Ironically, this remains. Re-reading it for the first time since it was published was a wayback machine. The light was so bright... Posted on Oct 10 2012 06:03 PM in PSYOP You know, as game developers there’s often a degree of insularity to our process, insularity between designers and the gamers that buy their products. I chose the word “products” because that's what games can become under the wrong conditions. And those conditions are rampant in the games industry these days. When I was just starting out making games, there was no world wide web and no forums to speak of. As these phenomena took hold and took off, publishers issued stern warnings to us to not participate publicly in any discussion of the games we were making and in some cases, not to speak publicly about games that we were playing. There was a tremendous amount of fear that someone would say the wrong thing but I suspect the real reasoning for this draconian edict was that publishers or more specifically their marketing and public relations groups had a plan for their messaging and they were sticking with it. Better to march on the existing orders than to enable developers to act as goodwill ambassadors and risk that one developer could say something insensitive or ignorant resulting in a lawsuit, I suppose. Or publishers didn't want designers to have a public presence since they might—just might—become famous and capable of striking out on their own, becoming competition. In any event, for many years a wealth of “post launch consumer data” was harvested almost robotically like the machines of the Matrix farming the human masses for heat energy. After countless posts were assembled—usually in a giant three ring binder—marketing folks would parse through them to pull out relevant quotes. These quotes were used to substantiate marketing decisions and on occasion, would trickle down to the development teams to influence their design choices on the next game. Or not. Interestingly, designers were already reading the forums on which they weren't allowed to post. Speaking from personal experience we were able to gather some useful insights off the internet but how many times did I think “Wow, I wish I could ask this guy what he meant by that statement” or “Can I put a friend up to asking a question that I’m not allowed to ask”? The experience was a lot like being a ghost forced to watch life unfold but being unable to speak or even to nudge discussion into more relevant topics. Today I wonder how many good games could have been made into great games if developers had been able to speak directly with the fans and to modify their design choices based on that interaction. Certainly publishers have begun to recognize the value of the people who post online. There are community managers, for instance, who attempt to guide discussion or keep a lid on inflammatory topics. Well, that’s great. It’s a full time job but I can’t help feeling that it is in part my job. After all, who is closer to the design process than the designer? It isn't the community manager, who by and large are great people on a mission, but are still at least one step removed from making the game for the community with whom they interact. Now, against all odds I work for a company that not only permits me to speak directly with the game community but encourages it. Hopefully one day our forums will be so active—both here and on other sites—that we must hire a community manager out of necessity. But I don’t think being able to post and comment about games is something I will entirely surrender. Last week I was finalizing the first draft of H-Hour’s mindmap. I probably went into more detail than I should have since the map was gigantic and my machine slowed to a crawl. Scrolling around became so laggy that I thought my PC had crashed more than a few times. It was at this point that I invited our resident gamer, Justin, to come by to review my work so far. We managed to review the majority of the mindmap but it took two days, not the single afternoon I anticipated. I can tell you one thing in complete confidence: gamers are honest. They ask real and important questions about game design and if you can explain or justify a design decision to someone who has devoted far more hours to playing games than you or even more hours playing your own games more than you, you know you made a smart decision. The really exciting part about our interaction went well beyond me just presenting what I think, theoretically, is an awesome design for a tactical, team-based military shooter but being able to witness and gauge his reactions point by point and then to immediately ask questions or throw out what-if scenarios. This is so immediate and so unlike the experience of attending a high-cost focus test. In most focus tests—if you are lucky enough as a developer to be invited to attend—you sit behind a two way mirror and watch in horror as a paid moderator tries to relate to gamers and comprehend their responses. Their follow-up questions usually lead to tangents that are completely irrelevant to the design work that has to get done. The level of frustration is high, particularly since if the designer was able to interact with the focus group and—I know this is heretical—explain the intention of a feature or phrase a question in a way that would illicit useful responses, then the trip out to the focus testing office would have had real worth to the design process. A few weeks later come the after action reports, the analysis that the testing group is paid to create. Usually this answers questions of huge importance to marketing people and publishers such as “would you like to play a game set in this location” or “are you affected by the meaning behind this logo”? As a designer I agree that’s all good to know, but I can already tell you, “yes, you would like to play in this location” and “ yes, you are affected by the meaning behind this logo” because I chose the location and it’s fresh and unexpected and the meaning behind the logo sums up the main theme of the entire game. Of course you are affected. I didn’t need a focus group to affirm that. What I would love (really love) is to take the same amount of money spent on focus tests that make marketing folks and publishing execs feel better about my design choices and sponsor focus tests that answer questions I have about the design. Of course no one would buy what we make unless marketing did their job and sold the game, and if execs didn’t sign off on budgets I wouldn’t get to make anything at all. So I suppose focus tests as they stand are a necessary exercise. You might say “well why don’t you talk to the marketing guys and suggest questions for the focus group?” Absolutely, and I’ve done that. In fact, I consider marketing part of the core team and involve them in the development process constantly. But when you pose those design-centric questions and try to get at the heart of a gamer’s real desires, the response is inevitably “good question, but that’s not really what focus tests are for.” No offense to my friends in marketing—you know I love, value and respect you but I would like a venue for dialogue with gamers and to have the results of those conversations treated as just as legitimately as a focus test and its two way mirror. Earlier I said that because designers are often insular they can begin to think of their game as a product. This is in part because there is frequently a gulf between what gamers want to talk about and what designers need to know. The other challenging component here is that designers deal with people in their organizations that directly or indirectly control how much money teams can spend on the game they believe in, and in order to get that money, designers have to spend hours justifying their decisions in the most compelling ways imaginable. This time could be spent doing meaningful work rather than presentations. The gulf between design and players could easily be bridge by empowering designers to press the “post to forum” button and suddenly we could very well have all the compelling arguments that we need. Here's another insight from my recent personal experience. In two days sitting down with Justin and discussing game design we were able to uncover some real innovations. I have to wonder how many thousands or hundreds of thousands of passionate and inspiring gamers like him are out there, just waiting to be asked "what do you love and why?" The answer is tantalizingly close and just one button click away.