Talking Point: How Much Fan Influence Should Game Studios Allow?
Posted by Zach Kaplan
What's the magic formula?
There was a time not too long ago when the origins of the games we play were somewhat mysterious. We knew the company names and could view credit sequences until the cows came home and magazine readers could gain some extra insight, but by and large the thought processes, discarded ideas and development stages that went into the creation of those virtual worlds were a mystery.
Just think of 1997's GoldenEye 007. The developers originally planned to include a weapon called the Spyder, as well as an option to control previous Bonds in multiplayer, facts that emerged when screenshot slips, instruction manual oversights and Gameshark hacks brought them to light. The gaming community experienced quite a thrill at these discoveries, not only because they unlocked some hidden data but because they caught a glimpse of some features that did not make it into the finished product. Like an unearthed first draft of a literary work or a deleted scene on a DVD, we caught a glimpse of the somewhat clandestine process of game design.
Almost 15 years have passed since then, and the landscape has changed immensely. Sites like ours offer fans a place to speak out and share ideas at a rapid pace, and sometimes developers pay attention. A few even join as users to open a dialogue, asking players what they would have done differently and using that advice to influence their creative processes. Some even take this a step further – Bplus is currently soliciting feedback to influence the development of its future eShop titles, for example.
But there's no denying that a divide still exists between smaller developers and larger companies. If Shigeru Miyamoto asked the fans what they thought of a beta version of Super Mario 3D Land, less would likely head to the forums than would ask if he's succumbed to a mental disorder.
We're currently living in the wake of two fan-centred events that aptly demonstrate the difficulty in hearing the voice of Joe Averagegamer. The first is the beginning of Operation: Rainfall, a series of letter-writing campaigns and Internet-based protests designed to make Nintendo of America aware that the fan base for Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora's Tower is large and passionate enough to make the games' release in North America worthwhile. After about two months, however, little seems to have changed, NOA only stating that European sales will determine America's chances. Nintendo is a business, of course, so it's hard to blame it for wanting to turn a profit, and the 3DS's poor performance at sales further decreases its wiggle room for market experimentation. However, another difference divides Nintendo and the independent developers who might prove more likely to lend fans an ear – the Big N is called "big" for a reason, and that's because poor sales don't mean that closing their doors is anywhere near inevitable.
And then there's Mega Man Legends 3. From the beginning, Capcom said that it wanted to involve fans in its development more so than ever before, opening an online Devroom to encourage fan interaction and idea formation, and planning to release Mega Man Legends 3: Prototype Version simultaneously with the 3DS eShop to showcase an early build and receive even more feedback. But while this may have taken place on a larger scale than ever seen in the past, the publisher's methods of gauging fan interest certainly were not – after participation in the Devroom failed to garner enough widespread interest, Capcom cancelled the entire project.
Fan outrage predictably followed, but should we trace it back to nearsighted publishers too used to the old ways or a development process that was too openly visible in the first place? Arguing for the former is the fact that only a small segment of the population was involved at this point – the difference between those who might have bought the game and those who were up to date with gaming publications and websites enough to even know about the Devroom was quite large. If Capcom had more widely advertised its existence or looked at how many downloaded the eShop beta version to gauge their prospects instead, the game's fate could look quite different today. On the other hand, titles see cancellation all the time, and perhaps if this one hadn't seen such a media presence in the first place – it was revealed that Capcom hadn't even greenlit it until long after its existence was publicised in press release format, for example – then it could have ended up as another project that no one even knew about, just like so many others. No one can mourn a game's death if no one knew it even had a chance at life.
This brings another fact to light – even if a developer finds a way to seamlessly interact with its fans via the Internet, those that can and will do so make up only a segment of those who might purchase the final product. The problem isn't that companies don't know that gamers are out there to solicit their feedback, it's that now they have a choice to obtain it much more easily – but if most customers aren't going to use the 'net anyway, it makes the point moot. But that may not be entirely true as the widespread mentality has changed: people no longer see gaming companies as inaccessible ivory towers, they know that development can work as a two-way street. Companies now have the option to advertise this connectivity to those who wouldn't know about it otherwise – there are still TV commercials, billboards and viral marketing campaigns of which to take advantage, and this can apply to websites for idea soliciting just as well as the final product.
But is it worth it? Would enough of the gaming community stand up and decide to make their voice heard if they had the option, or would they instead happily consume a product regardless of their input? It's worked that way for decades – changing landscape or not, why shouldn't it continue in this fashion?
If more and better opportunities to have your voice heard by gaming studios existed, would you utilise them? Was the Mega Man Legends 3 Devroom a step in the right direction that was cut down too soon, or was it a too-visible failed experiment that Capcom simply had to make the hard decision to end? Is the divide between small and large developers reducible mostly to mentality? What do you think are viable, possibly untapped ways that these companies could interact with fans to influence game development? Or should they even try? Voice your comments below!