When I look over some of my past Daily Grind posts on Massively, I notice a recurring theme: I’m apparently subconsciously interested in the ways people try to influence the design of the games they play. I’ve asked about the efficacy of exit surveys, the dangers of player representatives, what sort of sub fee we’d pony up for an awesome game, and now, the possibility of direct-voting on a title’s content.
In this most recent edition, I referenced Glitch’s system of granting subscribers votes in dev-led referenda on the game’s content. It’s never actually been implemented (the game is back in beta), but it would give paying players a voice in the game’s design, making the game, on some scripted and limited level, pay-to-vote.
I expected that our readers would find this fundamentally unfair, but instead, many of them essentially said, “I already pay to vote — I vote with my wallet.” I’d like to think that means our readers are free marketeers, but I think that solution over-simplifies this particular problem.
Here’s a real-world example: Paul and I often take drives in the early morning to get the baby back to sleep, and sometimes we’ll stop over for a quick bite at McDonald’s. Now, Paul is a vegetarian for ethical reasons, so we’d find ourselves haggling with the drive-through attendant to get a freaking biscuit with cheese and egg, hold the meat. It’s next to impossible, folks. Sure, Paul could just pay for and take off the sausage, but the whole point for an ethical vegetarian is to not pay for the part he doesn’t want. Refusing to purchase meat is a vote against meat. If he just paid for it and tossed it later, McD’s would never know that vegetarians want better sammich options — his purchase would be lumped in with everyone else’s. The ordeal crossed into absurdity when McD’s not only refused to reduce the price for saving the restaurant some sausage but actually tried to charge us extra to take it off (we laughed and drove away). After that, we simply began going across the street to Wendy’s, which was more than happy to let him buy an eggy biscuit at a reasonable price.
The problem is that when we switched vendors, McD’s had no idea why. It isn’t that we hate McD’s and everything it stands for; it’s that we don’t want to pay for sausage Paul won’t eat. There’s no way to communicate THE SAUSAGE GRIEVANCE with your wallet alone. You can write letters to the void, but your wallet only counts as a vote for or against the entirety of McD’s, not that one irritant.
Games are no different. I can vote against World of Warcraft by not playing it, but Blizzard will never know what it is about WoW that’s been turning me off unless I say so specifically; the team might think it’s Pandas when in fact it’s just endgame gear grind (I like Pandas). If you actually care about the design of a game that otherwise mostly gets stuff right, then it’s in your best interest to do more than merely vote with your wallet in a nod to grander economics. Glitch’s little referenda start to look like a good way to make your voice heard…
… If you have spare cash for a sub, that is, and that’s what I see as the real problem. While it makes sense to cater to the desires of the people who effectively make your paycheck possible, there’s no guarantee that paying-customers are actually any good at, you know, game design. And there’s no reason to think that freebie players won’t have good ideas. If a studio isn’t careful, it might wind up sacrificing creative, unified gameplay at the altar of customer whim — a problem already evident in such corrupt bodies as EVE Online’s Council of Stellar Management. I hope TinySpeck avoids CCP’s mistakes when it relaunches Glitch. In the meantime, I can only hold on to my votes and wait for a chance to use them.
In slightly unrelated news, I’ve now completed my ninth Massively Speaking podcast and my fifth as its co-host with the ever-jovial Syp aka Justin Olivetti of Massively and Bio-Break fame. I may be spreading my posts here out a bit as a lot of my briefer rants are spent there, which is a good thing since I’d always wanted to focus on longer essays here anyway. In the meantime, give it a listen!