Game developers, it’s time to stop listening to the fans

By Kirk McKeand, Friday, 12 July 2019 09:48 GMT

Don’t get mad, there’s a bit of hyperbole in that headline – among all the detritus of the internet, the occasional bit of usable feedback exists. It’s just that the shit floats to the top until it’s all you can see.

BioWare has a lot to answer for, basically. Mass Effect 3 feels like ground zero for toxic fan entitlement. I’m sure the developer was just trying to do the right thing, but it changed the ending of its game due to negative feedback, bending its creative vision to pander to the baying masses. This rarely happens in any other medium – sure, you could point at the Sonic movie changing his appearance over criticism, but it’s the video game crowd once again. Elsewhere, people have petitioned to have the last season of Game of Thrones remade, but HBO would never do that. Because it’s absurd.

Like it or not, the vast majority of video game players just do not understand game development. If a game doesn’t run well, it’s “bad optimisation”. If there’s a lack of features, it isn’t down to development constraints and deadlines – it’s “lazy developers”. That’s not a dig at the gaming audience, it’s just that video games are a complex chimera of publisher goals, developer goals, and the realities of working with an ever-shifting vision. It’s like moulding a jar from clay on a rollercoaster. Games are a broken mess right up until launch – when the rollercoaster finally comes to a halt and the clay stops flopping around like one of those car dealership balloons – and developers are usually aware of the major issues they launch with.

Things are often cut or changed. Some things don’t work. Some things work better than expected and are expanded upon. Nobody wants to release a bad game. Nobody wants the ending of their critically-acclaimed sci-fi trilogy to be ill-received.

You often see video game fans come to the defense of game developers if certain story beats in a game are criticised. Criticism is just that: pointing out that something could be better. It’s not asking for something to be changed. It’s a talking point – a (hopefully) deeper reading of a game that might help you see it from another angle. Yet when a critic points out issues with the handling of certain themes, a portion of the audience cries censorship. Then they go off and create petitions to get games changed.

Part of the issue here is how our industry feeds into this entitlement. Whether it’s PlayStation saying it’s “for the players” or it’s Xbox head Phil Spencer saying stuff like, “Games and gamers together now have the sheer magnitude to be a significant unifying force for the world,” whatever that means, our industry goes out of its way to say the customer is always right.

Metal Gear Solid 4 – the worst game in the series – was a game for the fans. People hated Metal Gear Solid 2 at launch because it forced you to play as floppy-haired newcomer, Raiden, instead of Solid Snake. Metal Gear Solid 4 put players back in Snake’s sneaking boots, but the game was basically an extended bit of fan service.

Elsewhere in the Bad Place, some gamers actually petitioned Obama to get DmC pulled from shelves because they wanted a traditional Capcom sequel and not the Ninja Theory reimagining: “Dear Mr. Obama: As a consumer to the Video Game Industry there is one Video Game that has caused a lot of controversy over the past few month’s,” the petition said, grammatical errors and all. “The name of the game is DmC: Devil May Cry made by Ninja Theory and Capcom.

“A majority of gamer’s are aggravated that this game has changed so much from it’s past predecessors and the game actually insults the consumers in-game. We, as consumers did not want nor need this reboot and we believe it violates our rights to have a choice between the original’s or the reboot. This game is violating our rights as a consumer and we believe it should be pulled off shelves from game stores due to it’s insulting nature and the fact that it violates our rights. Please Mr. Obama, look into your heart and make the decision that will please us Gamers.”

Then there’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game taken down by gifs. Development focus was on creating worlds and learning how to use an entirely new engine that isn’t well-suited to RPG development. As such, the facial animations suffered and people took the piss in gifs. Back in the day, it was a given that RPGs didn’t look as nice as other games because of the scope. Nowadays, everything looks nice because developers want their games to look good in screens, rather than communicate what makes the games special. BioWare’s next game, Anthem, looked incredible, at the expense of everything else. It appeared to be a direct reaction to that negative feedback – those viral gifs of goofy character expressions.

Look at any online game community and there’s always someone complaining about how their character isn’t strong enough, or how the character who can counter their hero is too strong. There will be dozens of posts about how their favourite weapon doesn’t do enough damage, or how another weapon is OP. There will also be another player somewhere typing out the exact opposite.

These people aren’t professional game developers and they just want to make their very narrow experience of a game better for them, not for everyone else. Game balancing for an online shooter is far more complex than toggling things for the sake of it. Look at how Fortnite constantly pipes in new weapons and zaps them off because they’re too disruptive – you can’t just tweak and see what happens, especially if your game is seriously played at a competitive level. How can you filter anything usable – that your actual experts haven’t already considered – from all this noise?

My point is: you can never please everyone. There will always be pushback on anything you do, and people only generally say something on the internet if they’re pissed off. Check out our comments section for an example.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Henry Ford around the dawn of commercial motor vehicles: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” People are generally afraid of change. New ideas always get a bit of pushback – it makes me worry whether this environment of fan feedback development is holding back triple-A game development from reaching its true potential.

I was one of the first people to laugh at Microsoft’s vision of the original Xbox One. Digital only? Online only? The cloud? What on earth where they talking about? Yet now, in 2019, almost all my games are digital. I’m always connected to the internet. Sure, the Kinect was a bust, but the rest was genuinely forward-thinking.

The rise of crowdfunded games has only made this community-driven development more prominent. What stretch goals do you want? How should we shape our game to suit you, the gamers? I think it’s time our industry moved away from this mindset and started thinking about what we’re going to replace our horses with.

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