Previously I wrote a bit on the games in politics. This can be flipped around to look at the politics in games, specifically MMOs and the player-dev relationship. There are a few good angles to come at this from, notably the following:
Gordon’s Politics MMORPG
The Political Power of Games from Experience Points
Jack Thompson and any other ill-bred political crusader using games as a whipping boy (I’m not linking anything on this one intentionally; if you don’t know Jack Thompson, you may be better off, but if you want to chase him through the internet, it’s easy enough.)
As the Experience Points guys note, game devs “work within an immensely powerful medium”. We are effectively the deities of our game worlds, able to rewrite the fabric of our little reality at a whim (more or less). Players conform to our design parameters in most traditional games, simply because, despite the interactive nature of games, playing by the rules is often the only way to get through a game.
I’ve seen players who intentionally ignore or act directly opposite of a game’s tutorials… gaming counterculture hippie rebels, as it were. It’s a valid way to play, certainly, but unless such experimentation is the point of the game (say, in a sandbox game), dev-sanctioned “progress” comes slowly if at all to someone who runs against the grain.
Even so, when a game is live and constantly mutating, as an MMO is, players can have some influence on the design. Just look at all the tweaks in the average WoW patch, and how the ever-shifting balance between classes creates storms among the players and the class/race population distribution. The Blizzard devs aren’t obligated to listen to any given forum, but they would be foolish not to at least try to understand how their design is perceived and processed by players.
An MMO is not a democracy (though running one as if it were might prove… enlightening). Devs aren’t at risk of being kicked out of office due to a savvy political campaign or article of impeachment. They are more like a hyperpowerful dictatorship that players pay to be a part of. The coin of the realm isn’t merely popularity contests and elections, it’s real world money. Games that don’t manage to stay ahead of their consumers and keep things interesting and enjoyable react largely to the “pure” elections of wallet voters.
To be sure, there’s a dose of goodwill currency manipulation as well, and some political games involved therein (complete with spin-infused marketing), but for the most part, MMOs live or die by their financials. If people aren’t happy enough to keep paying the bills, the game can have problems. If the MMO’s design relies on a critical mass of players, the stakes are raised even further. None of this is astoundingly insightful, but I’m underlining the need for devs to understand their players and react well to them.
This is especially important when you’re relying on the constant stream of subscriptions to finance your business. People must be happy all the time, at least above the “cancellation” threshold. They don’t need to always be extremely happy, so the entertainment value isn’t as dense as, say, that of a movie, but they do need to always be “happy enough”. Devs can’t rock the cart too much… but neither do they constantly have to provide astounding moments of awesomeness.
Even the much-ballyhooed “Cataclysm” in the World of Warcraft isn’t so much a radical shift in game philosophy as it is a mild mutation and facelift for existing mechanics and art assets. Cataclysm is a good idea, methinketh, and indeed, I called for that sort of renovation before it was announced, as did BBB, but I’m not imagining it to be a Brave New World so much as Cheers with a paint job. It really can’t be anything radically new; that would risk losing too many people.
So what about the players? Are there forums for players to organize themselves into powerful blocs or unions to wield power over game development? I’m not familiar with any, but I do have to wonder what an MMO might look like if it did have such metagame factional input. Perhaps the Ryzom open source experiment will be an interesting tangential look at what happens when players get power.
Still, as Nels Anderson notes, Player Generated Content isn’t always the best idea. It has potential, sure, especially at smaller scales and with tight dev control, but when you’re dealing with large groups of people, things can get dicey fast. It’s a good idea for the devs to have a steady hand on the reins. Much like the notion that a true democracy can be a dangerous thing (effectively degenerating into mob rule), a faceless, anonymous horde of gamers can be a dangerous thing, at least if game stability is an issue.
It’s easier to give players a lot of control over things that don’t actually matter. That sates the player need for authorship, and keeps the game from being polluted by too many diverse opinions. This is the heart of why cosmetic options and talent specs are so valuable to MMOs. (Dear Blizzard: appearance tabs already, aye? Housing, maybe?)
Devs are closer to deities than senators, but money still talks. Follow the money, and understand why it goes where it does, and you can siphon off a living. Divert the stream too much (not the same as crossing the streams), and you run the risk of upsetting the flow, such that your living (or the health of the MMO) is at risk. Keep things even and smooth enough, though, and everyone can be happy. It might mean a little compromise here and there, and actually listening to each other, but it pays off.
Sort of like politics.
When the players or the devs start feeling entitled or start ignoring the valid concerns of the other party, acrimony builds, and can undermine a game world. I’ve argued before for more player input into these MMO things, and I think it could be a good thing… but it wouldn’t be wise to push things so far that players have more power than the devs. There’s a balance to be struck, more in MMOs than any other class of games. Rather than pitting players vs. the developers (that link is to an excellent blog), perhaps some cooperation and compromise would make an MMO stronger. Maybe not… but, like a democratic MMO, it’s worth thinking about, if only as a thought experiment to confirm that the way things currently run is the Best For Now.