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Developers and their Communities
Posted on Tuesday, October 21 2008 @ 11:44:10 Eastern

http://img184.imageshack.us/img184/271/dabannerik3.jpg

Also known as ‘The Fallout 3 Fiasco’.

Recently, Bethesda Softworks have taken a few direct hits to their ego from certain establishments over public relations moves that have gone down as well as a ‘yo momma’ joke in an orphanage. The studio has been attacked for their laziness, and even one of their recent shenanigans is acclaimed to be the beginning of a reign of a whole different type of videogame censorship. Fortunately for Bethesda; they have a friend in me. Personally, I believe that these attackers know as much about developing and producing a game successfully as I do about the Large Hadron Collider (how current, eh?). Yet Bethesda’s actions could, potentially, spur on a new wave of community-to-studio relations globally which may not be as successful as we’ve seen in the past. Unlike other articles of mine, perhaps some of my smarter readers will actually sympathise with my own viewpoints. Allow me to elaborate:

Bethesda Softworks vice president Pete Hines has stated that his company largely ignored advice from users during Fallout 3 development.

Dedicated Fallout fans and forum rioters swamped Bethesda with complaints about the more Oblivion-like direction it was taking the franchise.

Bethesda chose to stick with its own direction and only take "feedback from the people who are actually playing the game."

"When you're designing a game, you have this group of people on the inside who are working on it every day and who know everything about the decisions that are being made," he explained. "You don't just take a chunk of that, throw it out to the community and say, 'We don't know how this question works, so let's ask the fans.' You're working and changing every day - it's a constant, fluid process. It's not like we say, 'Okay, everything is done now, let's see what they say then go back and change it.'"

More important than forcing game changes based on what gamers want is testing the title in-house with those who developed it, says Hines.

"We're big believers in playing the game, putting things in and then letting folks see how it feels, as opposed to 'Oh, that sounds terrible!' It turns out that ideas that sound terrible, when slightly tweaked, can be ****ing awesome in the game. And it's sometimes the case that awesome-sounding ideas will suck when you actually put them in. You're never a slave to how something is written on paper - you put it in the game and play it. You have to take feedback from the people who are actually playing the game."

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Outrageous, eh? We’ve seen it before: Developers not listening to fan feedback and keeping things in closed beta leads to disastrous results. Recent example? Check out Age of Conan; they used open beta as a typical stress test, but they overlooked the thousands of bugs and holes which made sections of the game (especially later on) down-right unplayable simply because their in-house testing team had not discovered or reported them. When it was released, thousands of players complained about such errors, but Funcom totally ignored even the most popular threads of complaints, insisting that things were ‘working as intended’. Unfortunately, in this example the corporation was so stuck up and ignorant to their own playerbase that they paid dearly for it within days following launch.

http://www.aeropause.com/wordpress/archives/images/2008/05/age-of-conan-1.jpg

But I do agree with Bethesda’s thinking, however. On a basic level, a single-player game (Fallout 3) is different from a MMO (AoC). With a MMO, you depend on your community to keep the thing alive; they pay for your tech staff, tech support, customer support, server upkeep and developers; putting food on the table for three hundred (or more) staff. When you make a decision to reject that – basically your only source of income for the next four years - then it isn’t a surprise that you’re going to get screwed in the arse. A strong community can also come up with the odd, reasonable new suggestion (such as an item or location) you can slap into the game in a future expansion. With a single-player game, you don’t really require that level of dedication from fans; their initial purchase of your product is all you aim for. Sure, you may opt to throw in a few patches after is something is terribly wrong with the game, but usually all bugs are ironed out during testing.

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Single-player games are also severely limited. It may be ‘an open world’ but whoever plays the game is gonna get the same introduction cutscene and be encouraged to follow the same story. Sure, it’s an ‘open world’ but who gives a rat’s arse? You’re simply not going to play it as much as a MMO and thus the chances of bugs are cut down ridiculously by chance alone. Oblivion was so infested with bugs that it brought in professional biologists for a look, but recall that was some years ago now; they’ve learned how to test a game properly (we hope) and Bethesda are sticking to what they’re good at. Funcom (as well as their fellow genre-changing peers) made the giant leap from adventure games with a huge story and some amazing artwork into the gritty world of MMOs; it certainly was an interesting announcement, but it really didn’t go down too well when it came to making the actual game fun, eh? Alright, I’ll stop with the Conan hate now.

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So if the fans ain’t being used for fly-swatting, but what about content creation? Well, as Peter suggests, Bethesda has been making games since some of these whiners were in nappies (some still are). Surely, they have refined their art of what and what not to include in gameplay now, even if they are experimenting with new features (like that weird mix of third-person shooter but RPG elements they’ve got going on) and will definitely have a direction for design in the story too. This means that the majority (and I do mean, 99.9%) of player suggestions are going to be a little… off. That is to say that incorporating a dragon battle or arming the player with a katana may be a little out of place. Sure, we all have our picture of an ideal game*, but this is being made by Bethesda – not you. No matter how much you love the series, or how much you’re paying for a game; you’re still not part of their staff and therefore not really qualified to try and determine what everyone wants while trying to keep your own direction: That is the really hard part of PR: Think Bruce in Bruce Almighty trying to keep up with all those prayers or, if you believe Jim Carrey to be an idiot** think Bender in Futurama in the episode where he accidentally becomes a god; trying to listen to everyone's suggestions at once and acting on them. Managing all those raging, hormonal followers whilst trying to still generate buzz for the game has been the downfall of many a community manager; if it isn’t balanced right, things could lean towards disastrous PR.

http://www.joystiq.com/media/2006/05/Fallout-3-e32k6-poster.jpg

What’s my overall opinion? I’m fully in support of Bethesda ignoring their fans’ suggestions, but bare in mind I’m simply a glorified troll and they’re a highly experienced developer studio. I do believe that any major release nowadays must follow this trend; if only in part. It is important to always remember why you’re making the game: Is it for the fans? Or is it so anyone - including yourself - can play and you’re simply using the fans as a great, hearty backdrop and support base? I’m not saying ‘**** the fans’ completely, but rather nudge studios to take the latter option over the former. Simply: If a studio is competent and has a open-minded, in-house team that are worth the money they’re paid in the first place, then there should be absolutely no reason to take spoonfuls of community feedback as gospel; especially considering how unrefined and spontaneous some suggestions can be. Unless, of course, the game itself relies on community support (See: Darkfall, opening of World of Warcraft) but even then strict moderation should be employed to make sure the power of the masses doesn’t become too great (think that class forums are hid nicely away in their own sub-section of the website). Communities should remember there is a fine line between support and making rude demands; don’t fall into the trap of being blasé or else the developer will really start to dislike you. We can all think of certain whiny arseholes we’ve encountered that just don’t know when to shut up.

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Thoughts?

Melaisis is still a freelance writer for anything from The Escapist to PC Gamer UK. He helps run a daily blog over at The Three Rs - which deals with all sorts of cultural issues, from an alphabet using Halo corpses to cybersex.

Oh, a quick final word:

Gamers in Australia who are upset about being stuck with an edited version of Fallout 3 can rest easy - it turns out the entire world is getting the same modified version you are.

After being refused classification by Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification, a decision which effectively banned the sale of the game, changes were made to some parts of the game's content in order to make it more palatable to the country's censors. Bethesda Softworks has steadfastly refused to comment specifically about what modifications were made, but it's widely accepted that references to drugs, a staple of the Fallout games, were the cause of all the problems.

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Oh come on; it’s hardly a landmark in game politics; all it is changing the names of a few drugs within the game - not affecting the overall experience in the slightest.

What, that we're all suffering for the fascism of the Australian government, and if this trend continues then the will of one absurdly conservative government on the other side of the world will end up having shockwaves on the global market? I never said it wasn't a bad thing but - as others have said - it is nothing to write home about. Sure, there is a possibility that other developers could take the same view as Bethesda's laziness and any alterations that are forced on them in one part of the world will be applied elsewhere, or that a single fascist government could dictate what the entire Western world plays but honestly; talk about panicking over a fire when there's only smoke and ashes. We've been worrying about censorship since Jack Thompson and what has changed in the industry, exactly?

Just because one studio decided to opt for the E-Z route when it came to manufacturing the game to get by censors doesn't mean that everyone will start doing it.

http://www.megatonik.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/manhunt-mature-eye.jpg

*My ideal game is actually worth another blog entry in itself: Basically, it’s about two main characters: The first is an ‘indigo adult’ who is pursued constantly by a mysterious racoon, which he slowly learns to live with and treats as a partner/weapon. The second character is a 25 year old retired J-pop star on the run from her dead sister (now an onryō) after a series of unfortunate events led to her death. Brought together by the walls of time and space collapsing, the two (alongside the racoon, with the player as the male lead) traverse a city together; the bond slowly growing as they seek to discover the undoing of the universe. Think of it being a mixture of Ico with Condemned or Fatal Frame, with horror elements stemming from John Dies At The End. Furthermore, I’d incorporate the lesser-used scary elements of videogames. You know how survival-horror games like to include ‘safe’ rooms so people can get their bearings, safe and calm down? Well such safe rooms would only appear to exist in my game. Furthermore, remember that part in Metal Gear Solid 2 where the S3 technology breaks the fourth wall and tells you to turn of your console? A scare like that is unexpected and genuinely frightening in a whole new way, I feel.


**I’ve loved him since he did a dinosaur impression in Series of Unfortunate Events.

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