Two Kinds of Developer Relations

There seem to be two main ways that MMO developers interact with players. These two ways have serious pros and cons, but usually the choice isn’t made consciously. Instead, the choice comes from the culture and situation the team finds itself in. But if you make an explicit decision, you can stick to it and you won’t screw up nearly as often (or as dramatically).

Option 1: Everything is perfectly fine, citizen. Move along now.

I’ve been playing Aion for a while now, and it’s a fascinating game. I’ve never been on the crap end of a localized game before, and I have to say it sucks. Instead of being responsive to my needs, I’m treated like a second-class citizen. This must be how the Korean AC2 players felt, or how the foreign-language EQ2 players feel now. Poor bastards.

Through no fault of their own, the English language team for Aion doesn’t have as much control over the game as they’d like. They get new game updates from the home office, as determined by their schedule, not what the English team wants. And then they have to get all new text translated, and then re-QA it… it takes time. They aren’t nearly as reactive as they would no doubt like to be.

So what are their comunication options? They can constantly say, “We told the Koreans, but they haven’t gotten around to caring yet,” or they can lie and say “We are fixing that right this second.” Aion uses the third option: don’t respond at all, or insinuate that there’s not even a problem. They subtly suggest that bugs aren’t really bugs. This is brilliant. When that doesn’t work, they use the “we are totally fixing that now” routine.

Some examples?

  • The game sticks to its guns about everything. It never says “I don’t know.” Try using the /where command with random gibberish.

    Type this: “/Where is my ass”
    You’ll get back this: “It is at a hard to find location.”

    That’s the error message for any invalid location. Brilliant, isn’t it? They never admit they are wrong. Sometimes important items in the game can’t be found with the hyperlink-based lookup feature. That’s where you see this error message more often. The items aren’t “hard to find” at all… there are just bugs in looking up some items. But you can’t prove there’s a bug, can you? Maybe the developer meant for that guy to be hard-to-find, to encourage me to explore the world. There’s always a tiny seed of doubt: it’s possible that there’s a rogue developer who refuses to make his quest items locatable with the game’s locator feature. And then they get fixed  in later patches when we complain about this “feature”. That could be what’s happening. It isn’t. Yet… you can’t really be 100% sure it’s a bug.

  • Many quests are buggy. (Gasp! Real shocker there. All games have buggy quests.) The Asmodians have a main-line story quest to collect some baubles from mole people and cat people. But the game tells you to kill the wrong ones! This would be treated as a simple bug in some games, and players in game would say “Oh that’s bugged.” Here, players will tell you things like, “Oh it’s just tuned for Korean sensibilities. It’s a rare drop!” That’s even what Google told me while I tried to complete this quest. Right. This one quest out of hundreds has a 1% drop-rate but no other quests do. That would be retardedly bad design. But what else could I do? So I killed 200 of the buggers and never found anything. Actually, it turns out it drops almost every time from the mole people 100 yards away, the “farmer” moles who had absolutely nothing to do with the quest plot. It’s just a bug. But nobody wanted to believe that. They gave the game the benefit of the doubt.
  • There appear to be some population imbalances between the two races, which can be quite problematic in a PvP game. I don’t have first-hand experience with it because I’m still relatively low-level, but Asmodians on my server are often talking about how they’re outnumbered in battles, and frankly the Asmodians aren’t as attractive as the angelic Elyos, so I would be pretty surprised if they were played in the same numbers. That’s why it’s so interesting that there’s nearly a 1-to-1 correlation of races according to the Aion website. Almost every world says it’s 49% Asmodian and 51% Elyos. I know they balance the server loads by selectively allowing people to sign into realms, but really? That means that overall, Elyos are precisely 1% more popular than Asmodians. That seems pretty fishy. But I can’t prove anything. I too give them the benefit of the doubt. Now, if they had come right out and said “Yes there are some imbalances, and we’re working on it,” I’d be a lot more worried about this problem. But if they’re lying, they’re doing it whole-heartedly.
  • When I first logged in, I was flabbergasted by the amount of gold spam in chat. It made chat unusable unless you spent a lot of time manually blocking every spammer. The developers said, “We currently have Game Masters monitoring all our servers. They track chat channels closely and have been banning thousands of spammers every day.“ In reality, spammers stuck around for about two hours before they got banned. Even one customer-service person looking over all the 14 worlds would have done a better job finding spammers than that. (The spammers are not subtle. They literally spam as fast as the chat system will let them, which is once every two seconds.) What was REALLY happening was that the system was auto-flagging users when they got blocked by too many people. They lied to us. Didn’t they? Maybe they’re just really incompetent customer service people…

And so on. The game has its share of problems (like the most flagrant and embarrassing combat-macroing problem I’ve ever seen), and they try to fix them. In the mean time they ignore it, or else they spin spin spin. There are no developer interactions with players. Players yell into a vacuum and then one day they get a new patch, which rarely (but occasionally) addresses their concerns. Because of this reality, the team comes off as aloof and distant, but we give them trust they didn’t earn. Being generally optimistic human beings, we like to assume that the game is in good hands. If a quest acts weird, hey, it’s probably just because of some design decision we don’t understand.

Where this breaks down is in the case of things like spammers and botters. It’s much too big a problem to assume the devs know what they’re doing. Seriously: on my server there are a half-dozen botters standing a few feet outside of town, right in the road. It’s the worst botting problem I’ve ever seen by leaps and bounds. If they had a reasonable number of GMs they could get this problem under control, but they don’t. They also don’t have a code solution ready to go soon. Know how you can tell? They’re spinning. They ban a few each day, and they play it off like it’s not the most egregious case of botting in a decade.

Really, if you were the poor community manager, what would you say? The English team probably has a minimal set of GMs, or nearly so… that’d be 9 people, 3 for each of three shifts. They probably have full workloads for most of their shift, but when they do have free time I’m sure they tackle some of the botters. But unless the game adds more staff, they won’t be able to tackle it robustly. They’re being cheapskates and waiting for a tech solution so that their bottom line doesn’t get hurt. This, again, is a tried-and-true approach that most every MMO uses at one point or another. But in the meantime, the community manager has to basically fabricate a story to keep people calm.

Aion is hardly the only company to use this basic method of communication. EverQuest 1 was infamous for it, back in the day. Other teams have tried it to various degrees. The thing about this approach is that you need to really embrace it and you need to tightly control your message, like Aion does. If a few people spout off details they shouldn’t, your whole elaborate facade crumbles.

Option 2: We suck and you know it, please bear with us

The other commonly successful strategy is to be open and earnest and to trust players to see things your way. Champions Online uses this approach. Their developers engage users on the forums, talk about specifics, explain what they are trying to do to fix things, and sometimes (rarely, but occasionally) change their plans based on feedback from forum-goers. Here’s the sort of hands-on specific details I mean: here a developer explains why they don’t routinely let players become 50 feet tall (which was a bug that a low-level item caused for a while):

when we can do the growth effect without any of the bugs that the massive size caused, we’ll add stuff that uses it for sure. But until we can do it without causing all sorts of awful graphical glitches, camera issues, exploits and client breakage, we’re not going to have it. Regardless, a rare drop for fun off a lvl 9 quest mob is not where an effect that level 40s want to farm for will get hooked up, once we can safely do it, expect to see it on something more appropriate that doesn’t mess up missions being done by low level players.

Nothing earth-shattering, but the developer acknowledged that the existing item was hella broken, and that someday they hope to fix it and use the technology on purpose… if they can make it work. Some day. This is not something you would ever see Aion say.

Moreover, they have a blog that address major game issues and explains what they intend to do about it. (This one is a bit old, but a good example.)

This is completely the right approach for Champions to take. The game is not nearly as polished as Aion; they couldn’t possibly convince us that the serious bugs in the game were intentional. (Anyone who experienced the 50-foot-tall bug knew full well it was seriously buggy.) Instead, they play to the crowd, giving them insider tidbits about how stuff is going, explaining their motivations, and basically feeding the forum trolls to keep them relatively sedated.

This approach is a common one. AC2 used this approach because our game, too, was far too buggy to pull off the “we know what we’re doing” trick. We also had a developer who was eager to spill the beans about everything (that’d be… uh, me, actually…), so this communication style was a good fit for the team. The Champions designers are in a similar boat and obviously enjoy talking about their game. They seem to be relatively good at not feeding the forum trolls, either, and staying on target.

This approach works well when you have small bugs that you need forgiveness for. ‘Fessing up right away and telling players you’ll fix it next week works. Actually, it works great for retention: players really like it when you respect them enough to really tell them what’s going on. When you trust players, they will often surprise you by trusting you back. That is, as long as you actually fix the problem, and quickly. (Aion couldn’t do this style if they wanted to, because the English-language team obviously has little insight into when bug-fixes will really arrive.)

This communication style fails when you have to admit that serious issues are broken and that you can’t fix them quickly. A common theme on the Champions forums is that the game doesn’t have enough content. There’s not a damned thing the developers can say about that to make people shut up. They can’t add content quickly enough to make people happy. Contrast this to Aion, which also is missing content in several level ranges: Aion just doesn’t say anything, and they delete threads that are too complainy. When Aion users rage about the lack of content, they tend to rage in a vacuum, unable to commiserate with other players. I believe this causes players to “grind through” Aion longer than they do in Champions, because they aren’t sure that the game is in the wrong. Maybe they’re just playing it incorrectly…

Screwing It Up

Both of these communication styles have pros and cons. But the biggest danger is that developers can easily screw it up by saying inappropriate things.

I remember when DAoC revealed too much info, causing their facade of “we totally know what we’re doing” to disintegrate for a while. EQ1 had its moments, too. Unfortunately those forums are long gone and even the wayback machine isn’t helping me find the examples I vaguely remember. Sigh. So back to picking on WoW, then…

Now, WoW is an interesting example because they started out with option #1. Aside from some hand-wringing when the game launched (and was unplayable), they generally played the “we know better than you” card really well for years. This changed when the design team switched hands. The new designers, mainly the lead systems designer, Greg Street aka “Ghostcrawler”, love to talk about their stuff. So they suddenly became an option #2 game. (I may have done the same thing… their aloofness was no longer particularly productive.) Okay, there are some big tradeoffs made there, but it’s not inherently a bad decision.

Except that Ghostcrawler posts like 20 times a day. Poor guy is totally addicted to the forum game. At first it looks really helpful:

If you ignore combo points (which we aren’t planning on adding to hunters), then the biggest decision energy-users face is whether to use a single 60 energy attack or two 30 energy attacks. The answer depends on a lot of variables, including which does more damage, what is on cooldown, the synergy between the abilities, etc.

If you consider the cat druid (because it’s slightly simpler) and ignore finishing moves, then the druid rotation would look something like getting up a +bleed attack, applying a bleed dot, getting up a +damage buff, and then doing the actual damage. You could imagine something similar like that for hunters. I don’t mean hunters are going to be a +bleed class, but more that the choice of what attack to push next should have some decision behind it. It won’t just be Serpent Sting x 1, Chimera Shot x 1000. Repeat.

But if you keep reading, you see that most of what Ghostcrawler does is literally moderating the forums, and bitching about it, to boot.

Dear OP,

Bye.

Hugs,

GC

(He edited his original angry post, but if you follow the link, you’ll see some of his very angry justification text. His anger is completely justified! But his public reaction is not useful.)

If you use the dev-tracker on their forums, you will find that it’s full of Ghostcrawler saying things like “You’re banned” over and over. Why is this a problem? Somebody has to do it, right? Yes, and that person needs to be the forum moderator. Forum mods can occasionally pull stunts like telling users to die in a fire, and get away with it. That’s because forum-goers treat moderators like “one of us” instead of “one of the dev team”. But when developers are constantly moderating the boards, they lose the last bit of distance from the players. Suddenly Ghostcrawler’s opinion isn’t more valuable than Joe the player’s opinion. Ghostcrawler doesn’t get any respect anymore and has to spend more and more time defending himself. He’s playing the forum game and losing. (He should at least make a fake moderator account for this stuff! But he’s not really thinking objectively about this anyway.)

There is an easy fix for this: Ghostcrawler should be banned from the forums. Instead, set up a Developer Blog and tell him to go crazy. Let him reference things on the forums and reply to them. Several posts a day? That’s okay! But it’s separate from the forums. And it will cut the stupid forum crap out, too.

In fact, I recommend this for all development teams now. If you are going to spend time communicating with players, don’t do it in the forums, because only a fraction of your population reads the forums. (Thank god!) Instead, take a play from Aion’s book.

The best thing about Aion’s community is a very trivial thing: when you quit playing for the night, it automatically opens up a web page to their community site. You instantly see the headlines and can read the dev blogs, look at your character, whatever. This is brilliant. Most games offer this before you log in. I never want to do this before I log in… but I often want to spend a few minutes winding down after I have finished playing.

WoW (and every other game) should do the same. Ghostcrawler should have his own blog link on that community site, where he and other developers can post technical details to their hearts content… and players can easily find it. This isn’t brain science. It’s just using the right tool for the job you’re trying to do.

Advice For All Community Management Types

If you’re an Option #1 game, you need to keep your developers away from the forums and blogs. You can’t have a distant and aloof ivory tower development team that occasionally stops in to chat about game innards. That just makes everybody look stupid. Their message gets taken as having far more significance than intended (because it’s so rare that they get information), and people will be confused and upset about why devs took time to talk about this one issue and not the 500 other issues people are concerned about.

If you’re an Option #2 game, you have to expend significant amounts of developer-time communicating with your audience. If you stop, people will freak out. “They stopped caring!” is what they will hear. If you only have one developer posting on the forums, you can actually expect your forums to get nastier when this developer goes on vacation. It’s that sensitive. You need to allocate significant resources towards communication, and that means maybe 20% of four or five developers’ time. Really. (This is also why a blog is a better choice for developers to post on. You can queue up little tidbits and release them one a day, requiring less posting overall to get the same feeling of participation.)

Whatever you do, you have to stick to your guns. Explicitly decide what your community plan is, and detail it, and write it down, and make sure the people who matter agree with it. (That does not mean getting the whole company on board. It means getting the key people on board.)

Now, you can completely change your community approach. This is often useful for older games where the circumstances have changed since launch. It is quite possible to go from an Option #1 company to an Option #2 company. It is harder, but also possible, to go from being Option #2 to Option #1. (It will take about six months for that transition to stick, however, so be prepared for stress.) What is not possible is to become a hybrid company, sometimes aloof and sometimes chummy, accessible today but invisible the next. You’ll get eaten alive.

So plan it out. Decide why and how you’re interacting with the audience. I’m sure there are some other communication styles I missed here that work for different situations. The key is just to have consistency with whatever you decide.

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20 Responses to Two Kinds of Developer Relations

  1. David B says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I jumped in as the Community Rep for Champions with little industry experience, but plenty of experience being a player, so I focused my strategy on what I would’ve like to see as a player. We strive for as much transparency as we can. These days, there’s nothing wrong with admitting your faults, as long as you can back it up with actual fixes soon after. It’s definitely a struggle to maintain that level of communication, but I really appreciated seeing a bit of validation that what we’re doing is a viable strategy.

    I honestly hate Option #1 as a player. As a developer, sure, it’s millions of times easier, but as a player, I want to know everything that’s going on behind the iron curtain, even if it’s not good news. I just want to know what they’re thinking and planning. Option #1 kind of leaves you in this weird place where you’re not sure what to think about things. I’m really glad that Cryptic gave me the freedom to make this decision for myself, though, because I really think it’s helped me gain the trust from the community that I desire so badly (Well, except for the typical trolls every game has).

  2. BryanM says:

    The blog idea brought back a memory of how Flagship handled their customer relations.

    Huge holes were everywhere, the ship was sinking, and the players were starved for one thing: any hope. What were their plans, would they make the huge, core changes necessary to fix the fundamental flaws with the game?

    So eventually, I believe after one of their devs Guy Somberg made a post on his personal site about being depressed and everyone leaving the company, they decided to have “developer blogs” to try to gloss over the incident.

    These were just normal discreet posts on the forum by devs. There were maybe two or three posts in total I think. They went along the lines of:

    “Worked for a couple hours. Had a sammich for lunch.”

    So, yeah.

    Naturally little is less assuring then the phrase EVERYTHING IS FINE when dire plausible rumors abound – For a split second, I thought you were going to mention Mythic here.

  3. nugget says:

    I believe the payment model also greatly influences player reactions. (I have nothing to support this except observation, and my own biased observations of course. =) )

    For example, I believe that box-only (GW) and box and subs (WoW) models encourage players to feel a sense of entitlement to existing content. ‘I bought the game / pay my sub, I am ENTITLED to see/do everything!’ ‘I bought the game / pay my sub, I am ENTITLED to grump about any ingame changed I don’t like, and I am ENTITLED to being happy in game all the time, no matter what.’ (Yah I am indulging in hyperbole but…)

    Whereas, in a F2P (more like free2download but hey) environment, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a feeling of entitlement, especially since what players buy is much, much more ‘targetted’. (This is only from my observation of Jade Dynasty (JD) though, my opinions may change as I try more F2P games.) In JD at least, with the cash shop, players pay for *items*. They are entitled to happiness *with the workings of said purchased items*. …but because the game is free to download, there’s no / much less ‘entitlement’ when it comes to the entire game, and its content. It’s F2P! is very easily held up as a shield… and I suspect it helps avoid much of the troublesome stuff in your (very good!) post.

    Of course, it comes with its own unique set of problems but hey, doesn’t everything? XD

    I saw this somewhere, and it is indeed apt (for JD at least). Free2Play, Pay2Win. But that’s another kettle of fish altogether, from this post.

  4. Nelson says:

    Fantastic analysis, thank you for posting it. One company that does an excellent job of Option 2 is CCP with Eve Online. Some of their posts are apologies for problems, like this fantastic desync bug analysis. But the really interesting posts are descriptions of changes their making in the game for the better, like the new sovereignty system. Because so much of Eve’s content is emergent, the developers take special care to explain changes in the gameplay rules. Both to reassure players and to help everyone understand how the game changes will end up as changes in player-generated content. Their Dominion changes to sovereignty launching in December 1 are going to be a huge change in a core game mechanic and a lot of players are fearful. Will be interesting to see how it works.

    You were very polite not to mention Warhammer’s customer relations, including their executive producer’s recent non-response to the gutting of 40% of their team.

  5. Tim Howgego says:

    Is Aion reflecting a cultural difference between America and much of Asia?

    From limited observation of the 2 cultures, there seems to be much greater reverence for figures of authority in Asia. Consequently if your developers “are gods” (this is Korea, right?), they are beyond error. In contrast, US people like to challenge perceived authority, argue their case.

    This leads to a more complex hypothesis: That American (and many European) developers are more likely to be able to iterate their designs based on feedback, while Asian developers have to be “perfect” straight out of the gate. Or at least be a lot more subtle about how they gather feedback.

    Is that fair? (I’ve not played Aion.)

    On the wider topic, I’m convinced that developers would be much better communicating from within their creations. Most of them are much better at creating content than managing forums. Or even writing language at the level of many of their players. They’re presumably just not designing such that their creations gather feedback adequately. Oh, and every time I see a “developer video” I cringe. Developers invariably have no star quality, in stark contrast to the characters they create. So why not let the characters do the talking? Maybe I just see any requirement to leave the game environment as a design failing.

    Counterpoint: I suspect Blizzard now gather much more analytical feedback (computer-generated data on how players are playing) than they used to, which is going to be a tad more representative than the tiny minority of players that have the courage to enter their forums. And don’t forget that for every Ghostcrawler, there is a WoW designer who never ever posts on the forums (professions is a good example). However, they are no closer to using characters to communicate, as their recent attempt at low-level tutorials (patch 3.3) shows – less style and immersion than Microsoft’s paper-clip…

  6. IainC says:

    Sometimes option 1 is the only choice, not through hubris or incompetence but sheer pragmatism. The one thing that will infuriate players more than silence is broken promises. In other words, if you want to be open with your players all the time then you need to be sure that all your ducks are in a row all of the time. If you acknowledge a problem, assure the players it’s in the planner and then find it can’t be easily fixed, you’ve just burnt a huge chunk of banked goodwill from your community.

    Also, if you routinely acknowledge all the problems but there’s this one issue that you’re not ready to start talking about yet (perhaps because it involves a third party partner, or some news you’re not ready to release yet), then be sure that the players will start to run with wild and lurid conspiracy theories – which you can’t respond to without first responding to the original issue.

    Any operator that is not also the developer has to be, almost by default a type 1 communicator. When I used to work for DAoC and WAR in Europe, I tried to be as open as possible about things my company could affect but had to be almost entirely silent about game issues unless Mythic had already addressed them specifically because you can’t make promises on behalf of another company.

  7. Mark Wilhelm says:

    Tim, Aion’s players in Korea are nearly as critical of the game and its designers as players in the rest of the world. In fact, Korean Aion fans have the most control over the direction the game’s headed in than any other player group outside NCsoft’s own employed testers. Find a buddy that can read Hangul for you and check out Aion.co.kr’s official forums to see what Korean players are saying. Most of their complaints mirror the American and European community’s.

  8. Mike Darga says:

    I like the comment about how this absolutely must be a conscious choice, and I just want to point out that it extends to every decision in game design, ever.

    Any time you’re just “letting things happen” you are >50% likely to be completely doomed. This also explains why so many companies can manage to make a good game but never make another one. Without a plan, any success you ever get will have been a fluke and you won’t understand how to reproduce it.

    Anyhow, good post. Random tangent over =)

  9. Michael Wright says:

    If it isn’t “brain science”, is it rocket surgery? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. :)

    I would recommend that the forum moderator(s) forward key posts to the lead developer to address in a blog. That way there is a consistent voice and it’s coming from the top. Even then, he or she should respond to the issue itself and not any particular post directly. That would keep any response from appearing to be a personal attack or knee-jerk reaction. I would think that 2 or 3 moderate length posts a week wouldn’t take too much time away from development but would show that the developers are aware of and on top of the concerns of the community. A lot of posts would imply a lot of problems.

    I’m just trying to think of a way to strike a balance between the too extremes, while leaning toward option #1. It seems like it requires fewer resources and is better for the company’s image if you can pull it off.

  10. Steven says:

    Its a sad world when companies have to take option 1. It really isn’t any fair to be what I consider keeping secrets from paying customers just so they can make a few bucks. The customer is always right, apparently not in the MMO community.

  11. Ferrel says:

    This was a wonderful read. I’ve always disliked the type one approach myself. Having played as long as I have I just don’t believe anymore that any developer simply, “know better” and “don’t make mistakes.” They’re human beings!

    That is why type two always wins me over. You’re absolutely right in the sense of trust. If a developer says, “Well guys, we thought X would be awesome but it really just ended up blowing up a school for blind kittens. As such, we had to take it out” I’d get right behind that. Honesty and open communication really does work for me.

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  14. Pingback: Interesting article comparing developer relations between Aion and Champions Online - AionSource.com

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  17. foolsage says:

    Excellent article! I think you’ve very nicely summed up two divergent approaches to community relations and the problems and pitfalls associated with each. It might be possible to further divide the second approach into tiers based on the amount of information being shared (e.g. the difference between “Skill X does less damage now” and “Skill X previously did 123 points of damage per use, and now does 115 points of damage) as well as the details of thought processes being shared (e.g. the difference between “X was changed” and “X was changed because in combination with Y the total damage dealt was higher than it should be”).

  18. William Bordonaro says:

    It’s not an MMO, but Savage 2′s latest development Heroes of Newerth is a prime example of how well a perfectly run option 2 can turn out.

    Although it is still in beta testing, HoN is constantly being discussed on the forums and we are getting direct contact from the developers and moderators. Not only are we getting complete patch notes, we are also getting updates on what they are currently working on as well as what to expect in the near future.

    If you haven’t checked out the game at least register (w/beta key) and check out their communication to the players. I have participated in many beta’s in the last 10 years or so and this is by far the best setup that I have ever seen.

  19. William Bordonaro says:

    One more thing, if you do want to check HoN’s forums out I have an extra key or two.
    (posted on previous entries as doubledutch)

  20. Mortal gold says:

    I believe the payment model also greatly influences player reactions. (I have nothing to support this except observation, and my own biased observations of course. =) )

    I like this, this is very useful!