Ode to the conscious player

I want to taste games I’ve never even heard of, games from exotic locations, to eat mysterious new combinations of games that no one’s ever tried before.

 

That is what Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker said here.

It’s a wonderful quote. Those are the games I want, too, and those are the games I desperately want to make. But according to Walker, this is impossible to do if you involve too many people in the creation process. He believes that open development is a terribly bad idea for games and that masses are never really good at coming up with doable original feedback.

A debate swiftly followed, expressed in several powerful articles published as a response to Walker’s dramatic plea. Indie game maker Simon Roth defended open development based on the idea that it’s not a democratic philosophy and that a good creator is perfectly capable to sort out the value from the feedback he receives. And Sean Lindskog disagreed with Roth, arguing that open development is, at its core, nothing more but a marketing strategy that greatly endangers pure artistic focus, because it shifts the creator’s attention towards money. If you take the time to read any of these 3 articles, do read the comments too – this is game journalism gold, in my opinion.

I believe in open game development – here’s why.

Whenever I am involved in the development process of a game, I can never see it objectively, even though I actively try to put myself in the shoes of the payers and to forget all the reasons and details that lead to a certain outcome. If players would all be developers, they would surely understand why a feature is limited or why it’s done like that. They would understand constraints and deadlines and I am sure they would see my game dev team for what they really are: heroes, accomplishers of impossible tasks. But players don’t know how much effort goes in that executable you can get and play through just a few simple clicks. So their feedback hurts, and sometimes it hurts a lot. And that is at least one of the reasons why I believe many mature studios shield their teams of this feedback, and why many developers end up creating Fun in an isolated bubble where no other reality but their (studio) reality exists. In that reality, they are usually the best that ever was or will be, and the internal philosophy is of a manner that makes failure an impossibility. And the same philosophy also enables the continuous reinvention of the wheel in this wondrous industry.

Players don’t understand game development. They don’t know what they get when they buy a game and they cannot ever be objective in evaluating it, so  how can they possibly be involved in the development process?

Should players understand what it means to develop a game?

YES.

Yes, they should, they absolutely should.

The world is rapidly changing, and one of the fundamental, core changes is the idea of a conscious consumer. That consumer does not just buy a product. Instead, through the simple act of buying, he gives a vote of confidence to the company that made the product and consciously helps that group of creators succeed. That consumer does his homework before he goes shopping, and he knows better than to pay the companies who choose exploitive means in favour of profit.  If you ever pondered buying the fairtrade coffee over the normal one, if you ever chose a local product because you are pleasantly impressed by the fame of that business, if you ever bought a Humble Bundle or backed a game on Kickstarter, you probably are a conscious consumer. And you  actively tried to reach out to the people behind that product, to get to know them and evaluate if they deserve your money or not.

In such a scenario – which is not so wide spread yet, but it IS happening and it WILL grow- , it falls on the companies to open up, make that “behind the scenes” information available and embrace their consumers in their development process, so that they can provide better value and become better themselves.

If players don’t know what game development is about, it’s our fault.

A few years ago, we would have had a few good excuses. It was out of a developer’s hands to communicate anything to the players, and it was not pretty for those who made an effort to go against that. But things have changed, those excuses, gone, and this became a matter of transparency, involvement and sharing. If you have an educated fan base, there is nothing to fear from opening up your development process and include your players in it.

This is not about them dictating you what to do, but it is about you learning to reach out and trust your players. That, in fact, is what surprised me the most about Walker’s article. He is the guy who dressed as a wizard to test out what a quest means in real life, and yet he argues that the very people who read Rock Paper Shotgun are unable to provide valid feedback to a game development team.  They are that irresponsible kid with his mouth full of chocolate, the unwise, predictable crowd of spoiled brats. If John Walker was a fan of your game, would you trust and feel coerced by his feedback, or not? Of course, John is a special case, since as a journalist – one that I deeply respect and admire – he is far closer to the industry, knows that game dev is about and has probably played infinitely more games than a common person, so I hope most game devs listen to him.

Simon is right, as a developer you CAN pick the valuable feedback and you also CAN explain your choice. And that sorting of feedback, as well as the exercise to provide explanations even to the brattiest of players, is part of game development as well. Sean is right, too: yes, open development IS a marketing tool: it is about building a healthy community that can help you, your team and your game, grow. A community that includes you, the developer, and that is build on trust.

I am a game developer, but before becoming one, I was a gamer – and I still am a gamer. I do not think I am special, but I do believe that I can provide good feedback, on occasion. Arguably, to my defence I know what developing a game involves and I might be biased towards the creators. But I might also be wrong about a bunch of things, so should there be a difference between my feedback and that of any normal person who loves to play games?

So I believe in open game development because, in the end, it’s about trust. Trust in your players, and trust in your self, too.

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