Monday, July 07, 2008

Keeping Secrets From Players

One game that has been a huge influence on my thinking about games and game design is Magic: The Gathering, made by Wizards of the Coast, and specifically the writings of Mark Rosewater. His archive is very long, but it's worth reading. You probably need to know how to play Magic to get most of it, but a lot of the basic concepts transfer to many different games.

I love the way Magic does the Design/Development columns every week, especially the way they are actually willing to discuss changes and decisions in detail. I would love for Blizzard to do something similar, to publish a weekly column from a designer that actually has some detail in it.

Of course, maybe Blizzard is scared of the reactions from the forums, but watching the M:tG forums, most people seem to take things in stride. In fact, I would say that the columns have actually made the Internet audience more attuned and accepting of Wizard's process and decision trade-offs. Right now, any change to WoW comes down the pike, the WoW forums immediately make claims about how it's because designers play class X. And quite frankly, some of the occasional claims by CMs make no sense. Mages do insane damage, are the kings of AoE? That was met with disbelief by most theorycrafters, because--as has been proven--it was not true at all.

In the absence of real information, game players will believe the worst. If you can look at the M:tG columns, the designers will post their reasonings after bannings, or post about mistakes or things that didn't work out. And most of the commentary on the forums is sensible. If anything, disclosure has made the M:tG forums a better place.

In many ways, the computer game industry seems very unwilling to share details about process. Sure, they'll publish technical algorithms now and again, but you'll rarely see people discuss how they design, develop, or test. And of course, they end up reinventing the wheel a lot, making the same mistakes over and over.

If you look at the comments on this post on Patcher Surveys on We Can Fix That With Data, Sarah Jensen Schubert (who is an actual MMO designer) asks if someone from Pirates of the Burning Sea can tell her what percentage of people filled out that survey. Joe Ludwig responds, "Not on The Internet, no. :) Ask me at AGDC."

Honestly, why not say the percentage in public? What harm would that do? But the first instinct of game developers seems to be to keep information secret from the players, and only pass it on through back channels. In my opinion, this behaviour, this tendency towards secrecy, hurts the game industry far more than it helps.


  1. Awesome article.

    This is extremely true. I play M:tG and used to play WoW. I would much rather have an explanation than a cover-up. I always felt like I was getting a cover-up from Bliz and with WotC, I may not agree with their decisions, but at least I understand where they're coming from.

  2. I'll agree that secrecy hurts the industry, but I think you also have to look at the industry itself and they type of people that play video games. While there might be crossover, especially with MMORGs and RPGs, you're generally looking at a different type of person playing CCGs as opposed to online PC games.

    I don't think that the video gaming industry is secretive at all. There are plenty of websites and blogs wholly devoted to design and development, and many prominent people from many well-known companies write articles on various subjects for them.

    MMO's are a totally different story however. It is very common practice in the industry to partially or totally ignore input from your own user base. MMO's have huge user bases, the vast majority of which have never considered things like balance or playability and probably don't even know what the terms mean in a development context. You also have to deal with the fact that the majority of people posting on official video game forums are at an extreme end of a spectrum of players and do not normally even represent the general user base (excluding people with support requests and such obviously). Their wants and desires can be totally contradictory to what the user base in general may want and can often be unbalancing or damaging to the virtual world in question as a whole.

    So, the discussion of secrecy in the MMO industry might be valid to a certain extent but there can be equally valid reasons behind it.

    I def don't think it would be fair to compare it to the tabletop industry or its user base though.

  3. There is also the argument that these are capitalistic companies, and often the higher-ups will specifically state that no information should be given regarding a certain topic.
    This stems from fear of "idea-stealing" and losing monopoly over certain ideas.

  4. Hope you don't mind but I put up a post about this topic as well, its something quite close to my heart since I am both a theorycrafter and a magic player.

    I think it needs to be more open, knowing the mechanics of the world and the design "plan" really does help to give those players that care something to look at and help firefight the ignorance and often class hatred that can exist. Knowing this doesn't reveal anything more to us or really offer up any secret IP, if you want to know a good guess at wow mechanics you look at wowwiki, its likely not 100% right, but its a good approximation.

    Being open with your players seems like a good way to retain interest, I know a lot of Magic players read Mark Rosewater's articles, even if they aren't fussy which way the game goes.

  5. hadrian, if that was the case, they wouldn't share it with anyone outside the company. As the Jensen Schubert-Ludwig exchange demonstrates, game devs are often perfectly willing to talk to other devs, but not to players.

  6. I just have three words.

    Sanya, Mythic, DAoC

    I played Dark Ages of Camelot for a few years prior to finally switching over to WoW 18 months ago. Sanya was THE interface between developers and the end user community. During maintenance, she gave regular updates, chased the devs and let us know how long till servers would be up.
    I'd give quite a lot for her to do that to the FotM MMORPG that I'm playing.
    She's since moved on, and I haven't kept track of the DAoC site. But I know Sanya can be found here:

  7. I have two thoughts on this subject.

    The first is that feedback is always amazing. I was in the PotBS Beta and while the Devs were amazing in responding to people on the forums and in-game, the more private channels to contact them - such as with bug reports - were painful to navigate. So it can't just be that Devs are open to discussion and input from their playerbase but there needs to be a way that players can contact someone in an organized, if not prompt, fashion.

    My second thought is something I read somewhere at some point. *wracks brain* It was either a WoW blogger, a Blue Post, or it might have been Crom or Snikt or even Mringasa from a MUD I used to play on (>_>;;) but the main point of whatever I read was: "The players think on the short term. The Devs think on the long term."

    The long argument basically boiled down to the fact that there are some design decisions that are incredibly unpopular and going with popular opinion (or popular outrage against the change) would be detrimental to the game in the long run. Taking a risk, then, while losing players at the switchover from the sheer amount of change 'against the wishes of the players' is something that I think Blizz is wanting to avoid. If they don't tell anyone, then everyone can be equally outraged but then don't have to worry that they could have changed it.

    I'm thinking of an example from the MUD I used to play on - which is why I think this article/essay was from there. The Devs rolled out a major, major change to the fundamental way that classes, hero leveling, and skill restrictions and such worked. People were infuriated, but the IMM pointed out that, "Hey, look. It's a change. It's got good and bad parts. This is where we're headed. This is why we made the change and why we thought the trade-offs were worth it. We're looking at the health of the game, not trying to nerf your chara."

    That's why I think there's alot of outrage when Blizz does something to nerf or buff a class. There's no explanation, only our hypothesis.

    Though - and this might be a poor example - it reminds me of SWG. Was public opinion *for* the major changes that basically killed the game? Because, if so, then it's a prime example of why playerbases are dumb and balancing information with control is very, very important. If not, it illustrates the same thing. Balance between over control by a small group of possible short-sighted humans beings and players' opinion could have helped.