GDC 2012: Don't be afraid to piss off your players
"If your goal is to make it more fun, you're failing miserably. I'll give you a tip on making it fun, though. Leave it like it is."
That's what one devoted Realm of the Mad God player posted in the forums after trying out a few game-changing tweaks. But to hear Spry Fox Games CEO David Edery say it in his GDC 2012 post-mortem, Realm of the Mad God's success came from their willingness to make changes to the game and deploy them very quickly — even if their most vocal users hated the changes they made.
"Everyone's afraid of being the next Star Wars Galaxies," Edery said, "It's not always a bad thing to iterate games with an existing audience." In Realm of the Mad God's case, those iterations ended up tripling their one-day retention rate from 12.7 percent to 37.6 percent.
Edery walked through an example end-game boss encounter to demonstrate some of the changes they made: "That's the player. He's dodging an absolutely insane number of projectiles. Because he has longer range than he can actually see, he's not anywhere near the boss. He's just firing in the boss's general direction.
"We found that some advanced players weren't even looking at the screen, they were just looking at the minimap and aiming in the general direction of the boss. This was not a good thing."
They started fixing RotMG by opening up the XML system that governed the enemies' behavior to the designers, so they could make changes directly. This led to each enemy's behavior growing dramatically more nuanced. Before long, bosses were taunting players, attacking in different modes based on their remaining life, using area-of-effect attacks to restrict players' mobility, and more. "Up until then, every monster was the same type that you'd just run up to and shoot it," Edery said.
Shortly thereafter, Spry Fox decided to halve the players' projectile range and slow down all projectile attacks so that the players would have to get up close and play with the actual game screen, not the minimap -- but since enemy shots were slower, it was easier to stay alive while staring down the big bosses (and since Realm of the Mad God is a massively multiplayer online game with permadeath, that's a big deal).
But if you're not afraid to make changes, you can't be afraid to roll them back if they've gone too far. So they spent another few days rolling back some of the changes they made to attack range and speed to find the sweet spot.
"As a company, I feel like we've gotten really good at saying 'screw it, let's change it and see what happens.' That's kind of the takeaway -- remember to tell yourself, it's okay if it doesn't work, we'll just change it back," Edery said.
All in all, these overhauls to the combat system and monster behavior, plus additional tweaks to the way the game handles loot drops and new progression levels for different character classes, were designed, tested, and deployed in under a month — and they saw their retention rates soar almost immediately afterwards.
Edery concluded, "When you have a game with an existing population, and you're not reaching the level of success you want, you need to be willing to make radical changes."