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Opinion: Game creation and the art of listening
Opinion: Game creation and the art of listening Exclusive
July 24, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

July 24, 2012 | By Colin Campbell
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

One of the curious choices inherent to game development is the extent to which the creator does or does not listen to feedback from the community.

Ron Gilbert, the talented creator of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island, currently working on adventure game The Cave, recently said, "You have to do what you think is the right thing to do and what you think is the best thing to do. People who like what you do and are fans of your work are just going to like what you do as long as you do something true to yourself. Creative things, if they're really good, they have lots of pointy little edges, and that's what makes them interesting."

This is the voice of the auteur, the person working alone or in small groups, entirely devoted to a particular artistic vision. Happily, game development today offers more and more opportunities for such bright stars to do what they do, and 2012 has seen a bounty of gorgeous, moving games from small teams.

However the vast majority of commercially successful games are not so much the work of artists passionately following their own desires, but by artisans -- creative and talented, for sure, but toiling away according to a grand overall scheme, adding dashes of their own genius to something that is best described as a Big Plan.

This is the game development of $20 million budgets, the one that keeps teams of a few dozen or even a few hundred employed. It has little use or facility for the individual as creator. Everything is collaborative. This in itself is a taxing form of creativity and it calls for skills of listening, empathy and meeting-in-the-middle.

People admire a single-minded devotion -- the creators who don't torture themselves over anyone's opinion of their work, apart from that of their most intimate collaborators and muses. We admire the Van Gogh lashing into his canvas without even a splash of compromise.

There's a passage in Neal Stephenson's brilliant techno-thriller Reamde, in which a main character, Richard Forthrast, contemplates his own role as the founder of the world's most successful MMO, T'Rain. In making the game he was all action and passion, but once it becomes a success, once it becomes about people-management and data analysis, he falls into despondency and boredom. People with different skills come to the fore.

Making a game at, say, Electronic Arts is all about people-management and data analysis and listening to the feedback. I recently spoke to EA Games' senior VP of global marketing, Laura Miele about her role: "It really is about making sure that consumers are being heard and that we are connecting our creative talent in our studios," she said. "And that we're bringing that message and connecting those dots.

"I created a listening engine for my marketing organization, and it has been an incredibly valuable process and tool for us, where we have multiple inputs of information and data from the marketplace and consumers, as well as our products. We have telemetry in our games. And so when you can bring all that together and develop meaningful insights and bring some transparency from the marketplace to our creative development teams, it really can unleash more innovation."

She describes her job, essentially, as listening to other people's opinions. This is exactly the opposite of Gilbert's perspective, and yet both are engaged in making and selling interactive entertainment, albeit on vastly different scales.

Telemetry, market research and any other form of feedback are constantly informing or affirming decision-making processes among game developers. Huge games companies, like Zynga, are constructed entirely of these angular pipes of data and information.

Modern telemetry and the desire among large publishers to not waste time and money on fruitless experiments has created an efficient nexus between creator and consumer. Miele explains, "We know what consumers like. In Battlefield 3, they love the indoor maps, they love the customization. And so we're able to add more dimensions to that game experience through the service [Battlelog]."

Miele has been analyzing data and helping to create games since she worked at Westwood back in the '90s. She adds, "Ten years ago it was very hard to understand how a consumer responded to something. You would spend three years making a game, and you would put out there, and then you'd have another three years before you could react in a new iteration. Now, by being more pointed and focused about what we are offering, we are able to innovate faster."

This does lead to the concern that creators of big games move in ever-decreasing circles, chasing the central experience of what the consumer wants, all converging on, basically, the same game. The indie auteur will point out that many games from large organizations share prime characteristics.

When I asked Miele about this, she said, "If you were reading data quite literally and translating it exactly into what you were reading, then yes. But that is not at all how we are behaving. By taking multiple inputs and evaluating what makes sense, having insights and data informs and allows our development teams to create. The last thing we want them to do is be beholden to data and analytics. Otherwise you could end up being in a downward spiral."

This issue came up spectacularly earlier this year when consumers made a giant fuss about the Mass Effect 3 endings, which many found to be unsatisfactory. BioWare's Ray Muzyka, in an open letter addressing the situation, found a way to the heart of the artistic conflict.

He wrote, "I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team."

In that case, Bioware found itself in an impossible situation, unable to please two sets of fundamentalists: those who believe it is their right to dictate to the creator, and those who believe the artist has no business listening at all.

The truth is more subtle, that successful artists and creators who take no heed of their audience's wishes are extremely rare, while those who slavishly follow their audience's every last desire are doomed to failure and, probably, madness.

Colin Campbell is a games journalist living in Santa Cruz, CA. He writes mostly for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx

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Nathan Baughman
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"The truth is more subtle, that successful artists and creators who take no heed of their audience's wishes are extremely rare, while those who slavishly follow their audience's every last desire are doomed to failure and, probably, madness."

Very well put! Island Forge (I'm the sole developer) is a player-created content world, and community input has been important throughout development. I am in that one-person-with-a-vision situation, toiling to realize my passion for the game, but at the same time I've invited community comment.

Even though I have strong opinions about what kind of game Island Forge is and is not, I've benefited greatly by listening to potential players. Several aspects about the world, crafting system, and even the Island Builder tool have been directly inspired by player comment.

Then again, in my experience, players often rail against unique features. I've put a lot of thought into creating a very unique game system in Island Forge. I love to hear what others think, but some are quick to dictate that I should throw out that unusual stuff and just do it like every other game on the market, so they can get on with their hacking and slashing.

Island Forge appeals to a more niche, creative audience, which is a core philosophy that I totally embrace about the game, and will not change. It's difficult going against the mainstream, but the players who enjoy Island Forge appreciate the unique qualities that make it special and different.

So, it's always good to listen to your community, but just as important to know your audience and your goals for your game, when evaluating public comments and suggestions.

Joe McGinn
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Agree. The risk of "too much listening" is very real. You get a design-by-committee vanilla tapioca result. What you want is a team that knows how to design things, and has strong channels to hear player feedback - but still the final say on the design. When the team making the game loses control of the design decision, mediocrity is the result, every time.

Bart Stewart
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Auteur vs. analytics is interesting, and maximizing success probably does happen somewhere in between those two viewpoints. But where does the business innovator fit into this? Is "capitalist-with-an-idea" pretty near the midpoint between art and data? Or is that somehow outside the vision/marketing model entirely?

I read "People admire a single-minded devotion" and I think of Howard Roarke from _The Fountainhead_, or his deliberately ugly alter ego, Andrew Ryan in BioShock. If some kinds of single-minded devotion to an idea aren't admirable, what makes them different (or bad)?

Making a product that some consumers will want to voluntarily purchase would seem to require both a dedication to someone's personal creative vision as well as a respect for the opinions of consumers (through their wallets). The vision determines the core product concept, and the data inform the interfaces to the product. Respecting both interests yields better products.

So aren't successful businesses -- those who respond to both interests -- the people who should be encouraged as the last paragraph of this article suggests?

Michael DeFazio
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great to hear the two differing philosophies concerning feedback.(i tend to lean towards Gilbert's approach, however data and telemetry certainly have their place)

one thing...(just to nitpick)
Laura Miele uses the word "innovate" and "innovation" a lot:
"... it really can unleash more innovation"
"... we are able to innovate faster"

and i really think she means "refinement" or "improvement" based on the context of those discussions (just my opinion of course). again i don't disagree with the practice (its certainly good to get information form players on what they liked and disliked) i just don't see how getting text feedback and telemetry is going to drive "innovation".

Bart Stewart
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My impression is that telemetry can give you "more of this, less of that" information, which I agree is more incremental than innovative.

But innovative ideas can come as freeform text. That said, most over-the-transom ideas are either:
* too big (major code addition for major time/money)
* too radical (major code change loses value of existing code)
* too focused on improving the commenter's personal mechanic
* unconnected to what the rest of the game is about

And of the few ideas that don't fall afoul of one of the above disqualifications, they either aren't innovative (because all those got weeded out) or the publisher won't use them for fear of being sued by the contributor for "stealing my idea."

So it's pretty tough to see how real innovation comes from listening to gamers. Useful tweakage, though -- that seems completely reasonable.

[EDIT: That next-to-last sentence was descriptive, not prescriptive. I'd love to see more developers listening to actual ideas from players.]

Ara Shirinian
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Deciding who to listen to or not listen to isn't as important as having the knowledge, experience and skill to know how to parse and utilize feedback according to its context.

Then there is the public image side of it, where there exists value in making people think you are listening to them, even if in fact you aren't, even in fact if the Best Thing To Do is to not utilize the feedback. This works at every level of feedback.

Excessive consideration of feedback can also grind a project's legs into stumps, because the sources of feedback necessarily cannot understand all the implications of listening to that feedback.

Watson Tungjunyatham
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I absolutely love this response!

Having seen suggestions, feature requests, and bug reports made solely from user-bases, there's definitely those entries that aren't the wisest at all. Giving the players an opportunity to be heard though is a big factor in transparency at the least, and indeed, the thought that they're being heard and vocalized.

I have a deep appreciation for those who are able to master both game development and user feedback utilization.

Justin LeGrande
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It is possible to instill the art of listening into the game's design core. Games often require a back-and-forth "conversation" that requires the user to "listen". But which games give the player pause, to absorb and reflect upon their interactions?

Curtiss Murphy
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I cannot visualize the lone-developer, hidden away in his sacred-hole, creating something amazing without any input from others. I can't see it. Maybe I'm just not rogue enough.

On Friday, I recorded a voice segment for my next app. On Saturday, I got to hear what other people thought. They thought it was ... 'meh'. Too long. So on Monday, I rerecorded it and now, tonight, I'll get more feedback. It's iterative.

I take my ideas, do a draft, bounce them off of my trusted circle, and move closer and closer to ... excellence.