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How much influence should fans have on game developers?

Video game fans are certainly not shy. Every forum or comment thread on a popular video game will be filled with detailed opinions about where the developers went wrong. The majority of developer or publisher forums covering a specific game series have at least one thread discussing what gamers would like to see in a patch, update, or sequel. Regardless of what most gamers think, developers do generally read these comments, and the vast majority care about catering for their fans.

The storm over the Mass Effect 3 ending is a good example. In an interview here at DT, the Mass Effect 3 Director, Casey Hudson, said “we will always listen to feedback, interpret it and try and do the right thing by our fans.”

Within two weeks of the game’s release BioWare acknowledged fans’ disappointment with the ending and announced that Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut, featuring a new ending, would be released as a free DLC in the summer. It’s pretty clear that fans exerted their influence and BioWare reacted. Is this a positive thing for the industry or does it pose a threat for developers?

Quit your whining

Not everyone agrees that fans should influence the course of game development. Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada got so fed up with being spammed by fan requests to use specific voice actors that he wrote a long explanation of what they are doing that starts “I believe that, before whining and complaining about everything, you need practice at taking a step back and analyzing things objectively. And also at being an adult.”

It’s a fair point. While some demands might be popular with the majority of fans and so merit consideration, there will always be small groups of extremely vociferous fans who make questionable requests. Obviously not every idea can or should be accommodated.

Balancing act

Fraser Simpson, Lead Designer at Climax, says: “It’s a constant quandary for a game designer. You’re making a game for an audience – but do you know what they want better than they do?

“Often you get results back from a gameplay test and someone’s said ‘Make this feature do this instead.’ You think ‘Well I know how to make a game and that’s a stupid idea.’ And you’ll be right. Then, somewhere else, you see a part of the game where you intended to create a certain experience, and people just don’t get it. Then you’ve misjudged your audience.

“It’s a balance. If you’ve got your head in the sand, you’re crazy; if you’re completely democratizing your design and trying to please everyone, it’s probably going to be pretty bland.”

Creating a dialogue

Fans love to feel that they are in touch with the developers of their favorite games and that their complaints are being heard, even if they aren’t acted upon. The community manager for Diablo 3 recently admitted in a forum post responding to fan complaints that the end game is not currently up to scratch and “There needs to be something else that keeps people engaged, and we know it’s not there right now.”

He probably didn’t expect that response to be picked up and reported so widely by the video game press. You have to wonder about Blizzard’s internal thoughts on that one, but for most gamers it was perceived as refreshingly honest. Blizzard CEO, Mike Morhaime, has also now commented assuring players it will be fixed.

Loving something too much

Sometimes fans’ attempts to wield an influence are really just about their love for a particular game series. A Steam group was created at the end of last year to call for some kind of communication from Valve about when we might expect the next installment of Half-Life. It was actually a respectful attempt to get some news, and they organized a mass HL2 session which pulled in 13,000 people. The group now has over 60,000 members. Naturally they got no response. You can’t rush Valve, and to be honest that’s one of the reasons they produce such great games.

The 2009 Left 4 Dead 2 boycott wasn’t quite so friendly. Fans of the series complained that a sequel would result in a loss of support for the original Left 4 Dead and that it should be updated with more content before being superseded by a sequel. One of the project leads at Valve, Chet Faliszek, responded in an interview with Ars Technica and appealed for fans to give them a “fair shake” before venting. The Steam group still has 16,912 members as of this writing and comments about how they’ll never buy L4D2 are still rolling in.

Why shouldn’t fans have an influence?

Very few of the games that are released each year are the product of one person’s vision. Games are fundamentally a collaborative medium.

A game that pandered to every fan suggestion would probably never get released. Most fans lack a full understanding of how games are actually made, and many of their requests would be virtually impossible to fulfill. However, there’s no reason developers can’t compile a list of the most popular requests, cross reference them with existing design ideas, and accommodate the cream of the crop. The quality of some fan suggestions is actually very high.

If we’re looking at this from an artistic vision angle then the influence of publishers, marketing execs, and business people is far more damaging to games than the influence of fans. Most developers actually play the game, a lot, and their desire is to improve the experience, not to squeeze more money out of it.

Fraser Simpson at Climax puts it like this, “I’d say that there are parts of a game where gamers are entitled to insist on us meeting their expectation, like any product; they have to be competitive, they have to function, they have to be usable, feel good. For the most part, these aspects are geared completely towards audience perception.

“The parts of the game where we’re doing something artistic or new, that’s our business. Literally. We’ll test it out on people and we’ll make sure it has the intended effect, but it’s up to us to decide what we want you to experience. It’s totally fine for an audience to criticize that experience but if they don’t like it, that doesn’t necessarily mean we owe them a favor.

Ultimately, if you want to experience something new, you’re going to need to trust someone. It mightn’t always work, but when it does it’ll be worth it.”

Modding community

The modding community, which uses existing game engines, content, and tools to create new games–or more often slight tweaks on existing ones–is a great testing ground for ideas. It’s churlish not to be impressed by the lengths that some gamers will go to in order to realize their ideas. Skyrim, for example, has some unbelievable mods (see image on the right).

When you think about it, the modding community has grown out of a desire for fans to implement their own ideas. Mods allow fans to tweak the game parameters and change the rules to suit their vision and occasionally the results surpass the original game or spawn something entirely new that’s worthy of further development.

Anyone who is really determined to see their ideas in a game has to go and make it for themselves. That’s exactly what drives most developers and the pros have earned the right to do it.

Fan input is a positive

Provided developers know when to listen and when not to, fan input is a definite positive.

We’ll finish off with the thoughts of Michael Hartman, CEO of Frogdice, “In my 20+ years as a game developer, I have lost count of how many times fans and players have affected or altered my designs, storylines, and plans. My core vision for the game remained the same, but beyond that nothing is sacred. Games are an interactive medium and that is a strength. Furthermore, modern games can be changed, tweaked, and improved post-release. These are strengths of the medium that movies, books, etc. do not enjoy. We should embrace these strengths not run away from them.

“While fan input is important and useful, being a slave to it is a recipe for disaster. Every recent MMO that I have played has fallen victim to this, and see-saw game/class balance is the result. As the story goes: ‘Hey developer, this is Rock. Nerf Paper. Scissors is fine.’ Good developers listen to their fans. Great developers know when not to.”