Community Series – The Non-Disclosure Agreement Cake of Games, And Why You Don’t Eat It Before It’s Done0
Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of posts fly around about NDAs for games, why they do or do not have merit, and various other opinions about their value. It’s kind of funny sometimes, because you see so many extremes about what you see in leaked footage, from “OMG THE GAME IS CRAP THEY’RE HIDING SOMETHING, CONSPIRACY” to “OMG THE GAME IS FINE LEAKERS ARE MAKING IT LOOK BAD, CONSPIRACY”. What I’m going to be addressing today, however, is more along the lines of how people don’t think the developers want to communicate something about their game’s progress to the players if they have an NDA in place, why an unfinished product isn’t a a good basis for judging it, and how Community teams typically deal with leaks of that product – sometimes without uttering a word at all.
First is dispelling the myth that developers, and especially people who are in Community, don’t want to talk about their game. If you spend any time in a studio someday, either as a member of the industry or touring it as a visitor, you’ll see that this is most definitely not the case. On the contrary – most people who spend their time in a studio putting together a product that they hope a player will find fun are bursting at the seams to be able to show you and tell you how awesome it is. They want you to experience what the game is for yourself and want you to feel like you’re going to have the best and greatest experience ever. For Community people, who have to read about speculation and opinion from players about the game without seeing it on a daily basis, it’s even worse. Community people worth their salt have a natural empathy towards the people interested in playing a game they represent. They see something awesome behind closed doors that they know players will enjoy and want players to get their hands and eyes on it right away – especially if it quells a concern or a negative feeling people have about the game.
But what everyone in a studio that has an NDA realizes is that they want that moment of experience for the player to be in as an ideal, polished state as possible.
The way I always like to explain it to someone is it’s like being a baker and baking a cake, and allowing some people into the kitchen to watch it being made. Then someone takes a photo and runs out of the kitchen and shows a picture of a cake base, bowls of flour, and an unattached cake topper, claiming this is what the cake is like and how it’s going to taste. People get all worked up over the unfinished cake and flour and call it a failure even before it’s done baking – and even if they eventually understand it’s not done, now have an unfair expectation of how the cake should look when it’s done – all based on the fact that they saw a bunch of flour and a portion of the cake, and zero visibility on how far along the bakers are in making it.
This is how reactions to NDA leaks in games unfold these days. It has a potentially harmful effect on how people choose to judge the game or how its progressing. The NDA isn’t in place to hide problems, like some people think it does. It’s in place to ensure that the first impression is a fair one, based on seeing a product in a publicly viewable state – and not a bunch of flour and ingredients strewn all over the kitchen.
Community teams are actively working to ensure game content under NDA doesn’t leak, ensuring that unfinished cake doesn’t get into the mouths of hungry players. Most of this is done silently, with things such as:
- Working with fansites to discourage leak proliferation – Fansites sometimes have difficulty maintaining loyalty or a relationship to a developer in the face of a freshly leaked NDA cake. Community teams work with loyal fansites to help get leak links taken down and reported, and the give and take of a fansite-developer relationship sometimes pays dividends to both parties (the fansites get to maintain a pipeline with the developer and later reap the benefits and the developer gets their eyes into places they normally wouldn’t to get rid of leaks).
- Analyzing the reaction to the leak and communicating internally - While a leaky NDA cake will certainly be taken down, that doesn’t mean the community sentiment doesn’t have value. Community teams are always on the lookout for feedback and impressions regarding the game, even if it shows up when it’s unintended. This doesn’t mean leaks are ok – but rather that a Community team will make the most out of what inevitably gets out there.
- Reinforcing the value of feedback given by beta testers, not beta leakers – An NDA violation tends to anger beta testers in some way or another, and it’s important that a Community team manage expectations among them when a leak happens. While attention is certainly given to a leak, especially if it’s very public, the value attributed to beta tester feedback is usually communicated (along with reminders about the consequences of NDA-violating conduct). The privilege of providing internal feedback based on closed testing is definitely one that is communicated.
These are just some of the things that Community teams do when managing a project still under NDA. More visibly, you might see something as subtle as an official video or interview that never mentions the leak but addresses sentiment or concerns raised from it (for example, releasing gameplay footage following a leak decrying sloppy gameplay mechanics). The information flow can also be managed by official communication about current state of the game, or even by taking away the insider track of most leaks by releasing the info themselves. Again, this doesn’t mean that forcing the developer’s hand like this through leaks is needed, but rather that good studios and good Community teams are adaptable to situations that aren’t ideal.
I think the point I’d like people to walk away with is simply that Community teams and the developers they represent want you to have the cake that is their game. They want you to be able to eat it, experience it for yourself, and of course, enjoy it. But they don’t want you eating a bunch of flour, or a cake without frosting, or one that’s still baking in the oven. When you have the cake, it should be as its intended to be had – finished, polished, and with the right utensils (unless you like devouring it with your hands, you barbarians out there). Respect your NDAs, folks – it’s still too soon to say the cake is a lie.
I don’t watch TV that much these days, but when I do, I’m a fan of shows that break molds and don’t follow formulaic tropes that I’ve seen, though I can make exceptions for strong characters or favorite actors (the new Hawaii Five-O is an example). One of my favorite shows that I’ve found smart and witty and thinking very much outside the box is the NBC show Community, which follows the misadventures of a diverse study group that become friends over the course of attending a community college that’s a caricature of life in higher ed. The show’s been lauded by folks for its fearless writing and quirky characters, not to mention episodes filled with satire. One episode, for example, was a Law and Order parody filled with all the camera angles, contrived zingers, and procedural oddities that have made the show famous. Another took on corporate product placement. Yet another was done entirely in 8-bit. The show’s misfit nature has given it quite a faithful following from geekdom for these reasons and more.
But fandom can sometimes turn on a very sharp dime if the formulae they’re used to is messed with. In this case, the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, left the show before this season’s beginning, for reasons and dramatics that I won’t get into here. Fear and trepidation about how this season’s Community would feel without its creator at the helm were rampant, and as I’ve watched the reaction to the latest episodes unfold, I’ve seen a distinct attachment to “how the show was” and a lot of comments about how “it was better when Harmon was running it” and of course, “bring Harmon back, the show is ruined”. As a result, there’s a disinct aura of negativity surrounding each episode and a greater attachment to the nostalgia of the show’s rise to fame among its fans. In games, we see this most commonly when a franchise changes developer hands, or when a prominent member of the team leaves, or when sequels are perceived to change mechanics and gameplay to try to attempt to improve the experience for players.
I’ve never really understood this attachment to the way things used to be being better as a reaction to someone not feeling right about what they’re currently experiencing. Don’t get me wrong – I think that it does have legitimacy at times and it’s perfectly valid to feel that something isn’t quite the same as you want it to be (the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra). But I think it gets a little detrimental when you get attached to the nostalgia and the idealism you hold onto to what you’ve watched or played before. This is where communities get in trouble, because the nostalgic attachment of how a previous title in a game series or a past season in a TV show is contagious – and it tends to create an echo chamber of criticism tinged with grumpiness over how things don’t seem right. I know that the /r/community subreddit for the show is rife with “this doesn’t feel like Community” commentary that has pervaded every discussion, with the requisite accusations of fanboyism towards those liking what’s being done (and I thought I only saw those in game communities, heh).
I try not to get sucked into this mentality, and I think the reason why I’ve mostly succeeded is because I’ve learned to accept that by its very nature, when you change something that appears to be core or fundamental, what’s left is inevitably going to be different. No matter how hard a developer or a writer, or someone else who inherits the existing property works to try to preserve the aura of how something used to be (and they should, if for nothing else respect for what’s come before), it’s going to have their touch, their flair, and their flavor. Duplicating what something was with someone different is pretty much impossible – all you can get is the general preservation of what was plus some of what’s new, and see what happens. When you think about it this way, it gets a lot easier to be open to the new possibility of a direction for a show or a game that might actually be good for it in the long run.
I get that there are times when a changing of the guard hasn’t worked, and I’m sure there are a litany of examples someone could rattle off to me. My contention is with the people who attach themselves so firmly to what something was that it clouds their judgment when trying to figure out what they think of what something is. I would hope that these people try to detach the claws a little from the rug and let themselves be dragged a little more into how someone or some other entity changes something that they’re used to. I think they’d be surprised, perhaps pleasantly, at what they might find within. It seems that in the case of Community that folks have been easing up a little with the nostalgia attachment with every passing week. I can only hope that the mentality of accepting what’s different and judging on those merits without excessive comparison is something that more people will adopt.
Today’s crazy top news item in social media was just the thing needed to continue on with the Community series of posts Kristen Fuller and I are crafting.
In case you hadn’t heard about what happened to poor Burger King’s Twitter account today, what we saw when the account was compromised was a classic example of what would be one such permutation of a Community Manager’s worst nightmare. While there are variations on a theme, the overarching commonality is that the Community Manager is dealt a hand in which they temporarily lose control of the posting of, and thus the reaction to, the content that they normally are responsible for overseeing or putting out into the ether. Nothing will make a community person reach for their trusty bottle of aspirin more than having to suddenly find out the reaction to something that’s been thrown up online is ballooning out of control and getting worse by the minute. In these situations, when the shit is threatening to, or already has hit the proverbial fan, a Community team can be tested in a variety of ways, and how they decide to react to the news and how they address it ultimately dictates what the community does about it, and whether or not it has far-reaching effects.
Of course, it doesn’t always have to be an immediately dire situation. From a games perspective, the threat of shit hitting the fan can come in the form of a server maintenance gone wrong, the introduction of a bug or two into the new build that is noticeable and not easily solved, or a misstep or a misspoken word on the part of a developer towards the community. Regardless of the degree of difficulty here, the steps for the Community folks remain the same – analyze the situation, come up with a plan of attack, craft and approve the messaging, post up the initial response, and adapt and re-respond if necessary, keeping the community up to date while working behind the scenes to acquire the latest information and a realistic timeline to resolution. While the process varies from company to company, there’s a few things that people would do well to understand when they see a Community person or other authorized individual responding to a crap-hitting-the-fan issue.
1. Response time to the issue may vary – so be reasonably patient.
The way that I see some people react to a server down issue or a patch oopsie or a mistaken set of content being posted, you’d think that the reaction to the issue should be faster than it takes to warm up a Pop Tart. While there’s something to be said about fast or near-instantaneous response – and trust me, those responses are posted (more on that next) – there’s also something about intelligently and methodically addressing the faux pas in question. The response isn’t always as simple as “roll back the server” or “delete the comments” or “apologize”, as the damage that’s already been done needs to be assessed, looked at, and attacked properly. Combine this with the fact that a company or a studio will need to ensure approval is acquired for a course of action, and that all the gears and wheels of that action need to play their parts, and you get why sometimes you might not see a response to something going on right away. I subscribe to the fact that the reasonable time in which a Community person should respond to something going on is highly variable, dependent on how severe the disruption to normal service is, the complexity of the solution (for example, “roll backs” or “reboots” can require a lot of teams moving at once to respond to an unexpected problem), and the sentiment/temperament of the community at large. A Community team needs time to help bring a messed up situation to a successful conclusion, and aside from that, I can’t speak to how those situations are handled specifically, as your mileage varies by company. So don’t worry – a good Community team is out to ensure its customers know they’re doing everything they can and are aware. This brings me to my next pointer.
2. The first response is not always meant to be the most detailed, or only, response to the issue.
Sometimes a single, detailed response to a crap-hitting-the-fan issue is all it takes in order to bring things to a successful close. For example, a developer or company representative misquote or misrepresented implication of what they said might require a single post clarifying matters. But in many situations, the first response is not always the one that contains all the answers. Sadly, this does not stop the amount of unsavory comments being said about a first response like :
Oh what a surprise, another patch another ton of errors…This is terrible tech work.
I’m sure they’ll get on here soon and say we should check our internet connections or our router is faulty and we need a new one.
In many cases, the first response is meant only to make the community aware of the fact that the company and its team know about what is happening, know that there’s a certain amount of dissatisfaction or otherwise non-ideal service, and that they are working on it. This kind of messaging is easy to approve, is meant to be an acknowledgment, and displays the common sense that basically says “of course we see what’s going on”. Because of my first point, and how long a confirmed resolution/plan of action can take, quick first responses that most commonly start with “We’re aware of the issue customers are experiencing with…” pay dividends in calming sentiment that the company is either unaware or not listening. Some people like to call out how “empty” and “fake” these responses are, or (my personal favorite) say that “this response does nothing to fix the issue and is insufficient, fix it now, you are losing customers”, but when you understand the intent of a first response is to notify and give courtesy to customers, rather than solve the issue outright, it gets harder to say such things.
Any Community team posting a “we’re aware of the issue” first response isn’t brushing its customers off due to lack of detail. On the contrary – posting such a response is meant to communicate that they’re absolutely not doing so. Most community folks worth their salt will almost always be working on a follow up or update with more detail (or a resolution notice) by the time you’ve seen a first response.
3. The plan of action/resolution to an issue ideally attempts to balance the reality of how the community perceived/reacted to it and the reality of what the company can do about it.
When there’s a crap-hitting-the-fan moment, I’ve seen all manner of recommended solutions to “fix the problem” or “save face” that have come from a community. I’ve seen people ask for refunds based on time lost, complete rollbacks of patches, selected benefits extending to only a specific group of affected people, a detailed breakdown of how the issue occurred or how to prevent future issues in the interest of “being open and honest”, and more. Don’t get me wrong – there are many people who understand, suggest, and should expect reasonable resolution to the fact that an unintended issue has occurred. But what many fail to realize is that any solution or resolution to an issue that the community and development team helps put up is ideally a balanced one – one that gets and understands how the community reacted to it (and their mood, no matter how out of control it gets) but which also takes into account what a company can actually do within their power to fix things. I say “ideally”, because admittedly there are times when a company sets out to make things right but ends up not creating a satisfactory response.
Mostly, though, what I’m trying to say here is that what’s asked is not always so easily given, depending on how the company operates. Yes folks, that refund you want based on increments or minutes of time does take a lot of calculation and analysis to dole out. That rollback that you want for a patch that was planned for two months can’t easily happen overnight and not without consequences. Giving only select people compensation into perpetuity may or may not be within the bounds of possibility given the impact it has on the community as a whole. And while you may want all the details or have the complete story, sometimes what you do get is just what can realistically be approved to be talked about.
If you want an example of one of these “balanced” responses, I’ll end this post with one that many gamers remember – Sony’s PSN outage of 2011. Regardless of how you might feel about how this was handled, it’s a good example of how responses for crap-hitting-the-fan issues sometimes take form.
Sony’s Jack Tretton knew he had to address this admittedly embarrassing breach of security at E3 2011, which happened to occur during repairs to fix the outage. When he stepped onto the stage during Sony’s press conference, he delivered the following, of which I’ve cut and excerpted for the most relevant parts:
This isn’t the first time I’ve come into an E3 press conference with an elephant in the room. Of course I’m referring to the PlayStation Network outage. This is my first chance to personally address everybody and discuss it a little bit.
So my friends who are reporters tell me that there’s absolutely nothing in the world that makes their editors’ day like controversy and bad news. So to all our esteemed members of the press I say ‘you’re welcome’.
To our third-party publishing partners – you guys have been with us for over fifteen years making tremendous games, and I know the network outage was costly to you. What’s been incredibly inspiring is your support, and your offers to help get things back up to speed, and we wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for you, so I thank you very much.
…Which brings me to the audience that I’m most interested in addressing, and those are our consumers. You are the lifeblood of the company. Without you, there is no playstation. And I want to apologize both personally, and on behalf of the company for any anxiety we’ve caused you. I know we took you away from doing what you enjoy most -connecting in gaming with friends all over the world and enjoying the many entertainment options on playstation network…Network activity is currently at 90 percent of the original levels before the network outage, and that is something we absolutely do not take lightly. We are committed, more than ever, to ensuring that the playstation network experiences are both entertaining and secure for everybody.
While the cynical among folks will conclude this was carefully planned and crafted (it was, probably, and for very good reason considering the circumstances), it’s interesting to note that Jack Tretton acknowledges many “real” elements of the perception/reaction of the PSN outage, from the fact that the press generates a ton of reaction to bad news that is both visible and painful to companies, to the fact that publishers have lost a bunch of money, and of course, how it’s sucked for players not to have what they consider a core purchase feature.
There were a lot of demands from Playstation customers about how to deal with making things right. Ultimately, 30 days free subscription to Playstation Plus along with the offering of two games free from a selected library may not have been what some of these customers had in mind – but it was what was realistic to Sony to grant, given what happened. It’s this, coupled with the above acknowledgment of what was certainly a screwed up situation for everyone involved that form the “balanced” response I referred to – a bit of a compromise. Whether the compromise is enough is up to folks to decide for themselves – but its important to know that much more is at play when Community folks decide how to help guide reactions to bad happenings, which was of course, the point of writing this.
My empathy goes out to the Burger King community and social media folks. Hopefully, this writeup made people understand just a little bit better how they have to deal with the splattered crap of an unexpected issue.
Recently I’ve been feeling a bit rough around the edges with games. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen my frustrations with groups of people I simply haven’t had the best luck with in Guild Wars 2. It got to the point where I was getting a bit turned off from playing games altogether, and I was definitely getting burned out. So when one night I literally injured myself putting my face to my desk after a particularly bad dungeon group (don’t ask, it involved dying a lot and that’s all you need to know), I decided I needed to figure out why this was.
What I found out was that I was just playing one game all of the time – Guild Wars 2 – and while I do like the game and give props to ANet for putting together something solid, it’s like having chocolate or pizza every day for every meal. Eventually, you’re probably going to get sick of chocolate and pizza – at least I think MOST of you would – and you probably wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of it, much less eat it. All the things that would have been passable and able to be dealt with suddenly become more annoying than a splinter in the skin.
So over the last couple weeks, I’ve tried to shift my gaming taste a bit and become more of a connoisseur. Thankfully, a backlog of random games acquired through Steam as well as a couple PSN purchases I’d made over the last couple years meant I had a bunch of games I never really had any interest in playing. I played shooters and strategy games, and older games like Final Fantasy X. I played free games and facebook games and mobile games. And when I finally got back to playing Guild Wars 2 a day or so ago, I found it quite a bit better. Maybe not entirely so (I promptly got into a group that couldn’t kill a boss if they had bazookas and a nuclear bomb).
Heck, I even learned a few things about myself as a gamer:
- I’m a terrible shot, and most of my shooting in games with gunplay ends up with me Ramboing up to enemies and meleeing them with my gun as a blunt object.
- My thumbs are way too large to properly touch-click anything with reasonable accuracy.
- I’m still addicted to Triple Triad.
- My cats insist on climbing all over me right when I’m about to do anything important in any PC-based game, no matter what it is – but especially with You Don’t Know Jack.
I think there are times that we gamers get burned out and sometimes cold turkey is the best way to go. But other times, it’s not that we don’t want to play games, but that we’re looking for a different taste – something different that might be a break from the usual genre we’re used to playing. If there’s anything that games have gotten better at over the last few years, it’s presenting more variety, more types, and more ways to consume them in all its glory.
I think I could go for some chocolate or some pizza now.
Kristen and I have written a lot about feedback, specifically how we break it down into usable chunks and also process and compile it into useful information for developers. In both of these posts, we refer to the idea of shaming developers not really being an effective method for eliciting change, so we thought it would be a good idea to expound on the topic a bit and show people why, even though it seems like it works, it really doesn’t.
You’ve probably all seen a developer shaming post before. They’re the ones that attempt to “call out” developers, posted under the most benign circumstances as an awareness announcement, and in the most malicious as a way to showcase developer mistakes and create mass dissatisfaction. You might see them on fan forums when official channels get denied to the poster, or submitted to press sites as a way to shine harsh, Internet light down on a perceived issue.
Let’s look at a couple examples, shall we? The most common forms they take are:
When a corrective action like a ban or suspension has been given to a player and they disagree:
I am making this post to bring some real data to this situation. I want to share the insane double standards being used by the support team, and send a potential warning to players who craft and salvage any items in the game.
When a player is frustrated with design decisions or direction and decides to find evidence of the developers being contrary to previous statements:
Now the game has been released, it hardly feels ready. And as eager as I was to start playing at the stroke of midnight on the head-start weekend, after a few weeks of play time, I now feel like I’ve been lied to.
On top of all that they just released posted in a forum stating that they “weren’t going to release a perfect game…”.
I am nay saying the god complex that is running amuck. I know you guys think you have a perfect game and that your manifesto was on par with Marx but you have seriously reached the height of arrogance when you don’t set any deadlines for yourself, yet expect your paying customers to wait on you to fix a game that was released in a state of disrepair. I really really appreciate the talent, but I believe it’s gone to your heads. One only has to read their haughty forum posts to see that.
There are more instances, but these are the two most common we see come up.
Occasionally, threads and posts like these actually elicit a response from the developers, and in some of those cases, you might see action taken that matches what the player is posting they want done. This unfortunately leads to a mentality where “if we complain about it enough and draw attention to ourselves, we’ll get our way” – that for some reason the developer will want to save face by bowing to the demands of the player out of shame or fear of being seen negatively. This thinking couldn’t be more wrong, and here are some reasons why this is a myth.
Every action the developer takes is supported by a combination of sentiment and hard data.
It stands to reason that when a developer puts in an agreed-upon fix, builds a new feature most people like, or updates the game in general that they’re using supporting evidence to do so – metrics from internal and external testing, feedback from players and surveys, and so forth. Why, then is it that the argument made for when something isn’t done correctly in a player’s eyes that a developer is somehow “out of touch” with their game, or somehow “doesn’t play their own game”? Why is it that when a developer rolls back a change players dislike or they reverse a ban, that it is simply “the will of the players” or “they listened to the players”? No, the same data, metrics, evidence and internal processes used to implement a change are the same methods used to ensure a rollback or a removal are the wisest courses of action.
When someone purports to “shame” the developers by presenting an angry counterargument or personally insulting feedback to the developers in a TMZ-like tell-all format, that evidence is usually taken back by Community to the developers to see if that Fizzlebit Destruction Kittystorm ability really isn’t performing the way it’s expected to perform. If the data, and the (more constructively presented) sentiment/criticism from players supports action, then action will be taken. If a mistake was made (because they do happen sometimes no matter how much QA you put on a patch) and the evidence internally supports what players present, then it’s corrected.
This doesn’t always mean that how players feel doesn’t matter – it does, trust me, which is why Community teams look at trending sentiment and perception from players as justified metrics to at least investigate an issue. But very rarely is the rollback, change, or fix that the players want a direct and sole result of angry players looking to shame the developers into action by flooding forums and sites with rage-filled posts. In fact, if the data doesn’t support what the players think or are presenting as evidence, a developer will sometimes come right out and say it doesn’t (with the right massaging from us Community people, of course).
In short, if you want to correct an action a developer has taken with their game, you’re better off with intelligently gathered data coupled with constructive criticism – because we’ll be looking at those as the real feedback to take back to the developers instead of the pitchfork-wielding, call-to-angry-mob disdain that some players wield as weapons in an attempt to force a developer’s hand.
It isn’t the quantity, but the quality of the feedback that elicits change.
A typical shaming technique I’ve seen leveraged from players towards developers is the idea that if they post enough complaints, or overload the forum or fansites with enough dissatisfaction, that this will somehow move the developer towards corrective action that they agree with. And sometimes, when the developer does respond to this out of necessity or does something to calm the masses, it seems that it’s justified. But given the fact that we’ve explained that Community teams gather feedback in very specific ways and filter it, it’s really not the way to go. Primarily, it just causes the forum moderators on the Community team a headache as they seek to consolidate threads, remove duplicates, and take action against troublemakers.
When we take a look at an issue that is generating this much traffic, the fact that there is a lot of it out there is at most peripheral. Our primary objective is to gather the quality of feedback needed to illustrate to the developers to investigate a perceived player issue. The assimilation and gathering process you’ve seen us write about is performed multiple times, within minutes, on many posts, threads, and tweets, and more often than not, it’s not the original post of shame that gets referred to but the more rational, yet critical posts that either respond to it or are put up elsewhere. Sure, you might think that shame posts are thus justified because they’d actually generate attention where it’s needed, but honestly, we’d rather you start out with a post that was constructively critical with no shaming or insults attached to it, because providing feedback is supposed to be the prime motivator, not making the developer look bad – and it’s very obvious which ones are the former rather than the latter.
Saving face and good service/relationships are important, but aren’t the only reason to take action.
Community teams are tasked with managing service and the x-factors of human interaction when it comes to players and developers. In this respect, it is important to maintain good relationships with players. It is important that when we need to do so, we save face by publicly acknowledging mistakes when they are made, or explaining as much as possible the circumstances behind actions taken in response to player feedback. But it is by no means the only thing that is taken into account. This is why when multiple shame threads on a subject are removed or consolidated, it isn’t because a developer wants to hide the issue – another myth that is a bit silly considering the internet usually knows what happens regardless of whether something gets hidden or not.
When action is taken, it’s not just to make a show of good faith to ensure that we are listening, or that we’re embarrassed by what happened. There’s also the idea of being consistent with actions being taken, of understanding that design sometimes doesn’t pan out as intended in the live game, that players should be acknowledged as having a viewpoint that the developers may sometimes not have considered. That’s why when something happens in response to massive feedback, it isn’t because the developers are ashamed of being called out on their mistakes, but because it’s important that the experience as a whole is satisfactory and fair – and a lot more goes into that than just player feedback and the relationship players feel towards developers.
Hopefully this helps bust the myth of trying to shame developers into change. Trust us – there’s more at stake at fixing something than player dissatisfaction, which is why it’s important to communicate more than just that when you’re giving developers feedback.
News is starting to come out of what happened at last week’s meeting that US Vice President Joe Biden had with members of the video game industry and researchers about violence as it relates to games in general. By and large, Biden does not believe there is a link between video games and violent behavior, something that is sure to be a bit of a relief to both gamers and gaming industry folks alike. After all, the industry has had its fair share of having to weather the violence in video games argument before. My good friend and co-host Kristen Fuller and I discussed this on The Netophiles podcast on video games and violence, so to have at least one prominent politician come out at least in a neutral stance is a bit of a small victory.
But Biden also seemed to issue a little bit of a warning to the industry, telling them that perception is a very powerful thing, even if reality doesn’t actually support it. Researchers also seemed to agree that there could be more done to actually improve the image of the industry, and that the assembled executives would do well to do more to ensure it wasn’t an easy target.
But why is this solely the industry’s responsibility? I find it odd that the primary burden of proof that violence is not connected to video games seems to rest on the shoulders of industry executives and developer studios. Sure, they’re the creator of the medium, and would therefore be the most credible source to improve its perception, but I don’t really think it’s something that they have to be solely responsible for. No, I think that when it comes to disproving the violence and video games connection, that everyone who’s involved needs to do what they can.
Parents need to educate themselves about the rating system of games, of the types of games their children play, and get in the practice of telling and teaching their children the difference between playing in a game and acting in reality. The industry needs to facilitate access to more credible research, emphasize and improve the rating system, and provide what notice about content they can to gamers, both inside and outside of games. Gamers themselves need to take responsibility for their own hobby, understand the stigma it can somehow create, and work to help others understand that the stereotypes don’t always apply. And all of these groups can work together to identify someone who just happens to be a gamer who teeters on an emotional cliff and get them the help they need.
The most dangerous thing I see about this whole debate on violence and video games is the notion that someone isn’t responsible for it, whether that is narrow-minded parents, overly defensive industry executives, or regular, disdainful gamers who’d rather be angry at being mistreated or misrepresented rather than doing something to change it. Until people realize everyone has to play their part in preventing things like Sandy Hook or Columbine from happening again, we’ll always be at greater risk than we need to be at such tragedies going down.
When I was growing up, I went through a period where I was pretty bad at the twitch-based shooting and action games that seemed to dominate the rise of PC gaming popularity near the last decade. That was me crashing my plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator within the first 5 minutes, and me who seemed to get killed by the easy Nazis and demons of Wolfenstein and Doom. And it was definitely me who made themselves the worst X-Wing pilot since Porkins in STAR WARS Episode IV, though I suppose that anyone having to deal with the dreaded Escort The Freighter missions probably wanted to tear their hair out, too (but I bet they didn’t accidentally shoot their own ships or crash into the freighter as many times as I did).
Scratching my head at all this, I turned to two genres of games as solace for my terrible mouse and keyboard skills. One was the RPG, and anyone who knows me knows that RPGs became a staple in my household with love of such classics as Final Fantasy IV-VII, Lufia, Lunar, Xenogears, and more. One of these days I’ll probably try to expound on my sordid and obsessive history of leveling wayyy above things in RPGs and steamrolling monsters while cackling evilly, but what I want to focus on for this post was the other genre in which I sought solace, and that’s the adventure game. Games like Myst, King’s Quest, Police Quest, Companions of Xanth, and even Zork were the other source of my gaming entertainment – and they didn’t require me to be a pilot or a soldier or a demon hunter. They just required me to be, well, me – and through a series of intelligently constructed puzzles and point-and-click forays I felt a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment that I hadn’t felt dying repeatedly in action games. As the adventure game lost its popularity and drive and made way for more active genres of games, so too did my interest in them – but really that was because no one really kept up with making them. Thus my appreciation for the genre lay dormant – until now.
The Walking Dead, Telltale Games’ foray set in the grim reality of a zombie apocalypse (based on a story told in comic books and a TV show), is the latest darling of the gaming world. Set before the events of the TV show and a bit after the first mass outbreak, the game’s 5 episodes put you in charge of Lee Everett, a man with a secret and a bit of baggage that gets caught up in the beginnings of a world gone wrong. His finding of the girl Clementine in the midst of this chaos and subsequent fall of human civilization is the start of a tale that will change them both forever.
If you’ll pardon the cheese of the analogy, the game itself has reached into the grave of Adventure and Point-and-Click gaming and given it new life on many levels. There’s a lot of hype that surrounds an out-of-nowhere, critically acclaimed hit, so I’ll try to give a few specific reasons why this game in particular has hopefully made the adventure genre viable for the future.
It combines the core gameplay of adventure games with modern game elements.
What’s really great about The Walking Dead is that at its core, it’s a traditional point-and-click Adventure game that will bring back fond memories. You’re expected to solve a few puzzles along the way – not terribly difficult ones, but ones nonetheless – in order to proceed, using the environment and objects to achieve goals. The elements of examining your surroundings, picking up what you can, and figuring out what use it has for you are all parts of a bike that’s easy to get back on and ride, if you’ve played the genre before. But what’s really great are the modern game elements that players have found appealing – active action sequences, a morality choice system (more on this later), and a supporting cast of varied characters. There’s also the much-loved-to-be-hated quick time event, but even if you despise these they’re never terribly difficult so as to be frustrating and are easily repeated if failed. The point is, the marriage of classic and modern game elements makes for a new facelift for an old genre, and I was personally pleased to see it all blend together nicely.
It has a deep and multi-threaded plotline that evokes emotions…
If you value story and plot at all in your games, The Walking Dead will certainly appeal to you. I can’t get into too much of the nitty gritty detail for obvious reasons, but I will say that the missing piece and criticism made of adventure games, that of a relative lack of a plot or told story, has been added to this game in spades. The game’s action is told over “episodes”, with “previously” and “next time” segments that create the sense that you are not just watching the story but also living it. Fully voiced sequences have actors convey the right amount of fear, paranoia, desperation, anger, and everything else associated with a world-changing event like walking corpses who eat the living. Just watching the story unfold over these sequences was a treat in and of itself.
…and it pushes your buttons through the mechanics of its morality choice system.
But the story and appeal of The Walking Dead has always been its depiction of the human condition in the face of disaster, the drama and emotional stress that goes with simple survival goals, and the forcing of that through tough, life-threatening situations. We’ve heard the line delivered that choices made in games with a morality system impact later action, but never has it really been done in a way like this. You’re basically pushed to make decisions quickly through enforced time limits that match the situation in real-time, and some of them aren’t so easy to hash out, especially when you are made aware that the things you say and do are things that are remembered and referred to later by your companions – sometimes as little as a few seconds, or as long as several episodes later. I usually play evil bastard, and like it, but the combination of story elements and a few particularly heavy emotional choices made me change my normal gameplay. It made me make the choices as me, not really as Lee, but me playing as Lee. Sure, there are ways to go back, replay, and even pause the choices you have to make, but they all come with a bit of penalty to repeat sequences without being able to skip dialogue. Besides, it was much more fun to play through making decisions within the time limit and acting as I felt I could if I was a survivor in a world gone mad.
These are just some of the ways in which The Walking Dead is well worth your money, at least to play through the first episode or so. As long as people understand it’s an adventure/point-and-click game and not an action game, I think they’ll enjoy The Walking Dead – and its potential re-invigoration of a long dead genre that deserves more exposure and appreciation.
Perusing my favorite subreddits for games today, I came upon an interesting thread in /r/Guildwars2 about people who quit games and why they feel the need to publicly post about them. It was definitely a partial rant on wanting to stab their own eyes out so they didn’t have to read about what they pretty much called whining:
One thing I’ve never felt the urge to do is publicly declare that I’m no longer playing a game. Who would possibly care? Why would any of the millions of WoW players care that I got bored with their game? Why would any DCOL, DO, DDOL, or LOTR players give a shit that there’s one less person on their servers? There are, however, a number of players who feel the need to advertise their exit on FB, the official forums, wherever. My question is: Why?
What’s the point? Do they expect people to beg them to stay? Do they think they’ll convince people who enjoy GW2 to suddenly stop doing so? Are they just trolling because their pet game isn’t getting as much hype? Do they think anyone really gives a shit if they stay or go? I realize that there probably isn’t a single answer, but I am curious about this phenomenon and wondered what other people thought.
I’m going to set aside the whole idea of “why” for another day’s posting, because I think that gets a little bit too far into the kind of psychoanalysis of gamers that, like Camelot, is a silly place. What I will talk about, however, is the question of “who would possibly care?” and why – and how you might be able to provide some value next time you decide you want to post that a game isn’t for you.
The obvious answer to “who” is, well, us Community professional types – you know, the poor saps who have to click into all the threads and read all the forums and peruse all the subreddit posts for chunks of feedback and valuable information. This includes all of the places that regular players get to have the choice of not reading, such as that one thread that starts with the subject “THE WORST EPIC FAIL OF ALL TIME” (not made up) or the posts that contain little more than an ASCII middle finger or the classic Picard facepalm (also not made up). The best analogy I can think of for this are those folks who panned for gold. There’s a process for digging, sifting, and shaking out for good and proper feedback that’s much like trying to find those tiny little gleaming bits and nuggets of gold in the mud, dirt, and grime, and it is partially a Community person’s job to sit by the river and do the dirty work of it all.
The thing is, Community people are always interested in why people decide to leave a game they represent, which is why all the people who inevitably respond to “I quit” posts with the notion that they should somehow shut up, go away, go back to WoW or whatever else, doesn’t really help us. In many ways, the conversational, sometimes candid nature of “I quit” feedback can provide another channel and method for people to communicate to the developer what might be wrong, beyond the sort of constraints a survey or feedback email request can give. But like everything else that Community people have to analyze, it’s better if the feedback is constructive and means something. So that being said:
What I usually discard if I’m reading “I quit” feedback:
- Personal Insults – If you want to denigrate the hard work of development teams (regardless of success or failure) and be an outright jerkface, then know that the insults you level at the team in your post only go so far as the post you put them in. They’re going nowhere near the development team. I have yet to write about this, but naming and shaming developers does pretty much nothing.
- Suggestions that aren’t feasible - If you tell me to fire a whole team, my boss, or my boss’s boss so that somehow the quality of the game will improve, that’s just not going to happen – and if it somehow does, it’s out of my control to actually make happen. On a lesser level, removal of whole classes, rollback of events planned over months, and other such drastic changes are pretty improbable, too.
- Generic, non-supported negative statements – I can’t really do something about “the game sucks”, or “endgame is boring” except to wrap it into a general report or trend of why people might be churning out of the game. I need to know why the game sucks, why the endgame is boring, and what kinds of things were a driver in players leaving. I’ll note the statement, sure, but don’t expect it to be at the top of my list as to why.
- Forum tropes – Slaps in the face, nails in the coffin, accusations of lying from our marketing pushes and vision posts – none of this usually makes the cut. If you’re more concerned with creating that “oh snap” feel to your post, that’s fine – but I’ll probably disregard the fact that it was done.
What I might check out and use:
- Rants - This is a grey area. Most of the time a rant isn’t something I’d actually get something out of, as it’s more of an expression of trying to get something off your chest more than really giving feedback, but there might be something of value here. If someone is particularly upset about one thing and it was a progression of events that they communicate, that might be helpful to know in terms of how game systems are treating players. The devil’s in the details. Otherwise, I’m probably not interested in complaining for the sake of complaining.
- Sentiment and tone – The lines blur a bit when it comes to getting value out of the tone of someone’s swan song post. On the one hand, straight up emotions like anger, rage, and disgust aren’t really things that force a developer to action, mostly because by itself, the emotion isn’t enough to evoke the right kind of response. We definitely are sorry you’re pissed, but being pissed all on its own just simply doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of how to fix things. But the reason for the tone and sentiment or a clear pointer to why people are upset have a bit of value to them. If a recently installed patch, balancing change, or game mechanic alteration creates a vastly negative sentiment in the community and is the cause of a significant amount of people posting about leaving, that’s not something I can ignore, and it has a little substance.
- Perception statements - I define these as any variety of “my guild was huge with 100 members and no one logs in anymore”, “all my friends quit”, “we used to have lots of people in the main city and now it’s empty”, all of that. The game could very well be healthy and there could be plenty of things to explain why someone feels as if the game is somehow lesser than it once was, but talk about whole guilds leaving and servers having some population issues is something to file away and look into to see if the metrics and the corresponding posts from others in guilds or on servers match up. Perception, even one mistaken, is very powerful and can become poison in a community if it isn’t somehow looked into if not addressed.
What I definitely extract:
- Constructive criticism – for the criteria to be met, I need to know what the problem is, why it’s an issue, and what could feasibly be done to improve things. If you need a group finder, tell us why, how it’s crippled your enjoyment, and how it could be implemented. If a system has become bland, give us something to work with that might be an incremental change to introduce to fix things and spice them up. The ideas that players have, even if they can’t be delivered right away into the development timeline, are huge in terms of making sure the team understands what the players want to keep them playing.
- Dissatisfaction details – If the endgame was boring, why was it boring? Are there accounts where you and your friends tried to do endgame and didn’t find it engaging? What about growing frustrations with your class, specifically what decreased your enjoyment, and what was the tipping point that sent you over the quitting cliff? It’s important to developers to know what happened to mess up someone’s enjoyment, or what got them to the point of no return, as these are specifics as to how the mechanics didn’t pan out ideally from the design documentation. Not just why it happened, but what, is the key.
- Player profile – This isn’t completely necessary, as there are likely metrics and reports that are around about players, but it does help. Are you a casual player? Hardcore? Raider? PvPer or guild leader? These are nice things to know, because they help in compiling analysis on what types of players and what kinds of players are enjoying or not enjoying the game as its designed.
- Service concerns – The bringing up of customer service or account management concerns is something we always look into when we can. Interactions with the company, especially as it relates to resolving issues and problems that crop up with the game, need to be in tiptop shape. If someone cites being treated poorly, has a customer service experience that isn’t expected, or has a specific instance that contributed to their being turned off by the game, we need to hear about it. It doesn’t always mean that the specific incident gets addressed, as what’s done is done, but it does put up a flag to check with CS to make sure things are firing on all six cylinders.
As with anything, these parameters are flexible and adjustable to meet the post and the situation. But generally, if you leave a game, the developers want to know why – they just want to know in a way that is respectful, constructive, and filled with detail and suggestions for improvement. Really, it’s all about intent in the end. If you’re more concerned with getting that last bit of attention, attacking a developer in that “from the depths of hell I stab at thee” way, or creating more shame than action, don’t post that you’re quitting – no one will get anything out of it. But if you’re concerned with improving the game, making sure things are better even if you never return, or otherwise giving feedback about your experience, then we definitely want to hear from you – because we might be able to stop it from happening to others, and maybe even get you back at some point.
On the latest episode of The Netophiles, where my co-host Kristen Fuller and I talk about the issue of violence and video games (a great discussion you don’t want to miss out on), I mention the game Dishonored. It’s a recent title and new IP that is set in a steampunk-influenced world where you are wrongfully framed for murder and must work with rebels to clear your name, while working to overthrow the evil folks that tried to put you down
Seems cliche, right? I know I sort of thought about it in that way, just because the revenge trope has sort of been done to death in video games, and the violent revenge trope was supposedly milked for all its worth by the closing of the God of War series. If you looked solely at the marketing and promotion for Dishonored, you might think this as well. After all, the grisly destruction of bad guys via pistol or bladed weapon is what keeps butts in seats playing (on our podcast, we mention that the top 10 games of a couple of years ago had mostly games with violence in them).
When I grabbed the game for myself over my holiday break, I looked forward to a happy traipse through a dystopian setting, seeing how quickly I could eviscerate my enemies into little pieces before rats came to devour them. Those of you who know me, know that in the realm of moral choice or good/evil games, I’m usually well into the Dark Side of the Force, something that contrasts with the Nice Guy personality I’m known for. I dunno – something about not playing the hero is seductive in its way of sucking me in – not to mention the funny looks I get from friends who aren’t used to seeing such villainous behavior from me.
But that’s when Dishonored gave me a little surprise – it made me actually want to play the non-lethal way that apparently, was introduced into the game during development after testers expressed a strong desire to go through the entire game without killing a single person. Here’s a couple of reasons why I decided to play nice-nice this time around. There’s a couple of light spoilers about the story here, so read on at your own risk, or skip to the bold part where I put aside the spoilers.
One reason is the fact that Dishonored takes a bit of a more inventive way of approaching things non-lethally. Most of the “don’t kill” options in other games are just that – merciful, altruistic goody-goody choices that don’t really appeal to me. Cutting negotiations short – literally – with my sword is typically my response to such saccharine sweet options. But Dishonored reflects its dark setting by giving you non-lethal options that, well, aren’t always so merciful – just simply non-fatal. One of the options early in the game involves fire branding a target with a mark that shamefully discharges him from power. Another involves giving a gang lord a combination in return for him not killing your targets but still taking care of them for you by cutting out their tongues. Did I mention the way you get the combination is to deliver shock therapy (non-lethally) to someone? These are the kinds of things that make playing non-lethal in Dishonored so fun, if for nothing else to see how the game cooks up an innovative way to non-lethally yet definitely hurt your targets.
The other reason is, of course, in gameplay. The only other game that kept my interest in sneaking around and not killing people was Metal Gear Solid 4, and its for the same reasons it appeals to me in Dishonored. In both games, there are multiple ways and methods for dispatching your enemies without killing them. In MGS4 you could use tranq bullets, distract enemies, and use martial arts to drop them. In Dishonored, you can use sleep darts, possession, lure them off to get whacked unconscious, or resort to the good old standby finisher, a sleeper choke hold from behind. Both of these games make pursuing non-lethal methods relatively fresh, and (mostly) free of repetition. Throw in the possibility of a not-so-dark ending for playing this way, and I’m sold.
Putting aside spoilers, if more games took this interesting approach to playing the non-lethal way of approaching conflicts, I might be more inclined to pursue them rather than go down my usual road of Jawa-killing, backstabbing, and shooting while nefariously cackling to myself. More seriously, it does show that developers are willing to ensure that players have as much of an appealing gameplay experience as possible, even if they have to change their design to do so. The non-violent manner of solving problems, especially as a way of completely beating a game, is one that proves that developers like the ones behind Dishonored can and do provide such opportunities – and still are lucrative and successful for it, if the acclaim the game is receiving is any indication.
Time to go back to choking out some corrupt politicians!
If you follow video games and the industry with any sort of regularity, it’s no secret that 2012 was a bit of a rough go for everyone concerned. A limping economy and other factors created, for reasons that differed from group to group or even person to person, a more discerning game player whose time and money was valuable to them. On the other side of the coin, studios and companies looked to deal with not just the usual idiosyncrasies of the typical gaming customer, but also with their own ability to stay afloat and create success in a belt-tightening, more cautious environment.
All of this created a formula that unleashed some pretty difficult news to read about, including:
- Layoffs, reductions, and/or restructuring at quite a few studios and publishers, with a laundry list that included Blizzard, BioWare, EA, Obsidian, En Masse, Trion, and more.
- The closure of studios, most prominent and painful among them the shutdown of 38 Studios/Big Huge Games. The morgue includes what appear to be 20+ studios in 2012 shutting their doors.
- The related shutdown of projects in progress or long-lived standbys, such as Kingdoms of Amalur and Paragon’s City of Heroes.
- The fall from grace or controversy introduced into once beloved-franchises such as Mass Effect and Diablo.
- The re-igniting of the debate of video games correlating with violent acts following the Sandy Hook tragedy.
As someone who straddles both sides of the fence between gaming industry professionals and video game players, I was keenly aware of the pain on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, gamers looking forward to titles they either continued to be loyal to or anticipated highly were disappointed by either unmet expectations, the project’s legs being cut out from under itself, or in some cases, both at the same time. Studios falling like dominos or at the very least knocking down whole parts of the domino house didn’t kindle a huge amount of confidence from players that games could weather the storm. I wouldn’t go so far as to give credence to the people angry at wasting money – that is the risk you take buying any new product with your own expectations built in – but there definitely was a lot of “it coulda been a contender” thought out there.
But if I had to throw down on any side, it would have to be the industry as far as my pain being greater one way or the other. Not a single one of the people I know, love, and respect who bust their balls in the high-risk gaming industry are the type that deserve to be put out into the street with their livelihood and financial stability shattered due to a reduction or studio closure. With so many other factors that have gone into these terrible bits of news, much of them behind closed doors, it’s hardly the fault of a developer or a studio employee who probably loved the game as much as any gamer who picked it up, likely spent long hours away from family, friends, loved ones and sanity to put it together, and who, more than gamers think or see, feel keenly the emotional investment placed into a game they’ve put years into, and who hate to see it take a dive.
So there’s been pain and suffering all around. But the intent of the blog and title of this post takes a more positive tack, and that’s where I’m going to finish things. Because despite all of this bad going on, there has been plenty of good to report on, too, such as:
- The continuing rise of the indie developer part of the industry, who continue to take games in new directions with titles such as Journey.
- The overwhelming support of the industry to help and assist their peers in need with initiatives such as the #38jobs hashtag/trend.
- The new channel of crowdsourced funds for game projects through sites like Kickstarter and the support for distribution and development through projects like Steam Greenlight.
- New IPs seeing acceptance and critical acclaim, such as the steampunk-influenced Dishonored.
- The reduction in the stigma behind the free-to-play model and proof that gamers are (finally) receptive to it.
Couple this with the fact that the people I know in the industry haven’t given up and continue to be passionate about games, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2013. Whether they are on other projects, or still need to land on their feet and soldier on, they, like me, continue to look forward, and the gamers who play their games should do the same. Projects continue to move forward, the horizon is full of upcoming and anticipated titles, and love and interest in games of all types is still extremely high. Trust me when I say that the people who make the games, manage the communities, squash the bugs, and design the mechanics are just as ready to keep working hard to deserve the appreciation they get from players – whether they are on a new project, or looking for the next one. The simple satisfaction and contentment seen by a gamer who enjoys something they worked on, and the corresponding feeling it elicits in industry folks, is a one of a kind thing that makes all of the pain, risk, hurt, and long hours well worth it.
2012 is coming to an end, and the industry has been shoved into the ropes, but it keeps coming back – it will, and it must. The wise Rocky Balboa said in his final film that it’s not about how hard you can hit, but about how hard you get hit and move forward. The industry’s taken quite a few body blows and hits over the course of 2012, but it never stopped going and never will stop, and neither will the people that make it up all of its parts.
I hope everyone is looking forward to a great 2013 filled with new possibilities and opportunities. I know I am.