Developer/Fan Interactions: A lit fuse?


Something I’ve been thinking about this week is the way game developers and fans can now interact so freely, and what this means for games and the gaming community.

There are some situations where this ability is unambiguously a Good Thing. One studio that does this really well is Valve. For example, when fans loved Left 4 Dead, but were upset that its content had run over the expected release time, Valve responded by producing a complete revamped sequel a year later.

And in 2007, when a group of college students began making a puzzle game based on Valve’s source engine , Valve responded not by suing them but by hiring them, giving the students the resources they needed to continue making their game. Considering  the puzzle game later became Portal, Valve’s method was pretty much the epitome of win-win situations. (Not to sound a like a Valve fangirl here, but in terms of running a game studio they do do almost everything right).

One company in the middle ground of this debate is BioWare, and I’m focusing here on their support for Mass Effect 3. In terms of multiplayer their system worked quite nicely: BioWare would keep an eye out for any weapons and abilities that were unused due to bad synergy or being ineffective, as well as weapons and abilities that were publicised in the forums as being overpowered or used for camping. Then every week\two weeks they would perform a balance update: improving weapons found to be noticeably weak, reducing particular combinations of weapons and abilities that worked together unintentionally well, and even modifying the maps to undo camping strategies.

This could easily have gone horribly wrong here, but BioWare stopped it being too invasive by actually listening to the forums . For example, if a mathematically minded player gave evidence that a patch had shifted a weapon out of balance too much, it would then be repaired in a subsequent balance update. The fact that these updates were frequent and transparently relied upon actual gameplay and players opinions meant this system worked surprisingly well.
Something similar also happened with the end of Mass Effect 3’s single -player campaign, which caused a bit of controversy. The ending was problematic because (don’t worry, no spoilers) most players getting to the end claimed the ending wasn’t what they expected, and that it simply wasn’t enough,  considering that it was supposed to tie together a trilogy of massive involving games with literally thousands of possible decisions.
BioWare responded by releasing a free DLC, Extended Cut, that changed the endings, providing more information for each final option and overall a more satisfying conclusion.

This is where things start getting debateable: Yes, it was good that the developers listened to and did their best to respond to, the complaints they received, in order to make customers happy. However, its an odd thought that the writers entire creative vision was overrun and surrendered to the wishes of players. It reminds me of the “death of the author” concept in literature- that the authors view opinion of what their book meant is simply an opinion, nothing more.

It’s interesting that game stories have finally reached the point where this is possible, but its also worrying, as its not clear what affect this will have on future games, such as whether it will make other studios less likely to take risks in their narrative in case people riot for a new ending.

Finally, the bad side of developer/fan interaction, and my game developer here is EA/ Insomniac, who deserve roughly equal custody of the blame.

Last year, one of my xbox friends told us about a new co-op shooter demo he’d downloaded that he wanted everyone to try out. So we downloaded the demo, called FUSE, and really enjoyed it, enough so to preorder the game for when it was released a few weeks later.

It wasn’t the best game ever, but it was fun, competently built, looked pretty good if slightly generic, and had some interesting weapons. It was probably a solid 7/10.
However, when I was looking up information on the game the next day, all I could see was people absolutely hating it, and none of us could work out why.

Eventually, we discovered that FUSE wasn’t brand new, originally being designed by Insomniac and a trailer released, under the name Overstrike before being modified by EA.  So we looked up the Overstrike trailer…suddenly all the hate for FUSE made slightly more sense.

FUSE is a semi-realistic cover-based shooter, with some funny one-liners but not-particularly -memorable characters; one of many released last year. Overstrike looked like a  visually original stylised shooter with irreverent humour and entertaining, stand-out characters, a 8.5-9 compared to FUSEs 7.

Overstrike could have easily challenged Borderlands in the originality stakes and Team Fortress 2 in  the character stakes. It also felt much more like an Insomniac game (they’re the people who made the Spryo series and the Ratchet and Clank series) rather than an EA game. Compare here: the initial Overstrike trailer, vs the FUSE initial trailer.

It turned out that the reasons behind these changes were almost entirely  commercial:  realism and violence  sell better in shooters than more stylised graphics and clean deaths. Furthermore, the main reason for Overstrike losing its originality was to make it more like the games that already were known to be strong sellers…such as making characters more serious and less fun to fit the Alex Mason/ Marcus Fenix “anti-hero with a dark past” mould, or changing the mechanics to make the weapons feel more powerful like in most FPS’s.

It could be said that the game was changed from original to generic at least partly because the fact that fans now can directly talk to developers means developers can choose to either take risks on originality or pander to what they know will sell.

And the more developers choose to ignore risk, the more potentially brilliant games like Overstrike will be lost.

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