Sunday, June 5, 2016

Keep On Voting 'Til You Get It Right: GW2

Something very odd is happening to GW2. With the departure of Colin Johanson the entire direction of the company appears to have taken a sharp left turn. 

For the duration of Johanson's tenure there was a pronounced focus on never saying anything much about anything in case someone tried to hold the company to an imagined promise or commitment. Nothing was ever discussed in advance in anything other than the vaguest terms and even when changes were up and running in the live game discussion on their impact and implications tended towards the eliptical and coded.

At the same time that the people doing the actual work were consistently saying as little as possible, someone had clearly been given the task of opening communication channels with the players to make it seem like ANet were listening even if they weren't talking. 

The forums wilted under the weight of endless, interminable discussion threads, round tables and talking shops, grinding on for months without ever reaching any kind of resolution. There was even some kind of arcane process for appointing players as quasi-official spokespersons or advocates for various aspects of the game, which always seemed to turn into spiky arguments over the candidates' fitness for the role.

It was a mess. No-one seemed happy, not ANet nor the players. Everyone either talked past each other or didn't talk at all. Time and again changes were made that no-one appeared to have asked for, which few wanted when they arrived. Players generally seemed to feel that no-one was listening to anything they said, which of course led to everyone shouting louder and louder.

Think of the poor Skritt!
And then everything changed. In just a couple of weeks following the regime change both the tone and content of communication altered unmistakably. Mike O'Brien made his promise to deliver and be judged on his actions not his words, which, on the face of it, sounded little different to Colin Johanson's long-stated intent never to talk in detail about things that weren't ready to go Live, but on the forums developers began to talk openly not only about what they were doing but about the reasons behind the decisions they were making.

The difference that has made to the tone and quality of the discussions on the forums has been immense. Astonishingly, when someone comes out and says, quite plainly, that the reason we don't have "Seasons" in WvW any more is that "at the end of every tournament we saw a permanent dip in the number of players playing WvW." it makes people feel a lot less unhappy with the decision than total silence ever did.

The new openness and clarity are very welcome indeed. Less welcome, however, is the apparent conversion of ANet Towers into some kind of 1970s student house in which each and every decision calls for a house meeting and a vote.

Seemingly out of nowhere we have arrived at a new status quo where polls appear almost weekly. Some are harmless fun, like the one currently running to choose a name for the entity previously known informally as Destiny's Edge 2.0. Others have much more serious and long-lasting implications for the game.

At first these polls were notified on the forums, where they required players to be paying attention even to know they were happening. That had obvious drawbacks, particularly since somewhere along the line it was apparently decided (without a poll, ironically) that any poll reaching a 75% consensus would represent a mandate for change.  

Leaving the direction of the game in the hands of the small minority of players who bother to visit the forums was problematic to say the least. To counteract that problem ANet began flagging the polls in the Launcher. Now they flag them in in-game mail as well.

Wake me up when you've decided.

All of which still leaves an untenable situation in which major changes of direction for the game are being decided not by the game's developers, nor by any kind of meaningful statistical analysis of what players actually do in the game but by the will of a self-selecting sub-set of the most politically active or issue-sensitive customers. It is arguably an improvement on the previous totalitarian approach but it's still hardly ideal.

The issue came to a head this week with the poll on whether World vs World should move to a mixture of the old and new maps or swap the two in and out, separately, on a quarterly rotation. The poll was confusing and very badly framed. There were complaints from people who had voted that they'd actually meant to vote the other way but had misunderstood the questions. 

When the final results were tallied the combined  "Yes" votes failed to meet the required 75% threshold, meaning the "No" option prevailed. The difference between those two poles was 69.7% for Yes and 30.3% for No. You can see where that might be a problem...

Tyler Bearce, the excellent "new" WvW dev came on to the thread to say that he wasn't any happier with the outcome than most of the players. With the welcome honesty and clarity he's become known for he observed

Personally, I voted ‘Yes’ to this, as did the rest of my team. So we are also disappointed with the result. But that was an accepted risk when we decided to poll the community about WvW development rather than just following our own vision.

 This, apparently, got someone at ANet to step back and think about where all this "democracy" might be taking them. A little while later Tyler was back:

The results turned out more mixed than we think will be good for the future health of the game. For that reason we are going to run a “Remove Desert Borderlands?” poll first and then run a variation of this poll again. The updated poll will be reworded for clarification due to large amounts of feedback that many of the ‘No’ votes were cast with a misunderstanding of what they meant.

That's at least a step in the right direction. Someone has decided, in the words of a player commenting in the long thread on the topic on the forum, to "Grow up, put your big kid designer pants on, and do you what you know is right for the game mode and the community."

A fine sentiment and one with which I heartily agree...except that they did exactly that with Heart of Thorns and the original addition of the Desert Borderlands, which is how we ended up here in the first place... 

I will not be voting to get rid of the Desert Borderlands entirely. If the community does vote to go Alpine only I think that will be the end of WvW as anything more than an extreme niche activity in GW2. I would be very surprised if we ever got a new map again after that.

Where we go from here is anyone's guess. We seem to have a de facto design-by-referendum system ( there's even a loose schedule on the forums for future polls) that no-one was expecting. The polls seem to be being drawn up in someone's lunch hour on the back of a napkin. There's an arbitrary and arbitrarily high threshold that, as has been pointed out, would be deemed ridiculously unrealistic in most actual democracies. To cap it all, if the people who have to implement the decisions don't like the result it seems as though the powers that be will simply re-run the poll until they get the answer they want. 

Even with all those strikes against it, the new "system" is still better than what we had before. It may be chaotic, bumbling and infuriating but there does now seem to be some faint possibility that the worst excesses of missionary zeal might be blunted before they hit the Live game. 

I'm no fan of referendums. On balance I tend to think they cause more harm than good. If it's a choice between demarchy and tyranny, however, I guess the People's Voice is the lesser of two evils. Especially so long as there's a Technical Adviser standing behind the voting booth ready to give the levers a tweak when required.


  1. Clearly MMO devs should stick to their artistic vision, unless said vision goes counter to what I want from their game. In that case, they should listen to the community! If they then listen to someone campaigning for something else that I don't want, they need to stop paying attention to those whiners and stick to their vision. Round and round it goes...

    SWTOR's dev communication is more like the way you described the old GW2 way of doing things. People always complain that "every other developer" is doing it better, but the grass is always greener on the other side. It's certainly interesting to hear how other companies do handle their communication with players though.

    1. Yes, communication between devs and players has always been very much damned if you, damned if you don't. Probably better to err on the side of too much than too little, I guess.

  2. I'm happy with something between The Vision and Gates of Discord as a starting point. It'll take time to assume meaningful nuance after such a long period of mandatory equivocation.

    1. In a way it's just more of the same. For a company that makes such big claims for an iterative process and not releasing anything until it's ready they've always done a very convincing impression of seat-of-the-pants, headless chicken hysteria. They have a long history of starting things in a rush and then finishing with them in a hurry. I would be surprised to see polls still featuring as a design tool in a year's time - or even six months.

      One thing's for sure - if they are going to keep using them they need to hire someone who actually understands how to frame, implement and interpret them. They have none of those bases covered right now.


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