Transparency: How Honesty Isn't Always the Best Policy When Making a Game
Let’s not spend a lot of time with introductions here, but you should know who I am before diving into this column. My name is Larry Everett. I’ve been a writer at Massively.com, GameBreaker.TV, and a few other places -- including GameSkinny a while back. I’ve covered mostly MMORPGs for the last five years professionally, and I’ve met many developers and key people who make games.
"Transparency" Column Investigates the Games Industry
I wanted a place on the internet where I could share my thoughts about the current trends and where things are shaping up as a whole. I play a lot of games. Although I am a “journalist,” I play these games, and I love the industry, just like you. The staff at GameSkinny have been kind enough to give me an outlet for posting my thoughts about the industry, and I am calling that outlet Transparency.
Find all future entries in this series within the "Transparency column" tag.
In recent news, players have asked to know more about what was happening behind the scenes of some of their favorite studios. Not exactly in the fashion of wanting to know how their favorite games are made, but because many people believe -- rightfully so in some cases -- that gaming studios are not acting in the best interest of the players. In some cases, that fear is rational.
But I would like to take a contrary stance today and say that transparency isn’t always the best policy.
Sometimes, keeping secrets works.
Recently, I attended PAX South, which was great because it was smaller and less well-known studios were able to take center stage this year. One of the studios in my side of the industry that stole the show was ArenaNet. You might know them for making Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2. Two games that have broken the mold when it comes to MMORPGs. There is a soft place in my heart for ANet because the developers really appear to love what they are doing, and the studio is not afraid to take risks. So having the main stage for a big announcement was very appropriate from my perspective.
In order to understand why this is a story of how the lack of transparency works, we have to go back a few months before PAX South to a time when Guild Wars 2 was not getting an expansion, or so we thought. The developers continued to suggest that the Living Story updates were how they were going to continue to give content to players.
The Living Story, as some of you might not know, was little pieces of story released over several months that eventually told a complete story. In fact, some bits of that story changed the literal lay of the land, like when a dragon destroyed the hub city of Lion’s Arch. Many of us believed that we would not see Guild Wars 2 take up the model that its predecessor, Guild Wars, had: releasing a paid expansion to tell the continued story.
Then we heard a rumor.
A Korean Investment company mentioned an expansion and how it would positively affect the game. Of course, by this time, there was rumor and speculation, but there was no announcement nor any indication from developers that an expansion might happen. But people inevitably began talking about it. Following that, fans found that ArenaNet had trademarked the name Heart of Thorns. The charr was out of the bag and the hype-train left the station. But ArenaNet said nothing official for at least a month.
I have explained in great detail how feverish the GW2 fans were waiting for the expansion. At PAX South, as the GW2 fans waited, it took zero prompting from the emcee for the audience to cheer and holler every time it even looked like a developer might take the stage. No one seemed to care that ANet had led us around by a chain, giving us misdirected clues and remaining mum on the subject we were asking for. But it worked. I don’t know an MMO expansion that people are more excited for that wasn’t World of Warcraft.
Unfortunately, the other side of the coin can be tragic.
What happens when too much information is given to an audience?
I will do my best not to kick someone while they are down. I have a lot of respect for the former Sony Online Entertainment, now Daybreak. I have always believed that as a whole it has been the most transparent to it community, involving the community in game-making decisions, even letting the community help develop the game. Tools to create negative voxals (the building blocks in Landmark) and designs of elven architecture for EverQuest Next were both built by the community, for example.
Unfortunately, earlier this week, much of Daybreak’s community team was let go including many long-term team members like Linda Carlson, Tiffany Spence, and Aimee Rekoske.
However, the biggest direct blow to Landmark was David Georgeson, the creative director for the whole EverQuest franchise.
Good for community; bad for business.
The release of these key people tells me that the model being used to work with the community might have been wonderful for a member of the community, but it did not work as a business model. I don’t think Landmark had made any real money for at least a year, and there was no real prospect for it to make money in the immediate future.
Landmark, as you might remember, allowed players to buy into the alpha and beta of the game. The community was key to the direction of the game. Nearly every week, the developers would produce a live show explaining where the project was going and what the Landmark team was working on. The community team and Georgeson were key players in this initiative.
However, the coverage became stale, and in my opinion, it was over saturated. People lost interest. People were not interested in how that sausage was made. They just wanted it smoked and sitting on their plates. Unfortunately, this disinterest helped lead to reduction in staff at Daybreak. Transparency isn’t always a good thing.
Next week, we’ll end this column with less of a downer because although transparency does have its flaws there are certainly good things about it. And maybe, just maybe, if more people practiced transparency well, we’d have a \ more amazing games industry.