Thursday, November 25, 2021

Hope You Like Our New Direction.

Here's a question we've all heard before. Should game developers tailor their games to the wishes, desires and behaviors of players, hoping to keep everyone happy by giving them what they want or should they follow their own vision and make the games they want to make, trusting in the quality of their work to draw and hold an audience?

From the end of the original closed alpha, Amazon Games have come down very firmly in the latter camp. Five years ago they announced they were going to make a "huge open-ended sandbox game set in archaic, seventeenth century colonial America" with free-for-all PvP. They said so, right here.

By the time the finished game reached us back at the tail end of this summer it had become a sandpark mmorpg with opt-in PvP, quest hubs, a story and full deniability on the embarassing colonial thing. They kept the cool armor and that was about all.

The closed alpha, about which we are still not supposed to talk, went rather well. The game looked good, played smoothly and by and large people seemed to have a good time. The territorial PvP was particularly popular. 

What a lot of people didn't seem so keen on was the almost total lack of anything to do other than roam around the woods and fight each other over forts. In the video linked above you can hear one of the developers proudly announce "the players are our content". It turned out the players had other ideas.

Over several years the game went through several iterations, each the result of a new round of exhaustive testing and feedback. In direct contrast to many similar projects over recent years, all of New World's test phases were genuine attempts to find out what worked and what didn't, both technically and conceptually.

It's long been the complaint of players testing in-development games that developers have set ideas on how things should go, that feedback is ignored, that the whole thing is really a marketing excercise not a real development process. New World, demonstrably, was not put together that way.


Feedback, of course, is only one source of data available to the developers of a new mmorpg. For a very long time now developers have also had access to extensive metrics that let them know what the players are doing to an extraordinary degree of detail. As evidenced by the occasional infographic that comes out of the marketing department, they can tell you exactly how many trees were chopped, how many boars skinned, how many hours spent crafting gloves.

What they may not be able to say with anything like the same certainty is why. It's long been a topic of debate in these circles whether developers understand that just because players spend a huge proportion of their time doing a thing doesn't mean it's a thing they like to do. 

A slavish dedication to metrics has the potential to lead development into a death spiral as the game seeks to give players more and more of what it is they're already doing, not understanding the reason they're doing it is to try to get to the point where they can stop. That's how endgames get so grindy no-one wants to play any more.

Conversely, if developers just pay attention to what players say they'd like to be doing with their time, there's the huge risk that they'll find themselves catering to desires that are both unrealistic and unreal. There's a long history of players insisting they want things to be a certain way and then complaining bitterly when they get exactly what they asked for. 

At this point it might sound as though I'm suggesting developers should ignore what their players are telling them and stick to their vision regardless of the vitriol. I'm not. That's how you get WildStar or, it seems, the current version of EVE

It comes down, I suppose, to intelligent analysis. Metrics, feedback and all the other sources of information are just data points. Someone has to collate and correlate and then come to a conclusion.


Whether that's happening at Amazon Games only those inside the company can say. When specific changes get made, developers do sometimes show their working but when it's more of a general course correction explanations tend to be thin on the ground.

There were some quite detailed explanations on show to back up the deeply unpopular changes to the way farming Elite chests in endgame areas was nerfed into oblivion but the reasoning behind the latest broad assertion on the direction the game will be taking comes with some vague handwaving and that's about all.

“Our goal is to keep responding to what players ask for, and feedback from players will continue to help shape New World’s direction.”
says Scott Lane, a "game director" at AGS in a recent interview with PCGamesN

And what they're asking for, it seems, is more solo content. 

We know we have some work to do to improve the experience in the early-mid game (especially for solo players) and have already begun working on content to improve that experience.

Said improvements focus on more "story-led quests" and alternate, less social ways to complete the ones already there.

We are also continuing to add more quests for the early and mid-game players. New quest types are being added, and they will help unfold more of the mysteries of Aeternum. We understand that some players would like to focus more on solo gameplay, and we are doing more to make that viable through alternate quest lines, and more solo-supported gameplay.”

Whether you see this as a welcome and much-needed broadening of the game's accessibility and appeal or a disappointing betrayal of what credibility the game had left will no doubt depend heavily on your personal preferences and playstyle. Personally, the more soloable the game becomes, the more I'll enjoy it. 

If they'd just remove the dungeon stages from the main questline that would be a start. I'm all for grouping but not when it suddenly pops up in what was previously solo content, landing as a roadbock to progress. 


Despite my preferences, I'm a little surprised at this change of emphasis. New World is already a pretty solo-friendly game, at least as I understand the concept but then I forged my conception of solo play in EverQuest around the turn of the millennium so my definition may be a little out of date. If by "solo gameplay" Amazon means equal access to equivalent content for everyone, regardless of playstyle then, yes, I suppose there is some work to be done.

The danger is, there's an extent to which all of this is starting to look more like a social experiment than a game. The disenfranchised ffa pvp players are already kicking off about dedicated PvP servers (Which aren't coming. Yet) It's fine to course-correct but how many times can you swing the wheel without everyone falling over the side? 

New World was a big hit at launch, challenging concurrency records and hitting the headlines even outside the genre press but now all the traffic seems to be going the other way. From a peak not far short of a million players online at the same time, New World now looks to have shed almost all of them, bumping along at a mere... erm... hundred thousand or so - putting it still very solidly in the top ten most-played games on Steam.

If that's a disaster I imagine it's one a lot of developers would be very happy to own. As I've said before, timescales on all of this seem extraordinarily telescoped to me. For some reason there seems to be an expectation that to be deemed successful, new mmorpgs need to both find and hold a large audience from day one. Any slippage is immediately touted as the end of the game. Get out now, while you still can!

That's not how mmorpgs work. For every Tabula Rasa, which lasted less than a year and a half, there are dozens of Flyffs, the NA version of which will celebrate its sixteenth anniversary on Christmas Day. Even Wildstar lasted nearly four and a half years.


Amazon's extreme willingness to respond to player feedback looks likely to make the ongoing development of New World a bumpier ride than most. We can expect any number of lurches and mis-steps as the developers try to tack into the prevailing wind of player feedback. If there's one thing you can rely on players to be it's incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory in their desires. Okay, three things.

The correct response, in my opinion, isn't to jump ship but to go along for the ride. When the ship seems to have docked at an unfriendly harbor, maybe stay in your cabin until it ups anchor and heads for somewhere more clement. When it arrives there, go ashore and make the most of it. It probably won't last.

For the most part, these games don't go away. Neither do they stay the same. Sometimes they feel welcoming and fun, sometimes they feel alienating and unpleasant. Take the smooth, leave the rough. There are lots of other games. Go play something else then come back when your sub-demographic is being pampered. It will be, eventually.

I'm still having fun in New World although I'm only feeling the need to spend a couple of hours there most days. For me, the announcement of a renewed focus on solo play means I'm likely to stay longer and play more but it will, naturally, depend on just what that new, solo content involves. 

It's not as though the lack of stuff to do on my own was ticking me off to begin with. Other things annoy me a lot more, like the lack of playable races and the non-existent character customization. There's plenty Amazon could add or change that would excite me more than some new solo quests but for now I'll take what I can get.


  1. I realize this is obvious to you and most of your readers, but the problem with listening to players is that happy players tend not to say much. Angry players shout from the rooftops. So the company may be "fixing" things that a lot of players are happily enjoying, at which point the happy players no longer are. Then those quiet happy players become angry shouting players.

    1. Yes, I've made that point in other posts on the same topic, although to be honest I didn't skip over it this time intentionally, I completely forgot about it, so thanks for bringing it up! I'm happy with the proposed shift of emphasis in New World to more solo-friendly content but only because it happens to suit me. I have no illusions that it's a great idea per se. That's how all such changes go - the people they favor praise them and everyone else gets the pitchforks out.

  2. Ah, now you've hit upon my actual job description, UX (User Experience, either Design or Research depending on who is doing the UX and when).

    It's true: you can't trust what humans say to you - they lie to themselves, so they lie to you too. You can't trust what they do - you have no way of knowing motivations from actions, you only impute them. So the task is the impossible task (aka, the art and craft) of imputing motivations based on actions and words, and testing those hypotheses with the best evidence you can reasonably obtain.

    The thing that strikes me about AGS is there seems to be two different studios (and, probably, there is): there's the development studio AGS, who were brave and humble, willing to overthrow their own vision based on a correct interpretation of what players were doing during the early testing. Then there's the live service AGS, who seem determined to hang onto the development studio's vision, and who use their data only to confirm that the vision works, regardless of what the players say.

    The changes to the elite chest zerg are the most obvious recent changes: I've never done an elite chest zerg, but I know how popular they were - a classic example of emergent gameplay. And deleting the emergent gameplay because 'its not in line with the vision' is a classic example of designer failure, of holding to the vision instead of reading the player data clearly. Note, as I said, that UX is an art, and reading the player data clearly is never easy - but whenever you read it to confirm your own preconceptions, you are always reading it incorrectly.

    For me, the collapsing player numbers - caused by multiple factors - are the biggest indication that the vision of the development studio needs to account for what actual players want to do in the game the development studio created. And I get the *sense* that the live team's response is 'if you just let us implement the vision fully, then you'll enjoy it', instead of, well, the dialogue between the mechanics and the users that creates the dynamics of the game in practice. (Mind you, it's just my sense, and I could *also* be totally wrong and imputing motives that are not really present, only to the live team not the players. That's the joy and uncertainty of UX).

    1. Fantastic comment. Great to get some insight from someone on the inside of the process (if not the game itself). There is the whole "handover to the live team" element to consider. It seems to happen in every mmorpg. It used to be understandable, back when no-one really had any idea how long these games would last, but now we're in the "games as a service" era it seems odd that there's such a bumpy transition from building the game to running it.

      I imagine a good deal of the reason is simply that it's a lot easier to change major systems and design tenets in alpha/beta than it is once the game goes live. Live-game players tend to have a strong objection to being used as guinea pigs whereas testers expect it or at least know they have to put up with it. The kickback against any big change of direction in a live game can be huge so the temptation to keep going down the same road even when it doesn't seem to leading to the right place must be strong.

      The fall in population is interesting. I checked yesterday and at 10am on a weekday there were almost a hundred thousand people playing according to Steam. We know they had to add a huge number of extra servers at launch, so the initial sale must have been well over expectation and we also know they always planned for server merges because they tested them in beta. If they end up with 20% of the people who bought the box still playing regularly they'd have a couole of hundred thousand players, which is a very solid number. They can grow back from there if they build effectively on the foundation they have.

      The elite chest farm thing is a very difficult one to parse, though, I think. I don't have a character high levelenough to have participated in it but just about everything i read about it screamed "exploit" to me. It sounded as though players were abusing the game engine's inability to handle very large numbers of players in content very clearly not meant for those numbers. I was surprised it was allowed to go on even as long as it did.

      The issue of zerging has also been highly controversial in many mmos I've played. Even in GW2, which is designed from the ground up to accomodate and encourage zerging, there's a vocal body of players who violently object to it and a lot more who grumble about it. Given the chance, a lot of players will zerg everything they can in any game and I think most devs would probably not want to encourage it. It's highly disruptive to other players trying to access the same content and it trivializes whatever challenge there was supposed to be. Personally, I love zerging, but I can see why devs don't.

  3. I think when you read a lot of the player comments on the forums or Reddit saying "AGS doesn't listen to feedback" what they're actually saying is "AGS doesn't listen to MY feedback". They tend to be from people who have a specific vision of the game they want (often, but not always, full loot dropping forced PvP for everyone) and can't comprehend that everyone doesn't share their vision, or only have contempt for those who don't. There was one delightful thread last night from a chap who stated repeatedly that "only boomers and low IQ LMB clickers" would disagree with him...

    1. Yes, the ffa pvp crew have been all over new World from the start. They seem to think all games would be improved by removing almost all the rules of civilized behavior. I imagine most devs automatically discount anything they hear from that quarter.

      I think a huge part of the problem with feedback is that some players think that describing a problem is the same as solving it. Some of the changes people want would take months to implement, even if they were agreed to be the right ones. If devs don't say anything, people start saying no-one's listening and if any developer is rash enough to speak up in favor of a suggested change it has to happen immediately or else it was all lies! Who'd be a game developer, eh?

    2. @Tremayne: that was my feeling as well. Listening to player feedback often equals 'observing what they do in game', and not very often 'what they say on the forums'. It's quite reasonable to think that the PTR *did* listen to player feedback: what did a large group of unpaid testers do with these changes? Did they abandon the weapons that were nerfed (as players loudly claimed) or continue using them, just differently? Did they craft in different ways in response to the crafting changes, or did they continue to spam craft low tier things?

      There are a whole raft of behaviour changes that are better observed via metrics than listened to via forums comments, and it's more than plausible that *this* feedback (in this case, players changing their behaviours in the ways the designers intended) was apprehended and understood.

      In an ideal world, the designers would be posting *how* the feedback they collected (almost certainly metrics) were used to guide the final patch changes - but that's hard, because once the player population starts raging, even the most open and transparent communication can be regarded as two-faced and conspiratorial.

  4. @Bhagpuss - the other problem is that players are not only describing a problem, sometimes they're expressing a dislike of a feature rather than a problem. Design (not just game design) is a set of DECISIONS, each of which has its pros and cons, aimed towards a stated overall effect. Sometimes you have to accept the cons of a decision in order to achieve the effect. For example, in New World the outcomes of PVP affect PVE - that's a problem for certain players who style themselves as pure PVP or pure PVE players. However, it's a deliberate design decision because AGS want a world where everything is interconnected and ideally players will do some of both. The limited storage isn't crappy design that screws over players, it's because 'Inventory Full' is a fact of life in Aeternum and part of the gameplay is managing it. The players complaining that their storage is full are really just bad at the game and should be treated with the same disdain as anyone who comes to the forums crying that they got pwned in PVP :)


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