The Delusions of Player Communication Requests
Last week, an article went up on our sister site, EQHammer.com, entitled “Silence Isn’t Golden” and talked about all the reasons players think developer communication is a joke. Some complaints pointed out were that X Company doesn’t communicate enough. Players are tired of feeling like they’re being kept at arm’s length. They don’t understand why their important questions are not being answered and have determined that this “needs to stop immediately”.
As a former Community Coordinator for BioWare and ArenaNet, I'm here to give you some bad news. It’s not going to happen. I agree that in a perfect world, it would be awesome if developers could take time every day and respond to player posts, read the forums, and share the long-term goals of the game they’re working on. The sad reality though is that while communication between developers and players can change and improve, until there's a shift in human behavior on the internet, it will never happen.
There are a number of reasons for this, but let’s start off with just a few. For starters, just because someone is a great programmer or designer does not mean they’re good at communicating with fans. For example, I worked with one developer that was a mathematical genius and thought he was funny, but sent a set of forums into a complete meltdown when he started trolling the players. He wasn’t trying to, he just failed to understand how things come across differently in the written word so that’s the way his posts came across. He was also far too opinionated to be a voice of reason in the middle of an angry mob.
Companies hire community professionals for a reason, not the least of which is our ability to deal with players on a daily basis without sending them into an uproar. At least that’s true for most days. Like it or not, the amount of vitriol any community team deals with on a daily basis would send most people into a black pit of depression they would never emerge from. Developers are skilled in their professions, but many do not handle hatred and vicious comments well – to the point that I’ve seen some leave for days because they were so hurt by the words of their “fans”.
And yes, I put the fans above in quotation marks. I can’t count the amount of times players have used the forums or private message systems to write some of the most horrific things about developers and their families that you can imagine. Most of these comments make the whole Penny Arcade Dickwolves fiasco sound like a story you’d read to little children to help them go to sleep at night. Most developers are not wired to handle that kind of hatred. And yes, before you ask, of course the community team does everything they can to keep the forums clean and amicable.
So far, this sounds like a rant fest, eh? The good news is that the majority of any game’s players never set foot on the forums and those that do are actually pretty good people. The problem comes in the form of perspective though. Keep in mind that with some of these games, like SWTOR, we were dealing with over a million forum users. Literally - over 1 million. Hundreds of thousands of posts were made every single day at one point. Even if only 1% of those posts are hate-filled diatribes (and the percentage will always be higher than that, no matter what game you’re talking about), that means that out of 200,000 posts, that’s still 2,000 posts that need to be cleaned up or removed. In the scheme of things, that doesn’t sound like much, but it doesn’t take too many rotten apples to spoil the bunch.
Forgetting the angry posters for a while, let’s talk about the developers themselves. I can tell you from personal experience that a large number of them would love to answer tons of questions on the forums. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they even had the time to do so (which they really don’t). Let’s even assume that we’re not talking about them going through the forums themselves, but are just responding to the forum posts forwarded to them each day by the members of the community team. 99% of all questions have to do with one of two things – something that isn’t working or something players want to see in the game.
In the case of something that isn’t working, I guarantee that if there’s already a thread about it, the development team is aware of it. There are systems in place that continually monitor and analyze player behavior. As a result, it doesn’t take long to discover when something went wrong with the latest patch. In these instances, community team members will normally either combine threads (which gets messy) or select one main thread, let the players know X bug is being worked on, and close all the others. It’s not a matter of censorship or that they hate you, it’s because they’re trying to keep things organized so people coming to the forums can see what’s going on. In the case of old bugs, again, the team is well aware.
Despite what some people think, posting a message of “We know it’s broken and will implement a fix as soon as we can” gets old to players, quickly - especially when that bug persists for months on end. Like it or not, all bugs are prioritized and quite often repeatedly get pushed to the next patch because more impactful bugs have been discovered. Eventually, they may even be deemed minor enough to be listed as “Not going to fix” because of the cost versus return investment isn’t worth it. I know that to you it’s a big deal that sometimes when you fire your Bow of Awesomeness within 5 feet of a cavern wall inside the Dungeon of Doom and it heals an enemy instead of doing its appropriate damage. Sadly though, that bug may only affect less than 0.0001% of the game’s population and the cost to fix it just isn’t worth it. I know it sucks, but it’s the truth.
In terms of players posting about something they’d like to see in game, the ones that gather enough interest from the community team, individual developers that periodically scan the forums (though rare, they do exist), or from other players, are sent on to the appropriate development team. When it comes to something cool being added into a game, developers cannot wait to tell everyone about it. I’ve seen developers get something into a workable state and are salivating at the mouth so much in anticipation of letting players know about it that they nearly drown. Once again though, they’re not allowed to and for a good reason.
Let’s say a developer made the following statement in a forum post - “The team is working on this awesome new feature called Bazoola Woogle Hunting. The design discussions are going great so far, but it’s still on the drawing board. I can’t promise anything will come of it, but hopefully we’ll be able to show the community more about it soon.” There are so many reasons the community team on hand would cringe at this that they’re hard to process, but let me point out a few.
Rule number one – I know “soon” to the player base means a couple weeks, but in development speak, that can easily be six months or more. Remember, these people may have been working on this project for years. To them, six months is nothing.
Rule number two – “I can’t promise anything” gets translated to “I promise it will be in the game soon” within a matter of minutes on various boards the statement gets forwarded to.
Rule number three – Rules one and two are the creators of “The Company Lied To Us!" syndrome.
I realize this article may seem a little harsh, but these are some of the realities of communicating with developers and game companies in general. Does that mean there aren’t ways to improve communication? Absolutely not. It does mean that a utopia of players always being aware of everything a company is working on will never come to pass though.