including them to the degree that SOE has done over the past several months.  The open channels of communication truly are awesome, and I think in many ways the game(s) we get in the end will be better as a result.

I have a few growing concerns as I think about the idea of player-driven development as a whole.  There’s a lot of room for manipulation, marketing bologna, and errors in logic.

Who are the “players?”

Those who help develop Landmark, for example, are the ones who payed a premium (money) for a free-to-play game upfront.  I’m one of them.  I’m not the typical player, nor are most of the others helping “develop” or at least provide feedback on the game.  This sampling bias can cause a multitude of foreseeable problems.

Who’s to say they really listen?

Developers can say that their game(s) are player-developed, but are they really? It’s not a democracy or up for a vote.  Developers can cherry pick ideas and utilize the information players provide in any way they want.  Even worse would be saying something is player-developed but simply making the game you wanted to make anyway.

Player-developed games seem really similar to player-driven content.  Sometimes the idea sounds amazing on paper.  Sometimes the outcomes are amazing.  Most of the time it ends up a complete mess.

I’m also curious to think about how much developers might use the players as an excuse or a crutch.  Some of the best ideas come from thinking outside the box and trying something new or risky.  We don’t have enough risk in this market.  We’re stagnant and “innovating” on the same five or six ideas over and over–rather we are pretending to innovate by tossing in one novelty after the next.  Reality is, in order to innovate and truly design the future of MMOs we have to be able to discard what has come before in favor of rethinking something entirely new.  Complicate that by keeping the crucial, working fundamentals.

Before anyone considers jumping on the “let’s have the players help us develop our game” (and truly mean it) bandwagon, I hope they’ll take a really hard look at their own team and conclude that they have the experience, talent, and vision to see something truly amazing BEFORE the players get involved.

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Gankatron - June 12, 2014

“Player-developed games seem really similar to player-driven content. Sometimes the idea sounds amazing on paper. Sometimes the outcomes are amazing. Most of the time it ends up a complete mess.”

This has been my experience.

The chances for a coherent complex virtual world evolving by trial and error is unlikely to occur, especially when servers are populated by people who are content running around pantless smashing each other in the head with rocks.

The creation of virtual worlds is one of the genesis scenarios where I actually believe in the concept of Intelligent Design.

nukethesitefromorbit - June 12, 2014

I think it is one of those things that works but on a case by case basis. Some games lend themselves to player input with development and others not so much. I do not want players really involved in the development of my story centered games like Uncharted or Deus Ex. On the other hand when a game is nothing but a big ball of mechanics and we are set loose to make our on way I think player input can really help. Project Zomboid, Starbound, 7 Days to Die, Landmark or even Minecraft are games that have had long development cycles and have over time integrated things into the core game that really came out of the community playing the game as it was being created. Some things after all a dev may not think about as they are focused on the next step or the end goal and players may be spending much more time actually in the game itself.

Of course this needs to be balanced with clear and concise goals in the studio as to what the game is suppose to ultimately be. It could be a disaster if developers were constantly changing the end goal based on the most vocal parts of their community since that can change frequently.

Frosth - June 12, 2014

I really don’t think there is any cases where listening to the players ever produced a better game than having a clear “vision” and a plan. All cases I’ve personally witnessed, the changes that actually doomed the games came from player feedback. Every single community I’ve been part of in the last 15 years of online gaming had no clue what they needed, and the most popular ideas were always destructive.

But then again, this is my own experience, and there are some pearls of good ideas coming out from some “power user” players. For instance, some of the concepts touched on this blog show a true understanding of game design. But these aren’t the popular ideas, and they generally are just way too complex for the “average joe”.

Listening to feedback is one thing, but in SOE’s case, it’s more like obeying the playerbase. I do not follow landscape mainly because of what I’ve seen happening with planetside 2. No matter how great the game is now, once the masses get access to it and get a ord in how it evolves, it will get ruined.

I never understood the hatred for SOE before seeing them ruin this game. At launch they had a diamond in the rough, great technology but still unstable. Interesting concepts but needing tweaking, really a great potential. Every single non major patch since has removed from the diamond core and left only the rough.

I blame player driven design for this, the worst kind of design by committee.

Anon - June 12, 2014

Players make the faulty assumption that because they play games a lot, that qualifies them to design games.

It makes about as much sense as saying because I watch a lot of football, I should play professionally.

Games design is hard. So much harder than the average person on the street realizes. The problem is, when it’s done really well, it almost appears effortless. That in turn leads people into the false assumptions that their opinions and ideas must be better than the people who do it for a living.

That said, I do believe player input, guided by the developers can greatly enhance the ecosystem of a game. Titles like Skyrim wouldn’t be what they are today without the army of modders adding and tweeting content.

The thing is, Skyrim is your own personal sandbox. If I want to mod my game, to turn dragons into giant winged unicorns, it doesn’t have to effect anyone else. The second you add “MMO” to the equation, things start to fall apart. In order to share a world, we have to have a shared set of ‘rules’ about the way that world functions.

JJ Robinson - June 13, 2014

@Frosth I think he has a fairly valid point. Listening too much to players can ruin a game. For me the best example was in the inclusion of Trammel in UO. People wanted a PvE world. Well they game it to them and arguably killed the soul of UO in the process. At least the original soul. Sure UO has continued to persist but with a very different feel and community.

If you ask players for specific quests, towns, and even skills, those seem to be good areas of input. Asking about whether they want open PvP, versus factions, versus PvP only in desigated zones, etc. will lead to a massive cluster. Also, class balance needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, everything buff to a class Blizz has ever done seems to be well over the top. The running joke amongst my friends is, always play the new class or newly buffed class because it will be OP for a long time.

Keep player ideas to specific tangible events and places. Stay away from huge game play decisions. Game play decisions are what the developers are paid to create. If you don’t like the game play decision, find another game.

JJ Robinson - June 13, 2014

Adding onto my post, with several grammatical errors, I think incorporating Landmark into EQ Next could be a success. Just keep the player additions focused on tangible creations within the Landmark world.

If they open the EQ Next debate about weapons determining skills to the community, all hell will break loose.

swarmofseals - June 13, 2014

I can’t really comment on player generated content, but leaving design decisions up to a vote seems unlikely to result in the kinds of games you want, Keen. I remember a while back you made several posts in which the EQ community was voting for options in the polls that you thought were bad ideas.

Generally I think you are looking for design choices that a niche community really likes but the majority of gamers don’t want. As it is now, most major developers are developing games tailored to their perception of the largest possible market rather than trying to cache in on a smaller but more dedicated playerbase. Personally I think this is a mistake, but I can see why the business guys keep making it over and over again.

Developing by poll is pretty much an extension of this philosophy — design your game to please the majority rather than a niche minority.

Zyler - June 13, 2014

I agree with your blog replyers this time.

Having the majority vote on game design is a recipe for disaster.
Every game from now on will have a gray color pallet, brolike, (hardcore) and the path of least resistance.

No thanks.

solarbear - June 13, 2014

I am quite keen for developers to hand people some easy to use world building, rulest making and server tools and let them build and host their own games. Imho things like project Spark are all that give me hope’that one day a game worth playing might exist again. Till then I forsee a lot of 3 monthers.

jada-k - June 14, 2014

My favorite experiences with player developed content have been in either sandbox games or games that are open to modding.

My first experience with modding was Neverwinter Nights. And that game wasn’t about changing the current game, but making your own worlds. I am talking the original early 2000’s game. I played on a realm called Hall of the Worlds and it was mainly created by one guy and whoever wanted to help make maps for the game. It was not an MMO, there were at most around 20 or 30 people playing at a time and most times around 10. What was cool was that we felt like it was our own place. I was helping build it, my friends were helping build it. Items and places got named after players who stuck around for a bit. The guy that set up the foundation for the whole thing was really good at balancing stuff. It was easy to get started and power level characters to try out new builds but there were tons of levels, maps, and gear checks to make it an accomplishment to progress. All of the RPG aspects and quests were created by the community. In retrospect, it really felt like playing pencil and paper D&D. With no subscription! Of course, most people donated $5 to the cause, to help pay for the server.

I would like to see something like that again. An open source engine that lets you host it on your own server so you can set your own rules. Sure it takes a bit more work, but with a community like K&G, or any of the other gaming communities out there, it is definitely possible.

solarbear - June 14, 2014

@ jadak

My first online gaming experience was with NWN too. Think it ruined me for MMO’s. The customisatioin of the server made it really fun.

Anon - June 15, 2014

I find the idea of the “micro MMO” to be a really intriguing one.

Much like with NWN1 & 2, the idea of providing the player base with the tools to build their own open worlds, within the framework provided by the developers.

The poster above captured it perfectly. You’re basically looking at the digital version of a PnP table top roll playing game. Perhaps in time we’ll see this kind of game come to prominence again.

bhagpuss - June 16, 2014

The problem I see is that these are very different forms of entertainment and SOE (and others) are getting them confused. NWN was a brilliant “make your own small-scale MMO” tool. There is huge potential foe something like that with modern graphics and systems. NWN, however, was not the same form of entertainment as WoW or Everquest, any more than a digital video camera and a weekend course on guerilla movie making is the same form of entertainment as going to see the new XMen movie.

SOE seem to believe that they can meld these two very different concepts of entertainment into a seamless whole. I think that if they genuinely attempt to democratize the process it will be a disaster. If, as I strongly suspect, they really only want to score a PR success while simultaneously monetizing part of the production process, while actually making the same games they would have made anyway, it will probably work out reasonably well.

Keen - June 16, 2014

@Bhagpuss: I think Landmark is 75% PR, 15% monetizing production, and 10% democratization with the hope that they can uncover ideas they wouldn’t have had internally. EQ Next, however, so far feels like 100% PR.

The key to it all is your last sentence. SOE knows what game(s) they want to make, and I do believe they’d have made them anyway.

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