PAX 2008: When player feedback backfires

Everyone has ideas on how to make games better, but Petz developer Andrew Mayer says they're not necessarily good ones.

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One might not expect the producer and designer of the original Petz to attract a big crowd at the hardcore gaming celebration that is the Penny Arcade Expo. However, Andrew Mayer's "You Don't Know What You Really Want" panel attracted an overflowing crowd to the "Wolfman Theatre," with additional attendees waiting outside hoping to fill any seats vacated midpresentation.

Mayer apologized for helping create Petz.

Despite the Petz smear, Mayer boasts a lengthy resume including a wealth of casual games, Second Life, Cartoon Network's online games, and even a Zorro project for the Wii (which he suggested would never see release in the US). Over all those projects, Mayer said he learned the difference between a player and a gamer.

"When players turn the game off, it's over," Mayer said. "They don't think about games when they're not playing them."

They want the same things: Gameplay that works, substantial characters, compelling stories, gorgeous environments, and rock-solid controls. But when hardcore gamers give feedback, Mayer said they can cause more harm than good.

For example, Mayer recalled a time shortly after he and Ken Levine were in a game store shortly after the release of the latter developer's Tribes: Vengeance. The pair looked for a copy of the game on shelves and couldn't find it, so they asked the clerk if the store had the game in stock. It did, but the manager was holding them behind the counter so that "the wrong people" didn't get it.

The real-time strategy was also hurt by its most hardcore fans, Mayer said, as developers listened to their suggestions too much. Over time, the vocal hardcore crowd inspired equally hardcore RTS games that prevented any new gamers from jumping on board the genre.

"The more specialized a game is, the easier it is to make for the people who love it," Mayer said. "But if I make a game for 20 people, the more I'm risking that only 20 people buy it. If you only make a game for yourself, you're going to be the only guaranteed sale, but you'll get it for free."

Because the hardcore gamers can sometimes lead developers in the wrong direction, and developers themselves are too close to the project for perspective, Mayer's solution to the problem is to have new audiences check out the game. Things that will address that for the development team include focus testing, and user metrics, and experience.

"Make a lot of games and you'll learn something," Mayer said. "You can't trust your gut completely, but make a lot of games and you'll know when you're going down the wrong path."

Listening to the feedback received from both focus testers and players is also key, even if that feedback is going to be ignored later. Mayer talked about focus-testing Dogz, and one guy who wanted to put a jet pack in the game.

"We didn't put a jet pack in the game, but I got that people wanted a little more pizazz," Mayer said.

He also added that developers shouldn't be afraid of frustrating the player. When players are faced with a difficult challenge, Mayer said that hate turns to love once the obstacle is overcome. But developers must be careful, because a gamer that never beats a challenge is unlikely to love the experience.

"Game Design is the art of enjoyable frustration," Mayer said. "If you get what you want at the moment you want it, that's not a good game. ... You have to balance how long it will take from the moment you pick up the joystick to the moment you have mastery."

The moment that players "get" something in the game, what Mayer calls an "a-ha" moment, is no mistake, and something developers should design for.

"Good games trick you into doing what you should be doing by making you think it was your idea," Mayer noted.

One point lost on gamers at times is that one doesn't need to like something in order to understand why it's appealing to other people.

"Having empathy for other people's experiences will really help you, and not just in games," Mayer said. "Anything in media. Whether it's on a blog, a podcast or whatever, that's really going to open up the audiences. It's something I look for in the media I consume."

For more from the convention, check out GameSpot's complete coverage of Penny Arcade Expo 2008.

Discussion

112 comments
leapfrog91
leapfrog91

"For the record, most developers who do take player suggestions rarely use them." That's not true. Playtesting is a big deal and certainly influences the design of games.

dreadedlyfe
dreadedlyfe

I think that this is a good "behind the scenes" perspective at game making.What Andrew Mayer said makes a lot of sense.

Hellisunreal
Hellisunreal

"Game Design is the art of enjoyable frustration," Thtas a really great & to the point analysis of game design

jknight5422
jknight5422

If I were him, I'd remove Second Life from my resume credentials. Plus, I'm not sure if I've played any of his games. I've never played Tribes nor cared to. Most casual games won't necessarily hold my interest...but what is a casual game? A game for the Wii? It's not worth $60 & I wonder about just what casual games people play since people I know that own the Wii just let it gather dust or jump on it to play Punch Out or Mario Bros.

YourChaosIsntMe
YourChaosIsntMe

I actually agree with many of his points concerning market saturation, market growth, and a rapidly expanding demographic; I also agree with his underlying premise concerning the division between "casual" players and "hardcore" gamers. A point of criticism, of course, especially considering the projects that he has worked on, is that his statements are motivated by disregard for the core or original demographic. If you read through the lines, he's effectively telling all of us to screw off and play Petz and Second Life. As the industry progresses, a successful and intelligent developer discovers ways to incorporate both segments of the market into their marketing and development plans or choose which segment to focus on exclusively during pre-development rather than chastise "core" gamers in favor of "players AND gamers" His entire presentation was a subtle criticism of "us" and "typical" video games disguised with inoffensive casual-convert rhetoric. Given the growth of the casual segment, more and more second-rate developers will adopt a similar mentality. What's more, the overall theme is both a statement of the obvious and an attempt at self-validation on the part of the developer. The catalyst for his development of said assumptions is purely the product of his own financial interests, with little regard for the long-term or short-term health of the industry. I find the analogy with other forms of media interesting. It is interesting because the video game industry, like the film industry, is easily exploited for quick revenues, especially in recent years. When products are produced to appease the greatest amount of consumers, they often become an inane commodity devoid of depth or aesthetic value. Ico, Eraserhead, and Sigur Ros are not intended to appeal to the entire population. If they had been, they would not be Ico, Eraserhead, or Sigur Ros, would they? The underlying premise, it seems, is his assumption that at some point all video games should and will be developed for and marketed to both segments of the market. Not so far-fetched when you consider the fact that most "casual" gamers play the same titles we do, but this also comprises the strictly "casual" fare. Then you have to consider all of the niche titles that exist, and what the future may hold for them if development is focused on the entire industry rather than divided segments. Even so, I do agree that devoted gamers often fail to empathize with others, especially casual gamers. Our typical expectations are often linear and rigid, which can be restrictive for developers.

YourChaosIsntMe
YourChaosIsntMe

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

akiwak
akiwak

I myself personally keep in contact with about 5 friends that play video games on a regular basis but I know of 30plus that pick up and play the Wii every once and a while.

theaudience
theaudience

@ 2bitSmOkEy about zaphod_b as lame as it sounds, he's right. the percent of casual gamers HEAVILY outweighs the number of hardcore gamers.

Lach0121
Lach0121

hardcore gamers are not a majority by anymeans, in fact, us hardcore gamers are the extreme minority.. but we maynot be the center of the gaming market, but alot of us, are what help start the gaming market.. alot of us hardcore gamers have been around since the gaming has started damn near. but we are nothing compared to casual gamers (in numbers) but their should be games designed specifically for us, just as there are games designed specifically for the casual gamers. regardless of what type of gamer you are,, the games should be designed for gamers period.. not marketing, and not business..

2bitSmOkEy
2bitSmOkEy

@ zaphod_b did you just pull that 80-90% right out of your ass?

zaphod_b
zaphod_b

The biggest mistake hardcore gamers make is thinking that they are the center of the gaming market and it would all collapse without them. The fact is that they make up a small percentage of the market, and what is good for them isn't necessarily good for the other 80-90% of gamers.

Drathyl
Drathyl

He has authority because he has made games. Have you? You guys are just mad because he is basically saying that not all of your suggestions were amazing. I know it might hurt because you've been playing for so long and thinking about making the perfect game. He is not saying that you guys are all idiots. He is just saying that not all of your suggestions are good, and stop whining so much. You might not realize it because you are just gamers, not developers. Developer should never stop taking suggestions, but not all player suggestions are good, even though the player plays the game 16 hours a day.

DSgamer64
DSgamer64

For the record, most developers who do take player suggestions rarely use them. The only one I can think of is in WoW with a recent patch all players were able to gain their first riding mount at level 30 instead of 40 which was a constant thing by the fans.

DSgamer64
DSgamer64

If gamers don't make suggestions, games get repetitive and steril, simple fact. If it wasn't for the fans expressing their opinions, no one would bother buying sequals and games would become rehashes, which is a major problem with gaming as it is. The reason World of WarCraft is such a huge success is because the hardcore players are always putting out new ideas and it's pretty hard to even enjoy the game fully without playing in a hardcore fashion (like 200+ hours sort of thing) and Blizzard does listen to their fans before adding a new patch. It is unfortunate that not all game developers do this for their fans, which is why less people buy sequals to hardcore games (and no fanboys, Halo and GTA are casual games) because they aren't really all that fresh and unique.

lamprey263
lamprey263

I think player criticism and input is essential, and doesn't always amount to limiting an audience. For instance, a lot of people criticized Dead Rising for poor gun aiming, plus you can't walk and shoot at all. Or also that the in game text is only really supported by HDTVs and doesn't work on SDTVs. Bringing this to Capcom's attention wouldn't limit a game to a hardcore crowd, but instead would make things better for everyone. Anyhow, it's the responsibility of the developers to know what genuine criticism & suggestions can help improve a game, and they're also responsible for accepting horrible suggestions as well. Selling a game is just like selling anything else. You can create something very G-rated like a Disney flick for people of all ages to enjoy, or you can create something a little more tailored and narrow your audience some by limiting age audience by maybe making an M rated game. Though, I tend to think the better games usually do better because people want to play good games. Though, that isn't always a factor. Some crappy games like Transformers or Ratatouille will sell a lot because of their name, not because they're good. And a good game doesn't always have a lot of publicity and public awareness to do good. These are all factors. Again, it's the responsibility of publishers and developers to decide how they want to make/promote a game.

R3DN1N3
R3DN1N3

You can do both in my opinion. There have been plenty of games that have accomplished this and to name one at the top of my head would be FORZA 2. I was never into racing simulations but the way the developers designed the game not only helped introduce me to driving a simulated high performance car correctly, but it also got me hooked into it now that I consider myself a fan of the franchise. Casual gamers have the same right to play games they enjoy but don't just soley cater to them. As someone mentioned in this very comments page. "Hardcore gamers will never leave the developers unless the developers do first"

WhiteKnight77
WhiteKnight77

I agree with this guy somewhat, but I submit that there are people new to a game that want something from different games included in said game that does not fit with a particular franchise. Still, many fan related suggestions do not fit either and I have been saying this for years. Games should evolve and not change from one kind of game to another. Features should be kept and not removed. New features that are found to not fit with a franchise should be removed once it is found not to. Games should present a challange. I agree with it should not be to hard to beat the challenge, but don't make it so easy to beat it either. There are to many games that the only challenge is to beat numerous enemies and that is it. I would prefer fewer, but smarter enemy over wave after wave of enemy running out to meet their demise. I want them to split up and try to flank me and my team when the first shots are fired. Enemy like in CoD are tedious and unchallenging.

DSgamer64
DSgamer64

Who cares what he thinks? He hasn't made a good worthwhile and epic game in his whole career, anyone who takes him seriously is a tool just like him. I am sorry but when you are constantly making crap games like Petz which we all know are terrible, just like all casual games are, no one should take you seriously or respect what you have to say. Real gamers know what needs to be changed in certain games, the hardcore players know the improvements needed to make them better. Who cares about those who don't happen to play them? If a developer chooses to go and retool a game with the next installation because of player suggestions, that is their own choice and if players really want to get into a game, why not play the first game before moving on to the second because clearly most games do get adjusted in sequals or expansions. Also, there is a little thing called an instruction manual, or if you are too lazy to learn by reading, a lot of games have tutorials that will teach you the mechanics, even during the main part of the game.

akiwak
akiwak

I don't think he was bashing on the harcore gamers but just because the hardcore gaming community wants something specific withing a game doesn't mean it's going to happen. What I got from the article is that he is willing to listen to all info and try to implement if at all possible. Games should not be just for the hardcore and he addreses the importance of casual gamers. More people playing games means that the industry can survive longer and continue to grow, some of todays players will be tomorrows gamers.

limbofrog
limbofrog

Granted type of games range from bubble breaker to mech warrior 4, but honestly within the scope of a particular game why can't you have both qualities? Appeal the hardcore gamer and the casual gamer alike. A really good game will let you play it at many levels. A game like wow lets you level at your own pace and you don't ever have to group to level. But if you like grouping you can. If you like PVP, you can. If you like Battle Grounds, you can choose that. A Game where you choose how hard and to what extent you play - that is the ultimate game.

Gamingcucumber
Gamingcucumber

I always think about games. And draw experience from it, beneith what the mainstream thinks is just " shallow enjoyment" lies an experience as deep as art if you know where to search. BioShock, Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger among others has helped shape my life. So speak for yourself Mr.Bald.

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

Buzzguy, maybe you could call yourself 'Hardcore casual' or 'Casucore'

McGregor
McGregor

I can understand that listening to a casual gamer is going to improve your game for everyone, because they want it simple to learn, and fun to master. Hardcore gamers play enough that simple (and fast) don't have to apply, because they'll play until they know exactly what they are doing. buzzguy and Onsokuni, i'm with both of you, i'm no longer a hard core gamer, but i'm definately not casual...I guess i'm a "real" gamer, meaning i have to live a "real life" and play when i get a chance. I wish i could be a hardcore gamer still, but life doesn't allow me that luxury anymore.

majidok
majidok

Good read and good points , thanks :D

YeahYeahYouWere
YeahYeahYouWere

The fact of the matter is that these "players" are the ones who drive the market because they are the vast majority. As several other people have cited, compare the sales record of the Wii, which is not half as powerful as the PS3 and 360. I know lots of people in their 50s who enjoy playing the Wii. The games might not be as good, in my eyes, but the fact is, they sell. The name of the game is profits, whether we want that to be the case or not. I mean, there's plenty of people out there who bought a Wii JUST to play Wii Sports. Studios will not shell out the cost to develop games that will only satisfy a few people. It's just bad business.

buzzguy
buzzguy

Come to think of it, they need another class of gamers to cater to. I'm not casual, but I don't play enough to be hardcore either. Where do gamers like that fall into this?

buzzguy
buzzguy

I didn't really understand what "the wrong people" meant in the bit about Tribes. Am I missing something? Am I "wrong people", too?

TheMayor88
TheMayor88

i agree with darksaber2k. Please tell me who you are again and why your opinion matters. If it was Hideo Kojima , a man of great status, then i am more likely to listen. other than that, tell your story to someone who wants to listen

Witchsight
Witchsight

Ive been thinking about SotC since the day i beat it. All games dont make you think of them when you arent playing, just the good ones.

Newave
Newave

So basically he's saying dissapoint the fans of a game to appeal to people who didn't want to play the game in the first place, just to make more money? If so, or even remotely close to so, I wish death and misery upon this vile creature I earlier referred to as "he".

cszero
cszero

I tend to see the most heated discussions on a particular game's design if the game is popular... (halo 3, cod4, wow, to name a few). If you go on to those boards, you'll see arguments over so and so should be removed from game or balanced or my favorite "this game takes no skill" which is usually coming from someone i'd imagine to be very good a the game. Less popular ones sometimes seem to have everyone on the same page and loving it.

DarkSaber2k
DarkSaber2k

Even after reading this article I still don't know who this man is and why we should be listening to him.

R3DN1N3
R3DN1N3

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

R3DN1N3
R3DN1N3

Dawg9000 @ R3DN1N3 Correction, they ARE the kids in the class who don't shut up. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- LOL you're right.

Onsokuni
Onsokuni

I get what the guy's saying, and he makes some good points, but... Man, it feels way too trendy to hate on "real" (or hardcore, or hobbyist, or whatever) gamers. I'm by no means "hardcore" anymore, but I'm certainly not casual, and between Nintendo, guys like this, and all the companies that are going to be clamoring in Nintendo's footsteps, I'm starting to feel a little bummed.

endocrine
endocrine

Every now and again, developers should design games for the hardcore players. Its sometimes hard to push boundaries and create unique situations when you design a game that most people won't hate. Also, frustrating players is not something that is always good. I have yet to enjoy a call of duty game on veteren. Respawning enemies is a terrible idea that adds to the frustration and is a cheap way to make something more difficult when you can't think of anything else to do.

Mattitude88
Mattitude88

@redskinstu Obviously you didn't read the part right before your quote where it was said that there is a difference between players and gamers. He is basically referring to casual gamers when he says players. The casual gamers are the ones that dont think about the games when theyre done. The hardcore gamers are the ones that go to sites like this and talk about what they wish a game had. Casual gamers can give unbiased answers because they can detach themselves from games easily. Hardcore gamers cannot and therefore get so focused on what they want that they limit what the designer hopes to achieve.

azafirster
azafirster

Man Love this guy.. he's got a good point

1keyblade
1keyblade

@ EnriqueMJK You have a really good point about that. I actually think your right.

Tauntulas
Tauntulas

i think im hardcore enough to know my imput is no good.

punksta99
punksta99

@redskinStu Yeah, and they wouldn't be having interviews about games, either.

Ra-Devil
Ra-Devil

I love every single word this guy said. He's absolutely right. Every bit of what he said I hold true to my perspective on the gaming world. Hell, I already know several games utterly ruined by the developers listening too much to the hardcore fans who really don't know what they want. I hope more people learn to understand the delicate game of balance.

redskinStu
redskinStu

When players turn the game off, it's over," Mayer said. "They don't think about games when they're not playing them." If that was true, there would be no websites like Gamespot and GameFAQS...right?

Lach0121
Lach0121

and @robbiee, just want to clarify something here.. one of the main reasons why the wii has sold more, is because of its cheaper price... not the only reason, but a major one though... not knocking the wii, just making sure that fact is known.

Lach0121
Lach0121

@vidplayer8, im a big hardcore fan of diablo 1 and 2, though i am a little dissapointed in the art style of diablo3, i would only say slightly... because, and the devs said it as well, this art style will at times be darker than the previous diablos... I am really looking forward to diablo3, regardless of it being a little more colorful than the first 2, if it still has the great gameplay and depth, and as long as Matt Uelman is doing the music for it.. than i believe it will be a great game..... as for fallout, i havent played the first and second.. oddly enough one of the games i havent got a chance to.. but i will, and i will look forward to fallout3, though fallout3 i will wait till it comes down in price for a while.. diablo3 i will more than likely get first day...

aeskinaz
aeskinaz

This is really sad....reminds me of how I anticipated Oblivion but then felt it had been dumbed down a little for the masses. This is developers selling out. Worry about quality from now on I guess, cause your RPG will have to appeal to a 20 year old and a 5 year old.

kaziechameleon
kaziechameleon

and to everyone who bashes hard core, hard core crowds propel the largest software sales right now. sure simple casual gamers(the fools who bought the wii)move hardware, for example the wii, yet some how that system and it's horrible software attatchment rate demonstrate the vacume that wii owners live in. all they want is wii sports and wii fit. nothing else. mean while halo 3 and GTA 4 and Bioshock and Mass effect and orange box move tons of copies, i own all those for my 360 isn't that more lucaritive. if your console has a supper high software attachment rate because your target market invests more in games than it's a better system no? i don't think that the casual gamer should be ignored but i think the hard core gamer is definitely as if not more important.

EnriqueMJK
EnriqueMJK

I think a lot of what he was getting at is that Hardcore gamers know the ins and outs, know the basics, and when playtesting, tend not to focus on the overall package of the game but rather on smaller details that hardcore gamers latch onto which are really inconsequential to the broader picture when developing a game. The little details can be useful for the developer but just amount to icing on the cake. By bringing in regular joe's or casual gamers it's easier for them to give feedback on the core of the game how does this feel, how easy are the controls, does the gameplay make sense, etc.. stuff that a seasoned hardcore gamer will gloss over.

kaziechameleon
kaziechameleon

i think what he is really talking about is designing a product for a target market, something any college buisness or engineering grad would tell you plenty about. you need to identify a target market, potential sales and budget accordingly. it's ok to make a very focused game for a small target market. say highschool males or college females. it's okay to make a game designed for 20 people as long as it doesn't require you to spend a million dollars to do it see what i'm saying. cost of making product and potential saturation of market and revenue. Devs really should already know this stuff. it's very basic.