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Author Topic: Open Development  (Read 3506 times)
In the year 3000

Cakes 49
Posts: 3775

Trickster God.

« on: January 29, 2014, 07:16:46 AM »

Today I want to share 3 articles about this touchy issue.

The first two are two opposed ideas about open game development and community feedback, while the third tries to act as a "middle ground" between the two. I suggest to read the three articles (they aren't very long, after all) before commenting. =)

The Ignorance Of Crowds: Why Open Development Is Crap

Open development is just about the worst idea for games.

People like to think they’re pretty special. And people do tend to have a habit of thinking what they think is right, and those who disagree are wrong. In my case it’s actually true, but unfortunately that’s not always the case for others. And really, honestly, the very last thing I want is other wrong people to be influencing the games I’m going to play. Developers have to stop asking other people how to make their games.

One of the biggest mistakes of the caring, sharing internet ways of the 2010s is the idea that if you’re creating something for someone, you need to get those someones’ approval as you create it. I can assure people, based on the last few thousand years of creativity, that this absolutely isn’t the case. In fact, it can only lead to stifling creativity, and deepening the ruts of gaming. Why? Because people don’t know what they want.

People know what they already like. They will inevitably ask for more of it.

This is partly the equivalent of the child who will only eat sausages, because he’s not tried fish fingers or spaghetti bolognese. He doesn’t want the unknown. A good parent will respond by telling that child to shut up and eat his fish fingers. A bad parent will say, “Well, you know what you like, I suppose,” and feed them nothing but sausages for the rest of their childhood. I don’t want to only play sausages. I want to taste games I’ve never even heard of, games from exotic locations, to eat mysterious new combinations of games that no one’s ever tried before.

And it’s partly because it’s very hard for people to say, “I would like this game to include this fantastically original new feature that you need to come up with.” And that’s precisely what I want my game developers to be doing, on their own, in private.

I’m not arguing that all open development inevitably leads to mediocrity. But I’m saying it bloody well asks for it. Asking people to tell you the sort of thing they already like, or giving them the chance to tell you to change something different into something they already like, is one hell of a shove toward a bland, beige middleground. Player feedback sounds so great, so all-inclusive and community friendly. But I’ve a thought exercise to argue otherwise:

Imagine if I stopped all the people in the supermarket while you were shopping, and told them to come to a consensus and fill your cart for you. And remember, this isn’t some fantasy supermarket in Dreamland where there’s the possibility of anyone else there not being a screeching arsebucket who leaves their trolley diagonally across the aisle while they fart into their mobile phone and knock over the milk.

So as these lumbering Homo ergaster attempt to process the instructions, and then begin bawling their likes and dislikes at each other while likely throwing vegetables, what do you imagine is going to be providing your dinner options at the end of this exercise? It’s going to be frozen chips, isn’t it? And sure, you like frozen chips – you’re not mad. But you’ve eaten an awful lot of frozen chips over the years. An awful lot.

The wisdom of crowds, as first observed by eugenicist Francis Galton, argues that “the many are smarter than the few”. And the argument is well made. Because it’s based on averages. The larger the number of people guessing at something, the closer they get to the truth when their answers are averaged out. And that’s the key. Averaging. And we don’t want that from creativity! It’s the death of creativity. When it comes to the creativity, crowds are about the least wise mass imaginable. Crowds should be avoided at all costs. In all senses.

One of the most stark examples of this I’ve seen was The Old Republic. I played the game a few times during its years of development, and saw its erosion to mediocrity at the hands of crowds. The first time it was talked about and shown, it was so promising. That mantra, that line they repeated far past its being true, that this was to be “KotORs 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7” was meaningful at one point. They were hoping to take the magnificent Old Republic universe online, and create a story-driven MMO. Each time I revisited it that goal was being further abandoned, the game becoming increasingly generic and unoriginal, and each time the developers explained, “When we’ve beta tested, these are the features players have been demanding.” What was once going to be the continuation of Knights Of The Old Republic online, through the ignorance of crowds, became World Of Warcraft with Twi’leks.

People wanted raids! People wanted guilds! People wanted customisable pets! People wanted more of the MMOs they were already playing because they knew they already liked those! People are idiots! We shouldn’t ever listen to people!

I’m not saying that games shouldn’t be playtested. Of course they should. A developer can get too insular, fail to notice the mistakes they’re making and end up developing them into the core of the game. Valve’s model of bringing a person in every week to play a build of a game, and observing their playing, is a splendid one. They don’t then fawn all over that person, asking them what they should do next. They see what does and doesn’t work by the player’s reactions. They mould their vision to fit reality. That makes sense. But “open development”, that’s abandoning your vision to appease the masses. And the masses are so often massive idiots.

Kickstarter is making this so much worse. This ghastly expectation backers now have that they should have some influence over the game itself: NO. NO NO NO. You’re a wallet, and that’s it. Hand over your money, accept the sheer unbridled stupidity of developers then showing all their promotional materials only to the people who already bought the game, and keep your mouths shut. If you’ve got some incredibly brilliant ideas for making a video game, then here’s an idea: go make a video game. But you don’t – you’re just going to loudly crap on about how important it is that there’s crafting. So shut it.

Developers! Stop listening! And damned well stop asking! I have no idea what started this colossal crisis of confidence amongst the development world, but good gracious, could everyone get a hold of themselves? You’re the CREATORS, so get on with CREATING. Have some bloody convictions! You want to make a great game, so go ahead and make it, and stop thinking you have to pander to loud-mouths back-seat-developing your game for you. LISTEN ONLY TO ME.

Gosh, games are going to be so much better now everyone’s agreed to all this.

In Defence of Open Development

Today I read a piece by John Walker, where he asserts that having an open development process is a bad thing. I responded on Twitter, but I feel I need a few more characters to explain myself. While Johns argument seems sound, in a superficial manner, he fails to understand the role of a games designer, how games production in general works and the reasons why a developer might turn their ear to their customers.

The foundation of Johns complaint is that a democratic development process cannot work, because the input from ill-informed people will lead the developer astray. Here's the thing: Open development is not democratic, only the developer is holding the wheel.

Open development is about providing the users with the information they need and communication channels required to allow them to critique your work. It is not about compromising the design process in an effort to pander and please.

By talking openly about features I am forced to defend my ideas. I have to provide a reason as to why I feel an idea works and justify my thought processes. I have to work hard to build the trust of my community so they will accept my final judgements. It is a review process that strengthens my vision and challenges my arrogance as an artist. It is healthy.

For a developer, ideas are never in short supply. If a designer is not able to quickly filter bad ideas, then they are a bad designer, it doesn't matter if they come from within or without.

I feel it is counter productive to bring up faulty focus group testing (usually caused by bad methodology) as an argument against open development. Getting outside opinions is critical to any design process. If you stare at something for twelve hours a day for two years, you become blind to it, and however hard I try, I will never be able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone else experiencing my game for the first time.

I'll also never be able to imagine what a blind person sees when they play my game, or understand the struggles of a user with limited mobility. These are problems I cannot troubleshoot from a single viewpoint, however creative and handsome I am.

Will adding a slider to adjust the font size in Maia compromise my creative vision, will adjusting the mouse speed just be pandering to Cerebral Palsy victims?* Will I no longer be an auteur? How about if I fix the bugs that the Intel GPU users have been getting? Will it destroy my mise-en-scene?

There are problems with open development. It's a bit slower, and involves painful challenging of one's own ego. That's not easy at all, but as someone who regards games as an art form, I understand it is necessary.

I hope that clears up my thoughts on the issue.

And now before I post this blog I will send it to a few people. Some of them will never develop a game or even play one. They will pick apart this article and ask me to clarify my points. They will pull apart my language and force me to rewrite parts of it. As the reader you will benefit from their input as will I, the writer.


*A real example of some of the feedback I have received

The Dangers of Open Development

There is a good debate on open development, with John Walker’s RockPaperShotgun article strongly against it, and Simon Roth’s response here on Gamasutra strongly in defence.

I wanted to chime in.  I’ve been on both sides.  I’ve worked on live MMO teams (and before that, MUDs), which are largely open development, due to being online and evolving while live.  And I’ve worked on other games (both AAA and indie) which were not open.

Here's the thing.

Teams who embrace open development are, at least to some extent, using this as a marketing strategy.  Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

In the world of indie games, gone are the days you can ignore pre-launch community.  This is a fairly new phenomenon.  For many indies, community and crowd funding is how you get money to make your game.  Community votes help you avoid getting trapped in the Greenlight queue for months or longer.  Community and hype are how you can get the attention of publishers and new platforms, if that’s what you’re looking for.  And, for an indie studio without an established fan base or huge marketing budget, community is a big factor in how well your game will sell.

In the world of AAA MMOs, “betas” stopped meaning “public testing” a long time ago.  It now primarily means “publicity event” and “hype machine”.  Sure, betas will still uncover infrastructure problems and bugs.  But you don’t launch a beta unless you’re convinced it will be a marketable player experience (or you’re out of money).

The best way to build a community, outside of having something cool to show off, is to engage people in the development process.  To listen to them.  Open development does this.  There’s very little that will engage players more than implementing their ideas and changes.  It’s human nature.  We want to be a part of the creative process.  We want our opinions heard and validated.  We want the game to be designed for our own enjoyment.

Is this a bad thing?

Not always – there are smart people out there who will give you intelligent design critique and good ideas.

Here's the problem.  When reacting to the community's feedback, which hat are you wearing?  Your marketing hat, or your designer hat?  If you are wearing your marketing hat, then John/RPS's critique is pretty valid.  Game design decisions become a popularity contest.  This dilutes the vision of the final product.  And likely bloats out the feature list.

Now, as game designers, we want players to enjoy our game.  We need our game to achieve a certain level of financial success to continue working and doing what we love.  Yet we also have a vision of what we want to create.  Sometimes, this vision will be at odds with the goal of maximizing the game’s popularity.

Open development can be a slippery slope that leads from an artistic focus, to a purely business and marketing focus.  If that happens, you'll probably end up making a shitty game anyway.  How not to slip on this slipperiness?

Be critical of player ideas.

When people want feature X because they loved it in their most favorite game ever, be prepared to say no (this will happen a lot).  Be prepared to tell players, “that is not the game we’re making”.

Make unpopular decisions when they need to be made.  Explain why.

Be controversial, but don’t be an asshole about it.

If you have crowd funded your game, make damn sure you don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Never lie to your community, even if the truth is hard.

Above all else, be true to the vision of the game you set out to create.

BTW, Gamasutra's blogs are a very good place for development-related articles.

"Detailed" is nice, but if it gets in the way of clarity, it ceases being a nice addition and becomes a problem. - TVT
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