On September 29th, Game Director of Overwatch Jeff Kaplan wrote a response to a post on the official Blizzard forums that was a bit of a shock to the community. Seeing Jeff speak in a public forum is no surprise, as his regular communication has made him a crowd favorite. What he said, however, was. He stated that he and other developers are scared of posting on their forums. I view Overwatch’s community generally as a positive group of people, but this made me realize that every community I know still has awkward interactions with its devs. I want to explore the evolution of how developers have interacted with their communities and where I think it’s going in the future.
When video games were first introduced, a game would release and reviews for it would come out, but that would be the only typical interaction between developers and players. The devs might use those reviews’ feedback while making a sequel, but the criticism otherwise might be ignored. Even if devs took the reviews to heart, they were listening to the opinions of official sources, not the common player.
This relationship later evolved with the introduction of the Internet and the devs’ ability to make changes post-release. Devs could use the internet as a tool to fix bugs, affect balance, or add new content. The first consistent medium for designer-player communication, too, arose with the Internet. Conversations could be hosted on official forums only, which finally gave players a chance to voice their opinions. However, discussion on these forums was a slow, impersonal process that did not give as much insight into the developers’ mentality as the community would have liked.
The speed of communication increased with the maturity of the internet and the growing popularity of social media. Changing a game post-release transitioned from a developer tool to an expectation from players. This gave power to the community to ask for additional features, but also to rework the game at its core to fix design issues. Suddenly, the devs are struggling to properly process the massive influx of feedback; it’s impossible for them to please the whole community, but they have no easy way of determining what feedback they should consider. The devs are publishing interviews and videos to explain their mentality more, but the community still has to respond through a restrictive forum format.
While the open communication model has its strengths, there may be a better way to handle player engagement. Some companies have a system where all communication is handled by one or a few people who run the company’s official account. There’s room for improvement here. All communication in this model is between the faceless company and the community, which has no potential to transition from a business relationship to a more casual one. There is no figurehead that the community can rally behind, so the community’s sense of identity cannot develop too well.
A dedicated public relations person that has an identifiable identity could be much more valuable, mostly because they can be an engaging and present force for the community. By constantly working with the community, they gradually feel more comfortable speaking with the players. This confidence is important because I think that’s exactly what developers lack when they visit their forums. They are scared because they are unsure of how to conduct themselves, so things like powerless community threats have more impact than they should. I think this confidence would allow the worker to filter through forums posts more efficiently and have real two-way communication with the players.
The issue of designer-player communication is not black-and-white - it will take many iterations to make perfect. My solution may not be the ultimate one, but I think it’s at least a step in the right direction. I think the main change has to come in a careful change in the dev’s attitude. Proper communication cannot flourish under a strictly business model, but an environment that is too casual is a breeding ground for dev abuse. Ironically, if this issue is to be properly solved, it would require extensive communication between the community and devs to see what each side needs.