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Monday, February 2, 2015

Interpreting player feedback is an art

I was reading Wilhelm's post about Torchlight 2 being too late for the Mac market. Wilhelm points out that three spiritual successors to Diablo 2, Torchlight 2, Path of Exile, and Diablo 3 were released roughly around the same time. Yet of the three Torchlight 2, despite its developer carrying over a lot of good will after the cult success of Torchlight, more or less flopped into obscurity. The problem was that while Diablo 3 and Path of Exile correctly identified portions of the Diablo 2 formula people liked and disliked, Torchlight 2 didn't, and thus couldn't hold players.

 Diablo 3 and Path of Exile figured out that players like to create various builds, they like "lootsplosions," they like a good campaign, and some form of repeatable "endgame" content. Both delivered this in various ways, but also identified the frustrations players had with Diablo 2 and mostly got rid of many of them. D3 addressed players wanting to try different builds by allowing free skill swapping. Path of Exile did it by creating a myriad of possibilities and making it relatively easy to reroll. Torchlight 2 on the other hand effectively recreated the same "once you start you're stuck" philosophy of Diablo 2 that was more frustration than fun. It may have stayed true to the formula, but that formula was written over a decade ago.

Sure, TL2 allowed for various builds, but they weren't all that exciting and it required a lot of investment to try each. Sure, TL2 offered lootsplosions, but the RNG on gear was so high that a player could go ten or twenty levels with the same gear. Players like that periodic reward; it's fun to get a shiny new weapon every few levels. In both cases Runic misinterpreted what it was about those systems that players enjoyed, and instead tried to remain as close to the D2 formula as possible while only updating it with minor conveniences.

In a perfect world the developers of a game could read the minds of the players and from there figure out exactly what they wanted. Sadly in practice developers have to rely on metrics, player feedback, and the media. Interpreting that data is clearly an art. If your data is showing that players enjoy killing each other in the open world, the answer is not necessarily to reduce the number of safe areas and confine the map more. There is the additional risk that you get the wrong information; metrics can lie, not everyone fills out exit questionnaires, and direct community feedback risks hearing too much from "the vocal minority." With all that going on I don't blame devs for misinterpreting it all at times, but the market is less forgiving.


  1. I think it is important to remember that developers work on games for a long time and that they likely don't have a lot of time to play current games while they do it. In essence, making a good game takes some 'tea leaf reading', even though to a player like me, I point at MMOs that had similar issues and say, "Well duh, you need easy respecs."

    In the end, I think the best plan is to just have a plan, stick to it, and be earnest about doing it. Also flexibility after the fact. So many of these smaller developers get caught up in the "make it exactly like that older game" and forget that the medium has changed a lot and releasing Diablo II for the first time in today's market might not have meant an instant success considering how clunky it is these days.

    1. The only problem I see with the "have a plan and stick to it" approach is that you need to be able to change course if you find things are going wrong. Bullrushing a bad idea through ends up with WoW's first voice-chat system; it's clunky, it isn't used, and it falls apart. There's of course nuance; if you're 95% of the way done you may as well finish and adjust later, but if you start preparing things and find a mistake, it's time to change.

    2. You're right. I'd obviously say that a plan is worthless if you end off running off a cliff just to follow it though. While I always applaud those humble enough to own up to their mistakes, I can never get behind those too wishy-washy to really make any.

      I want big ideas, not taking A, B, and C from a prior success and just tweaking C to be a little bit different.

    3. I agree! I'd don't mind them incorporating ABC but hopefully they do more than JUST that.

  2. I think you're right that TL2 was a bit more niche than the others, but it's still an awesome game. I'll go so far as to say it does some things, important things, better than all of them.

    The pet feature which allows you to have total non-stop bloodshed while they shop for you and empty your bags is a very nice feature.

    Second, yeah you have to "buy in" because you can't totally respec. But their partial respec system is quite good because it focuses your build, allows room for experimentation, but really encourages refinement over rebuilding. Same can be said of the gem/enchant systems. Yes your decisions are final, but the very reason there's such a vast lootsplosion is give that space for experimentation.

    The map system is currently still superior to PoEs. They're fast, full of great loot and plentiful.

    TL2 is still a game that, for the few times a year i turn it on, is very hard to put back down again. I think its niche, true, but not any more niche than PoE. D3 was a dramatic let down until loot 2.0, don't forget. That game wasn't "fun" for almost a year.

    1. Oh I don't want to say it didn't get ANYTHING right. I think the Pet-sells-stuff model is brilliant and I think the competition should steal that ASAP.

      I just can't seem to get into TL2 as much as I do its competition. It's maps are more varied sure, but each time I feel like I end up falling into a rut that I can't climb out of. PoE is definitely stuck in D2 map mode though, Diablo 3 and TL2 blow it out of the water.