14 Apr 2011

Cheering the Armchair Designer

The Warcraft community is huge. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people writing, drawing, sharing or discussing something about the game every single day. That’s a staggering amount of people all talking about one game made by a single company.

Having such a vocal community can be a bit of a double edged sword. Whenever a change to the game is introduced it gets placed under intense scrutiny. Sometimes a change will be met with universal acclaim, while other times (although rarely for Blizzard) it’ll be met with disdain. Sometimes a change will be so controversial that it’ll split the community completely.

The most recent controversial change was Call to Arms, an attempt by Blizzard to reduce the time it takes to assemble a group for certain combat roles. While the aim is commendable, a number of bloggers (including me) noticed several flaws with the design as presented. We discussed it, shared it and importantly made suggestions about how to improve it.

Which made the statement that followed from another blogger all the more surprising:

“All the armchair designers come out of the woodworks, spewing diarrhea of the mouth about how much it sucks and blah blah blah”

Putting aside the argument about people being entitled to share their opinion, the thing that struck me was the outright dismissal of constructive criticism. Sure, we might not all be games designers or developers but you’d think that after playing games for so many years we’d have a fairly reasonable idea of what might work. It’s pretty arrogant to infer that just because you’re not on Blizzard’s payroll that your ideas don’t count for anything.

Besides, what happens if their ideas get picked up by someone else? I’ll lay odds that other MMO developers have the occasional look at Blizzard’s forums, looking for ideas and suggestions from players about how to improve the game. Ideas that they might be able to incorporate instead.

I really want to encourage “armchair designers”, for players to think about how their game works and how it can be improved. We’re not talking 3D rendering engines and network code here, but instead the tools and mechanics that contribute to how a game feels. Move beyond “this game sucks” and towards “this game sucks because of x, and this is what I’d do to fix it”.

Why would I suggest this? Because in the area of design ideas are like gold dust. It’s incredibly easy to become narrow-focused because of your experience, training or environment. Having a range of people from different walks of life and with different experiences offering up their own ideas is something that many developers would give anything to have.

Blizzard has a team of designers and developers steadily working away on implementing their vision of World of Warcraft – from adding new features to refining or removing existing ones that aren’t working so well. Part of that process involves taking feedback from players and acting on it where needed. If we can provide better quality feedback just imagine how it would help the whole development process.

I’ll be honest with you – I have a vested interest in seeing more gamers being more thoughtful about games. I want games to get better instead of stagnating or standing still. I want us as gamers to be more articulate about our likes and dislikes, particularly in describing why we like or dislike something and what  we would do to solve it.

As gamers we have a part to play in ensuring that games continue to get better. Armchair or no, our ideas should always be welcome.

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