Why Developers Shouldn't Listen To Your Stupid Ideas
How much input should players have on developers and game design? Should studios even be listening at all?
Almost every game is developed with input from regular gamers, but how much influence should they have over the development process? We take a look at player feedback and focus groups and see how they influence the games we play…
When Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, was asked about the role of the consumer in bringing the motorcar to the mass market, he simply laughed. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” he replied, “they would have said faster horses.” In Ford’s eyes, innovation came from the experts, from people of vision. The people who buy products may feel entitled to be involved in what those products turn out to be, but their opinions will invariably be informed by what they already know. It is not a recipe for progress, but for obsolescence. Ford may have been talking about cars, but the idea can be applied to any industry where creative thinking is a necessary part of progress.
In any given year, the worst films, albums or novels tend to be those specifically produced to satisfy an existing consumer demand, normally established by conducting surveys with the public. However, the interactive nature of videogames makes them unusually susceptible to this kind of influence.
Extensive player input in the form of quality assurance and beta testing is a valuable part of the development process, helping studios to locate bugs, balance difficulty and refine the gameplay. However, the danger arises when the industry uses focus testing to try to define what the public wants to see before a game has even entered full development. Most of the time, what we’ll end up with isn’t a shiny new automobile, but a faster horse. “Imagine if I invented the bicycle and tried to explain it to you,” Peter Molyneux, the games industry’s most famous dreamer, said to Times Online. “If I told you I’d invented a machine that could go at 30mph and that travelling on a piece of rubber this wide would be the most popular form of transport in the world, you would look at me as if I was some kind of lunatic. You have to build the bicycle first. I did a game called Populous back in 1989, and publisher after publisher didn’t get it. They wanted missiles, bombs and weapons. It happened again with Theme Park.”
The threat a reliance on focus testing poses to the creative freedom of development studios was highlighted by a recent news story on Gamasutra.com concerning Luxoflux’s True Crime: Hong Kong. Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra’s news director, reported that sources working within Luxoflux and Activision, True Crime’s publisher, had revealed that the game was originally conceived at Treyarch as “Black Lotus”, an original IP inspired by Hong Kong cinema, starring an Asian female assassin modelled on Lucy Liu.
“Black Lotus was a great project internally,” claimed one of Alexander’s sources, a former employee of Treyarch. “We were all very proud of what we were trying to make and the team was excited. We made great progress.” However, this was 2007, when games like Halo 3 and Modern Warfare dominated the sales charts, and it was decided that a game with a female protagonist simply wouldn’t sell. Whether you choose to believe Gamasutra’s anonymous sources or not, the situation is nevertheless entirely believable in today’s risk- averse industry. “It illuminates a larger issue about an environment of progressive creation,” Alexander later wrote on her blog, “About developer happiness, about being a healthy, widely relevant industry that attracts a broad range of interesting people on the production side and on the audience side.”
In a discussion on the online forum Quarter To Three, a programmer who worked on Assassin’s Creed – also anonymous – described the negative impact focus tests had on the gameplay. The team’s intention was for the guards to attack Altaïr only when he drew their attention by running, climbing, and other extrovert moves, but after a series of focus tests they were prompted to change it.
“Now the problem, as I see it, is that we nerfed the living shit out of guards before we shipped, because of focus tests. Guards were a lot more consistent before, because if they reacted to you in any fashion they would attack. If you bumped them, or jumped around in their presence, or punched someone in front of them, they’d attack. Playing the game now, it’s easy to see the holes that were opened by those changes (like the fact you can just start beating the crap out of an interrogation target in front of guards and they won’t care).”
The fact that those willing to talk about the negative impact of focus tests on game development choose to remain anonymous should not be taken as evidence that it isn’t true. It offers plausible grounds to refute the claims, but as professionals working within the industry it’s only logical that they would wish to protect themselves.
Besides, when figures like Danny Bilson, THQ’s vice president of core games, are willing to meet the subject head-on, the important question isn’t about whether it happens at all – it’s about how often it happens and to what effect?
“We don’t do research to find out what people want to play,” he told Joystiq at this year’s Game Developers Conference. “If you need to do that kind of research you must not be playing games yourself… Inspiration comes from one place and research and focus testing will usually destroy it. It will usually create ‘bland’, and create something for everyone and really nothing for anyone.”