Daring to be Different in Development

The recent pariah of the mmo industry Mark Kern, is at it again with his new blog post over at mmorpg.com with the title MMO development needs to change… well duuuuh. I know I’ve been discussing this with friends for what feels like an eternity now, and I’ve even rambled occasionally about it here too. Many of the mmo blogging vets have been shouting this forever too and it’s only just dawning on developers recently that something, maybe, is not working out.

I guess it’s one of those things you need to fail at first in order to learn and there have been a lot of those to learn from recently. Either that or the ridiculous amount of money being poured into crowd funding is showing publishers that there is considerably interest for more in depth mechanics and world’s. Star citizen has now gotten over 14 million in crowd funding, admitting that is nothing compared to the cost of the average blockbuster but for a game still years out from release its amazing.

I don’t believe the general playerbase wants the same game with better graphics yet this is what we seem to o get with only slightly “innovations”. I could be mistaken as there is a sizeable group (myself included) who devour all these new fancy games but I would like to believe that most are looking for new experiences first. Graphics can provide this to an extent but mostly it comes from gameplay mechanics with the graphics being mostly inconsequential. I’ve had some amazing experiences in stylized games with less graphical fidelity including ftl (jeromai experiences this himself ), project zomboid, walking dead, and Terraria. I have had breathtaking experiences in triple AAA games like Tomb Raider that have relied on graphics but not to the extent of them being the mist important part.

The graphics vs gameplay debate has been going on for a long time now, years to decades. Keen had a decent argument at the start of the year pointing to some of the indie greats. Even syncaine has weighed in stating graphics can have a place when intergrated with mechanics. It would be a hard balancing act for the developers, the newer graphics engines and insane number of polygons has made it incredibly expensive but players expect it a little, newer games are meant to be prettier. Then there is the time needed to develop and intergrated the mechanics. Often the purty pixels wins that tenuous balance which is a shame.

Crowd Sourcing

The other issue brought up, which I have thought about from time to time is why don’t companies get players involved in their games sooner. All betas have become in recent times is either a media stunt or a limited time trial version. Getting friends and family doesn’t count, nor do I think the press either as they do not represent the demographic you’re really aiming for not to mention being a bit bias. Focus groups are a waste of time for mmo’s as they aren’t a decent representation and are not involved long enough to give a valid opinion. Seriously, whoever that person was in a focus group that wanted quests in gw2 I want to slap you silly.

With the extremely long development times of these mmo’s there is no way they can stay up to date with the trends in player behaviour and interests yet they seem content to ignore this very valuable resource. I’ve seen many debates raging on on the Camelot unchained forums and there has already been many insights into the genre and the game. There are polls regarding the popularity of mechanics and questions about ideas they may want to implement. They can and are gaining valuable feedback from the players before the have even begun which would save a lot of time and resources in development.

Once your game usually comes around into beta stages it is probably to late to implement any meaningful changes based on feedback and that is to the games detriment. Certain mechanics that look good in theory may not quite work in practice, and the opposite as well. A pool of thousands over hundreds may also offer more creative and imaginative ideas than you might have had and may even be able to offer solutions to long running issues.

Also, I know this may be hard to admit but sometimes the players know the game better than the developers. We see it a lot in the way the masses instinctively know how to break, or take advantage of certain mechanics – a recent example of that is Neverwinter. There is also the not so subtle ways of how players think and obsess over small details, tell me those people creating the algebraic equations to maximise skills and stats don’t know the game better. Recently in a few twitch streams the developers at Arenanet have even stated they didn’t expect many skills and traits to be used the way they are. They even joked about players being better at the game than them.

I seriously wonder if SW:ToR would have ended the way it did if they had some honest feedback during development, or Warhammer if they actually tested out classes and mechanics. And yes, even Guild Wars would have been the better game for it.

I just don’t understand this insular nature from the development side as crowd sourcing gives more valuable information and direction than any statistical analysis ever could. You save time, resources, money, and have a better chance of not sucking. Perhaps they are scared of the NDA leaks that occur which can result in negative attention and maybe loss sales but it enables a higher chance of creating a better product and the better product usually means more money.


2 thoughts on “Daring to be Different in Development

  1. The reality is that graphics matter a lot. Graphics are your first impression of a game. I ran a hard-core PvP game with significantly behind-the-times graphics. I heard people whine about there not being a good PvP game repeatedly. I reached out to those people, but they wouldn’t even try the game. Even after we took the first steps (of what I hoped would be many) to update the engine.

    If anyone should be in the “gameplay over graphics” camp, it should be PvP fans. People say graphics don’t matter, but their spending shows otherwise.

    As for testing games, yes, that does happen. That’s exactly what actual closed testing is for. It’s a trade-off, because if you have too few people you can get unrepresentative results; too many people and your feedback becomes a cacophony of meaningless noise. A larger-scale MMO had to work with what they’re given. And, again, what people say they want and what their spending shows they want are two different things, often VERY differen.

    • yeh I realise they matter a lot for modern games but I don’t think they are important enough to justify the extreme focus on them. A cohesive aesthetic is often more important than pixels, a certain balance is needed but it is often heavily skewed. And with that much of a focus on graphics it seems gameplay always suffers.. which isn’t necessarily good for games either.

      It is a funny little situation. Better graphics obviously help market the game but if the gameplay is that bad it will end up hurting your reputation. It is an issue you don’t see straight away as sales will be high and it kind of obscures itself. The next game from a series or company might not do as well as projected based on previous sales, they might think the problem was with this game when in fact it was issues with the previous game.

      Yes we are rather dumb creatures who don’t understand our likes as well as we think. If your involving people early enough into your development cycle then you could have time to test these theories though but with the schedule of recent big name betas that just isn’t a possibility. They’re end products that will only get a superficial amount of iteration.

      I do believe developers often underestimate their imput, although there would be a lot of noise to pick through in order to find those useful bits.

      what pvp game was that?

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