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Straight Talk about Development

Developer communication is a minefield, at least as far as the conventional wisdom goes. You don’t want to “promise” what might not happen, but you want to look interested in feedback. You don’t want to commit to the impossible, but you want to make the fans (and in Crowfall‘s case, backers and investors) happy.

But that’s a conventional wisdom borne of “bad news”-phobic PR policies and cribbed from business communication textbooks written two decades ago. Further, it’s a wisdom ignoring the “no such thing as bad publicity” maxim that’s even older. “Controlling the message” isn’t possible in the age of social media and ever-present smartphone.

Let’s examine the situation further.

Communication Gaps

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Crowfall‘s current development state is odd. On the one hand, there’s a half-completed set of archetypes with varying technologies on display. On the other, there’s the growing set of systems based around parcels, crafting, gathering, and skills. Of the people actively testing, it’s a toss-up whether the combat testing or non-combat testing is more important.

The whole situation eventually chains back to what ArtCraft wants: we don’t know. Aside from a yes/no checklist that has remained mostly unchanged since its original posting, testers don’t know what to hammer on to be as helpful as possible with feedback.

On the community side, it’s led to people complaining to each other about how X or Y situation sucks and nothing’s changing yet. For example, a lack of balance amongst the archetypes compared to a lack of additional crafting disciplines to test. Without any real idea of what is development focus, both feel like their feedback is either worthless, or in competition with each other.

Answering (Some of) Your Questions

Right now, the most open part of the development is the monthly ACE Q&A YouTube videos. It’s great that there are videos each and every month giving a discussion of deeper parts of development, as well as direct communication on the questions picked.

Unfortunately, it’s 10-15 minutes of discussion over a very few questions, and for simplicity’s sake they tend to be on a theme. When hyping a new system release (like the lead-ups to Big World were), this isn’t a problem at first. Backers want to hear the deep dive on what they’re about to get to play (and test, but c’mon, we’re gamers).

A problem that’s starting to show up is the questions feeling like “softballs” and their answers losing their “depth.” In the space of time between Siege Perilous and Big World, it felt like nothing was being talked about. The transparency that was refreshingly direct early in development had begun disappearing in favor of more typical “PR speak” answers.

Another problem is that early on the ACE Development Partners Forum was chosen as the exclusive source of Q&A questions. While it’s a good “thanks for supporting” bonus for those big backers, it’s not all sunshine and roses.

For one, “an exclusive group supplied these questions” never feels right to those not in the exclusive group, especially when the only difference is how much cash got sent ACE’s way. For two, small groups over time will run out of things to ask. A few of the questions already have been almost-rehashes of information answered in other videos, blog posts, or even previous Q&As. For three, it by fiat decides that questions “outside” the Development Partners Forum aren’t as noteworthy as those within, whether or not this is true.

Logistical Silence

Schedule? Finances? Project status beyond what showed up in the patch notes? Excellent questions for both backers and investors. Crowfall is an ambitious game, attempting what has never been done before in several directions. Its backers know that, which makes silence on where the parts of the project not already in direct testing frustrating.

To be fair, very recently investors (and by word of mouth, interested backers) discovered that Crowfall is over its initial budget (by almost 50% of its original estimates). While everyone likes to think that game development can be done ahead of time and under budget, in reality it’s rare. Admitting it didn’t work out as originally thought and more funding is required isn’t bad. It’s direct, honest transparency that both backers and investors should receive.

Rewriting the Rulebook

Per the typical game development public relations rules, all three of these situations above are unfortunate realities of doing business. Fans will complain, feedback will get messy, and eventually the community manager will send something back to both sides so they feel somewhat happy about it.

But Crowfall is not a typical game, nor is ArtCraft Entertainment a typical studio. Through a successful crowdfunding campaign and continued seeking of investors sharing the same vision, both their game and their studio aren’t beholden to the rulebook unless they want to be.

Let’s do better than the typical. Let’s rewrite the rules based on the unique situation that both game and studio are in. Consider the three situations already referenced.

Getting Focused

Development focus areas should be made known. If there’s multiple, then note that, too. Rather than people having to complain into a vacuum about how their favorite part of the game-thus-far is a dysfunctional mess, they get a clear answer:

Answer 1: It’s In Focus

Awesome! ACE needs feedback on this to build out and fine-tune it. Druid animations currently a mess? Druid mains tell it like it is on the jankiness. Total crafting times in flux? The anvil is already out to get smashing.

A secondary bonus of stating focus is that people who don’t really have a focus in testing have a delightful set of targets to aim at. (Disclaimer: I’m totally guilty of this) This was the original intent of the Big World Checklist, but hasn’t been followed up on.

Answer 2: It’s Not in Focus

Well, darn. This is the answer that standard PR wants to avoid, under the belief that it will “turn off” feedback. It’s telling people “no,” the horror! Thing is, the backers of this game on some level know that there’s a lot of pieces missing, and there’s only so many developers available to fix that.

While I’ll get into this in more detail below, the main answer to these fears is that “no” is really “wait.” Feedback on parts of the game not getting changed at present doesn’t “go bad” or “out of date.” People can still put their feedback down, knowing that when the focus shifts back around to it, it’s there to be considered.

Quest(ion)ing Further Afield

The Q&A videos are again, terrific and a great example of transparency on the part of ACE. After a year and a half of them, only a couple of the months have been “total duds” when it comes to new and interesting information about Crowfall (Disclaimer: personal opinion). While restricting questions to one forum was understandable starting out, it’s time to broaden the net.

Pull questions from the community at large in addition to the Development Partners. Of course, still give priority to Partners, but pulling questions from all parts of the community neatly avoids all of the problems stated above.

This could also be expanded in other means of outreach like the Dev Tracker or Twitter. Rather than needing to be “in front of a camera”, reply to some questions on the forum, then tweet out a link to it.

The idea is to expand communication and add a more personal touch to developer communication, but it just as easily creates a base for updated FAQs built piecemeal from various questions being answered.

Charting a Course

Crowfall‘s development needs a public roadmap. Right now, backers have the vague soft launch-ish date and an almost as vague idea of what the next patch is going to have in it. Stating where each system is in development, how things are tied together (e.g., System A has to be implemented before B and C can even start), and where the milestones are is a critical part of informing backers and investors of how development is progressing. All the status updates in the world won’t replace a roadmap.

Yes, this is bucking every last bit of conventional wisdom. Backers know schedules slip, that development hits snags, and that many things don’t pan out as expected. When those same backers ask for a roadmap, they’re not talking about a date-specific rundown screencapped from a project management suite. They want to know where things stand, and where things are going.

What a roadmap does, both for ACE and for its backers, is give a common frame of reference. Coupled with noting focus areas, it gives testers the ability to know what’s in focus, what will be in focus, and roughly when.

It’s a dangerous level of transparency according to the PR rulebook. No matter how it’s written, a roadmap can be interpreted as a “promise.” And promises are the wildfire that consumes countless community managers in endless damage control.

But frankly, those who get bent out of shape about “promises” aren’t the people to pay attention to. They’re not providing feedback at that point, they’re just whining things didn’t go the way they wanted them to.

Of course, a roadmap would have to be a living document, updated as snags occur, or brilliant strokes of genius bring a system closer to reality sooner than expected.

But What If…

These suggestions are risky, some more than others, but Crowfall as a game is a risk itself. Those who have backed the game know that, but want it to succeed anyway. Honest transparency always pays dividends, especially with the good will of dedicated backers. No amount of PR damage control can top the value of trust.

So let’s throw out the rulebook, take a few risks, and make a game no one will ever forget.

 

Tacktix

Tacktix, also known as D. Emery Bunn, is an author, engineer, and erstwhile game critic and theorist.

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