In a recent comment over here, blogosphere buddy Bhagpuss made an unsuspecting remark which at its core is a most familiar sentiment to all longterm MMO players, I’m sure:
[…]But that’s just what GW2 has become and, as people are prone to say, it is what it is. It could have grown into something very much more but apparently that’s not what the majority of players wanted so there you go.
I am going to blatantly take this quote out of its specific context and write a longer, more generalized post about it (sorry Bhag!).
What’s what the players want?
“What the players wanted” and any variation thereof is a commonly used phrase and reaction to MMO design, more often MMO design changes, that vexes me on a personal level. And oh, I have done it myself: how many times did I not do the “now reap what you sowed! (and I hope you suffocate on it)” fist-shake in gloomy retrospective whenever WoW changed for the worse over the years since 2004, in my very personal opinion? In a less considerate moment I’d love to blame all of you out there who are still playing for the state of the game. You ruined WoW for me or something.
But let’s get back to more rational debate. Every time MMOs change/evolve design direction the way so many have, the way GW2 has done from a non-commital “grind-and endgame-free” vision to what it is today, are we really in the position to say that it’s what the players wanted? If so, how do we know? More importantly, where would developers get such corroborated information?
(*)Not once in my 12 years-and-ongoing MMO career did I ever receive a developer letter asking me what I wanted. Not once did I receive a legit, official request or poll along the lines of “Dear Syl, please vote now if you would like to see achievements introduced to our game” or “…please let us know if you’re happy about another +5 level-cap increase with more gear grind at its end”. That would be spelling it out of course (and not a bad thing either).
Not once did anything remotely similar happen to me. And unless there is a secret society of select MMO players out there that receive these kind of emails when I’m not, other players don’t either. So, where and how exactly does the playerbase actively get to decide over an existing game’s direction? Surely not on chaotic message boards that no CM can effectively interpret and where it’s only ever the loudest voices that get noticed. Everyone should have figured that out by now.
So maybe it’s the silent majority? Only, how does one speak on behalf of a silent group of people? Are they just “everyone else that is not on forums and twitter” that you therefore get to refer to easily for any given purpose since hey, it’s not like they’re saying anything to oppose you? Are we a homogenous mass of people just because we don’t scream and shout?
For me, it doesn’t work that way. It won’t do to retrospectively declare that things are the way they are because they went along with it. There’s a big difference here for me to actively shaping a process. To clarify: I’m not saying that developers should be telepathic and my main point is not to blame any particular group in the gaming industry for this situation (although clearly someone is to blame) – but you don’t get to tell me it’s what I wanted when it clearly wasn’t what I wanted and I never told you that it was.
Voting with your wallet blah
Here’s another catch-phrase I’ve come to dislike over the last few years: just vote with your wallet. The reason for my dislike is the simple truth of it and yet, it falls so horribly short in taking reality into account. I’m a part of a collective whose power is only as big or small as that same collective. I am also an enthusiast in a changing industry and on a wider scope, a human being in a constantly changing world. I’m not generally opposed to change; I’m constantly trying to evaluate which changes to embrace and which not to. Do I pay for an alpha? A beta? A collector’s edition? Do I pre-order? Kickstart? My head hurts.
I did vote with my wallet and unsubscribed from WoW at the end of WotLK, after a 6 years run of raiding madness. It has clearly made no impact whatsoever. If anything, Blizzard has become even less of a company I like to endorse than I did back then. But hey, I have the grim satisfaction of voting with my wallet, right? At least I don’t appear to be agreeing with this product anymore.
Whatever the silent player is supposed to do, I can’t seem to win. That’s why I object so strongly to the sentiment of absolute player/customer responsibility. As far as game design and development goes, the powers at work are way more complex and obscure than what any of us could influence. As much as players love to think they’re shaping games and as much as we love to blame others for when things turn badly, the much more likely scenario is that somewhere in an office, someone in a fancy suit with too many spreadsheets has figured out exactly which design directions to push in order to maximize monetization or subs or co-dependence. Sure, every once in a while a developer will ask us directly what we’d like on some social media platform, usually years or at least months before launch because that’s a good time to crowd-source and get cosy with fans. But videogame design is not a democracy, first and foremost it’s business and sneaky psychology.
And players tend to go along with stuff. There may be some fluctuation but overall we are a flexible bunch when it comes to franchises we’ve come to love or where we’ve simply invested so much time already that it’s hard to leave behind the trophies and fancy dresses. Design directions don’t change over night either; they trickle down ever so slowly until we’ve all but forgotten where we came from and one small change at a time seems as harmless as the last one. That’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a way of doing business and shaping your audience to fit your product.
In summary to this conundrum I will say this: I never wanted achievements in WoW, the cross-sever dungeons or flying mounts. And I certainly never ever asked for an achievement tab greeting me at the login screen of GW2 – game of too many back items and weapon skins. I didn’t ask for that, more importantly didn’t vote on that. Maybe others did consciously and some unconsciously and I could blame that second group’s lack of action but it tires me to do so. As long as nobody is sending each and every one of their paying customers an official, transparent and individual request to vote on a game’s direction, I am sure as hell not going to take responsibility (or credit) for the way that MMOs are changing and neither should anyone else. Sorry developers but that one’s still on you!
(*) Clarification: I’m not saying I want these kinds of democratic player votes on game design; I don’t for various reasons. What I’m saying is since I am clearly not in a democracy here, you don’t get to share responsibility or retrospective blame with me democratically, either (let alone putting it all on players).