Is Anyone Listening? Analysing the Disconnect Between Developers and Their Communities

Examining the reasons that developers may not seem to be responding to criticism of their games

Is Anyone Listening? Analysing the Disconnect Between Developers and Their Communities
Photo by Jr Korpa / Unsplash.

How would you "fix" an important part of your favourite game? This is a common question to ask annoyed players, and too many players are annoyed at a great number of games. Let's ask some Reddit users about their favourite games.

How would you fix an unbalanced character in your favourite game?

How would you fix combat?

Players can often have verbose and deeply sentimental opinions and suggestions, oftentimes even critical despite how endearing a game is to them. In fact, games that are not important to players hardly attract any opinions. It's no secret: game development is more accessible due to easily available resources, and technical knowledge is widespread as code literacy increases. The average consumer knows what's happening under the hood, and can take an accurate guess at why the decision was made. This level of maturity and understanding was inevitable considering the thousands of hours poured into games by passionate fans. Players are smarter than developers think.

In the age of high-velocity communication, the number of opinions being shared is just as many as are being formed. Coupled with the critical importance of maintaining a personified, empathetic brand image, channels and ears are overwhelmed by what players have to say. Yet, the speed of action rarely matches the speed of requests despite leading one to believe that these Reddit threads, or Tweets, have solved the shortcomings of the game. After all, the solution is right there, written as if the person suggesting it was a part of the development team. Is it just a case of paralysis by analysis, or is there a design behind the inaction of game devs, aiming to react to feedback with the speed or intent that is behind the voice of communities?

First Filters - Finding the truth

It's very hard to focus when everything wants your attention, so game devs assume some basic truths to start filtering and preserving their focus. One of them states that the loudest fans are the minority, and don't necessarily reflect the opinion of the wider fanbase. While that may be a possible case, the same minority is almost always the most passionate, who spend the most money and time on the game, and are prone to evangelising the game. It's not an automatic filter to apply anymore.

With modern tools, game developers are really looking for behaviour patterns. Streaming tons of data and conducting research in labs with an assortment of carefully selected volunteer players, game devs have a great view of what the players are doing that is not only based on a collection of individual opinions. While this allows developers to make decisions on concrete observations, it is much slower to conduct research than to voice a suggestion, which makes the process of listening and validating a whole lot slower than fans think. When it comes to conflicting opinions and behaviours, "do as I do, and not as I say" is better suited.

Making Decisions - Make or break the budget

Avoiding paralysis from the number of decisions to make during a game's development can be helped by having something to compare it against. That "something" is usually the opinions of players who have weighed in on previous games. Since the voices of players only express the present sentiment, it's very easy for the development team to be led in circles about what those players don't like (and what they don't like about the fixes being made). What has a reflection in the past has an echo in the future; today's advice is tomorrow's misguidance. If game companies foresee a different kind of audience playing their game in the future, either because the audience has changed or the audience has matured, they are not incentivised to act on community suggestions of the present.

We may believe that slow action is because the action is long and complex, and that may be so. It takes a lot of time to make a design, write the code, create the art,, and so on. But often, the inaction is also deliberate. With development budgets entering double or triple digits of millions of dollars, making mistakes by acting too quickly on community opinion is expensive. Even for indie games with small budgets, the time lost is invaluable and the effect that the "solution" can have is disheartening at best. That's why, more often than not, the inaction is deliberate.

There is a real case to make about marketing priorities as well. Each marketing campaign is drawn up months in advance, with budgets booked seasons prior. If the development team makes a critical change that affects the marketing, say, not offering what's promised on the billboard, then the cost of cancelling that advert is very expensive. And picking an argument with the marketing directors and managers is even more expensive, as every moment wasted of their time delays the game's launch and release by months. Balancing this act in itself takes time, and the decision can take more.

No Man's Sky is an example of the difficulties of coordinating development and marketing. Source: Gamer Girls Radio.

Developers need to view a bigger picture

While the opinions pointing at problems plaguing the game experience may improve and enhance the game, and be profitable for the devs, there's a bigger picture surrounding the action. From conducting research and study to find the real culprit behind player displeasure, to changing the direction of a marketing campaign, and even anticipating and fixing new bugs and other sources of newer displeasures, each step increases the process. And this time acting on community opinion increases exponentially with the size or budget of the game. It will always be a moving target, an ongoing goal, but it is one of the most important things a developer can do for their game and community.


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