I knew a couple of guys that were part of a game development team. The game was made by a small team of dedicated enthusiasts and most of them were programmers at heart. It was a strategy game set in space, not unlike Homeworld (if any of you still remember that great game). They slaved at it for 3 years for a small wage hoping to make it big once the game is released. They even got a worldwide publisher, which meant they had a sellable product. When the game came out many tried playing it but found it unnecessarily complex at times and hard even when it didn’t need to be. It had a small following of dedicated fans but it never made it big because it asked too much of players to be widely accepted.
The problem with that game was that the programmers made a game for themselves. There was a lot of math involved and complex systems that would make an analytic mind very happy. The problem is that gamers are not analytic machines. They are gamers of various personalities and mindsets and if you are a game maker you better make sure you are pleasing a larger variety of people than just programmers, unless, of course, you were making the game for three years just to play it yourself.
What brings games closer to gamers is game testing. Involvement of gamers into the game making process introduces another set of minds, other than that of game designers themselves. This brings fresh perspectives and usually changes the game significantly. We saw a glimpse of this process during Q&A sessions at San Diego Comic Con this year. We found out that some systems designed long ago by game designers have been changed based on game testers’ input. There were even some changes so significant (in terms of time needed to develop the system again) that I was rather surprised they decided to do this so late in the game.
The changes started very early on with the introduction of game testing program. Although the number of gamers involved is rather small compared to the demand (several thousands of testers – several million interested) statistically it is a good representations of people that will be playing the game. The first influence game testers had on the game I can remember of was the fact that flashpoints suddenly became repeatable. Back in the very early days there were instances and flashpoints that you could do only once and your choice inside those story moments would be very permanent. Cool concept on paper, but very strange for MMO gamers. This was abandoned the moment first MMO veterans got their hand on the game and had a chance to voice their opinions.
The latest changes are the introduction of companion customization including possible companion AI customization, changes to speeder looks and consideration of advanced class switching. To non-programmers this might seem like small changes, but I think considerable resources will have to be diverted into making this possible before launch. Companion looks, for example, were not supposed to be customizable several years ago. I remember that the first mention of companion customization was perhaps last year at PAX where “companion kits” were mentioned as special items that will change your companion’s appearance. To go from several pre-defined looks to fully modifiable skin color, facial features and full equipment takes making new models, new textures, new code to tie it all together. IF you want customizable AI on top of all that (similar to Dragon Age) you need large amounts of new code, UI elements and testing to make sure it works right. As you can imagine, to do all this all game making teams will have to be fully committed for a large period of time. Being so close to launch this means that such decision was not made lightly. This just goes to tell you how important Game Testing feedback is and how it made Bioware divert considerable resources into making happen something testers pointed out as crucial.
There is another side to the medal where Game testers influence the game too much. Blizzard is doing this with their “everyone should feel special” philosophy so now everyone in WoW wears epics and considers themselves to be top players. There were a lot of threads on the official forums asking Bioware not to budge to pressure and to stick to their game design decisions, despite those game designs being hard for some gamers to grasp.
In conclusion, I am happy to see Bioware being ready to listen to the gamers and to change the game to better fit their audience. No matter how smart game designers and programmers are they are not the best gamers in the world and making them listen to gamers’ feedback is a good way to go. On the other hand we have also seen that hardcore choices (like killing your companion) have been sacrificed due to feedback by gamers one could call “spoiled”. How heavily do you think gamers should influence the game making process? Leave your opinions in the comments bellow.
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