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March 23, 2010

Should Game Companies Listen to Their Fanbase?

I'm slowly catching up on my Game Informer magazines and read a great article by Corey May (co-owner of Sekretagent Games) in the February 2010 issue about the gaping chasm inhibiting communication between game companies and their fans.  In "Failure to Communicate," May advocates that game companies consider what fans say when they criticize a game, but then goes on to say that this doesn't happen because of the increasingly inane way that many gamers (and many other Internet users in general) try to get their criticisms across.

These methods include personal attacks on the game developer, "personal" attacks on the publisher that distributes them, generic and unhelpful comments such as "this game sucks" or "This is the best game I've ever played!"  Increasingly, communication on the Net is becoming coarse and unusable (yes, it's always been that way, but it seems to be getting worse), as people hide behind their anonymity to say things that they wouldn't say to somebody's face.  The same can be said for responses to games (and other media, as I'm sure many book authors could tell you).  You would never go up to a developer at a convention and tell them that their game blows and that they're really crooks because they released a buggy game.  But behind a computer screen?  They can say what they want.

Either that, or they take random snippets of interviews or comments from people in the industry who are out there trying to interact with the gaming public and then twist them around to the worst possible interpretation.

This affects the way game companies interact with their fanbase.
"Events like these create a chilling effect.  Instead of insight, you get less exciting stuff: feature lists and marketing blurbs.  We are discouraged from talking about interesting things.  I'm not saying 'Don't be critical of us. We are soft little butterflies that can't stand having our fragile egos crushed.'  Criticism is important and useful.  But venom, hyperbole, and sensationalism are counterproductive.  I'm just asking for a little bit of maturity when it comes to discussing games."
Visit any gaming forum and you'll see shit like this.  Over the top criticisms, complaints that the developer doesn't care about the product because they haven't put out a patch yesterday fixing some glaring error.  It can be ugly to read even as a spectator.  Then, when somebody comes to the developer's defense, they're written off as "fanboys" and "tools."  What benefit do these people think this brings to them?  Or is it just an opportunity to vent?

That's why I'm glad that some companies are getting with the program a bit, as this communication is a two-way street.  There are people out there with valid criticisms of these games, or even valid compliments that don't go over the top.  These people should be listened to.  They shouldn't guide game policy, of course, but their thoughts should be considered and then appropriately either used or discarded.  Game companies are starting to hire people for that express purpose.

I love the "community liaison" position that companies like Activision are creating.  Dan Americh, formerly of the Official Xbox Magazine, was hired away by Activision to be that very person:  the guy who's the interface with the fans.  The guy who will, yes, get information on Activision products out there, but who will also interact with the fans, listen to them, and say "you know, that's a good idea. I'll pass it along" or "You know, that's a bit over the top.  Stop it."  Dan has his One of Swords blog and podcast that will aid him in that seemingly impossible quest.

Getting back to May's article, though (I wish it were available online so I could link to it), it's a valuable plea to both those gamers who go over the top as well as those developers who have already dismissed the fanbase as crazies who don't have anything of value to contribute.
"That's all I'm asking for, really.  Speak up! Developers: let the people who buy your games know that you hear them -- whether it's news on a patch, explanation of a feature, or insight into the production process.  And players: when you have concerns or questions, articulate them clearly.  Be constructive with your criticism.  I promise we're listening.  As trust increases and we all learn to interact more effectively, transparency and understanding will increase as well.  The end result will be better games."
May's optimistic that this is slowly happening.  I hope he's right.

(Both quotes are typed by me from the magazine, so any typos are mine)

Update #1: I forgot to mention the name of the article! The post has been updated.


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