Opinion – The Importance of Player Involvement in Game Design

Player Feedback in Video Game Development

It is no debate that game companies have recently found that player involvement in the development and design of games has had visibly positive results. It is growing ever more common that games are ‘released’ as Alphas for players the get in and see the game’s development from an early stage in order to provide input and feedback to the developers to help shape the game from a very early stage. While this is more common for small  development companies to do this (as larger companies will often use ‘Alphas’ and ‘Betas’ are more of a glorified hype tool than a development tool) the rational has proven itself in many aspects of the game design market.

Some developers such as Keen Software House, publishers of several popular games like Space Engineers and Medieval Engineers, have take it so far as to make player-created mods into actual features within the game. Even larger, bigger budget companies working on games such as Star Citizen and Warhammer 40K have been hailed as strong proponents of involving players in the development of their games. But why does this work? After all, game developers are often gamers themselves who are typically College educated in game design. Why do they turn to players to effectively help them do their jobs and what benefit does it provide?

Player Feedback is Free

The first obvious benefit is economics. Developers take money and money is always a finite resource that must be properly managed for a company to continue development, especially in games built around a Free to Play model like DUST. However, gamers are free and often very willing to put in the hours to be involved in making the games they enjoy be even more enjoyable. While it may be a little dark to consider the players a resource to be used for development, the fact remains that it is a mutually beneficial relationship between Developer and Player.

Outside Perspective

The second benefit is the fact that game development is not the player’s job. The relationship between a Developer and a Player is much akin to the relationship between a Writer and an Editor. It is the Writer’s job to produce the material at which point they hand it off to the Editor who reviews the material and points out mistakes and offers up suggestions before sending it back to the Writer to make corrections and resubmit.

This relationship has existed and worked for a very long time because the Writer cannot think outside of his or her own mind, whereas the Editor always has a fresh perspective. The fact is that the Editor’s outside perspective is very similar to that of someone who is seeing the material for the first time, is the primary reason who this relationship works.

In the context of game development, the Writer would be the entire development team, and the Editor would be the player base themselves. It is extremely easy for a development team to fall into common pitfalls such as Groupthink. Review by an outside source, in this case the player base itself, acts as a hard counter to these pitfalls. In effect, the developers are producing the base material and the players help to refine it over multiple iterations into the ideal product for consumption.

What is Fun for the Player

Another huge problem with being involved in the development of a game within a group of developers is a loss of perspective. While developers are almost always gamers themselves, the game they’re working on is their job, rather than something they play purely for enjoyment. This unfortunately can cause a disconnect for the developer to lost perspective on what they think will be fun, and what is actually fun.

That player on the other hand is only involved because they want to have fun. There is no paycheck, no deadlines, no long hours; they are simply there because they want to be and because they want to have fun. This perspective is beyond invaluable in helping developers keep a firm grasp on what makes an enjoyable gaming experience. A reminder of what really matters.

CCP, EVE Online, and DUST 514

CCP Games has recognized the value of player feedback for many years and has made ongoing attempts to facilitate better communication from the player base. The earliest of these programs started on EVE Online with the player elected Council of Stellar Management (CSM) and the volunteer Interstellar Service Department (ISD). While it can be argued that in the early stages these programs were met with resistance from the development team, they have proven over time be extremely effective in involving players with the ongoing development an improvement of the game.

CPM0 and The Pre-Rattati Era

For the entire duration of the development of DUST up until this point, the amount of communication between CCP and the player base was pitiful at best. From the perspective of the players, the development team communicated more by talking AT the players, rather than talking WITH them. It was no surprise that the development cycle progressively became more and more twisted with a focus more on a disorganized development path, than actually realizing the original goal of making a good game. The game design dulled, the community stagnated, and the game itself began failing at an alarming rate.

The Council of Planetary Management, or CPM, was first implemented in April of 2013 as the DUST 514 version of the CSM from EVE Online. However, unlike EVE the members of CPM0 were appointed by CCP instead of democratic election that the CSM. It would be unfair to say that the CPM0 was ineffective, as several of the members attempted to communicate with both the player base and CCP, despite difficulties with getting CCP to actually listen to them.

However it is safe to say the CPM0 was not nearly as effective at it should have been, and many members have stated that they struggled with CCP on many fronts which led to the council as a whole being largely ineffective, at least from the perspective on a member of the community. This of course reached it’s climax during Fanfest of 2014, aka Rouge Wedding, in which CCP perhaps presented a critical change to the DUST player base in the most horrifically orchestrated way possible. However, focusing on what went wrong in the past and dwelling on it is never productive; instead one must learn from the past and move forward in making things better.

The Rattati Effect

CCP Rouge’s assignment of CCP Rattati to head up the DUST 514 project was perhaps the most meaningful and important change to the development of the game since it’s initial conception. With massive change in development staff, both with developers being reassigned to other projects as well as layoffs, Rattati was left in charge of the project with very few staff under his command. The reason this was so significant however was not a change in manpower, but rather a change in perspective and design philosophy.

Rattati was not a game developer, instead he worked in a different department within CCP. This is significant because not only was he more separated from the prior development team and thus free from a lot of the team culture that stunted healthy development, but because he was more of a player of the game than a developer. This lead Rattati to a far different approach than DUST had seen in the past. It did not take long for multiple threads popped on the forum asking for detailed feedback on many topic and issues that had been long-standing issues for many players.

It was as if the entire tone and general feel of the community changed overnight. Players suddenly became far more interested and engaged in the development process, eager to offer their input on a game they loved. The light of hope had returned to the community, despite far more stringent development limitations, because for the first time the players actually felt like they had a real say.

The effects of this change and development philosophy quickly began to bear fruit, and while not every player may agree with every change, the fact remains that the game has improved greatly since Rattati took his post and drastically increasing the amount of player feedback. This paired with the newly elected CPM1, gave players far more options in terms of communicating and influencing the game. The effects were so drastic that the game began receiving more support from CCP as a whole, with additional new patches as well as a full new release.

Progress however, is always ongoing, and while the amount of communication between the DUST team and players has increased exponentially, the game and community would benefit if this trend continued to grow.

Evolving the Connection

The CPM

Generally speaking, the CPM1, with some exception, has been regarded as successful in bridging the gap between the players and CCP. Particular members such as Cross Atu and Iron Wolf Saber have been very active on the official forums by creating direct feedback threads to collect and organize player feeback on various topics.  Other members such as our own Soraya Xel work to blog and help host the podcast on this site. Additionally other members have been instrumental in communicating within CCP like Kevall Longstride as well and helping with balance and design efforts like Zatara Rought and SirManBoy.

The goal of the CPM is to provide a direct link and filter between the masses of the player base, and CCP developers. They must be objective, active members of the community, and without agenda. By no means must they experts in any particular field, nor should they, as over focus on any particular topic lends itself to having a personal agenda, opposed to neutral representatives. However they must be knowledgeable enough to discern the difference between good feedback and bad feedback.

This is essential in their job as representatives so they can lead community discussions, filter out bad feedback, and present the collected data and ideas to CCP in a clear an organized matter. This is far more efficient than spending expensive developer hours trying to sift through all feedback and trying to determine what is good and what is bad. It is however important to note that the existence of the CPM does not in any way justify a lack of direct communication between developer and player. Rattati has done a generally good job at directly communicating with players (though he spends far too large of a percentage of his time in the Barbershop) and should continue to keep that line of communication as wide open as possible.

Focus Groups

While the CPM is essential, there are several issues with having only a CPM to act as player representation. The first obvious issue is raw manpower; with a small development team and an equally small CPM, there are often many long nights with everyone churning out work. While the CPM is charged with organizing player discussions, often more time is spent weeding out trolls and other toxic behavior than there is actual discussion. Additionally, as stated before, CPM members should be very well rounded and not focused on any particular topic. However, experts are needed in order to assure that changes being made actually make sense.

Focus groups, may they be elected or volunteer, are needed in order to further collected information from players within a specific topic, organize it in an easy to read format and supply it to members of the CPM and developers directly. These groups would give both developers and members of the CPM an organized panel of experts on any given topic to assure that they are being given quality feedback by players that actually know what they are talking about. In effect, the Barbershop as mentioned before, would be an example of a player organized Focus Group for Scouts, and has been a well used tool for Rattati in the past. The addition of CCP and player organized groups for all facets of the game would provide the CPM and developers with the same level of organized feedback, and greatly increase the efficiency of the process.

Recently Rattati sent out a call to organizers in Planetary Conquest to provide focused feedback from various corporations on the PC 2.0 project. This is a prime example of a CCP organized Focus Group and we will hopefully see more of this style of organization in the future.

Planetary Services Department

Much akin to ISDs in EVE, PSDs would act as volunteer groups within the game to assist with various tasks. These tasks could include things such as bug hunting, news reporting, assisting new players, writing new lore, updating the Wiki, and helping to moderate the forums. Similar groups have existed in EVE for years and have provided a means for which to enrich the game experience by putting more of it in the players’ hands.

Not only does it provide invaluable services to the game, but also allows players to be more engaged to feel like they have a hand in the overall development of the game. There are many very talented individuals out there with valuable skills that could be put to good use to further improve the game. The key however, is that CCP needs to provide them with the means to put those talents to good use in a productive way.

This would also allow the CPM to mesh with the PSDs in order to produce material both for community and CCP consumption. For example, a PSD focused around data analysis and presentation would be able to assist the CPM with the production of spreadsheets or graphics to illustrate proposed ideas and concepts to both the community and CCP alike. Additionally PSDs focused on helping and training new players would be invaluable in assisting in the development of a better New Player Experience. In effect PSDs would allow the CPM to do their job far more efficiently.

The Master Balance Plan

Somewhat recently Rattati released a roadmap for DUST’s development over the next few updates, and has been updating it as plans change and schedules move around. This in of itself is amazing and unprecedented in the history of the game. Unfortunately there is still often a severe problem with the communication of the master plan in terms of balance for many systems. For example there is always ongoing changes and fixes to the assault rifles, but rarely is a general plan for balance discussed. There are some examples where a general plan was presented, such as the DPS to Range ratio, but some recent changes seem to contradict this original plan.

As a player it can sometimes be bewildering or confusing when some design changes are made without a proper explanation as to why, or when there is a lack of a general plan for said design. The original development team seemed to handle balance by the seat of their pants, making arbitrary changes that typically made no sense at all (caused primarily due to poor communication to the player base). While this effect has been greatly diminished under Rattati, it is still an ongoing problem that needs to rectified.

Additionally, while the release roadmap is a fantastic tool and very appreciated by the player base, a Balance Hotfix roadmap would be equally useful and appreciated. These kinds of tools put the players’ minds at ease, and allow them to provide more focused feedback, rather than taking a shot in the dark at what the next hotfix will be focused on.

Project Legion

Personally as a player, I have lost nearly all interest in Project Legion. While CCP Rouge was hailed as a proponent for deeper player communication, he has remained almost completely silent since Fanfest 2014, either be his own volition or the powers to be within CCP. At one time Legion was seen as the future of DUST, however the level of communication about the project has been so poor, so lackluster, that is exceeds the terrible communication that was seen in DUST during the Pre-Rattati era. Instead of the future of DUST, Legion seems to be on the same rails that DUST was early on…lead by a silent development team that is not communicating with the players in the slightest.

This is not a publicity problem, and it is not a marketing problem, this is a philosophy of design problem that will drive whatever is happening with Legion into the ground the same way the prior development of DUST did. As a player, why should I care about the development of a game when it is simply repeating the same mistakes I have already seen happen for the last few years? The simply answer is that I don’t.

Perhaps CCP would prefer that people simply stop carrying about Legion and forget that it was ever mentioned, and if that’s the case then they should keep on doing exactly what they’re doing. However, if they actually want their player base to actually care about their product and help support it with the same fervor we see in DUST, then they should take a few notes from the successes Rattati has had with Dust and evolve it.

This is New Eden after all. We are all a bunch of toxic, angry players that love to hate and hate to love. We bite, snarl, and complain, but the fact remains that it was we the players that have been an essential part in the development and growth of this universe as a whole. CCP is stuck with us, they need us, so its about time they invited us in to have a good long talk so we can continue to improve for years to come.

About Pokey Dravon 98 Articles
Pokey Dravon has played DUST 514 since early closed beta and is a founding co-host of the Biomassed podcast and blog. Follow on twitter @PokeyDravon