Tobold's Blog
Friday, October 16, 2009
Creative responsibility

Sometimes I get asked what this blog is about. This being blog post #2,870, there is no easy answer to this question, as I have covered a very wide range of subjects over the last 6 years. But if there is one recurring theme that is reflected in the majority of posts, it is my belief in the importance of game design, because game design has a very strong influence on player behavior. I believe that the answer to many questions about MMORPGs to lie in game design, for problems ranging from RMT to the financial success of a game. I believe that if more than a handful of players in a game engage in an activity which was unforeseen and undesirable in the eyes of the game developers, the reason is some flaw in game design. I believe that while other factors can't be neglected, ultimately a game with better game design will be financially more successful than one with a similar budget and less good design.

As a consequence of this belief, I tend to hold game developers responsible for what is happening with and in their games. They do not have the sole responsibility, but I do think that the creative responsibility they have is a major part in the overall shared responsibility of the whole team. Especially if they end up with their name in the title of the game. Remember "Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa"?

Creative responsibility is not something that is generally acknowledged, least of all by the developers themselves. While they are only too willing to be lauded for successes, any failure is always the fault of somebody else. Management is the preferred scapegoat when things go wrong, apparently management contributes nothing to success but is 100% responsible for any failure. That myth probably has a lot to do with the fact that game developers are quite well represented in blogs and forums, while managers are usually prevented by company rules from blabbing out their opinion.

Now I'm not saying that the standard excuse of "management forced us to release the game unfinished" is never true. Just to take one example, the Mythic developers recently listed what was wrong with WAR in their opinion, and said that the economy and auction house was badly done. That is a typical example of a rush job, the auction house wasn't even in the game as late as a month before release, and the whole crafting system smacks of good ideas in half-baked execution. But then, who decided to put the game economy so low on the list of priorities? And was it really just that which made players unhappy?

MMORPG players are remarkably willing to overlook minor flaws caused by rush jobs, and even server instability at the launch of a game, as long as the core of the game is fun. If, as it happened to several games, over half of the players who bought the game at release decide not to continue playing after the first free month, you can't just blame minor flaws made in a hurry, or external factors. These players were willing to spend 50 bucks because they believed the game would be good, and as a player to admit that you were mistaken takes more than some minor inconveniences. It is only if the game isn't fun, if the game design has fundamental flaws, that a mass exodus occurs.

And even if the fundamentals are right, and the game is a success, that doesn't mean that there won't be undesirable outcomes caused by bad game design. For example many veteran players in World of Warcraft complain about newer players, aka n00bs, not having a clue on how to beat harder content. But if a warrior in WoW can reach the level cap without ever having used the taunt ability once, is it the player who is "a moron", or is this a direct consequence of game design?

Game developers have godlike powers, they have a much stronger influence over their virtual worlds than any real world dictator. In the real world a government can make a law against people killing each other, in the virtual world the game developers can make killing each other technically impossible, if they want to. Yet we have to endure panels of game developers on game design conferences collectively whining about problems like gold sellers, instead of discussing how to design games in a way that either gold selling wasn't technically possible, or in a way that gold buying wasn't attractive at all. Players follow extremely predictable patterns, based on the incentives given by the game. There is no such thing as "players doing it wrong", there is only bad game design leading players in the wrong direction.

Ultimately game developers will have to accept this creative responsibility. Because if they were really helpless, had no creative freedom, and were just victims to management, external circumstances, and mischievous players, then they wouldn't be game developers at all. They would only be game programmers.
"But if a warrior in WoW can reach the level cap without ever having used the taunt ability once, is it the player who is "a moron", or is this a direct consequence of game design?"

I believe that - once - the WoW grind to the level cap was designed perforce to teach you the various skills and abilities your class had at its disposal. It went beyond the simplicity of a tutorial in a single-player game, but was not so complex as to be ignored/pointless.

However, WoW is also a game where you can reach level cap without fighting, or naked, or by only using auto-attacks and never opening your spellbook. And because players have been able to do this, somehow the game design itself allowed it (assuming that thy didn't use any exploits). And while something that is 'allowed' does not mean that the game designers foresaw it, or that it was an intentional consequence of their game design, the fact remains that it was made possible by the parameters imposed on the 'leveling game'.

However, I'm not sure what an alternative might be. I don't want to start the old argument about whether this or that mmorpg requires skill, or just mastery of simple repetitive tasks even including the predictability of boss encounters.

A possibility could be that (in a newly revamped Azeroth where many new players will start after Cataclysm, and veterans may reroll to see new content) the 1-85 grind includes greater incentive for grouping (beyond loot that is quickly out-stripped), and class specific quests that give a player a brief introduction to a recently learned skill/ability. This could dove-tail nicely with Blizzard's vow to remove spell ranks in-game.

For example, when a mage learns the polymorph spell, they are sent on a basic quest to go 'sheep X things'. Simple, kind of boring, but it gets them using it. Sure they might never use it again, but at least they know they have it. Kind of like the Argent Tournament quests to 'go shield break the target 3 times' etc.

Just a thought.
The problem is that there's very rarely a single point of failure. It's nice to think that you can point to one person and blame them, but that's often not the case.

Let's take Tabula Rasa since you mentioned it: if we had removed Richard Garriott from the picture and put another person in his position, would the game have been a success instead of a failure? I don't think you can give a definitive answer. Garriott obviously has his faults, but there was a whole development team, a whole group of managers, and a foreign-based company in the mix.

Once you accept that you can't just blame a single person, you start getting into groups and group dynamics. What happens if you're working on a game and a big-name designer like Garriott is making what you feel are bone-headed decisions? Easy to play armchair quarterback and say you should speak up, but it's not your mortgage on the line if the boss takes a disliking to you speaking up. One of the issues identified by Garriott himself as a problem with the original versions of Tabula Rasa was that the three experienced managers in charge didn't want to step on each others toes out of respect. Now imagine what it's like to be "just a designer" on the project where even the managers won't call out a bad idea. But, who is to blame here? People trying to be polite? People who are too well-respected? People not wanting to lose their jobs sooner rather than possibly later?

Even if public mea culpas start becoming common, does that help anything? If Garriott comes along and says, "Yeah, the whole Tabula Rasa team, including me, screwed the pooch so hard..." does that change what has happened with the game? I know it'd probably cause a lot of bitterness if Garriott trash-talks his employees like that. I'd probably also count as a black mark if Garriott ever decides he wants to get back into game development.

The important thing is to observe and try to learn from the past. I think this is where blogging is more important: trying to identify the issues and bring them to light, even if others won't (or can't for various reasons) talk about them directly. Talk about what went wrong with TR from all different points of view: business, design, player, etc.? Offer observations instead of merely pointing fingers and trying to enjoy a bit of schadenfreude.
While I agree that game design certainly does influence how players interact with any given world, I still think you can't remove the players completely from the equation. Not all gamers play the same way, so what works as good design for someone is a major issue for another. As a dev, if you 'fix' that issue and piss off the ones who thought it was fine, is that good design?

Was the SWG:NGE good design? SWG before it was failing to live up to expectations, yet we all know the story after. Yet SWG is still around (for now), so clearly a group of people took to the NGE and thought it made SWG better.

Or for an even simpler example: I don't want WoW players playing DarkFall. What makes them happy (rewarding failure, solo-hero gameplay, gear > skill) is what drove me away from the game. Blizzard can keep designing for that crowd, and Aventurine can keep designing for it's crowd. I don't think either is 'wrong' in how they design, they are just going after different people.

I think design where you can't opt-out of PvP is good, and I know very well you disagree. Is anyone 'wrong' here, or are we just looking for different things?
Runescape had to make some fundamental game changes to eliminate gold selling. It really pissed a lot of players off, and introduced other problems. You're right, it can be done, but the cost likely isn't worth it, as part of that cost could be the vision of the game.
I have to agree with what Syncaine said. "You can make some of the people happy all the time, all of the people happy some of the time, but you can't make all of the people happy all of the time."

Each and every one of us is an individual with individual tastes and desires. Blizzard has really gotten good at appealing to the lowest common denominator, which is not necessarily a bad thing; but as we can see from people like Syncaine, is that as soon as you start doing that you start to lose the interest of certain types of people.

Now to be honest, Tobold is referring to commercial success being an indication of good design in the post, and by that measure then WoW should have pretty good design, naysayers be damned. Perhaps a good followup question would be: if a game isn't commercially successful does that necessarily mean it's designed poorly? Also, what is commercially successful these days? WoW? Warhammer? Something in between?

I'm sure most people would agree that WoW set the bar pretty high in terms of commercial success. A game definitely doesn't have to be that successful to make a decent amount of money. I've often wondered whether we'd be better off with a diverse set of niche MMOs, each with its own healthy fanbase somewhere between WoW and other titles on the market. Although I'm sure it could be argued that a lot of WoW subscribers only play because of it's broad appeal and simple, easy to grasp game design. Such players might not even be playing MMOs if it weren't for WoW.

Is a game without broad appeal poorly designed? Is there no merit for creating a niche title that has an interesting, innovative, and complex design that doesn't appeal to everyone? What is good design anyway?
"But then, who decided to put the game economy so low on the list of priorities?"

Good point, but if the game economy was higher on the list of priorities something else would have dropped off the end. So you have to point to something else and say "that over there was less important then the economy, why is it working and the AH busted?".

In fact I would say a lot of your points are nice, but they fail to consider that a lot of game design isn't isolated changes but weightings and complex interbalanced subsystems.

That's not to say that designers don't have a huge impact on success and failure of a game, nor to say that management is only the source of failure...but I think management is mostly only the source of success by convincing the funding spigots to stay on "long enough", by effectively communication to developers that the spigot will NOT stay open forever, so get your stuff playable on schedule, and by replacing elopement teams that are just screwing around with the investors money with ones that want to make a kick-ass game.

Sadly management doesn't actually directly do squat to make the game more fun, they only select those that can do that, and keep them focused.

Good management can evaluate the work of the technical team ("this IS fun", and "those look like the kind of bugs that can be worked out..."). Bad management just gets the wool pulled over their eyes.
> Yet we have to endure panels of game developers on game design conferences collectively whining about problems like gold sellers, instead of discussing how to design games in a way that either gold selling wasn't technically possible, or in a way that gold buying wasn't attractive at all.

While I agree with the rest of what you wrote Tobold, I don't agree with this line. There are things that really are impossible to solve by technical means, simply because any solution you could come up with would be a "lesser of 2 evils". For example if transferring gold between characters or players wasn't possible (easy to do from a technical point of view) you would simply have no player economy and thus a much more boring and shallow game. Compared to this, gold sellers and even scammers are really the lesser of 2 evils.
While there's plenty I don't agree with syncaine on, I also have to agree with him here. There are way too many developers trying to generically "make a good game" or trying to figure out "what players want." There are different types of players who consider different attributes to be part of a "good game."

The biggest thing I give Darkfall credit for is picking a target audience and making a game specifically for them. It's not a type of game I would ever play in a million years, but I have to recognize that the players of that type seem to be satisfied with it. What appear as glaring flaws to me (and frankly, the vast majority) would seem to be non-issues to the players of that game.

WoW may do a lot of different things, but they really only mastered one type of gameplay: PvE linear character progression. The PvP is mediocre at best, only adding anything creative via stealing concepts from their PvE game (which only appeals to PvE gamers, true PvP buffs think WoW PvP sucks). Arena is outright terrible. The economy revolves entirely around a crappy Ebay clone. Character customization is basically non-existent. Grouping is flat out discouraged until it is forced upon you at level cap. And after 5 years WoW still hasn't implemented a LFG system half as good as the one CoH launched with.

But for what WoW does at its core, it is the best.
I would disagree with Tobold and say the the game developer is 50% at fault and the game producer is the other 50%. No matter how creative, thorough, and charismatic a game devoloper is, its the person paying the bills (game producer) that has the final say. I think its pretty rare for game developers to get everything they want in a game.

As an aside, consider a game like A Tale in the Desert(ATITD). The game has, optimistically, 1000 or so subscribers but the one guy (producer and developer) makes a half-decent living off the game.

I would argue that many game developers could make great MMORPG's but they just have to make too many compromises for the business people paying the bills.

P.S. Tobold. I would love to see you interview Andrew Tepper (ATITD). I think if you two guys put your heads together that it would make for a great conversation.
"apparently management contributes nothing to success but is 100% responsible for any failure"

My experience from the games industry (an industry of which I'm very happy to once again be merely a customer, not an employee) is that the biggest root cause of any failure is indeed a lack of responsibility taken by the developers, and the cause of that lack of responsibility is developer unhappiness leading to nobody giving a shit anymore.

Not going to name names of companies I worked at or titles I worked on. Some were released. Some were cancelled. But I've seen developers stop caring because they hate management. I've seen them stop caring because they hate the game design. I've seen them stop caring because they're just burned out by overwork and merely want to check in something, anything, just to get it off their to-do list.

At this point, polish is abandoned. Fun is abandoned. Just implementing features according to a bare statement on a to-do list is all that remains. And this does not lead to a great game.

When I see games delayed and delayed again, and still rushed out before they were finished (e.g. WAR), I just know there's a lot of people working on them that have been in permanent crunch mode for many months, and I'm sure that however enthusiastic they were once, they are no longer.
Carson, doesn't that go back to management, though? If the project sucks and people don't like working on it, that's not just a bad attitude from the grunts, that's a structural problem derived from those who are making the decisions about the game design and project management.

More than once, I've seen the grunts notice that there *are* real problems with a game or the project, but either cannot offer solutions for fear of losing a job (management ego is a dangerous thing), or offer solutions and are summarily dismissed, and the project continues to fail.
In addendum, for the most part, employees in the industry *are* just game programmers, not designers. The decisions that make up "game design" aren't made democratically or by those on the front lines making the games, they are made by fiat by project managers or money men, many of whom have only a bare inkling of what actually makes a good *game*.

If game design decisions *were* made by those who have to make the things work, and those who entered the field out of a love for games, things would be very different.
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