The video game industry sits still for no man, and developers are constantly asked to shift, evolve, and innovate to remain on top. Fans do not accept every change with open arms, and the increased connectivity of communities, fostered by the sharp increase of community managers who try to keep their fingers on the pulse, means developers are listening more than ever.
Arne Meyer is the liaison at Naughty Dog between the community who adores the games coming from the Sony-owned studio and the developers who spend years creating these lavish, spectacle-laden video games.
It’s up to Meyer to figure out when the community is making a serious point and pass it on. He started to suspect they were in the last few weeks, immediately following the launch of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. The community started to raise concerns about changes made to the gunplay since the release of 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
“They felt that Uncharted 2 really had the aiming down, had the gunplay down correctly, so they were trying to dissect what was happening there,” he said.
The key word here is “dissect.” It’s one thing to complain, it’s another to structurally break down what makes the game tick, ripping apart the design logic, and attempting to understand what was causing the feeling of disconnect between Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3. Players were looking at dead zone, velocity and stick aiming changes without any first-hand knowledge.
“A lot of what we were seeing was people driving themselves nuts trying to figure out what it was, and a lot of theories were coming out, so we wanted to make sure that we clarified that,” said Meyer.
Players were uploading videos with commentary, drawing up graphs explaining their theories--clearly, a scale had been tipped.
Meyer sat down with game director Justin Richmond and multiplayer programmer Travis McIntosh to sketch out the changes made for Uncharted 3. He pulled people from both sides because the community was saying the issue was specifically related to singleplayer. The result was a blog post on Naughty Dog's site that Meyer hoped would help fans settle to Uncharted 3.
It didn’t work, so it was back to the drawing board.
“We took some time to investigate that internally because, again, we knew we’d made changes, but in all of our focus testing--probably about three months of straight focus testing--we never got any feedback the aiming was unsatisfactory to those people,” he said. “And for us, it’s very hard. I mean, obviously because we’ve played around with this, so whatever we had internally we’d get used to very quickly.”
Both Naughty Dog and Naughty Dog’s fans were banging their heads against the wall at this point. Meyer threw out the idea of bringing some fans into the actual studio to better articulate the issue, but the idea came and went.
“Justin came by later and said ‘Well, can you do that?’ And I’m like ‘sure.’” he said. “So, I posted on the NeoGAF forum where people were going through it in a very eloquent fashion, really explaining their gripes very clearly, and I said ‘Well, is anyone local that can come in and explain it to us?’”
Two users showed up, each bringing with them another person also versed in Uncharted, and all four were members of NeoGAF. Everyone sat down with Richmond and McIntosh, and plead their case regarding the issues within Uncharted 3 with the very same people responsible for making them.
In order to make sure Naughty Dog was getting the right feedback, the team employed a variation of the Pepsi Challenge.
“We showed them a before and after without telling them which one was changed to see how they liked these alternate settings that our programmer had come up with,” said Meyer. “As part of that process, we iterated on what the feedback was and we were making changes on the fly, and changing different things from what we originally changed to get the right feel for the aiming.”
It's not hard to imagine how a fan might become easily starstruck. Here you are, chatting with the creators of one of your favorite games, telling them what you think about that game, and having one of the developers implement your changes in real-time. That’s really something else.
The traditional problem with incorporating fans is the inability to get properly articulated feedback, or to have players who are so wrapped up in the idea of coming behind the curtain that everyone's sidetracked.
“They definitely weren’t here ‘blinded by the light.’” said Meyer. “These are our fans, so I don’t want to say they came in with a massively critical chip on their shoulder over it, but the two guys that we brought in, I think they were really sharp in terms of being analytical and being able upfront with what the changes were, and they were very clear and direct about what it was, and it was actually super helpful for us.”
Naughty Dog is currently working on a patch for Uncharted 3 that will address, among other things, the gunplay concerns. There’s no date for the patch, but when it goes live, there will be an aiming toggle that brings the settings closer to Uncharted 2. This is merely an option, though, and anyone who’s just happy with how Uncharted 3 plays won’t have to make the switch.
Meyer said Naughty Dog didn’t have a policy for bringing fans to the studio, but that may change.
“Justin and I always talk about, when we’re on our press tours, that one of the awesomest things when we’re doing press is when we have the opportunity to meet with our fans,” he said. “For Justin, it was great to actually have somebody come in and have actionable changes happen in front of them.”