It’s Not Just the Fans...
When it comes to keeping player expectations in line, it’s not just a
game’s fans that a dev company has to concern itself with,
made Brad McQuaid something of a gaming celebrity.
company’s own team. Todd “Nino” Masten, the man behind the
oft-acclaimed music in Vanguard, was notoriously vocal about the game
on the Fires of Heaven guild forum, to the point where he
, “I've been strongly encouraged to stop posting here
likely get lectured or have disciplinary action taken against me for
Although team members working on a game in development are usually just
as enthused, if not more so, about it than the people responsible for
marketing the game, many dev companies keep most of their teams, with
the exception of community managers and PR representatives, off forums
to avoid letting anything but PR-approved commentary get out.
“I can certainly understand why most developers and publishers keep
non-PR people away from the message boards,” McQuaid commented. “They
don’t want to have to put forth the extra effort of media training a
bunch of their people. They also don’t want any one person identifiable
with their product--they want the consumer to think of the company,
not, say, the lead designer.”
But McQuaid and Sigil’s upper management, with a few exceptions like
Masten, were not quick to silence their team members during Vanguard’s
development, preferring to let them have their say when it came to
interacting with the fan community.
“My philosophy has always been to put the extra effort [of media
training for staff members] in,” says McQuaid. “I want to see employees
earn some name cache. This might not benefit the company directly, but
I think it helps the industry overall. Look at movies in our society. I
think the public benefits in knowing who produced a film, or who is
starring in the film. If we only knew about the film company behind a
movie I think that would be a disservice.”
McQuaid’s thinking is perhaps a bit outside the norm, however. While
fans certainly do seem to appreciate the opportunity to communicate
with a game’s developers one-on-one, the growing belief among dev
companies seems to be that staff should work silently in the trenches.
The voices for any given MMOG are often those approved by the game’s
public relations and marketing team. Written interviews often pass PR
approval before being returned to media outlets, and impromptu
communication with fans, outside of fan events, is generally hard to
There seems to be a growing cynicism among MMOG fans that most of what
they hear about an upcoming game amounts to nothing but PR spin.
“PR spin is another form of hype,” says McQuaid. “But the hype is only
bad if you don’t deliver. So the key is to hype the
PR are important parts of a product launch. Hyping a game is crucial,
just as long as your game lives up to the hype. So I think the problem
isn't necessarily with getting people excited, it's with not letting
features of the
game that you are confident you're going to deliver on.”
It’s a sound philosophy, but it seems a tough one to follow. Fans have
grown accustomed to hearing about promised features, or classes, or
even races and starting cities, which inevitably don’t make their way
into the game by launch. And despite the reality that a development
company only pulls out a promised feature when dire circumstances
demand it, these fans can be less than forgiving.
Sales people have a creed: Under-promise and over-deliver. But to
disillusioned fans, developers sometimes seem to do the opposite--they
over-promise, yet under-deliver, leading to disappointment. Is it
possible to prevent this scenario?
“I think sales people are often less attached to the project,” McQuaid
insists. “As a developer, you pretty much fall in love with your game.
You pour your heart and soul into it. It’s very easy to drink your own
Kool-aid.” And again, he insists that the key to avoiding this scenario
is to never promise something you can’t deliver. “Easier said than
done, of course,” he adds.
This One Time, On the Official Forums...
In the past couple years, some large MMO titles, including Vanguard and
Warhammer, have launched without official forums. Players often
criticize this move, claiming that the lack of official forums means
developers are refusing to acknowledge the inevitable crash that
happens when stratospheric fan expectations meet with the reality of
the live game. Is this fan argument valid? Or are there compelling
reasons for games to launch without official forums? If discussion
forums are a tool for managing player expectations, how do developers
keep expectations in line without them?
“I think the ‘logic’ behind not having official forums is that
disgruntled players are more likely to rant and rave on an official
site than elsewhere,” says McQuaid. “But this philosophy is a two edged
sword. Having been involved in projects where both philosophies have
been adopted, I now think that having an official site does more good
Keeping Hype Under Control
Hype is essential to the success of any MMOG, but building excitement
for a game without over-hyping fans is an art few development companies
seem able to master. Inevitably, fan expectations soar and the
launching game faces the daunting task of living up to them. In the
end, is it possible for a developer to keep the hype factor from
spinning out of control?
“I think we can control it to a degree, but not completely,” says
McQuaid. “Marketing and PR are important parts of a product launch.
Hyping a game is crucial, just as long as your game lives up to the
hype. So I think the problem isn’t necessarily with getting people
excited, rather, it’s with not letting them down.”