Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the “Fifth Beatle Syndrome” as I like to call it: consumers who are treated as a member of the development team.
My job is to create applications for internal users. As such, my consumers are usually one or maybe two people who speak on behalf of their employees. We sit down and they tell me what they need. Beyond that, I am free to create what I want. When the work is done they take their product, thank me, and move on.
Game development doesn’t always work like that, although it used to be the case where developers would create a game, put it on the market, and hope it did well. Between then and now, budgets and expectations among consumers and shareholders have ballooned to the point where developers can’t afford to let Chance take the wheel. They have to do everything in their power to ensure that their game is as big of a hit as they can make it. One way to do that is by offering Early Access, a subject which the Magnificent Belghast has written about.
Part of EA is taking money to help flesh out development. Another part is to appeal to the ur-fans, the people who can see a screenshot, or hear a snippet of music, or see a concept trailer, and absolutely lose their shit. Those people are cherished as a great resource not just because they’re willing to spend money on a promise, but because they agree with the developer’s original vision, and as a result can be counted on to provide feedback parallel to the design intent during the most malleable period of the game’s development.
This has two issues (at least). The first is that while these early adopters are more than willing to chime in on what they like, dislike, and want from the product, the developers and designers must remain in control of the overall direction. There’s only so far they can stray from their original idea before the product becomes unrecognizable from what they originally advertised or what they promised to shareholders. Since developers and designers are creatives, there’s only so far from the original concept that they are willing to deviate; this is their baby, after all, and they want it to turn out according to their vision. Advice from the community is welcome, but no one outside of the actual development group should suffer from the belief that they have the final say.
This can cause extreme disconnect when the “will of the people” becomes disproportionate to the actual input the people have in the process, which leads to the second issue of player entitlement. The gaming community already suffers from entitlement issues, where people believe that the amount of money they spend with a developer or the length of time they have been “a gamer” entitles them to larger slices of the pie than other, “lesser” gamers should have. Inviting the community to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down during development can lead the community to believe that every decision should be run past them and that decisions made behind closed doors that result in features that the community would otherwise reject are going to create animosity between the early adopters and the developers.
Exhibit A: Legends of Aria. LoA was originally promoted as Shards, an oPvP MMO which would allow players to spin up their own world instances where they could define the rules. That’s a kind of holy grail in the MMO space, as every rank and file MMO player believes in some way that he or she could do better at MMO-ing than some of the operators out there. That the game was marketed as oPvP was not a serious concern for PvE players who just assumed they could create a world where oPvP was non-existent, and everyone could be satisfied.
The “roll your own server” idea has been slow in coming, as LoA devs Citadel launched with many technical fires to put out. Backers and buyers had to be content with the official oPvP servers, or the few, crowded servers run by the crowdfunding whales who had the fortitude to stick with what I have heard is a rather ornery server management process. oPvP players were probably happy, as were the game’s operators who have expressed in non-vague terms that they created LoA as a spiritual successor to the grandaddy of oPvP, Ultima Online in the period before they “Trammalized” the game and shunted PvP to one continent and let PvE rule the original. Citadel has made clear their disdain for PvErs by leaning into the “wolves” and “sheep” analogy, going so far as to praise “the feast” in which the “wolves” — PvPers — preyed on the “sheep” — non-PvPers. This analogy is odious in its imagery of PvPers as strong and violent and casting PvErs as passive and cowardly, and insinuating that “sheep” exist only for the purpose of satiating the “wolves”. We’re talking about paying customers here, all of whom are trying to enjoy the game albeit in different ways, yet the developers assert that the enjoyment of one group should be subverted for the enjoyment of the other.
This must not be working out as well as Citadel had hoped, because this post that talks about wolves and sheep is basically an apology to the oPvP crowd for LoA’s future which sees the oPvP lands shunted off to a smaller region of the map, while the bulk of the land is handed over to protected PvE players. Ahead of the game’s launch on Steam, the devs have apparently had some superficial change of heart; given the parable in the blog post which reads like a profession of undying love for oPvP, the switch is obviously not because they feel that the game needs more balance. We can only assume that this change was brought about for more practical reasons: money and success. Of course, it’s purely speculation on my part, but this has all of the earmarks of a team that suddenly realized their direction was unsustainable. The idea of an oPvP game in 2019 is admirable and is actually pretty popular, but an oPvP crowd alone might not be large enough to hit the targets that the LoA team had set for themselves. In order to do that, they have to swallow their pride (but not without a backhanded letter offered in an attempt to stay in the good graces of their oPvP supporters, and in which they insinuate that they are doing this under duress ) and widen their appeal.
This puts Citadel in an unappealing place, and they know it. Their post is basically their attempt to withdraw from the situation by blaming “the others”. They pledge allegiance to the oPvP crowd and then assign the change to the proliferation of sentiment from backers and players who felt that the game needed to be more…carebeary. This post basically pushes the oPvPers and this ill-defined cadre of outspoken PvErs into a room, tells them to duke it out, and then slams and locks the door. Checking out the forums, the oPvP crowd isn’t happy, with posts claiming that this shift is the death of the game. To be quite frank, I don’t know how many PvErs are even interested in LoA; I know some people who said they wrote it off long ago when they learned it was oPvP, and others who aren’t impressed now that the company has done a 180 on their intent. Ultimately, the devs may have just nailed their own coffin by ostracizing the group they embraced by embracing the group they ostracized.
Whether Citadel actually listened to the “legions of PvEers” who wanted a less hostile game, or whether they made that up to cover their pivot to a more marketable product, I obviously can’t say. They claim that listening to fans is what predicated this shift, and who are they to ignore the cries of fans? they say to fans whose cries they are ignoring. When a company invites consumers to be part of the design and development process, someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose. Not every feature that people clamor for can be included in a game and it’s stupid to let people believe that their angry rant or their lengthy armchair manifesto is going to actually push the product in their preferred direction. When the dust settles, it’s the company’s ass that’s on the hook; consumers have a wealth of options, and if anyone game sputters and dies, consumers will just shrug and move on to something else.