Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Getting feedback on game design

The people I play Dungeons & Dragons with are friends with whom I've been playing tabletop RPGs for over a decade. In many cases I can predict some of their decisions in a role-playing game simply because I know them. In a small group with always the same players, much of what is going on is determined by the individual personalities of the people involved and the group dynamics. A DM is always to some extent a game designer, as you can run a D&D campaign in many different ways. But rules of good game design only get you so far, and at some point it simply becomes a matter of playing to the audience that you already know.

The game designers of a MMORPG don't know their audience individually. But they do have the advantage of being able to use statistical analysis. In my D&D group I know a guy who almost always will play a wizard because he loves that class. In a MMORPG with hundreds of thousands or even millions of players, personal preferences probably cancel each other out statistically and a statistical analysis will reveal more players flocking towards whatever class is perceived as being more powerful, more useful, or more fun to play. Over time there is a visible impact of for example nerfs of a particular character class on the number of people choosing to play that class.

For my D&D campaign it is sometimes a lot harder for me to get feedback. Friendship and group dynamics can get into the way of telling a DM that you didn't like a particular aspect of how he is running his game. And I do believe that is a fairly general problem, with many people running pen & paper role-playing games not getting nearly enough feedback from their players. It would take a lot of bad decisions as a DM before your group decides to quit and not play with you any more. The hobby has always had more people interested in playing than interested in being the DM, so there is a barrier to exit: You rarely know many possible DMs, so quitting a DM might mean not playing at all for some players. That doesn't exactly encourage DMs of trying to maximize player enjoyment.

I notice that especially in the discussions on various Dungeons & Dragons or other pen & paper role-playing games on forums and blogs, even YouTube. Some people have quasi-religious opinions on how a game of D&D should be run because of some rule that somebody invented 40 years ago without having had the benefit of seeing how it works out in practice (a general problem in designing a totally new genre of game). They have a certain vision of how things like "magic" should work that reflects more the fantasy world in their head than what is fun for the players around the table in this world.

I do understand the concept that art doesn't have to be popular to be good. I just don't think that "critically acclaimed but hated by the audience" is a good concept for game design if your audience is just that small group of your friends sitting around your table. You can strive to raise the level of the game on your table, but ultimately you need to provide a fun game to the people who play with you.

@ Tobold
But rules of good game design only get you so far, and at some point it simply becomes a matter of playing to the audience that you already know.

Sometimes it's just a matter of learning what elements can cause conflict within a group setting, and learning what elements foster cooperation within the same group, and doing as much as possible to eliminate the former. In a turn-based game such as D&D, the construct of the encounters is often conflicted between how a party moves its characters through a particular dungeon, and how the DM has constructed the dungeon where Mob placement is concerned, and whether the DM allows some way to minimize or mitigate the "fog of war" effect. Also, there is no "farm status" element in D&D as there is in any particular MMORPG, and "wiping" in D&D can be handled in a myriad of ways versus the "corpse run" mechanic in a game such as WoW.

Is there really any difference in a DM making the determination(through observation) that a particular campaign(or elements) was fun, versus an MMORPG developer using data metrics to determine the same? I mean, at the end of the day, if a component or particular design element is replicated in future builds based on the DM's observations, or the MMORPG's data metrics, and both of them are "fun" - isn't this what game design should be about?

Friendship and group dynamics can get into the way of telling a DM that you didn't like a particular aspect of how he is running his game.

One thing I observed when I was still playing D&D is that most of the time "like minded people" tended to come together and form playgroups. I once played a campaign with a group of workmates where a supervisor was in the group. It didn't go well. The reason it didn't go well was because the DM was someone outside of our established work-group, and he couldn't cope with the level of micro-management that the supervisor tried to impose on encounters as part of the group. The supervisor being in the group caused an aura of silence within the group, because no one wanted to question his actions out of fear of backlash at work. But if "like minded" people form groups, then feedback is usually offered freely and a sense of harmony should exist. When I first started playing WoW, I played for at least six months before I found a group of people(Guild) that I just naturally "clicked" with. Almost 12 years later and I'm still part of that same group. I would still be playing D&D if I could be part of my original group/DM, but Military transfers tend to upset things a bit.
...statistical analysis will reveal more players flocking towards...

Problem with statistics is that you can't see the motivation behind it. Example: statistics see me (and probably a lot of other players) starting garrison missions, doing JC and inscription building daily quests on a regular basis. Only profession I use is tailoring to sell bags.

Does that mean I love only this and not all the other professions I used a lot more in previous expansions? Not really. It's just braindead gold income so why bother with anything else.

I hope Legion profession overhaul makes them interesting again.
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