Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Don't let hardcore gamers develop games

Via Scott Jennings, I stumbled upon an interesting blog post on how hardcore war games are nearly unplayable these days. I read it, and pretty much agreed with it. I'd like to play hex-grid based war games, but the games actually available aren't playable for beginner or casual players. They are made by grognards for grognards. (Feel free to suggest a hex-grid war game for casual players to me if you know one.)

In an interesting coincidence I have a recent e-mail from Hagu in my to-do inbox, asking me to talk about a theory of his that we need developers who are worse gamers. Quote:
"the problem with sandbox games is they need developers who are worse gamers"

Kind of like the Peter Principle q.v.

You take motivated, talented gamers who get promoted and eventually are developing a game. These are much more likely to get sucked into the Darkfall rabbit hole (a "good" game for a niche market) than if you took an executive who wants to produce a profitable, high quality, popular game and then decides it should be a sandbox MMO. My guess is you would be better served if the majority of tactical implementers/developers were good gamers but not the strategic designers/executives. Almost all of the suggestions I read on the EVE forums were for things that would restrict the target market of EVE and reduce CCP's profitability;
I think there is some truth in that. While Hagu uses EVE as example, the same thing did happen to WoW: For years the huge majority of players was excluded by design from raiding, and the guy who designed it that way was Jeff "Tigole" Kaplan, a guy hired because of his experience as hardcore raider in Everquest. When he left for the "Titan" project, the people designing raids went for making them popular instead of hardcore, and that added quite a bit to the longevity of WoW.

Left to their own devices, developers simply make the kind of game they would want to play. If they are hardcore, they'll design hardcore games or features. That is great for them and people like them, but hardcore is by definition niche, built to keep out the mass-market rabble. That just leads to a death spiral: Company with hardcore gamer developers makes hardcore games, sells few of them, makes little money, has little budget for the next game. So they cut features, don't bother with a tutorial, have quality control issues, and the next game is appealing to an even smaller number of hardcore players. If they are lucky they stabilize at some level where they can keep making games and paying their developers. But they'll never make that blockbuster hit game.

An average gamer as developer would be more likely to make a game that appeals to average gamers. Unsurprisingly there are a lot more of those around. Game sells well, and there is enough money around to make a better game, with more content, better graphics, better polished, and higher quality.

So how about that theory that a less hardcore player could develop a more popular and better sandbox game? Markus Persson, the guy who single-handedly created Minecraft, worked 4 years making casual games for Minecraft sold a million copies. That seems to be working nicely.

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