The ‘vocal minority’, feature creep and keeping yourself sane

One of the many custom screens I added to Cursed Lands. Feature creep? yup

I always wanted to write a blog post about the topics in the title, so here I am. First let’s start with a premise: what makes a successful game? of course gameplay, art, music, etc. But if we want to analyze a game’s success there’s a simple formula: a popular/successful game is a game that matches tastes of as much people as possible.

I think the above statement is inconfutable: the more people like game X, the more copies will sell and more successful will be. Then of course if the company doing it spent too much time, or money, it could still be a financial failure for them, but it still would be a popular game.

OK now that this is clear, what is the so called ‘vocal minority’ and how can impact the development of a game? Nowadays is very common to have an open development, with alpha/beta demos, early access, etc. Almost everyone is doing it now, but the same principle works even if you’re doing a closed beta with only 20-30 testers.

Now let’s say that the 10% of your fans/betatesters want desperately feature A. They’ll start posting in forums, sending you emails, and so on. It’s like if they’re fans of a soccer team. “Really, you should implement feature A because the game will be SOOO much better!”. In some cases, they even know it will be easy, even if maybe they have no programming skills whatsoever “I could program it myself in an afternoon”. And so on, even with veiled threats “If you don’t implement feature A I’ll ask for a refund!” or “your game won’t sell a copy!” etc 🙂

If you’re a developer, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with all this, and if you’re a player or an user, trust me, this really happens (but probably you saw such posts too).

Note that I’m using a fun tone while writing this, but for the person on the other side, the developer, the situation is often dramatic: maybe they invested a lot of money, mortgaged their home, or simply spent already so many hours on their game. But for the player of course this doesn’t matter (it shouldn’t, since they’re judging the game and not how much the developer worked on it or how much money they spent).

Anyway, what happens now? The developer can either follow the suggestion, think about it, or refuse to implement the new feature. As you can imagine the last option will result in an uproar in forums and some insults to the developer. But even if developer agrees to do it, is in all cases a good choice? No, it depends.

Back to the starting point: if the feature A that the 10% of people want is something that once implemented even the remaining 90% will like (the so called “silent majority”) then, all good! But what if the new change is disliked or even worse, hated by the other 90% or part of it?

That’s the big issue that developers have to face on a daily basis. In some cases the suggested changes are obviously a good idea. In others, devs have no clue themselves: is making the RPG more complex a good thing or not? Is using randomized items a nice feature? better turn based or real-time? etc etc.

There is no clear answer in some cases. It’s a bit random, really. Unless your game is selling so well that you can afford to do changes on a new beta, gather new feedback and just in case revert to previous version, then it’s a minefield. You could implement the feature and risk losing players, or you could gain more fans. But in most cases developers aren’t sure themselves about what is going to happen, while one thing is sure: adding the new feature will cost time and money.

The devs are the only ones to know well how much time and money they’ve already spent, how much money and physical/mental energies have left. And they must not fall into the famous “feature creep” for which they keep adding feature after feature, thinking to make the game better, when maybe that’s not always the case. Or simply, it’s not worth all the extra time/money spent to add the features.

In summary, I’m not writing this blog to say that players’ suggestions are bad. I have added a lot of nice features in my RPGs exactly thanks to players’ feedback. What I’m saying is that as developer you need to learn when to say ‘no’. When you have no more money to spend. When you have no more time or energies (because adding a feature when you’re burned out it’s not a good idea, trust me). When to say “OK, I know I could probably keep working on this game for years, but I must release it now.”

And as player, you need to understand that (in most cases at least) when a developer tells you “sorry but can’t do this”, it’s not because he’s a bastard, he’s lazy, or he necessarily disagrees with your idea: it’s very likely for the reasons stated above.

I’ll end with an analogy because many players find odd that someone would want to stop working on a game, adding new features they suggest because it will likely make the game better. To make a comparison with a game developer, imagine if one day the boss at your daily job calls you and tells you that you should stay in office doing overtime every day for the next month. At the end of that month, and only at the end, you might get paid for the overtime, or not. You don’t know before, but the boss still asks you to do it, insisting saying that “yes, maybe I’ll pay you more”. What would you do?

Now maybe you understand why, sometimes, us developer don’t add all the new features you request, especially if they require a lot of time/money to implement them 🙂

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2 Responses to The ‘vocal minority’, feature creep and keeping yourself sane

  1. Troyen says:

    The “vocal minority” is something I see a lot on MMOs especially. A game might have 12-14 classes, with the population split so around 8% per class. And all the time the community for every class is chanting “buff me! nerf those other guys!” even though said changes will benefit 8% of the players at the expense of the other 92%. On occasion, the players have a valid point because there is a dramatic imbalance, but many times players just want to be greedy and have their class dominate, and it can be really difficult to sort out where the line actually should be drawn. I have a lot of respect for class balance teams who often do indeed know more about the game than a lot of subreddits will claim. (Just because a designer disagrees with you doesn’t mean they don’t understand a class. They probably understand the game *better* than the armchair developers.)

    Feature creep is another thing that’s really tricky. Sometimes it’s a way to experiment – yes adding a small feature adds to the cost of a game, but that’s cheaper than the cost of building a whole new game to test a feature. At the same time, dramatic system changes in beta often don’t go well because that’s pretty late in the development cycle to be making major changes. It’s tough on the developers since they have to rebalance everything. It’s tough on the testers too because now they have to retest everything. (I’m having SotW Act 1 nightmares again with the constantly oscillating difficulty changes!)

    For a service or an ongoing project, it’s simpler because you can release iteratively. Make a feature cutoff deadline and anything that comes in later can be considered for the next release. That’s a bit harder for a one-off release (unless you make an expansion or a DLC*). But even projects on iterative release schedules often find they have to constantly cut features because the likely reward just isn’t worth the cost (in time or money) to implement.

    * I actually like seeing expansions (or I guess, DLC in modern terms) for these situations. DLC that makes small system tweaks to build or modify the underlying game is a lot more interesting than just another paid story route that reuses the same system. It’s a way to extend the life of the game by making it feel newish again. At least in theory. Monetarily, it might not always work out, depends on the game.

    • admin says:

      Yes and also as you can imagine while big AAA companies can do what you describe (implement DLC, gameplay changes testing etc) for small indies it’s a nightmare. I will NEVER do again something like SOTW, it was too much to do, tweaking all the skills everytime when the 90% of people barely noticed/cared 🙂

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