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In Defence of Open Development.
by Simon Roth on 01/23/14 07:48:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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

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Paolo Gambardella
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Interesting article, thanks for write it! :)
can you please add some success case with open development? I find the principles really good, but maybe they can be almost utopic. I have never developed in open environments, by the way, so as you are the expert you can surely link some interesting product. Thank you! :)

Simon Roth
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Every game to some degree has a level of openess. (Very few games are programmed in solitary confinement by a single dev). As for games I feel are close to the ideal; Minecraft, Project Zomboid, Terraria, Garry's Mod, X3 and ARMA 2/3 are some very notable examples that have had a healthy relationship with their large audiences.

Paradox interactive as a publisher and developer also deserve a mention as they really go out of their way to work with their communities.

Paolo Gambardella
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thank you very much!

Bob Fox
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Problem is not open development, since open development you can get feedback early and often and not make fundamental design decision errors that exist in so many games.

The problem is the capacity for shovelware and dev teams to either not finish the game because now they can sit back on the money or during development losing interest now that they have the players money. So they start phoning it in. Then there is team politics/problems/people leaving/etc.

It's too convenient to fleece kids/teens/stupid adults out of their money and give little in return. The shovelware thing is the biggest problem because let's be honest since those kickstarter successes we've seen a huge stampede towards the gold rush for the Internets stupid dollars.

Maria Jayne
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Feedback is vital to the design process, however the moment you start reacting to that feedback, you should question why. Getting hundreds of varying opinions generally is the tip of the ice berg, happy people rarely bother to tell you why and if they're honest, many won't even know the answer to that. Equally, knowing you dislike something doesn't necessarily make that reasoning accurate as to why you dislike it. Articulation is a skill few people practice without emotional bias or personal agenda.

The amount of suggestions and accusations thrown onto game forums on a daily basis suggests everyone has an opinion but that isn't the answer, that's the problem. You can't please everyone, sometimes it's best not to try. You have to be careful you don't give those who desire your reaction to their feedback too much power, lest you end up with a game neither you nor anybody else is happy with.

There is also an interesting methodology to some developer interpretations of feedback. Often it seems to be the case feedback is second guessed and wrongly translated into something else. You can't always assume feedback needs translating, sometimes the solution really is that simple.

Adam Bishop
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The examples that you provide of useful feedback you've received both seem to have more to do with usability than game design. I'm 100% on board with doing usability testing to ensure that a game works as well as possible for as many people as possible. You're not really modifying the game in any meaningful way by making those kinds of changes.

But that strikes me as a very different beast from making changes to the underlying systems in a game. Changing the underlying systems of a game at the request of some players fundamentally alters the experience for other players. I think this should be especially concerning because we all know that you'll only ever hear feedback from a minority of players, and those will often be the players with the strongest opinions who may not be representative of the silent majority. Those are the kinds of changes we should be much more wary about making.

Simon Roth
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Yeah there was a long discussion on Twitter regarding this, but felt it would start diluting the core of the article as a response to RPS's. The examples given were usability ones to make a clear point that Johns suggestion of *never* listening to people was blatantly wrong.

If you have a vocal minority, I believe you have compromised the communication lines between you and your community. It's a bandwidth problem, where things have built up in the pipe. You need to specify what is up for discussion and stick rigidly to what you want to engage your community about, and you need to explain to those who are vocal how you will or won't be addressing their concerns. Otherwise you are just encouraging group think.

If you are only getting selective feedback then again it's a communications problem. Yes, you'll never know what everyone thought, but if you have any sort of play stats (such as on Steam) you can make more informed decisions about where you need to focus your efforts. Many companies have community managers who are woefully underutilised, and seem to just act as a soft-PR and tech support person. I mentioned them in a comment above, but Paradox do an excellent job of ensuring that every part of their fan base can talk directly to the company.

Rob B
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The original article isnt talking about a full critique, doesnt say ideas shouldnt be looked over, states in no uncertain terms. 'I’m not saying that games shouldn’t be playtested. Of course they should. A developer can get too insular'
and talks about methods of getting a proper critique of the work so you can hear specifically what is being said and judge whether it is good or bad.

As a result none of your points actually address the issue being discussed and are frankly pretty obnoxious, raising disabled access as an issue as if the original article was specifically cutting that out when it did nothing of the sort. Your saying he *never* wants to listen is directly contradicted by the article written and nothing but a strawman.

Open development as that article defines it isnt just any attempt at getting criticism, its about opening the flood gates.
It turns in to a statistics game of what should stay or go and is too nebulous to pull apart in great depth. (Once you do its no longer open access because you are effectively only listening to a closed off select few anyway.) At best it gets things to average, at worst it becomes fan-service schlock.

Its basically a cheaper version of the major market research and demographic systems that ensure our most popular media (Sometimes good but rarely challenging.) never deviates too far. One is run by guys in suits trying to sell enough to stop the company going under, the other is by well meaning developers trying to get things right.
The motivations are ultimately similar and the result is the same.

Simon Roth
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"Open development as that article defines it isnt just any attempt at getting criticism, its about opening the flood gates. "

My article is pointing out that his definition is wrong. It is not crowd sourced development. Which is a totally different thing. He is talking about a fictional process that nobody is engaging in (perhaps a few pretend to).

My article is discussing what open development means to me and likely what it means to the projects he is discussing but not naming. He is misunderstanding their intentions and I wanted to point that out. He gives no solid example of a company engaging in the process beyond TOR and most players of that game agreed that it got bad because they ploughed several hundred million into it before starting a dialogue with the players and customers.

Bringing up disabled access was a point that open development is about pulling in different world views and there edge cases because can never plan for or test for a market that is now in the millions. You can't select for everyone and people do not always select themselves if there are barriers or limited lines of communication. I'm sorry that you find it obnoxious, but they were real issues that illustrate this well.

Rob B
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You cant really say his definition is any more wrong than your own. He made it clear what he meant. If your post was arguing that nobody is engaging in the process he is discussing then make that point and we can discuss it. (Id still dispute it because as I say the methods being employed by devs on the likes of kickstarter are very much akin to the market research of the bigger publishers which we know for a fact goes on. Crowd opinion and statistics has definitely determined decisions on game content.)

You are also persisting on making it sound like the article and now myself are somehow cutting out the disabled market because of our opinions on getting creative feedback. It is an entire subject unto itself with its own research, standards, and methodologies it has little to do with this debate. Nobody should be hoping their game is accessible based on nebulous crowd feedback, when there are accessibility standards and you can get focused criticism of your implementation of them.

If your response is that _your_ definition of this issue includes that kind of criticism of accessibility then you are still missing the point. (Alternatively you could say that the crowds do give good feedback but that contradicts your view that nobody is doing that.)

You have your own definition, and then claimed that Walker and myself are effectively against even so much as listening to people who want accessibility based on that definition, rather than the view made very clear in the original article. A view that you admit you recognised...
That is why your argument is obnoxious.

Bart Stewart
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It has happened in the past that RPS writers have chosen to satirize a view they don't agree with by expressing their impression of that belief as strongly as they can. In other words, sometimes they say things they don't really mean.

I don't know that that's the case here. But I can never be sure with them when it isn't.

Steven Christian
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Considering that the RPS writer said "Don't listen to anyone else; only listen to me" I would assume he's not being entirely serious.

But it has opened up the topic for discussion nevertheless, which is great!

Kyle Killian
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Something of note - the RPS article uses The Old Republic as it's prime example which costs somewhere in the ballpark of $500 million dollars to create. With that much money on the line, the developers are going to be much more likely to cater to their potential audience in hopes of appeasing as many people as possible and recouping thier costs. Now look at that from an indie perspective where financial gains might not be the prime objective (and as you said, you view games as art, so I would assume you're in it for the sake of creation). The indie dev is going to be looking for concrete feedback to improve the overall experience and provide the player with the most enjoyment from THEIR creation, which should still be strongly based in the developers own ideas, systems, and overall design.

To me, there are two very different reasons for looking to the community for feedback.

Just food for thought.

Ivan Moreira
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Although Im not a game developer, I am a software developer. And this issue is not new for the vast majority of devs, and mostly analysts, who have to talk to their clients and understand their real necessity, not what they are asking for you to do, but why they are asking that.

For example, a financial software I was helping to develop quite a while ago had a necessity of working with a huge amount of data. The client said he wanted to see all the data in a grid with pages and that she wanted all sort of collums and that she wanted to filter by any of those collums and that the filter should show her not the results of the page, but the result of all the data so she could filter through pages.

A bad dev (or designer or whatever you want to call), would simply do that and make her wait quite a while to get the results shown, while destroying network usage and filling up ther WinXP memory till OoM error (32 bits nightmares, urgh). While a good one would try to understand why she said she wanted that way. Would understand that most finance people are used to Excel and what she was describing was a way to keep the feeling of that, but with more capabilty (at the time, Excel couldnt exceed more than a few thousand lines).
I suppose open development is akin to that. If you just do whatever anyone says, its not the open development fault, its your own fault for being a bad professional.

ps. Sorry if I made any mistakes in the writing, Im not an english native speaker.