The chasm between gamer and developer

I used to sit in awe and just a little bit of jealousy when I was a kid, watching friends play endless rounds of "Pong" on their Ataris.  Video games for me were carefully-collected-and-hidden quarters spent in long afternoons of Ms. Pacman, Joust, Tempest, and Galaga.  And then we got our first PC, a Texas Instruments 8088 with TWO 5.5-inch floppy drives AND a mouse! 
 
(And, yes, I'm mostly sharing this to assure you that I am Old.) 
 
Fast-forward many years, and I work  for Spicy Horse Games, the latest endeavor of our illustrious leader (and my high school buddy), American McGee.  I get to see the newest and neatest developments as we unfold the process of creating games, and it's often things that the general public will never lay eyes on.  (Sometimes, that's quite a blessing.)  What I do, however, is not so much about game development as it is community development.  I manage the forum and keep the hint of our works in the public eye... but not just any eye.   
 
I am the SPHORax, I speak for the fans. 
 
More and more, I think game developers are starting to get the idea that the key to their success comes not in "focus groups" (comprised mainly of people who are not in the target demographic) or in "statistical analysis" (trends of what games perform well over what period of time) but more and more in the words of what comes directly from the public, the people who are buying the games themselves - not just those buying the advertising for the games.  Why does Madden Sports or Halo titles do so well in the marketplace?  Because that's where the advertising dollars are.  What would happen if we turned the model upside down and instead started designing games creatively from the feedback we get from the people who are actually playing? 
 
That's where we're going, I think - certainly as a company and ideally as an industry.  If you can only buy one game for a year, let's say, what would you want to see it in?  Different endings?  How much play time?  What would be "too much"?  How aggressive should it be?  How gentle?  How many puzzles versus how many shoot-em-ups?  How many character options?  How important is multi-player?  What is appealing about single-character linear stories?  What is appealing about sandbox worlds?  What stories mean the most to you? 
 
These are the things I explore, both as a community manager and as a sometime writer.  What's the point of writing a story that no one else wants to read?  I know that we're working hard to keep a finger on the pulse of What Gamers Want, but is this an across-the-board good thing?  Where is the line between what we think you'll like, what you specifically ask for, and then something totally new and mind-blowingly amazing? 
 
Chime in.  What do you think?

20 Comments
21 Comments
Posted by lilith70

I used to sit in awe and just a little bit of jealousy when I was a kid, watching friends play endless rounds of "Pong" on their Ataris.  Video games for me were carefully-collected-and-hidden quarters spent in long afternoons of Ms. Pacman, Joust, Tempest, and Galaga.  And then we got our first PC, a Texas Instruments 8088 with TWO 5.5-inch floppy drives AND a mouse! 
 
(And, yes, I'm mostly sharing this to assure you that I am Old.) 
 
Fast-forward many years, and I work  for Spicy Horse Games, the latest endeavor of our illustrious leader (and my high school buddy), American McGee.  I get to see the newest and neatest developments as we unfold the process of creating games, and it's often things that the general public will never lay eyes on.  (Sometimes, that's quite a blessing.)  What I do, however, is not so much about game development as it is community development.  I manage the forum and keep the hint of our works in the public eye... but not just any eye.   
 
I am the SPHORax, I speak for the fans. 
 
More and more, I think game developers are starting to get the idea that the key to their success comes not in "focus groups" (comprised mainly of people who are not in the target demographic) or in "statistical analysis" (trends of what games perform well over what period of time) but more and more in the words of what comes directly from the public, the people who are buying the games themselves - not just those buying the advertising for the games.  Why does Madden Sports or Halo titles do so well in the marketplace?  Because that's where the advertising dollars are.  What would happen if we turned the model upside down and instead started designing games creatively from the feedback we get from the people who are actually playing? 
 
That's where we're going, I think - certainly as a company and ideally as an industry.  If you can only buy one game for a year, let's say, what would you want to see it in?  Different endings?  How much play time?  What would be "too much"?  How aggressive should it be?  How gentle?  How many puzzles versus how many shoot-em-ups?  How many character options?  How important is multi-player?  What is appealing about single-character linear stories?  What is appealing about sandbox worlds?  What stories mean the most to you? 
 
These are the things I explore, both as a community manager and as a sometime writer.  What's the point of writing a story that no one else wants to read?  I know that we're working hard to keep a finger on the pulse of What Gamers Want, but is this an across-the-board good thing?  Where is the line between what we think you'll like, what you specifically ask for, and then something totally new and mind-blowingly amazing? 
 
Chime in.  What do you think?

Posted by AhmadMetallic

Looks very interesting, i'll read it tonight/tomorrow and tell u what i think

Posted by Video_Game_King
@lilith70 said:
"I am the SPHORax, I speak for the fans."
Why do I feel like you're a combination of a System Shock-esque final boss and Dr. Seuss?
Posted by lilith70
@Video_Game_King: TOTALLY.  Except not.  SPicy  HORse?  And I have about as much hair as Al Gore.  It just happened.  XD
Posted by Video_Game_King
@lilith70: 
 
Then where's the AX come from? The Lorax?
Posted by lilith70
@Video_Game_King: Indeed!  Like this!  XD  
Posted by Garfield360UK

Its an interesting idea but I wander where the line is drawn, Say with Half Life, if 50% of the feedback is "we want more puzzles over shooting" and 50% say "we want more shooting over puzzles" which audience do you listen to or do you stay in the middle ground. That was a bit of a open one as the middle ground probably suites both best there but say in Bioshock if 75% of the people said they wanted less audio books and 25% want more, would critical response from media (i.e. reviews) then play a part? 
 
I like it when developers take an interest in what the users want but also I like it when they take interest in what other studios are doing. Fifa has improved probably due to the competition Pro Evolution Soccer (or Winning Eleven as its known in some areas) brought against it. I wander whether critical response or the feedback played a role or both. 
 
Anyway I would like to hear about suggestions that have been taken on board. I understand for games that dont have the big budget for marketing that this is a good idea, Team Fortress 2 perhaps got to where it is today purely by listening to feedback and supporting the game over a long time. It is a balance between where do you say "ok we are charging for these changes" or "we will make them free and then more people may buy this game covering the cost of adding some new achievments and gameplay elements to this title".
Posted by Binman88

Spicy whores?
 
 
Sorry.
 
I'm tired and might not have got the gist of your post, but I'll answer what I think you're asking. I don't necessarily think asking the public what they want is the best path to take when designing a game. If you're planning on selling to as many people as possible, then by all means ask the public what they want more of in your game (or assume from statistics) and appeal to the lowest common denominator. The end result is a game that doesn't really offend anyone's tastes, but lacks innovation and individuality because you're largely using data from past experiences to define your new game. I believe the person leading the charge of a game's design should have a clear and unique idea in mind, and make the game that they want to make. This by no means guarantees it's quality, but the skilful designers should be able to pull it off.
 
Ok, I've kinda lost where I was going with that (re: tired, above). I might return and add to it later :P

Posted by Ferginator4k

Interesting post, you have my attention.

Posted by Jimbo

"If you can only buy one game for a year, let's say, what would you want to see it in?"
 
See this right here?  That's exactly where the games industry is going wrong.  Everybody is already asking that question and way too many of them are coming up with the same few answers (Gears of War, Modern Warfare, WoW).  Nobody here buys one game a year.  Nobody here buys three games a year.  If I buy a dozen games in a year I want them all to be different - I want a different experience every time I pick up a game.
 
There is no answer I can give to the above question that will lead to you making a game I will be happy with.  I don't want to sell you a game.  I want you to be creative and sell your game to me.  Be brave and make a game that some will love and some will hate, not one that everybody will merely find inoffensive - if I hate your game, that's fine, I'll love the next one you make.  If you took the ten most popular answers from your collected responses, I could find you a dozen games that ticked all of those boxes and still failed.
 
Great games - just like great movies or great books - aren't made by committee or by democracy, they are made by somebody with a vision and the belief and authority to carry it out.  That isn't to say there is no place for feedback, of course there is, but there's a reason they call it 'feedback' and not 'feedforward'.  Pitch me your game and I will happily give my opinion on how you can make the most of it, but I really don't think you can start out designing a game around a list of bulletpoints and still end up with something worthwhile.  
 
You say you want to start designing games creatively, but how you're intending to go about it seems like the most anti-creative method I can imagine.

Posted by lilith70
@Jimbo: Those are all very good points.  I think some developers ask questions like this in response (at least in part) to the feeling of the financial crunch that America, at least, is experiencing.  Or maybe it's the drive to make "the perfect game".
 
Sometimes, I think when we put these kinds of questions out there, it's not just a matter of saying "How can I make the perfect game" but rather "Is a dominant request worth making"?  For instance, there are tons of puzzle gamers who would love nothing more than clicking on bubbles and stacking blocks for hours on end.  (I know, I've seen it.  And it confuses me.)  And then there are FPS fans who could care less about puzzles and really just want to fight their way through the story.  And then there are those who want to "play god" or just blow things up or go through turn-based combat... 
 
But what if we had an idea for a game that involved sorting belly-button lint, and by doing that the player created some kind of incendiary device that had to be used to blow apart obstacles through a fail-able maze while simultaneously evading both the cleaning crew and an army of mutant fleas, all while trying to additionally gather up pieces of attire dropped at random by buxom sorority girls who happen to also be the daughters of crazed mobsters hell-bent on holding the neighborhood ransom with marauding monster trucks?  That's pretty all-over-the-board, but I've seen pitches like that.  (Not that specifically, but close.  And thank whatever gods there might be that it's not my job to answer them!)  Developers who might be entertaining an idea like that would consider what the fans or overall gamer community would respond to the best and take the best elements of it, putting it together into something playable. 
 
Understand that I'm not a developer - I just work for the company as the community liaison, if you will.  I'm mainly curious whether you think gamers should have a voice in a developing project, and if so, how much.  
Posted by sagesebas
@lilith70: Did you have something to do with Alice? that game was wicked
Posted by lilith70
@sagesebas: I can't comment on what I had to do with Alice - that's relegated to the rumors and fantasies of my closest friends (who have some pretty wild imaginations).  I did not work on that game, unfortunately, but I am looking forward to being able to talk about the sequel soon.
Posted by sagesebas
@lilith70: Thats cool I found the game to be quite a gem
Edited by MajorToms

I would say 25% of a gamer opinion should be considered when developing your game. It's gotta be an original idea at the end of the day, for me at least. Those are the games that stick with you. Of course, I would say the most important part of a game is playability. If your game is fun, but the controls suck, nobody is going to want to play it for very long.  
 
In my opinion, I would like to see a lot more QA done on games to make sure they aren't released with a million bugs. While they're at it fine tune the controls so they're perfect. If that means delaying the game, then so be it. I don't understand why developers go through all the trouble of making a well thought out game, but not bug fix it because they ran out of time. If there is bugs, the game isn't finished, so don't release it.

Posted by Brodehouse

You don't build to satisfy, you build because you believe your creation must exist.  Building a game according to what the community wants is artistic suicide, and is exactly what causes sequelitis.  Every great new IP is a developer or producer with a new idea or direction informing the design process and leads to creative breakthrough.  Every worn IP is a result of a complete dismissal of invention in favor of satisfaction.  Instead of making a game that the developer believes must exist, they are making a game to satisfy a consumer.
 
Consider any other creative medium under the sun.  Musicians who write songs to please an existing fanbase rather than because they believe in it.  Film makers who are involved in movies purely out of business sense.  Authors that write to sell to a demographic, and not because they have an appreciation for the genre.
 
Art is created by a process in which the artist believes it must exist, and work to realize a vision.    Art comes from artists, not market research.  I believe if the designers themselves can't tell the proper division of combat to puzzles, they are designing without a real vision.  If you are a good designer, you should be able to play your game and discern what needs improvements, and how to do it.
 
I'm sorry if it seems like I'm being unfairly harsh, but it really rubs me the wrong way when I get the sense that game design, design of any kind, is better off being crowdsourced.

Posted by Jimbo
@lilith70: Ok, then yes I do think gamers have a role to play in development, but it's in the detail rather than the initial pitch.  
 
I do think gamers (not thousands, but maybe a couple dozen) should be brought into the project earlier than they are now, even before there is anything to play.  Developers often seem to get too close to their own project and convince themselves that what they're making is great - even when it plainly isn't - and by the time they get to beta it is too late to change something major.  I have been in betas where 100% of the testers were saying they needed to go back to the drawing board on something, but the developers have been out of time and money and had no choice but to send their game out to die (which is invariably what happens in these circumstances).  
 
The thing is, most of these issues would have been obvious problems even without being able to play the game - if they had just run their ideas by a few uninvested gamers at the outset, I guarantee the issues would have been picked up on before they even happened and alternative solutions would have been offered.  "That mechanic won't work / be fun, you should do it like this instead".  An actual two-way dialogue with a small group of gamers (who can speak freely because they aren't employees), early on in development, would be far more useful than stonewalling thousands of beta testers when it's far too late to change anything major anyway.  
 
And again, just to clarify, I don't think this group can tell a developer what game they should be making in the first place, but they can help a developer to get the most out of their game.  Gamers know what works and what could work as well as most developers; the only real difference is that the gamer doesn't know how to execute it.
Posted by lilith70
@Brodehouse: I totally appreciate the perspective of games as art, but I've also been to some art shows where pretty much everyone (myself included) were looking at the work and thinking, "Ohdeargodsonallplanes, what the hell was this guy thinking!??!"  Okay, art for art's sake is fine, but when the same fellow gets EXTREMELY bent out of shape and mad because he doesn't sell any art?  That's kinda where you have to ask where motivation comes from. 
 
In video games, yes, it's art, but we have to sell it in order to be able to afford to make more art.  And I think Jimbo here also brings up a good point.  Perhaps the true key to success is to find the middle ground. 
 
Five ohgodimsosorry points if you can think of a particular video game where a little early interaction with actual gamers might've made all the difference in the world.  XD  
Posted by MajorToms

Alpha Protocol
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction
Brutal Legend
Any current WWE game 
      They're either impossible against AI or way too easy, and cheap system exploits make most of those games undesirable to me, though my friends love them for some reason.
Mass Effect 2  
      Honestly hated the scanning/probing planets and the new inventory/leveling up systems, and I'm not alone on that.
      The latter Is playable, but leaves a lot to be desired and is a drastic change from the first Mass Effect. (This is what happens when you listen to one set of gamers for too long)

Posted by Brodehouse
@lilith70:  I'm not suggesting that games should be developed without QA, it would be patently ridiculous to suggest so.  What I'm suggesting is that it is difficult enough to design by committee in a company of tens and possibly hundreds of people all working towards the same goal; it's downright impossible when you increase the committee to numbers in the thousands.
 
Make no mistake, I appreciate your thoughts about designing for a public, I'm not suggesting we make the games industry as insular as modern art.  But I place that in the developer's understanding of games, they know what works and what doesn't.  It's possible to get absorbed by your vision to the rejection of outside influence... that is a mark of bad development.  But perverting vision because of an insistence to please a thousand outside voices... I'd place it as a letter far more scarlet.  I still believe it is up to the developer to recognize quality.  Even in QA, it's the developer's responsibility to identify pressing concerns over negligable criticism. 
 
The motivation has to come from creative inspiration.  That you have an idea, it must be made to exist, and that you are the most appropriate to do so.  If you doubt the validity of your ideas, it ceases to be creative work, and becomes factory line.  And factory lines do not create compelling games.
Posted by Jasta

When you consider anything that requires taste be it art / film / gaming or music (even food) when something specific is thrown to the masses its guaranteed alot of people will like what they hear or see but likewise alot of people wont. Your game might not sell well but it may have a huge impact on that niche group of gamers who did buy it and consider it to be the next big thing.

Sure if your sales werint good its a bad thing but creating something considered as godlike for a select few surely has to mean something?