Sunday, March 6, 2011

NEWSFLASH: BioWare is Listening!


Georg Zoeller hard at work?
So, as if there was ever any real question as to whether or not BioWare is actually listening to us, Georg was kind enough once again to sprinkle Zoeller Dust™ all over the forums.

I hadn't really planned on touching on this after Georg's first post two days ago, because it seemed to go without saying.  However, after Georg went and wrote himself not one, but two, novella-length forum posts about the subject, the natural thing to do seemed to be to chronicle his decent into madness!

And finally on an unrelated note, Alexander Freed drops by the forums to chat a bit about the Imperial Agent.

More after the jump to lightspeed!

Last Friday, Georg's Zoelley-sense was in full tingle-mode.  After SWTOR forums user Cem_Dikyol wondered aloud whether BioWare "cares about what people think," Georg sprang into action:
Interesting post, and while we certainly discussed some variations of this in the past, maybe I can give you an idea of how we approach this.

Short version: Yes we do.

Long version:

Developers definitely read the forums. The Community team also actively scours them for interesting, important, controversial issues and surface them to us as developers. 

Do we 'listen'? Yes, definitely - although listening / taking into consideration is only half of what people expect. The other half is that we take their feedback and act upon it, and this is where things get tricky.

Naturally, this being a game forum, there are a lot of strong opinions. If we acted on all of them, we would make a schizophrenic game. There is also a lot of "I think you should do feature X, who is with me?" type-posts. Agreeing to such a question is easy, especially if you don't have to weigh it against whatever other feature you might have to cut for that... as we do whenever these discussions happen internally. 

As for the negativity, standard forum dynamics like flame wars, trolling, etc... we've learned to see past that. Most of us have been in games for a long time, and BioWare has run forums ever since the days of Baldur's Gate (I started there as a fan...) We know how things work and we know how to read the forums without getting distracted by the dark side of them.

I also don't want to lie to you; we don't use these forums to get you to tell us how to make a game. We use the forums to understand what the community cares about. We also use them as a 'canary in a coal mine' to detect things we might have misjudged or where we are not sure about (Jedi Wizard anyone?).

Frankly, at this point in development, we definitely don't use the forums as a source for feature ideas anymore. We're not at the point in development where we would add new features out of the blue anymore. 

For actual feedback about game details and how it plays, we mostly rely on our tester feedback and the metrics we gather from the test (which often speak more clearly than you can express in a feedback email). There have certainly been situations where posters on the general forums have brought up angles on things that we hadn't considered before, which is great - but the majority of actionable feedback definitely comes from our hands-on testers (a group of players we are continually expanding). Maybe we should do little summary of what kind of changes we have made based on tester feedback at some point in the future.

Lastly, the best way of getting us to read your post is:
  • Make a well thought out point.
  • Write in plain English/German/French language, use paragraphs and use punctuation. Don't post a wall of text. And don't write extensively in a color other than the default. 
  • Be clear in your post about what is your opinion and what is fact (to your knowledge).
  • Give a precise topic title.
  • Make sure your name on the forum doesn't get associated with being the troll/bully/red stapler guy - we don't have time to read all threads and we're definitely more likely to pick threads from people that have a good track record.
  • Don't try to bait us into answering using aggressive language to create artificial conflict ("I think everyone who doesn't like Feature X should die"). If you do, you probably ruin your chance of getting an answer, because we don't like to reinforce such behavior.
Hope this gives you a little insight.

Poor Georg.  Clearly cracking under the pressure, he followed everything up yesterday with a post about... Narwhales and Double Rainbows?
Since I've decided to entertain you with philosophical ramblings about game development and forums while Stephen and crew are carrying tons of boxes to some kind of unmarked high tech van heading to the east coast....

Originally Posted by Drakos
This was what I really wanted to get to. I think that our "needs and wants" are conflicting, contradictory, and many. We wanted so much in the beginning, and clung to that. Obviously the game wasn't going to have it all, and when it became clear that it wouldn't, people complained and gave the illusion of the entire community being dissatisfied..
This is a good summary.

Making games, much like any other form of creative entertainment, is not a democratic process. The developers make the majority of decisions based on experience, testing, market research and sometimes gut feeling long before players ever get their hands on them.

Forums, just like focus tests, large scale game tests (like the ones we are running), general market research and any kind of other feedback are a tool in the box to gauge how you are aligned with a certain subgroup of potential customer (on forums usually the very vocal and engaged early adopter). Forums are awesome if you are willing to listen and understand how to find content of value in the sea of... well let's say opinions and forum posts ("First!").

Especially on video game forums, a large number of people are designers in their heart (which seems curious - on movies, do people fancy themselves directors or writers?) and there are many who seem to think 'if they just did this, the game will be awesome...'

Let's take an example, purely theoretical:

  • Some games in the genre you are developing in have a feature, e.g. 'Downloadable Double Rainbow Narwhales with lasers'
  • If you go to the forums, it's easy to find a poll where the majority of people say 'we want this, it's an important feature for the genre'.
  • If you are fancy, you look at the IP database and notice that the majority of people that voted on the poll was from Poland. Poland being an important market for the game, you decide that you need to have 'Downloadable Double Rainbow Narwhales with lasers' in your game.
  • You assess the cost of manpower and assets of adding the feature to the game, roughly $2M. Still, Poland being an important market for your game, you decide to go ahead.

    (Repeat this cycle 50 times until you realize that in fact there is always a poll with a majority of people saying 'Yes, this is a critical feature, it is absolutely vital' and you realize you are now out of money and have to cut 'Single Rainbow Unicorns' now, another vital genre feature.)
  • You release the game and it doesn't sell well at all in Poland. Doing further research, you realize that with your Narwhales being downloadable and Poland still being an 80% retail disk based market, the people that were on your forums from Poland were not a good statistical sample of the overall audience. 
So yeah, that's not how to make a game.

Obviously, it can be said for any game that wasn't successful that 'the developers should [not] have listened to [the forums/the internet/the market research|]'. Hindsight is always 20/20, but BioWare in the last 15 years has fared well with using fan feedback as part of the development process - in addition to market research, focus groups and experience.

Ultimately it is this:

The general preconception on forums is that features are what make or break a game. People in the industry know that it's not as simple as that. Features, I would say, are not even half the equation; making the features work together, in a way that makes sense and creates fun and engaging gameplay, within budget and resource constraints and to a high standard of quality (all while working in a constantly changing industry and identifying and targeting a large enough audience to be commercially successful)... that's what makes or breaks you. 

We use the forum to understand the elite, early adopter audience that is very vocal about what they want. We employ an entire community team centered around them to help us understand what they feel is important. If we didn't care for the feedback, there'd be much easier ways for us to get PR. 

Forum information is a starting point for us. If Stephen notifies us in his community updates that "We have identified that in fact a large number of players in our community would like to single wield lightsabers as a DPS Jedi Knight", we take note, but we don't immediately act. 

We evaluate the cost and impact of the change ("Redesigning a class role, potentially requiring new animations, visual effects and audio, potentially removing time for us to make other changes, $$$ in QA time"), and if the team agrees that it is feasible and will make the game better, validate by putting a prototype up for the studio to play. 

If that passes, we put it in front of testers. If that passes, we execute the change... and you get to play it at PAX East.
We wish you a speedy recovery, Georg!  It's always a pleasure to read your posts, and it'd be shame if they carted you off to the madhouse so close to launch!

And as promised, Alexander drops by and gives a bit of insight into the Imperial Agent from a "story/flavor" perspective:
Lots of interesting discussion in this thread, and I thought I'd jump in and address a few points from a story / flavor perspective. Forgive me if I don't bring up specifics of abilities and Advanced Classes much--combat design isn't my department, so I don't want to speak out of turn.

It's true that the Empire doesn't have a pure military class--if you want to be the guy in the trenches, working alongside his fellow soldiers and making tough calls before charging into glory, the Republic Trooper is your best bet. Imperial Agents (again, from a story perspective) tend to work independently in the field and when they work with the Imperial military, it's as an outsider with power; think of the relationship between the KGB and the Soviet military.

On the other hand, Imperial Agents do work within a clear government hierarchy. There are mission briefings and orders received and orders given. Like Moff Tarkin, the Imperial Agent serves the Empire in a official capacity, meets with powerful Imperial leaders and takes steps to ensure security behind the scenes. You won't see many Agent class quests that come down to "assault this position and secure it for the Empire," but you can certainly play with a combat style that focuses more on cover, marksmanship and ambushes than on stealth and close-quarters combat.

If the sense of commanding troops is important to you, you might want to take a look at the Sith Warrior as well. Think about Darth Vader--he's making military decisions alongside high-ranking officials much of the time, and other times he's leading the charge alongside stormtroopers. That's an aspect of the Sith Warrior class, too--even though he or she won't be carrying a gun, the Sith Warrior certainly has a place among officers and grunts.

Of course, nothing's stopping you from trying all those classes out and seeing which you like! Or playing them all, for that matter...
I guess as of right now, I find myself less concerned about the "flavor" of the Imperial Agent, and more about how healing will be handled with the class.  With Bounty Hunters getting a bit of love now in the healing department, I'm curious if the Imperial Agent's toolkit will be reworked to reflect this.  Will the Bounty Hunter get the Kolto Dart skill, and the Agent will stick with probes of some sort?

Maybe they'll model Bounty Hunter healing after Dengar?  Clearly, he was a man who knew how to sling a good bandage or two!

At any rate, it's great to see the amount of communication between fans and devs ramping up... As Adaram asks, might we be entering the "marketing end-game" finally?

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