Friday, October 16, 2009
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.