While Blizzard normally has the golden touch with everything they do; I have always felt they have lacked in one aspect of game development. That aspect is accurately predicting the community’s reaction to game changes and how it affects their games as a whole, specifically World of Warcraft. Now I’m not going to say Blizzard has no understanding of what drives their gamers, but it often feels like their decisions are made on a reactionary basis rather than a proactive one.
Before I go any further I want to tip my hat to Blizzard on two game features that they accurately predicted the outcome of, Dungeon Finder and Achievements. The Dungeon Finder was designed with the intent to get people in dungeons and groups faster, thus resulting in a more social experience. It succeeded. Granted Dungeon Finder has its draw backs but overall the predicted outcome matched the actual community reaction. The second kudos for Blizzard would be Achievements. Not since the gear grind has there been a better system to keep people playing when they have nothing else to actively do. These are the two obvious game changes Blizzard has made where they accurately predicted how their community would react to them.
Now while Blizzard may have accurately guessed how their community would react to both of these features, even the creation of these features was in a way reactionary themselves. For years people have had idle time on their hands in a MMO and for years people have tried to find ways to fill those gaps. In EverQuest we use to take a 5 man group and attempt to clear old raid content just for the challenge. Even in WoW we would do classic raid dungeons well into The Burning Crusade expansion just to see something different. Other games and gaming communities have had achievement systems for years now; one just has to look at Xbox Live or Steam to see how popular they are. In a way this was a reactionary decision by Blizzard to add these features.
Blizzard isn’t the only developer who suffers from a lack of understanding of what their consumers really want. To be fair though a lot of people who play video games don’t know what they want until it is presented to them. Mythic created Warhammer Online and assumed they had created the next great thing. The problem… well one of the problems… that WAR had was that the development team didn’t predict how the mass market would react to game features. The result was unbalanced armies and instant scenario grinding, which was a major death blow to the entire game. I have a major fear that Star Wars the Old Republic will fall victim to this with their 4th Pillar.
It isn’t hard to understand how gamers are going to react to features and changes as long as you are willing to set your own preferences aside. Your community is one massive entity. They are extremely susceptible to peer pressure and will always fall victim to the land slide effect. As a small portion of your community discovers one thing is better, easier, faster, or more efficient than the rest will soon discover that and they will all flock to it. Ignore why your community tells you they play your game and look at how they really react to it. They can claim they want an open sandbox world, but while playing if they just follow your leveling progression from one quest hub to another you can assume that they don’t want just any sandbox world. They want one that is easy to access and easy to follow.
In college I took a few Sociology and Psychology classes, actually my first major was Cultural Anthropology, and it is very easy to manipulate a group of people to achieve your desired outcome. Talking to the group, or community in a video games case, doesn’t typically result in accurate information because people lie. Watching their reactions is the only accurate source of information. The MMO community has been around for over 10 years now and the video game community for nearly 30 years. There is enough existing data and market trends to predict how communities will react without asking them, as long as you know the signs to look for.
In my very first Sociology class when I was in High School we did an experiment. We gathered up about 100 seniors and had them all go out and buy the same cheap pair of pants. The hypothesis was that the lower class men would see all the seniors wearing them and do the same. Guess what, it worked. After 30 days we had found out that approximately 40% of the lower class men had gone out and purchased the pants. We didn’t ask them if they would, we knew based on cultural precedence that they would copy the people they thought were “cool”.
The point is that developers aren’t predicting what the community really wants. They are making a game they think the community wants based on their feedback and not market trends. The developers are valuing their own preferences over what is already successful. Something Agent Kay said in Men in Black has always stuck with me; “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.” You have to treat your community as one entity who will almost always take the path of least resistance.