An essay about knowing not just what video game players want, but why they want those things.
The fandom of every minimally to hugely successful video game is an ever shifting tide. Players say they want a thing, and then complain upon receiving it. “Such ingrates,” another part of the playerbase will proclaim, “You got what you asked for, why aren’t you happy?”
The answer is usually simplified to this: people don’t know what they want. That’s a cute truism, but it’s also pretty useless. If you go around telling everyone they don’t know what they want, sooner or later they’re going to roll you in a carpet and toss you off a bridge. On some level, every game player knows what they want. It’s why they will play some games for years and others for minutes. It is why they will gush about the mechanics. It is why they will be effervescent with rage should there be changes that displease them. People are remarkably adept at detecting what they do and do not like; what does and does not work. The problem lies in communicating.
If you ask ten-thousand players what they want out of a game you will get ten-million answers. Make a faustian bargain to secure the funding and time to implement every bit of feedback and you will still be met with displeasure on an enormous scale. People at large are not good at the feelings to words translation. As most designers / developers / humans are aware by now, simply asking people what they want rarely works. Instead, you need to ask them why.
Unfortunately, the asking of the “why” is intrinsically linked to the asking of the “what”. The “why” stems from the “what” and you can’t jump ahead. If you need to know why people care about the things they do you absolutely need to know what they care about. So, daunting as it sounds, you do need to gather the ten-million responses first. Then, you need to examine them. Turn them over in your palm, feel the weight. Which ones group together naturally? Which ones are in opposition? What, precisely, links the similar wants? What feelings underpin these tangible wants?
OK, this is obviously getting confusing, let’s speak concretely. Take, for example, the debate between skill-based matchmaking and non-skill-based matchmaking.
Spend any time on any online forum and you will see the battle lines drawn. People taking the anti-SBMM stance are often dismissed because they, “just want to stomp worse players.” They don’t want to get better or struggle, they just want to win! Hey, I think that’s OK. Most of the time, losing isn’t fun. If it’s a close loss, players might be upset because just one play could have changed the outcome. If it’s an entirely one-sided match, then the losing team may be so shut down that they can’t even learn from the experience. The very fact that most multiplayer games include an end screen with WINNERS and LOSERS emblazoned on the respective teams makes people care about winning and losing. Even if you personally don’t care, you can be certain that someone on your team will. If you’re empathetic, you’ll want to do your best to not let them down, and there’s a chance they’ll hurl abuse at your for a loss anyway. Oddly enough, some of the most skilled players make up the vanguard of the anti-SBMM faction. I mean, what the heck.
From my tenure on many of these forums, I have mind-collated tens upon tens of millions of anti-SBMM comments. Here are a few:
It sucks to have every match be a hard match.
It still feels random.
It takes too long to find a match.
I’m good, but my teammates aren’t.
It’s too stressful.
The connections aren’t good.
I have to use the meta build or I lose.
Matches feel too similar.
I feel like I’m letting my team down.
I just want to have fun.
I wish it was stricter.
Trying to solve all of these in one fell swoop where you go through point by point is almost a waste of time. Even if a miracle occurs and you solve them, a whole new set will crop up in their wake and you won’t be any wiser about how to solve those. Some of these points seem contradictory. People who want stricter matchmaking and people who straight up say they HATE SBMM seem to be at odds. Let’s say that there are (loosely) two groups here (I have given them stupid names to help distinguish them): Learners and Funners. The Learners want a challenge. They want to be pushed to their limits, facing equal if not slightly better players. From this, they will gain Insights and become Better and one day ascend the matchmaking ladder. Funners don’t care so much about all that. They want matches that don’t feel pointless. They don’t want to spike their cortisol every round. They want to be able to goof off a little.
The Learners want the chance to get better. Matches that are too easy or too hard are equally useless — you can’t learn anything from pushovers or from the respawn screen. The Funners just want low-stress fun. Yikes, what does that mean? To understand this, I think we can approach it from the other side: things that are not fun. Well, losing, or at least losing badly. Situations that feel “unfair”. Look at the martyrdom perk from Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare. Equipping the perk makes it so your character drops a live grenade when you die. It is not a good perk. Plenty of kills happen at long range so your killer will not even notice that a grenade went off. Most players got used to martyrdom and wouldn’t stick around after a kill to see if you dropped a grenade. At best, you could occasionally catch someone unawares, never enough to change the course of a match. Additionally, selecting martyrdom prevented you from selecting superior perks that actually helped you live and continue living. But people hated martyrdom. People despised people who used martyrdom. Not because it was too powerful, it just felt bad. Getting killed by it made you feel like a rube. In a shooter, why am I being punished for shooting? Why should someone get rewarded for dying anyway? It felt cheap and unearned. Most people thought it was distinctly un-fun.
Let’s break it down further. Players don’t like getting killed for doing well. Players don’t like others getting rewarded for doing poorly. Players don’t like things that seem unearned. People don’t like abilities with no counters other than: don’t be near that guy. Is there a commonality here? Sure: player agency. To me, all these factors point to players wanting to feel in control. A dead player killing you without any input doesn’t feel like something you can control. It seems out of control if you are punished for performing well. In a competitive game, it usually feels like you need to be in control to have fun. There’s a reason most games aren’t Mario Cart / Party. Alright, so maybe we can say the Funners want to feel like they have agency within the match.
Learners are a bit more methodical. They’ve probably figured out (or read online) the “meta”. If they die / lose, they want to know why. Usually, they want to be confident that it was their fault. If their positioning was better, if their aim was truer, if their reactions were quicker then they could have won. Regardless of where the Learners land on the skill-spectrum, playing against vastly superior opponents feels bad because the skill gap is too great. If you are dead before you can register and understand what is going on then there is no lesson. When it feels like the opposing team is everywhere, landing every shot, getting away from every encounter, then that just leads to frustration. It’s almost supernatural. On the other hand, knowing why you lost can be rewarding in and of itself. Whelp, guess I won’t do THAT next time. Or, “Hey, I like that gal’s style, I’ll try her build next time.” Being defeated by factors outside their control frustrates them because there is no teachable moment. Again, there’s that theme of being in control. Having agency.
Huh, seems like we’re reverse-funnelling the heck out of these disparate player archetypes. We’re arriving at a commonality: player agency. Regardless of the “whats” that these people want, it seems like they kinda want them for the same reasons (bear in mind, this is a rough example, I have not hashtag-solved SBMM). Now, that isn’t a magic bullet. The fun part, actually designing the system, is next, but understanding the things that players value is a whole lot more useful than just knowing the specific things they want. Maybe to meet the needs of both Learners and Funners there need to be separate game types or playlists (maybe even do some necromancy and bring back community-run servers to the mainstream). Maybe you change your SBMM algorithm to throw in a “fun” match every now and then. That’s up to you and the game you’re making.
The beautiful thing is that if you do understand people’s values then you can apply that understanding to other situations. One of the biggest complaints with matchmaking in general is that it can take too long. This is a feeling that exists somewhat independently of how long it actually takes. The wait times for PUBG matches would feel a lot worse without the lobby. If you’re just staring at a loading screen showing the player count — 6/8…7/8…5/8…7/8………7/8…8/8 — then you are distinctly not in control. In PUBG, you can run around like a bunch of idiots punching each other until the round starts. You are not yet “in the game”, but you are in A game, and that’s pretty close.
This makes it all sound a lot easier than it is (Because it’s a simplified hypothetical. Doing it for real takes approximately infinitely more time than it took to write this). And, of course, no one will always be happy. You can make most people happy most of the time, and that’s pretty good.
Of course, this isn’t the only way. You don’t have to ruthlessly interrogate people’s wants and feelings to understand what they value and, by extension, what you should do on the back end. You can do your own thing, buddy. If you are making a game with an intended style and carefully authored experience then it doesn’t need to be workshopped to death. Just because someone doesn’t like what you’re doing doesn’t make you wrong. It might though, so do make sure to check in now and again.