Thursday, May 22, 2014

Plans Change, or The Dangers of Developer Communication

I remember a time, nearly a decade ago, when people would rage at the empty, echoing space that was the WoW forums. The developers, you see, would rarely deign to respond to the populace with the exception of disseminating patch notes, and even that was generally through community managers. Nowadays, partially thanks to the efforts of an extremely thick-shelled crab by the name of Greg Street AKA Ghostcrawler, you see lots of WoW devs all over Twitter and blog posts on

You also see something similar from the Landmark developers, and the folks from the Wildstar. Lots of indie game developers also have an open development model, where they share the entire journey from start to finish. While I love having a much more real-time view of the developer stream-of-consciousness, I wonder if it’s a net-good thing.

Nerfs tend to be pretty controversial subjects. Many don’t particularly care, some rejoice because they’ve hit a wall, and others are upset because they don’t want their achievement to be watered down (like leaving the cutting edge achievement despite nerfing the content), or just like having extremely difficult content around. I think most people are pretty resigned to nerfs at this point, but what I really found interesting wasn’t the nerf itself, but folks’ reaction to it.

A month ago, Watcher mentioned that they didn’t have any plans to create a zone-wide nerf, but they were looking at targeted nerfs to smooth progression. What if they decided later that they liked the progression curve, but thought it was just a little too flat, i.e: each boss was relatively tuned to each other correctly, but everything was just a bit too hard? Well, the only response to that is either do nothing and let folks be frustrated, or nerf everything a little.

Both Balkoth and Kurn argue this flies in the face of what Watcher had stated a month ago. At first blush, I played word lawyer and said, “Plans change. They promised nothing.” I mean, it is a nerf, let’s be clear. But what Blizzard said a month ago may or may not apply now.

However, given both had such a strong reaction to the tweet, maybe I was missing something bigger here. Perhaps us mere mortal players should never get to view the direct stream of developer consciousness? If you dig into Blizzard’s past, you’ll find the ruins of aerial combat, the dance studio, and the Path of the Titans. All cool features that were cut due to not enough time or developer resources, and the outcry for each of them was quite vociferous. Would Blizzard have been better off not announcing them at all?

Or talk about another feature they announced just the other day, class accessories. A feature that is already stated won’t make it into 6.0. Heck, the feature is still in its inception phase, according to the linked blog post. So when/if this gets cut, is there going to be a collective surge of disappointment and anger from the playerbase?

Is there a middle ground, where the developers talk about only the sure-shot stuff that they know won’t get cancelled? Or is it worth it to be extremely open about your game’s development to generate interest and dialogue, in the hopes that all of these outcries from your playerbase amount to just the Internet being the Internet? Should you as a dev talk about your day-to-day decisions, like whether or not you have plans right that moment for something? Or should you only talk in absolutes? Is that even possible?

I’m not sure.

It’s funny, because I’ll be in the exact same position in a month and a half or so, with the opportunity to be quite open about the game I’ll be working on. I’m looking at the reactions of folks about Watcher’s tweets, to the extreme side of things: the very angry folks on Twitter who are blaming Ghostcrawler for the last LoL patch—despite the fact that he hadn’t even started on the team yet! Having to watch exactly what I say, the absolute precise wording of it in fear of being misrepresented, and even then being taken to task for it is a bit intimidating.

I’ll still do it for my game; I’m way too excited not to. But at the same time, I’m a little bit trepidatious. I suppose one can only hope that people realize that developers are people too? We get excited, we get happy, we get sad, we get angry, and we want to share plans with folks in the hopes they get happy, excited, sad, or angry, too.

And for one last look at history, I leave folks with a one of Tseric’s final forum posts, a well-known community manager who mysteriously left Blizzard in 2007, nearly 7 years ago to the week:
Can't help it.
Posting impassionately, they say you don't care.
Posting nothing, they say you ignore.
Posting with passion, you incite trolls.
Posting fluff, you say nonsense.
Post with what facts you have, they whittle down with rationale.
There is no win.
There is only slow degradation.
Take note. It is the first and only time you'll see someone in my position make that position.
You can be me when I'm gone.
#Developers, #Personal


  1. I don't actually have a really strong reaction to that tweet, to be honest. I mentioned it because it was part of the story I was trying to tell -- part of which is that I still dislike content nerfs in anything but the "tuning" form.

    Part of why I stopped raiding was because of the consistent content nerfs to current content. I'm not saying we didn't benefit from them (we did) but I took exception to the goalposts being moved closer. One of those reasons is because it lumped me and my guild in with people who (these days) can't break 30k dps.

    What I actually said in my blog post in which I mentioned it:

    "Anyhow, I laughed to myself at all of this and was, once again, pleased that I’m not raiding in any serious capacity at all."

    This goes back to my "I stopped raiding because of the nerfs" thing. I laughed because it no longer affects me the way it once did and I laughed because of the distinction they draw between a zone-wide aura and VP upgrades.

    But, that's their opinion. I have my own. And we're both entitled to them.

    All that to say, I don't feel quite as strongly about it as you may think and the reason I feel anything about it at all is not due to devs changing their plans or ideas, it's because of what my history has been like with the game.

    Having said that, I wish you luck as a game dev. I would imagine no dev has it easy and Tseric certainly had his points when it comes to dealing with the masses. I'm sure it's a fine line to walk and I wish you the best of luck with it. :)

    1. Fair enough :) I totally get you on why you would dislike the nerfs. I'm certainly not arguing for or against them as I see both sides of the coin, at least not here. I wasn't aiming to misrepresent you, just focusing in on the developer discussion portion, which admittedly is a very tiny portion of your blog post as a whole.

  2. Not to say that raiders don't have a right to be annoyed by the increase in item levels and resulting buff to players, but to be fair (based purely on the linked tweet) WatchDev was not lying. They didn't create a zone-wide buff, they just buffed everyone instead. A player who never sets foot in SoO is still getting a buff due to the increased item levels. So if anything it's a world-wide nerf. It's semantics if anything, but I suspect that in Blizzard's mind the two are very different things.

    Doesn't mean that progression raiders aren't right to be miffed by the goal-post moving and apparent change in direction.

    1. Even if they did implement a zone-wide nerf, he wouldn't be lying, technically. However, it is a change of plans that basically took said progression raiders by surprise. I understand being upset because it wasn't really communicated much in advance, but that's the crux of my question: how far in advance would be sufficient? Or should they never talk about current plans because plans change?

  3. Like I mentioned in the comments of my article, I'm not even up in arms over the nerfs themselves -- more annoyed that they completely 180ed in a month's time. If a month later they had announced targeted nerfs but mentioned they were looking closely at the completion rate in general and then a month after that announced a general nerf, I wouldn't be objecting.

    We just completely revered direction with no warning in a month's time. Which doesn't bode well for trusting anything Blizzard says if they're willing to shift that harshly with zero warning in such a drastic fashion.

    And somewhat annoyed that Cutting Edge is still obtainable with nerfs -- which is kind of the opposite of the point of the feat.

    1. +1, they should turn the Cutting Edge achievement into a Feat of Strength. Doesn't make much sense with the nerfs.

      I think in our conversation on your blog we had come to the conclusion that they shouldn't have said anything at all, which I'm still unsure of. Would it have been better had they given a month's notice?

    2. "Would it have been better had they given a month's notice?"

      Yes. Pretty much ANY indication would have been good.

      Imagine you're working for a company and the boss says everything is going great, profits are soaring, everyone will get a raise soon.

      Then a month later he comes back and says that things are terrible, there's no profits, and people will be laid off.

      You're probably thinking "Er, what?"

      Keep in mind that Watcher's statement was SUPPOSED to be a long-term indication to guilds. It wasn't a "We're fiddling with the design and here are our current thoughts while we experiment."

      Changing your minds on something you're iterating on is perfectly fine, it's expected.

      But going 180 on nerfs in a months time? LESS, in fact, because they then needed to figure out HOW to nerf it and prepare a public statement. That's not something in constant state of change or up in the air on what might happen. That's something with long term planning.

    3. I can't imagine that bumping the upgrades by 2 was more than an afternoon's work, so I don't know about the long-term planning.

      However, that being said I think you've got an absolutely fair point with guilds using it as a long-term indication. Plans do change, but I think for a nerf people want to be able to down bosses before it takes effect, or know when to push a little harder.

  4. The long term planning was referencing the long term indication with guilds.

    Meaning guilds trusted that it was something they could use for long term plans that Blizzard had settled on -- it wasn't something constantly in flux.

  5. If only all the convos about this stuff were as topical and considered as your posts here. I'm sick to death of the hyperbole and rage that fill feedback threads, to the point that I do my best to avoid them. I almost miss the old way, where games just showed up on the shelf one day in their final form, and buying one involved accepting the good with the bad. I've no doubt that we get better games (and games that get better) now, but the cost seems so high. I can't even imagine being the target of all that vitriol - it would drive me to drink (more)!

    It's awfully curmudgeonly of me, right? I feel like I'm shaking my fist and yelling "you damn kids, get off my lawn!" It just doesn't seem like too much to ask the following: respect your audience, treat people humanely, recognize that your opinion is one of many, ask nicely.

    Maybe Internet etiquette is something we should be teaching in grade school :)

    1. Yeah, there was something to be said about unwrapping a game, playing it, and being done with it, before the days of the Internet.

      Frankly, video games aren't unique in the issue of receiving vitriol. Look at any thread on Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux, or news articles on rape or misogyny, to be a little more topical. I think part of the issue is the Internet is like spitting into the wind. The only way you end up dealing with it repercussions is if the wind blows your own spit back at you.

      Also, I think many people have issues distancing their opinions from their own values of self-worth. Some opinions, like ones on identity, do actually have impact there. But if you love Xbox, and I disagree, it doesn't mean either of us are terrible people.