Note: This is the first exhaustive-style post I’ve had since January. It is not short (4800 words). A functional TL;DR, is present in the introduction, bolded statements throughout the post, and conclusion.
Communication is one of, if not the, most important facets of game development. Without it, developers are in the dark on what players want, and players aren’t sure who they should back with their money (either before or after release).
But communication is not simply talking. It requires understanding who is being communicated to, what needs to be said, and how it needs to be said. Failing any of these aspects often means the message is lost.
And based on the wild swings of opinion on both reddit and the forums (most easily seen by looking at discussions on both the expansion and the base game), communication isn’t really happening, especially at this critical time as the expansion seeks to reinvigorate the game.
Communication has not been an ArenaNet strong suit for quite some time. Rather than simply griping about the current policy, I am going to explore what it is and its full effects. And after framing that entire problem, I will provide a possible solution to put ArenaNet and the Guild Wars 2 community back in communication.
The Current Policy
Based on the sparse nature of blog posts, announcements, and “we can talk about this” responses in interviews, the communication policy set forth by Communicating with you (written by ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien) is still in effect as Heart of Thorns looms.
It’s a short post, but it condenses down to a few simple phrases:
- “…we don’t talk speculatively about future development.”
- “…we’ll work internally until we have something we’re proud of before we’ll announce it.”
- “…when we’re not currently working on something, it’s because we’re working on something else instead that we think is more important…”
In a sentence, communicating with the community means that whatever feature or product it is needs to be more or less done before any information is released. Everything else is under Skunk Works-level secrecy.
Standard PR Speak
The clearest effect of this policy is ArenaNet’s very consistent public relations speak. Everything is “not off the table,” or coming “in the future,” or “going forward” there will be more of a given feature.
The core weakness of all of these phrases is that they’re indistinct. Yes, they may be true statements, but they communicate nothing ultimately. Some are foregone conclusions (“not off the table”, “in the future”), because nothing has been stated ruling them out.* Others give vague intents of direction (“going forward”, “setting a foundation”). And some sound like timelines, but aren’t (the infamous “when it’s ready”).
*And even this logic is now unreliable due to the recent camera changes that got implemented. The last statement about them prior to release was how they were firmly not on the proverbial table.
They’re in the same category as “it might rain in Seattle sometime in the next few weeks” and “the news will report on a tragedy this week.” Observations of the obvious, if you will.
This is terrible for fostering communication, because it’s a storm of words, signifying nothing. In the process of “not speculating about future development” and “waiting until it’s almost ready,” everything said underneath those strictures is meaningless.
Many Avenues, Such Overlap, Very Repetitive, Wow
When information does get released, it’s a flurry of activity, with a blog post, an interview (or several), and many summaries following. There’s a deluge of the same thing over and over again in multiple formats.
And marketing-wise, that makes sense. The audience could be anywhere, so cast the net wide and hope to bring in as many people as possible.
But the knock-on is that all of the sources saying pretty much the exact same thing creates the feeling that there’s very little actual information. And since information releases are clearly demarcated, people notice.
Also, it turns news sources into direct competitors for views, because they’re all talking about the exact same thing, with minor differences. Rarely is there a reason (or incentive) to link other sources for additional information, creating isolation and competition rather than a community and cooperation.
In this day and age of people going wherever information is, repetition grates. The internet is an astounding aggregator of related information (thanks to companies like Google and reddit, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter), so while people might find information from one source, they’ll go searching for more. And not find anything new.
On the flip side, when nothing new is ready, nothing is talked about at all*. Because everything cannot be spoken of until it’s at the 90% development mark, there’s a gaping void of effective silence. Storms of activity are replaced by clear skies of emptiness.
*Well, old information will get rehashed, creating a feeling that ArenaNet is stalling for time to finish other features. Which could be true; could also not be true.
This leaves an impression that actually nothing is happening, that development is stalling out, or “when it’s ready” has become coincident with the heat death of the universe. Logically, people know that’s not true, but it’s very difficult to be hyped up on something that isn’t being talked about.
Heart of Thorns itself is stuck in the situation of indeterminate release date, but specific features. So long as features remain undefined (and silently so), the expansion is still a ways off. People spend more time worrying about supporting hopeful release dates based on what hasn’t been talked about than being hyped that the expansion is coming.
Catering to Two Sides, Pleasing Neither
All of this begs the question “why?” Why have a communication policy that doesn’t communicate much of anything most of the time? Why deliberately set up a situation where public relations and community managers alike are hamstrung in what they can say?
Two words: perceived promises.
Rewind to 2013. Colin Johanson penned two blog posts with clear road maps of expected features. The first one was dead-on for what released in the first half of the year, but the second had a few things slip (traits into the April 2014 Feature Pack, new legendaries into Heart of Thorns two years later).
And people went nuts over it. Forum posts railed (and still rail in some places) about how ArenaNet “promised” certain features by a certain point of time. Again, logically speaking, game development isn’t easy and problems show up in unexpected places. Schedules slip as a result. But a very vocal segment of the community didn’t take it that way*.
*The utter silence on the slippage certainly didn’t help (as said before, “it’s coming” is not communication).
Thus, a reluctance to state anything not set in stone for fear that it will be interpreted as a promise ArenaNet can’t deliver on (either in the expected time frame, or at all because it’s extreme low priority). The policy outlined by “Communicating with you” perfectly matches up with this worry.
At the same time, the policy actively excludes people who want to know where things stand, warts and all. The silence gets perceived as nothing happening, or community feedback being ignored.
Some People Can’t Be Pleased
Despite its intent, the policy has done nothing to stop the whining over “promises”, whether it be the return of Super Adventure Box, updates to dungeons (abandoned for quite some time now), or until recently the precursor scavenger hunt.
So let’s call a spade a spade. Some people will always whine about whatever. Anything said, released, not said, not released will irritate someone enough that they take to the forums to gripe about it. There is no pleasing everyone.
To dig with that spade one step lower, whining in general isn’t really constructive. It takes a large amount of whining to match up to a single statement of why someone doesn’t like something. Focusing on making happy (or at least neutral) people who aren’t willing to articulate what they don’t like is a lot of effort for minimal gain.
Some People Need Proof
There’s a saying, “the proof’s in the pudding,” and this is a truism for many people when it comes to what they spend their time on. It’s not enough to say “things are coming” or a given feature “is not off the table,” because that proves nothing.
People who want proof need to know where things are headed. That can be what features are upcoming, where the features stand on the iteration curve, and even if features got pushed or removed because they weren’t working as intended.
And for such people, empty phrases that can only be proven at some point in the future (and thus, are unfounded except in hindsight) don’t build faith and trust in ArenaNet’s ability to deliver features they want or end up expecting.
For such people, those phrases build uncertainty. They aren’t sure what’s coming next, what to be hyped about, until it’s already here.
Those who need proof to have faith in the development of the game are also often very articulate about what they do and do not want. By the same token that they expect the developer to show proof, many will provide the constructive feedback needed to know what the actual problem is, rather than having to tease out the meaning from a bunch of “I no want!”*
*Necessary disclaimer: both types of people have their exceptions. I’m not saying every person who doesn’t state why they don’t like something does that every time, and I’m not saying every person who wants proof won’t whine on occasion.
With the current policy, neither “camp” is ever satisfied (one camp can’t be satisfied by definition, but supposedly can be placated).
Open to Attack
With ArenaNet not allowed to say anything until it’s set in stone, discontent is easy to have and hard to deflect. Rather than being able to concretely say “this isn’t a priority compared to [X] or [Y]” or “it’s on the way, but it’s iterating too fast to say what form it’s going to take,” every “communication” has to rely on the standard PR speak that says nothing at all.
“ArenaNet Doesn’t Care about [X]”
Guild Wars 2, as a theme park MMO, is filled with activities for specific niches. But for many of those niches, no attention has been paid them for so long that the diehards no longer believe content will ever come to them.
This is most striking when around the dungeon, fractal, raid, and WvW enthusiasts. People post feedback, suggestions, and thoughtful discussion pieces, and oftentimes they get shot down by someone who used to care, but now have resigned themselves to the fact that their particular niche will never see love again.
And thanks to the communication policy, by all appearances they’re right. There is no belief in a “bright and new future,” especially when one of the few times messaging has been clear in recent memory it was to confirm that dungeons and SAB were not anywhere near the priority list.
Even when positive statements are made about game modes that their fans feel are neglected, the fans take them with a grain of salt, or even ignore them after the initial hype*.
*The latest topic on the desert borderland is the one dealing with its Ready Up appearance. On page 4 of the WvW forum, last reply 16 days ago.
“It’s Not Off the Table”
The clearest avenue of attack is against this statement. Virtually everything is “not off the table.” And while that is true for ArenaNet’s approach to iteration and game features, it creates an unrealistic expectation that someone’s particular feature is not simply on the table, it is also near to leaving the table for the live game.
And when it inevitably doesn’t (can’t please everyone), people get disappointed and show up to complain “but you said it was on the table!” By making everything an eventual possibility, disappointment is guaranteed each time information finally releases on a given feature.
Twisting Every Meaning
Since many people are guaranteed to be disappointed, and any communication done beforehand is empty PR speak, these same people tend to dig back into the archives of soundbite phrases and twist them to use as a club against ArenaNet’s priorities.
And the communication policy makes ArenaNet employees functionally powerless to disagree in concrete ways. More time seems to be spent explaining twisted statements, or carefully phrasing new and similar ones to be harder to misinterpret. All while not removing the initial fuel that powers them: disappointment that the feature announced isn’t the one they want.
Live by the Hype, Die by the Hype
ArenaNet is famous for generating hype. Back before Guild Wars 2 released, they were just as famous for maintaining that hype. But with the shift to waiting “right before release” to state things, maintenance isn’t happening. People get bored of “awesome new feature” followed by extended silence, repeated ad nauseum.
The Hype of Thorns
One quote that I’ve seen twisted a lot recently is this statement by Mike O’Brien after the Heart of Thorns announcement:
“Now, I think the exciting thing, though, is that things are going to happen fast.” – Quoted from MMORPG.com interview, dated January 26, 2015
And they were…up until the first closed beta stress test happened almost a month ago. Since then there’s been recaps and rehashes of features, a Stronghold beta test, and a few pieces on the new hylek tribes. A far cry from the expected “happening fast” pace.
Because nothing can be said until it’s pretty much done, the hype has been flagging in recent weeks, a jarring transition considering the solid two months of image memes sporting Colin’s face and a train. It’s impossible to maintain the momentum over a prolonged period of time without more spikes of interest.
Cornering the Torch-and-Pitchfork Market
Another negative part of only stating things at the last relative second is that it runs the risk of wholesale rejection by the player base. And players themselves, if they dislike a change, have no choice but to summon a mob of people and insist that things be changed in the very short period of time before the feature would go live.
Nowhere is this clearer than the debacle surrounding first the colored commander tags, then the change to the gems-to-gold exchange. Players had no choice but to vehemently argue against the changes to have anything done, and when something was done, it was kind developers working overtime to keep the original release date and satisfy what the player base actually wanted.*
*Disclaimer: this only happened to the commander tag change. Gems to gold was fixed in a later patch.
With feature creation and iteration so far separated from actual feedback on the feature, it is far too easy to develop for something the player base doesn’t really want. But the communication policy forbids getting out in front and asking players what they want specifically once a feature gains shape.
What of Player Feedback?
In my opinion, the present communication policy is most damaging in the realm of feedback. With every feature or request possible in some way, feedback on just about anything is technically useful to the ongoing development of the game. Players spend hours upon hours talking about what they would like to see, blindly hoping that ArenaNet is genuinely listening.
But player feedback has no feedback itself. At best, players might get a red post thanking them for the feedback and noting that it’s been forwarded to the appropriate teams. And it was, but that’s not feedback as to how useful it is to what those appropriate teams are attempting to do. Only in the indeterminate future when a feature comes out are players able to see the fruits of their feedback (either heeded or ignored).
Player feedback on the game often feels like it’s in a vacuum. Even the CDIs, held up in “Communicating with you” as a way for ArenaNet to “to talk with you about the roadmap,” come off that way. ArenaNet is supposedly listening, but at the time of feedback, when people most want to know if it was worth the time they spent creating that feedback, there is complete silence.
Hoping for Better
Players have to wait to find out if their words are having any effect at all. In the case of long-time bones to pick by the player community, thousands of replies, topics, and other feedback get put out there before any of it bears fruit.
People keep on talking, hoping that something will be done about things they hate. And hope is all they have, because all that is ever said is “we’re listening.”
White Knights and Haters
Within the community itself, the lack of communication has spawned two negative caricatures that people like to paint others with: white knights who always have an explanation on ArenaNet’s behalf, and haters who only want to complain and will never be satisfied.
Neither is good for the community, because critique gets broadbrushed as just hating on the game, and reasonable statements that support ArenaNet get broadbrushed as white-knighting around for reputation points with the developers. Does actual hate and actual white-knighting happen? Yes, but far less than the amount of accusations would lead one to believe.
And with the lack of information or context on the current plans of ArenaNet, nobody can moderate between the two extremes, or anyone painting someone into an extreme. Because nothing is certain with most feedback, everyone is simultaneously right and wrong, and there is no middle way to decide which is which.
The Nearest Scapegoat
And for the developers themselves, people have been conditioned to expect no response, to only see things when release is imminent. So when a developer steps in to provide a kind clarification, or state “I saw this,” often they will be used as the lightning rod of hate.
And worse, it’s generally not because of something a developer did or said, but things that the company as a whole have gotten wrong for some people. They get to bear the accumulated hate of people who happen to see a post related to their particular dislike in the game.
Is it any wonder that most developers stay silent, then? Either they will say more than the communications policy will allow, or what they do say will invite undeserved hatred and rage. It’s a Kobayashi Maru that many rightfully decide not to participate in.
Crafting a New Policy
Combine all of these effects from the communications policy, and it’s clear that it has far-reaching, negative consequences on everyone involved:
- The community feels left in the dark and unimportant
- The game, as people perceive it, is regarded as not measuring up to its own hype
- The developers who have to wade through the vitriol of toxic people on the forums and elsewhere, with nothing but their own patience to defend them
- ArenaNet’s overall reputation, hinging on a single actively-developed game
It’s not working in the long-term*, it fails on the goals it lays out for itself, and it has broken down trust and faith in ArenaNet’s ability to deliver what players want. A player base without trust that the developer can deliver is a player base soon to leave for greener pastures. The existing policy needs to be replaced.
*In terms of game development, 8 months is a long time, especially since that comprises 25% of the game’s released lifetime.
At the root of all the problems outlined above are solutions to address them, over time rebuilding that broken trust that poor communication has created over time.
Iteration is ArenaNet’s DNA. But other than stating that “we iterated to get here” at sporadic intervals, it’s missing from the overall communication approach. This is despite it being alluded to heavily in “Communicating with you.”
It is the cornerstone of ArenaNet’s approach to the game. Throw any decently good idea at the design process and see what works. Some things stick immediately, others take a lot of work, but everything is subject to change. It might as well be patented as the ArenaNet Development Method for as core to the identity of the company it is.
Likewise, it should be the cornerstone of the communications approach. Things will change, features will shift around in priority as problems are found and solved, specific ship dates will slip when a critical bug gets found.
Putting iteration and its value to ArenaNet as a functional disclaimer around communication makes whiners look foolish (“we said it could change, and the new way works better”), while engaging the people who need proof (“here’s where we are at with this feature, but it’s not refined yet”).
This is far simpler than having to nebulously talk about high level concepts that aren’t going to change. Rather than the overhead of having to not talk about features still deep in iteration, developers have the general freedom to say what’s going on with the safety net of iteration itself as a core philosophy.
The table everything is on is meaningless. Rather than string players along with a hope that their expected thing is next and dooming most of them to disappointment, state what is priority and what isn’t.
Maybe world boss revamps are an eventual (and low-priority) plan, but rather than force players to figure that out by context in other communication, stating it outright causes players to not expect what won’t be coming.
On a positive note, Heart of Thorns actually has stated priorities: the feature list. The areas of focus (aside from whatever “challenging group content” means) are razor-sharp. People can argue about what isn’t on the list that they think should be, but they can’t argue that what the expansion has at the high level isn’t clear.
Granted, any statement of priority is going to have the initial shock of people feeling their desired feature isn’t high on the list, so along with any priorities need to be explanations. Why is this feature more important than that one? Why is this feature on the “when we get around to it” level of priority?
While there will still be people who complain (can’t please everyone), they will have to disagree based on the explanations, or be dismissable out of hand. This is a double-win because it separates considered feedback from ignorable feedback, encouraging the former while making the latter look silly.*
*I’m of the opinion that facts and logic beget facts and logic. While not true in all cases, it is better to come armed with more than “because we said so.”
Chart a Roadmap
Going one step above priorities, chart a roadmap of what’s expected in the near future, the mid-future, and the far future. Some things will be set in stone,* while others shift around as problems, solutions, and the unexpected arise. When the roadmap changes, point to iteration, update the roadmap, and walk on.
*Based on the game’s releases thus far, high-level things like Living World would be on this list.
The communication policy reflected by the 2013 “looks ahead” matched up with a roadmap approach, and it only went away when a couple things from the roadmap slipped and people got ornery over it.
Its core “flaw”, as it were, was putting the roadmap into 6 month chunks. This is why I suggest that the roadmap have no concrete dates. Rather, a range of time (near future: next 3 months, mid-future: 6-12 months, far future: 12+ months) would fit ArenaNet’s process much better.
This also neatly avoids the people who scream “you promised by this time!” The roadmap is constantly changing, constantly tentative. Only when something is slated for imminent release is it truly done. There is no real promise of a specific timeframe, only varying degrees of Soon™.
Make Status Updates
Key to making this policy work is actively maintaining it with status updates. Simply sticking a bunch of stuff on a webpage with the promise that more will be added later has a miserable track record.*
*Who remembers the Living World Atlas? Didn’t survive first contact with the post-Season 1 hiatus.
Status updates and “inside the game” looks are not without precedent with Guild Wars 2. Pre-release, blogs about pretty much everything abounded. Developers got to talk at length about their special piece of the game that they were working to make a reality.
This is an aspect that the enforced silence has limited to a trickle. Rather than developers being free to gab about what they’ve poured countless hours into, nuts, bolts, and all, they only get to reveal the finished product when it’s 90% there. The love the developers have for the game isn’t given any time to shine.
So bring back those inside the game looks and tie them in to status updates on the roadmap, or shifts in priority as one team made a breakthrough that puts it on track for the next release rather than the half-year it was planned for. Build excitement and hype through the people who love the game most: the developers.
Status updates will also bring the players into the conversation in a concrete and direct way, with specific focus points similar to CDIs, while avoiding the problem of feedback seeming to be in a vacuum. It also builds a common backbone for people to discuss around, rather than labeling each other alternately as white knights or haters.
Rather than saying the same thing to everyone, it’s better to share specific aspects with one particular source, and create summary posts to direct people, maximizing how unique each bit of information is. Or if there isn’t “that much” to talk about on a particular bit of information, share it on a couple of sources, then use different sources for the next bit piece.
With the increased flow of information that the other elements of my proposed plan will create, building and maintaining hype not just on the official site but out on the internet will be far easier.
This also encourages those sources to interconnect and compare notes, rather than be in direct “news competition.” With the existing approach, everyone reports on the same things, making views something to compete over. If information was unique, that competition turns into a cooperation, as each source gets their “day in the sun.”
In addition to staving off sameyness for Guild Wars 2 news, it can help to bring the community that keeps up on that news closer together as allies, rather than pushed apart as competitors. It’s the same spirit ArenaNet wants to foster inside the game present outside of it as well.
Be Direct and Honest
Alongside these elements is the need to be direct and honest when the plan changes. The lack of information about features slipping from unforeseen difficulties caused the spark of complaining that blossomed into the effective silence of the existing communications policy.
When the plan changes, say so and why. This was done when announcing the delay on the camera changes patch, and the community reaction was much more reasonable than the typical hue and cry about ArenaNet screwing everything up.
Direct honesty is the fastest way to restore trust between ArenaNet and the community at large. Rather than dancing around trying not to offend anyone with standard PR speak, saying precisely what is going on will reduce misinterpretation and void people complaining about ArenaNet never saying anything specific.
Also, on a business level, honesty is a reputation-builder, not a destroyer. Imperfect, but honest and complete, images are held on higher pedestals than unsullied, incomplete ones.*
The existing communications policy doesn’t work. It hurts everyone involved while failing at its core purpose: communicating clearly what ArenaNet is going to deliver. It needs to be abandoned as it is (and has had) a growing negative effect on the reputation of the company, as well as the trust the community has in ArenaNet’s ability to deliver what they want.
I have outlined a potential policy to switch to, focused around iteration as the core identity of not just ArenaNet’s development, but also its communication on said development. With clear, honest, and direct statements on what is on the priority list, when (roughly) things are expected, and where things stand on a regular basis, trust and reputation can be rebuilt.