Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let's expound on that last bit.

Voting with my wallet is problematic.

And I don't just mean in the sense that it involves restraint and management of money. I mean in the sense that it doesn't tell the other side much. It's the most powerful communication channel we have with the developers and publishers, but it can only carry one bit of information. Yes/no, like/dislike.

Gamers that grumble on forums about this or that loved or hated (mostly hated) game and its qualities (or lack thereof) are often told to just vote with their wallet. But what will my vote mean to the people in charge? It won't tell them anything about why I did or didn't buy the game. Modern Warfare 2 is an excellent example: how do I convey to Activision that I love their embracement of Steamworks without implicitly supporting their... slightly controversial stance on PC multiplayer?

Shouldn't we be past this? Isn't it time for publishers to take a slightly more proactive stance with their audiences? I don't mean the forums; they're half-useless as a communication or survey tool, what with the amount of demographic self-selection that applies to every poster. No, we need something with more weight. And I believe that a good approach might be designed around stealing from Brad Wardell.

Specifically, we should start with his popular and controversial post on piracy, where he essentially posited that "Piracy doesn't matter, only sales matter." Let's paraphrase that bit into "Opinions don't matter, only sales matter."

Let's be realistic here: a lot of people that complain about Modern Warfare 2 are going to buy it. I will too, in a few years. That means we'll give money to Activision. And even if they ignore the vocal minority on the forums (though I'm sure they do care at least a little bit), they should be listening to their customers. It's impossible to know who might have bought your game but didn't and why, but it's comparatively trivial to ask the people who did why they did. Big publishers already do this to some degree, but it should be done far more comprehensively. Exit polls, maybe? Cooperate with game stores to ask customers why they've bought what they did? No, that's simplistic. So why don't we use our Gore-given Internet to do it?

It's easy. Most of these games are already integrated into one online service or another, most of them with social networking aspects and cute stuff like achievements. So let's expand on that. Every purchase comes with one online account. Let us give each account two vote credits. At any time from the moment of purchase any customer may use the game interface to cast a positive or negative vote on an aspect of the game. But the votes aren't fluff like achievements. You only ever get two for any game, and once you spend them you can never vote on that game again. There are no rewards for using them - in fact, casting a vote might carry a slight in-game penalty (to discourage frivolous voting). They should be used by customers who really want to tell you something, so much so they are willing to inconvenience themselves to do it.

You do this, and you are no longer listening to strangers on the Internet. You are listening to your faithful customers, who care about your game (meaning of course they might buy the next one) and have something important to say. The trick of course is to integrate these votes wholly and elegantly into the game. This isn't tech support. You don't want to hear just from people who know how to use the console commands in your FPS; in fact you don't want to hear just from people who play multiplayer (still a minority, despite what most pundits think; not everyone is a social animal and games have diverse patterns of use). Casting a vote should be as simple as saving a game. Everyone should be able to do it, quickly and easily. And if you promote these vote credits as much as achievements are touted (so that everyone knows about them), you can start estimating with some degree of reliability what percentage of your customer base really cares about this or that design choice. Not to mention the knock-on effect of customers feeling like they matter and their voices are heard, which is how fanbases are born.

You do want to know more about your customer base, don't you? We already have these wonderful communication and data processing machines on our desks - so let's use them more.

Why the Modern Warfare 2 uproar is dumb, but not for the reasons you think

Also why voting with one's wallet presents quantization issues 

Here's a letter I sent to Tycho of Penny Arcade after reading his comment on the whole MW2 mess. I didn't much care one way or the other before, but his attitude - specifically with him being an avowed PC enthusiast - caused me to form a concrete opinion. (I later realized the prose is a bit ornate, but since it's Tycho I find it completely appropriate.)

Still a big fan of this teaser. Infinity Ward are artists and artisans. 

Here's the thing: a lot of really big game makers create PC games with server browsers and dedicated servers and all that. It's not unreasonable to expect Infinity Ward to follow suit - what is unreasonable is the degree of fanaticism, malice and paranoia present in the uproar. This is wrong not in relation to the game, but as a signifier of the introversion of the PC gaming community. One game is irrelevant, but this type of nonconstructive response might lead to a future PC platform inundated with console-like games, as the developers abandon the community entirely.

I like my PC games. I like mods and user-created content and server browsers. It may be whiny to complain when we're disallowed them, but it would be disingenuous to pretend I don't care. I don't spew hate on gaming forums though, because it won't change much. I will vote with my wallet however, but it saddens me to be forced to do so, because it robs me of an opportunity to wholeheartedly support the inclusion of Steamworks in the game, hopefully a sign of a coming trend*. How can I condemn one and praise the other? There's but a single box and single price. How could the developers ever know what my reasons were, whatever the decision?

One last bit: You imply that PC gamers are lashing out because they feel betrayed, their platform of choice abandoned. You have no sympathy for such an emotional response to a foregone conclusion, but I do. It always hurts when someone you love (however superficially and transitively) tells you they don't much care about you, and in fact would much rather court that cute young demographic from down the hall. It doesn't hurt less just because many others before them said the same thing. Perhaps I'm being naïve though. I do condemn the methods, but I can't not sympathize with the emotions behind them.

* I'm aware of the hypocrisy of lauding one type of consolization of the PC platform while decrying another, but I firmly believe that Steam represents most of the best bits of the console experience, while avoiding most of the worst. I can't honestly say the same about some parts of Modern Warfare 2.