I’ve got a fair amount of stuff to talk about regarding GDC… which you’ll have to wait until Monday for, since I’m still semi-exhausted and hey, I’ll get a few pennies for stories I post on Gamebreaker.tv But one thing I probably won’t be talking about/trying to squeeze money out of is a seminar I attended by Riot Games where Senior Producer Travis George talked about the process of developing the Dominion map for League of Legends. He started the talk by making two key statements that I copied down (hopefully) verbatim and that have really stuck with me: “Our goal is to be the most player-focused game company in the world” and “If we make a good game, our players will reward us.”
Too often, game designers make the game that they want to play. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, and it should be the case, to some extent, with pretty much every game. But game designers aren’t the average player. Chances are, they’re really good, hardcore gamers, and the kinds of games they like appeal to a very narrow segment of the gaming population, namely that uber-hardcore segment that they’re a part of. With games moving more toward the mainstream, and the term “gamer” encompassing a more casual crowd, many games are simpler — some to the point that their developers might not even like them a whole lot.
I’d assume that the original LoL designers were pretty hardcore gamers who thought nothing of matches that lasted 45 minutes to an hour-plus, which is what you got in the original Summoner’s Rift map. But somewhere along the way, someone — maybe a large contingent of players, or maybe a few high-influence muckity-mucks at Riot — thought that a more “casual” game mode was needed. Hence came the Dominion map, which, if I recall from some of the forum threads I read when it first came out, was poo-pooed by the “real” LoL players for being too short. But if it was what a large number of players wanted, then Riot was going to do it, even if the “hardcores” didn’t like it.
(As an aside, when I worked for Scrye, my editor’s husband was a very old-school gamer. He went to Gen Con. As in the first Gen Con. He was a good guy, and not an ass about it or anything, but occasionally things would seep through in his articles that betrayed his background. In reviewing one tabletop wargame, he said that games were not “very long affairs, typically taking only about six to eight hours.” I told my editor and she just laughed.)
But this isn’t really a post about hardcore vs. casual players and why the hardcores usually assume the casuals are “destroying” their game by making it so the developer has to “dumb everything down.” Rather, it’s that second statement that really stuck with me, especially considering my recent employment history: “If we make a good game, our players will reward us.” In other words, “We’ll make something good and because it’s good, people will pay us for it.” Too often, I think the line of thinking is, “How can we make something that people will pay us for?” It’s a fine line, and one that, shall we say, I’ve been on the other side of more often than I’d like to admit.
What it boils down to is whether your company has the direction to create things players want and will want to pay you for or whether you’re trying to actively figure out ways to squeeze money out of your players by introducing things that they need to keep playing to or complete their experience. This is the line in the sand that many F2P games can all too often not only cross, but obliterate as they rumble over it, and also the point of contention that people are having with, say, Mass Effect 3‘s day-one DLC. Once you’ve started down the spiral of exploiting your players by forcing them to pay to fully experience your game, you’re not creating what they want. You’re creating what you want. That’s not the route that the Riot folks apparently want to go, and it’s worked for them.
(And yes, I realize that, in the long run, nobody is “forcing” anyone to buy a game or to visit a cash shop or to buy DLC. But if that’s the argument you’re going to use, then games should cost $100 each. Hey, it’s just a game, nobody’s forcing you to pay that, right?
…and I realize that if I use that argument, you’ll respond with “That’s right, and any company that does that will probably go out of business because nobody will buy their games.” That may be true, though enough people buy Collector’s Editions that it might not be. And Super NES cartridges routinely cost $70 or $80, and they seemed to do fine. Heck, if the base edition of Guild Wars 2 was going to cost $100, I’d be sorely tempted.)
I don’t believe all games should be free or anything of the sort, mind you. Developers have to get paid for their hard work, after all. And I don’t really think I’d have had the balls to run League of Legends the way Riot has. But it’s nice to see that there is a company out there that apparently puts just as much, if not more, effort into keeping the customers happy than in watching its bottom line and realizes that the two of them are very closely linked — something that I think is lost on many other developers and publishers. Obviously, someone does have to keep track of that bottom line and make sure things operate smoothly from a financial perspective, but out-and-out profit doesn’t seem to be the company’s driving principle. With the success Riot has experienced, maybe more game developers will be able to emulate their model and find similar success.