Saturday, May 9, 2020

Whose Game Is It Anyway?

Topauz said something in a comment on a recent post here that started me thinking. I'd written that I felt that players and developers were talking past each other on certain topics and Topauz said "I do not believe that they are missing those points but the devs just think they know better."

This raises interesting questions about who owns the games we play. I don't mean the kind of concerns expressed by post-structuralist academics on the fundamental ownership of meaning, nor the legal issues relating to virtual property. And I'm definitely not thinking about the grey market of modding and private servers.

What I'm talking about is who gets to decide the direction an online game takes in this age of "games as a service". It seems to me there are three possibilities, all of them subject to almost infinite nuance:
  • We made this game so we own it.
  • We play this game so we own it.
  • We're all in this together so we'd better work something out.
When I first started playing MMORPGs there was no doubt at all who owned the games we played. The developers did. It was right there in the tagline: "You're in our world now".

The developers behind those games tended to come from a background of MUDs or tabletop RPGs. In tabletop gaming, as is well known, the Gamesmaster calls the shots. For MUDs you'd need to ask someone who was there - Wilhelm or Jeromai perhaps - but as I understand it there was always a clear hierarchy of ownership and control.

The people who crerated the early mmorpgs brought those top-down structures with them and that's what prevailed for a long time. In most of the ways that matter it still does; de facto control always rests with the developers. Even so, there has always been a tussle for the controls.

In almost all the MMORPGs I've played, the official and unofficial forums seethe with discontent. Players constantly debate the direction of the games, a "debate" that ranges from helpful suggestions and wistful wishlists to angry harangues and threats of violence.

Developers have to manage expectations. Sometimes - often - they end up revising or even reversing decisions they've made. In the end, though, players pretty much have to accept what they're given or walk away.

Although there would have been some wide variations across different games and companies, that broadly remained the status quo for a decade or more, until the arrival of two new concepts to the genre: Free to Play and Early Access. The arrival of these two paradoxical ideas shifted the balance of power in unpredictable ways.

Prior to the F2P revolution, players tended to play one or two MMORPGs only and to stick with them for a long time. Most games both required a subscription and also an up-front payment for the game itself. Coupled with the much slower levelling curves of the time, the inertia of an installed MMORPG was immense.

F2P gave players much greater freedom of movement. It became much easier to hop from game to game to see if the grass really was greener. At the same time, developers needed to try and hold onto those who came within their reach, making shortcuts to the meat of the game and rewards for sticking around the norm.

It was very much a player's market, at least in comparison to what had come before. John "Smed" Smedley encapsulated the change in attitude with a new tagline for Sony Online Entertainment. No longer were we in their world. Now it was "Free to Play - Your Way".

Alongside growing player power through the removal of paywalls and the concomitant increase in volatility and churn came a genuine opportunity to change the rules of the games themselves. For whatever reasons - cost, greed, a genuine wish to collaborate - developers of every size, from tiny indies to industry giants, began to lift the shutters on what had previously been a mysterious process, revealed only to a select few.

Games that would previously have been developed behind closed doors and NDAs, not seeing the light of day until a short open beta right before launch, if even then, began inviting players to join in, sometimes before there was even a game to play. There had always been alpha and beta tests, where a select cadre of players had the opportunity to give feedback and maybe influence the direction of a game in development, but with Early Access everyone was encouraged to put in their two cents - providing they were happy to stump up fifty dollars or so for the privilige. It's an amusing irony that the genre now follows a model whereby finished games are given away free but players have to pay to play the ones that don't work properly yet.

The supposed principle behind Early Access, if not always its reality, was a kind of social contract: we make the game, you play it but we all have interests in common so let's work together. These days, most MMORPGs try at least to pay lip service to the concept, regardless of whether they're in early access or not, a detail many also fudge for as long as they can get away with it.

In recent times, with the door open to collaboration, a third faction has appeared, eager to shoulder its way to power. Driven by a sense of ownership borne out of years, decades, of play, "veterans", long one of the loudest and most influential voices in any game debate, began to flex some newly-acquired muscles.

In English Law there's a concept known as "Squatter's Rights". As the official advice given by the U.K. government has it "A long-term squatter can become the registered owner of property or land they’ve occupied without the owner’s permission." Veteran players may not have the backing of law but many feel the same moral vindication, especially when dealing with new developers, who think they know best. We've been here longer than you have, the vets point out. It might be your job but it's our home.

We see this most obviously in the increasingly recalcitrant populations of aging MMORPGs, where all change is treated with deep suspicion and the old ways are always the best. It's a very happy synchronicity, then, that some of those are the very same players who react most positively to the introduction of Classic, retro or progression servers.

A kind of devil's bargain has been agreed with developers, who understand with but don't necessarily share the veterans' nostalgia and fear of change. The deal the developers offer is simple: we'll set you up in a nice, familiar place and do what we can to make the present go away. You stay there quietly and don't bother us while we see if we can't do something for all the people you lot drove away in the first place.

In an odd way, that puts the players - or some of them - in firmer control than they've ever been while at the same time freeing developers to follow their own path. Blizzard as a company plainly had no interest in reliving past glories until relentless player and commercial pressure dragged them to it. Now they're stuck with Classic but they also have much more freedom to make radical design choices in the Retail game.

The same applies to Darkpaw. Topauz is right to say that solo play has been prioritized over grouping in the past few years, at least by comparison to how it used to be, but according to a number of recent statements by various developers, steering the game in that direction has resulted in a sustained uptick of interest.

By maintaining multiple rulesets, some of which favor experimentation, others which act more as fan service for veteran players, companies hope to please, if not everyone, at least more customers than the one-size-fits-all approach was able to reach. Of course, the demographic that falls through the cracks now is the one which favors the same old mechanics but applied to brand-new content. It's those leftover veterans, the ones who haven't taken up the offer of a ticket to the past, whose complaints which now fill the forums.

I don't think there's much chance of an equitable solution for this, or not one that will suit everyone. All developers spend most of their careers tacking from windward to lee, hoping that, when they look back, they'll have steered a straightish course. A snapshot taken at any given moment, though, shows the game yawing wildly, half the players nauseous, some of them being thrown into the ocean.

As a long-term player, all I can really hope for is to enjoy the trip whenever the ship is sailing in the direction I want to go and hope that, when it swings back the other way, it won't be for too long. Even if "the players" en masse have one hand on the tiller, any individual player must always feel as powerless as ever.

In a massively multiplayer game that's never going to change.


  1. One problem is that the voices of the players are rarely unified in any distinguishable way. A former senior EVE Online dev pointed out that no matter what you plan to do, you can find people raging against it and people supporting it and it is very easy to discount one side or the other depending on how you feel about an idea yourself. Blizz discounted the WoW Classic idea for years... you can find people asking for that as far back as 2007 when The Burning Crusade "ruined" the game for some fans... in part because you can always find somebody in the forum thread saying nobody wants it. People were literally begging for many of the changes that went into the game over the years, so J. Allen Brack might have seemed arrogant with his "You think you do but you don't" statement, but he also had years of evidence indicating that people were unhappy with things back then. And some people were. Some people hate the idea of WoW Classic even now.

    In the end it is always going to be "We made this game so we own it" because, while the user base is important, they for the most part have no concept of what it really takes to make these games happen and keep them going. Having been on the dev side of things for 30 years there is always an assumption by the end user that if they have a request that is easy to articulate then it must be easy to implement or that once you add a feature you're done with it forever and are free to move on to other things they want. Add in that those suggesting/demanding features represent a tiny portion of the player base, the vast majority of whom never interact with the devs in any way, and that they are often at each other's throats over competing ideas as to what will save/kill a given game, and you would be as well off to let college freshmen dictate the curriculum of their schools.

    When an end user starts in on how arrogant the company is, how they think they know better, I am generally of the mind that the company and the devs probably do know better most days of the week. They are hearing a lot more voices and are aware of the realities behind the scene and the fact that they cannot please everybody. There are cases where a company seems to have a blind spot about something, but there is usually a reason for it, often related to how customers responded to something else.

    So I would suggest that your second item is incorrect as I almost always see it from individuals who feel that they individually own the game and the company should listen to them to the exclusion of all dissenting opinion from other users. The "we" rarely enters into it save by chance.

    1. Yep, fully agreed. Claims of arrogance on the part of the company/devs is ironic because it's almost always the reverse.

      It seems to be a rather worrying trend these days that many fans assume some kind of ownership over the thing they enjoy. Perhaps the far greater ease of communication between them and the creators has given them this illusion of power?

    2. I've always been of the firm opinion that the people who make and maintain the game "own" it. In the first few years I played MMORPGs it used to annoy me a lot more than it does now, when players would claim they knew better than the developers how the game should be handled. I'm not sure whether I've just become so inured to the endless complaining that I shrug it off more easily or whether I've seen enough instances where a developer demonstably didn't know what was good for the game. Probably some of both.

      It's always amusing (and infuriating) when individuals take it upon themselves to speak for "the players". It gets a bit more nuanced when companies appoint or elect player representatives, though. EverQuest used to have "Class Leads" or some such thing, players who were picked by SOE to represent the views of the class they played. ArenaNet did it for a while, too. CCP probably goes the furthest with the CSM. EQII is heading in that direction. I'm not sure that helps much, either. I can't say I feel it's likely whoever's on that council is going to be speaking my mind.

      And as we learned from the recent EQII podcasts, it's not always even as if the developers are making the decisions. Very plainly somoe of the major features added to EQII at one time were imposed against the will of the very developers who were tasked with implementing them. I guess in the end it's always going to be the person signing the checks that owns the game.

  2. I am generally not a fan of the whole "players play the game so they know better" idea. If it was possible to make a good game just by listening to the players almost any company with decent budget could make a good game. However, good game designers are clearly required to make one.

    You might be interested in Old School RuneScape. They have a voting system for new content, only things approved by at least 75% of players are added.

    1. Thanks for the Runescape link. That's a very interesting initiative. 75% is a high bar but it ought to weed out most of the more controversial changes. It does depend on take-up for the poll, though. The RS one appears to require people to come to it, voluntarily and out of game to vote.

      I always like log-in polls in games, where it pops up as you enter the game so everyone at least sees it. If people still choose not to read it and give their opinion after that then I guess they probably don't have much cause to complain if they don't like the changes.

  3. Blizzard had but to recode a few things engine-wise to make Classic work. The effort invested was not trivial however, but the profit factor of Classic is undeniable, giving credence to that group of players who requested, play and support it with their hard earned dollars. You simply cannot hand-wave away the importance of what has occurred with WoW Classic as it pertains to customer feedback and loyalty.

    One thing you overlooked though, is how do you rate a game that is offered as a "service"? With single player games, a person can rate their experience based on cost versus enjoyment, but how does that work with F2P games that are offered as a service? Even if I'm paying nothing, my opinion of the game is no less important than that of the whale who is supporting the developers with their wallets. Either I'm fodder for them, as the majority of the F2P models operate, or I am nothing more than a number represented by some ghostly algorithm as someone who "might" be converted into a paying supporter. Make no mistake, developers have become very adept at playing both groups against each other, and design philosophies have become almost predictable depending on the revenue model that is used.

    The last single-player game that I bought and paid for was a game called RiME. I was left speechless upon experiencing the ending of that game. I actually sought out the developer and sent them an e-mail detailing how much I enjoyed that game - something that I never do. I didn't run to the forums and start gushing about how much I liked the game. I just took a different route to express my satisfaction and enjoyment with how the game was designed.

    Gamer's should never be dissuaded from providing feedback on core game principles. Regardless of revenue model. Period.

    The impetus has ALWAYS been on the developer in how they parse, quantify and react to said feedback. Solicited, or not.

    1. As I said on Discord when I linked this post, it's a topic that can't be done justice in a blog post. That was obvious when I was writing it. I actually intended to write a fairly light, humorous piece about the conflict between developers who want to inovate and players who want more of the same but as usual I couldn't keep to the brief.

      There's a huge difference between feedback and demands, though. All good producers of any product or service welcome feedback but being told what to do is another matter. In the end I prefer to be a customer rather than a collaborator. I don't mind giving my opinion (heh - pretty obvious, that, given the blog...) but what I really want is for someone else to come up with the ideas, polish them 'til they shine, then sell them to me for a fair price.

  4. I got called out for MUDs, so I'd like to weigh in on this historical aspect. It's actually very timely because I was just thinking along similar lines regarding player endgames and "aspirational" content the other day, where the devs now somehow feel obliged to keep dangling one more carrot just out of reach of the donkey. I thought: You know, in the old MUD days, one of the possible player 'endgames' was to reach a level where they would then transition to "immortal", ie. one of the devs or content creators.

    Granted, there were many different types of MUDs back then. I'm sure the commercial MUDs run under the absolute control model. There were free MUD creators who were also tyrants and dictators and control freaks, so those would be clearly under the "you're in our world now" rule.

    But for many of the volunteer MUDs that I played, and for smaller older sandbox MMOs like ATITD and Boundless, I'd posit that they run along the lines of "We're all in this together so we'd better work something out."

    Undeniably, the devs/immortals have more access privileges and access to the code and to modify the world, so the final say is always in their hands.

    But for most of the above games, the longer term veteran players tend to transition to a position of significant respect. It could be a spokesperson, councilperson, organizer sort of role, either officially like Eve Online's player council, or just unofficially, because they lead or head significant player organizations.

    Or they could individually take on moderator roles or as mentioned, transition fully over to the 'dev' side by becoming an immortal and being given some access to content creation/world modification or code to add things.

    Which comes with its own kettle of fish. I eventually tired of the old MUD because things were added so haphazardly, with no clear sense of vision beyond "avoid power creep so never add items that raise stats above things that already exist in-game", and so slowly because everything was volunteer run and unpaid labor.

    1. Thanks for adding those intriguing ingredients to the mix. There's a tiny trickle of the same kind of behavior even in the big, commercial MMORPGs with a fairly well-established route from player to customer service or QA to designer. It used also to include blogging somewhere in that progression - remember Lum the Mad and Tweety?

      Of course, the scale of the operation in a commercial game means only the tineiest fraction of players can ever benefit from such a process. It does remind me, though, of a much more widely available route to influence which is the Guild system. Something that happens in several MMORPGs I play is that testing at an early, closed stage is carried out by hand-picked guilds. It happens routinely in both EQ games before every expansion and it infamously happened in GW2 prior to Heart of Thorns, most especially regarding the World vs World revamp there.

      There's a whole post (or possibly a dissertation or a PhD thesis) to be written on the role of elite guilds in game development but since I've never been in one someone else is going to have to write it.


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