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Giving Your Players a Voice: Lessons from EVE Online
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Giving Your Players a Voice: Lessons from EVE Online


March 15, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

The Feedback Dilemma: Why Have a Player Council at All?

Modern MMOs are complex, sprawling entities, and their customers create virtual societies within them. Their sheer size, and the demands of a game designer's job, mean that it is impossible for a developer to achieve an in-depth understanding of the play styles of a game's customers.

This is particularly the case for MMOs that feature worlds large enough to support diverse societies, such as World of Warcraft, Rift, EVE, Second Life, etc; massively online games with a narrow gameplay focus such as World of Tanks don't present the kind of complexity that would necessitate extensive additional player feedback beyond a developer's personal experiences.

Some have relied on forums to provide feedback, but MMO forums could be politely referred to as a disaster area; the nature of anonymous communication means that feedback on gameplay changes on forums is tinged with raw hysteria and seasoned with ultimatums.

Even at its best, attempting to get feedback from the forums is like drinking from a firehose. More significantly, forums can only be used as a feedback method for gameplay changes that are far along the development pipeline, either already implemented in the game itself or on a public test server. They cannot serve as an early-warning system against bad ideas in their infancy.

By contrast, a player council offers more credible feedback, as it meets with the developers outside of a forum context. Communication in person is far more effective than text, as it allows people to read one another's body language; this removes the hysteria of forum ultimatums.

Advocacy groups also can offer advice about forum controversies, distinguishing those that will blow over from actual lasting problems that the developer needs to address.

Perhaps most importantly, player councils can be covered by a NDA, meaning that they can provide player feedback on early-concept ideas. If a developer gets an idea to the stage of it being shown in a non-NDA context, the development resources have already been sunk; there is no turning back. Player advocacy groups are the canary in the mineshaft to warn designers that their future project needs to be changed or abandoned entirely.

A player council provides a boost to customer goodwill, assuming the feedback of the group is actually taken into consideration; it shows that the company is taking the view of the players into account. Advocacy groups also provide the company with a formal interlocutor. Rather than only being able to offer platitudes -- "We listen to our customers!" -- the company can demonstrate that it is in communication with a sanctioned group of elected player representatives.

This can take significant heat off the company when controversies erupt; when the company can say that it consulted with the player council about a controversial change and that the council approved, the council shoulders some of the responsibility along with the company. Players who disagree with the decision will blame their representatives rather than the company itself.

We saw this demonstrated in EVE with the fifth CSM, which hand-waved a change that many players vehemently disagreed with: the removal of jump bridges. The CSM5 representatives were then tossed out of office at the next election. CCP, which originally suggested these unpopular changes, was not blamed.

Similarly, when the player base rioted after the Incarna release and CCP called the CSM to Reykjavik to discuss the crisis, the company message that CCP would not be implementing "pay to win" microtransactions was more credible than it would have been had it issued only a one-sided press release: the CSM was able to corroborate CCP's statement.

From a business perspective, having a player representative group is inexpensive, costing far less than even a moderate advertising campaign. The player representatives often function as unpaid volunteers, spending several hours each day working both with their constituents and the developers to improve the game. The bottom line benefits are significant, not just in PR and customer retention, but as a prophylactic against bad business decisions.


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