May 22, 2015

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Is There Value In Armchair Design?

Remember the debate over whether or not games were art? Did you care? I did, if only because as an art form, games could gain legitimacy in the eyes of some naysayers. But art is a dangerous minefield of detractors and adorers. Within the consumer ecosystem, we all adore gaming, or else we’d be off doing something else. Within the consumer ecosystem, though, we’re also detractors.

Consumers only see the tip of the iceberg, which in this case is the finished product. Even better is that most consumers don’t have any clue as to where icebergs come from. Some people who want to talk about icebergs frame their discussions in terms of them making ice-cubes in their freezer, or worse, about how their fridge makes ice-cubes and dispenses them through the door. This isn’t a slam against armchair designers, though. I’ve engaged in it myself over the years and although the Internet is built upon it, this isn’t a case of “everyone is wrong who isn’t me”.

Does all of this uneducated, inexperienced speculation have any value to the industry itself? If you’ve talked with any game developer about his or her job, you’ll quickly understand that it’s not an industry that suffers moderately-intelligent people. I remember when I visited the MetaPlace offices I was utterly flabbergasted by the things the staff were telling us. 98.2% of it went right over my head when talking about server architecture and the game engine itself. Watching Raph Koster whip up a particle system while we were standing there made me realize that while game development wasn’t rocket science, it’s nowhere near as commonplace as a lot of armchair designers believe it to be. Still, I do think that the spouting-off that happens across forums, in chat windows, and on blogs (hi there!) does have value; maybe not at the level that the consumer believes it does, but it can be more than just an intellectual-wannabe exercise.

It shows people care

No one will get worked up about something that they consider disposable. This is usually the kind of argument that the most unhinged ranters will adopt as a way of explaining away their rude behavior, but there is truth in there.

If people didn’t care, they’d slink away to a project they do care about. If people stick around and talk about what they like and what they don’t, then it means that they’re interested in sticking around because…

It can provide crowd-sourced insight

Like I said, game developers are smart people, but even smart people can have tunnel vision. Although I’m not privy to the exact science of game design, you can be sure that it’s rarely a case of committee. Someone, somewhere has an idea, ropes in others to bounce ideas off of, funding gets got, and it’s off to the races. Still, that’s a small number of people trying to create something that appeals to (hopefully) millions of people, all of whom have different likes and dislikes on the fringes of the core of this idea that appeals to them.

When consumers talk back to designers and developers, that’s a massive focus group offering advice for free. Better yet, a focus group that’s telling you how you can get them to pay you.

Of course, this is from the armchair side. From the design and development side, things look much different. I am a developer, though not a game developer, and I’ve had end-users talk about how an app should or shouldn’t work that well exceeds their expertise in the matter (usually limited to providing business need and the rules to support it).

I pay your salary, so you owe me

The Internet calls this “entitlement”, and it’s way too prevalent for anyone’s good. It’s not just a younger demographic raised on the “trophy for participation” that many people complain about. Many elder gamers who remember the days when EA and Activision pumped out cartridges for the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 feel a sense of entitlement for their support of the companies from the days when they weren’t the multi-billion dollar enterprises they are now. Just look at the recent news about Konami ditching everything but mobile and you’ll see that entitlement knows no bounds.

Give me what I want or I walk

Talking a big talk means walking a big walk, and no one in this space is a stranger to the “vote with your wallet” movement. Every game that’s released probably (statistically speaking, here) has at least one person who tries to go all Sparticus on the games industry by issuing a “call to arms” for consumers to boycott the product in order to “send a message” to the “greedy corporations”. Sometimes this works: SimCity eventually got it’s offline mode, despite EA/Maxis’ claims that it couldn’t be done, but most of the time the financial summons falls on deaf ears, as a much larger majority of people really want to play the next Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty game than those who think design decisions are worth starting a crusade over.

Believing in the community a bit too much, because it sounds like a great idea

Here’s when design meets the armchair in what both probably believe will be the ultimate kumbaya moment of Zen: taking feedback from the community seriously during the design and development phase in order to create the ultimate crowd-pleasing ur-product.

Focus groups exist for a reason: best test the waters ahead of time before money and manpower is committed. And if you consider focus groups to be too small for your tastes, why not get continuous feedback from the legions of people you want to appeal to? If people are going to be giving their opinions unsolicited anyway, why not harness that and turn it to good rather than locking them out and making them feel like they’re shouting in the darkness.

Letting the community believe that they are the fifth Beatle can’t possibly be sane, not just from the Homer-esque potential such a decision will ultimately lead to, but it gives armchair designers the OK to ratchet up the force of their engagement.

On the other hand, not dismissing or ignoring the consumer lets them know that someone is taking them seriously, even if their pet feature doesn’t make the cut, and that can go a long way towards defusing potential animosity further down the line.

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