A Gamer’s Perspective: Why Treyarch Is Getting It Wrong
Treyarch and I met at a special time in my life. By the time Call of Duty: World at War (Treyarch’s first release in the CoD series) came around, I had just discovered that I could play its predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, online. With other people. Needless to say, it very quickly began to get pride of place in my heart, as well as in my daily time allocation. Before long, it had become a far better love story than Twilight could ever hope to be, and when November of 2008 arrived there was only one question on my lips: how on Earth would Treyarch be able to top this masterpiece?
The answer, of course, was that they didn’t. World at War was the inferior game in almost all aspects. It did have one thing which its forerunner lacked, though. Namely: mothertrucking innovative genius, which came in the form of its Zombie Mode. Initially meant as a simple post-credits, “Well done for completing the game” minigame, it quickly became the centrepiece of the game for many fans, serving as the sole motivation for more than a few gamers’ purchases of the product (mine included). The addition of the Zombies Mode was undoubtedly what made World at War into the legitimate addition to the series which it was (as opposed to a simple World War 2-era Modern Warfare clone), and was also responsible for giving Treyarch the near-superstar status which it attained as a studio.
That’s when things started to go wrong.
Developers need to be kept on short leashes. Very short leashes. Not even those winch-type leashes where you can let a little bit out at a time and then pull it back in later, either, ’cause if that mofo starts running away from you, you don’t have a hope in hell of bringing that shiz back in. That’s a bit of a digression, though. The point is this: sure, we can rewards devs with a compliment here or a pat on the back there, and maybe even a a favourable review somewhere else, but we mustn’t start idolising them, because the way they respond to that kind of praise is they start to think that they know what they’re doing.
“Hang on a sec’,” you think, “don’t they kind’ve know what they’re doing? I mean, isn’t that what they’re paid for?”
Wrong. Developers are paid to construct games. They code, they design, they write, they playtest, they refine and, eventually, they release. Don’t think for a second that that means they have the faintest idea of what works and what doesn’t in a game. That’s something only the consumer (well, the majority of consumers) understands.
Think about it: did Infinity Ward know how big an impact Call of Duty 4 was going to have? Of course they spoke positively about their expectations of and hopes for the game (balls. I just lost it), but that’s more bravado for marketing’s sake than anything else. The question is, did they really comprehend just how big a splash CoD4 was going to make in the gaming world? Blizzard also spoke positively about their expectations for Diablo III (which is probably more evidence for my case that devs really don’t know what’s going on), and we saw how well that turned out. So, sure, IW said they thought their game was going to be kinda okay, but Vince Zampella wasn’t exactly standing on tables yelling: “GET THE CAMERAS ROLLING, MOFO’S! THIS THING’S GONNA SELL SO WELL IMMA BE ABLE TO PUT A DIAMOND-STUDDED SWIMMING POOL INSIDE MY DIAMOND-STUDDED SWIMMING POOL!” Which I wager he would have been if they’d known how great an impact it was going to have. Heck, I’d have been pretty excited.
Similarly, I would argue that Treyarch had very little idea just how popular their Zombie Mode was going to be. To them, it was just a tacked-on extra, not worth mentioning in any pre-release interviews to try and generate more pre-orders or anything like that, because it wasn’t what they saw the game being about. To them, you would buy World at War for its engaging singleplayer and holistic multiplayer experience.
Broadly speaking, then, if developers produce something which is received extremely well by their communities it is for one of two reasons: either, they took the community’s advice to heart and used it to discern which aspects of their game to refine or leave out, and which aspects need to be added (as with Borderlands 2 earlier this year), or they unwittingly created something which the consumer really freaking digs (Zombie Mode). That isn’t to say that they aren’t trying to make a good product – of course they are – but I’m talking about the kind of success that breaks sales records and has gamers crying at developers’ feet. Developers don’t see that coming, and don’t know the formula to get to it (unless they’re told by their communities, of course). Why? Because the game’s success is based on whether or not the community likes it, and because the developer’s judgement is hopelessly impaired, most of them don’t have a hope in hell of putting themselves in the shoes of their community.
Problems develop when devs stumble upon something successful and start thinking that they have a clue what’s going on. Their logic is that if they made something which the community likes then they must know what the community likes. That’s flawed, because it was more accidental success than a deliberate action taken as a result of deep insight into their communities, but it exists in numerous developers nonetheless – Treyarch being the example I’m highlighting in this particular column.
This false perception of their own insight on the part of the developer gives them the confidence to take steps in game construction which they would usually only take if they had the assurance of the community that they want Feature X or Option Y in their game. It is important to remember that developers are usually cautious when it comes to changing the functionality of a game unless they’re confident that the community will like it – either because the community has told them so, or because they’re deluded enough to think they know what the community wants.
Usually when adding a new feature (as with Zombies) and not entirely certain about it, devs will throw it in as an optional. A, “Hey, the main game’s over there, but if you’re feeling adventurous there’s this cool thing over here too. Not forcing you into anything though, bro. Your call,” sort of thing. Incidentally, Google is also really good at this sort of thing. Most of you – certainly those who use Gmail – will probably know what I mean. When they’re trying something new – interface, connectivity, functionality, whatever – they give you the option of using it, or the option of using the pre-existing system which you’re used to. Then they ask for feedback – did you like the new one? Why are you still using the old one? Anything we could or should change? They don’t force you into anything, and certainly don’t presume that they know better than you what’s best for you.
The problem, dear reader, is that somewhere along the line Treyarch came under the illusion that they had a clue, and now their community suffers for it. The issue I want to highlight in particular is that of the PC-based multiplayer. For some reasons unknown to anyone but Bobby Kotick, Call of Duty started moving away from dedicated server-based multiplayer with Modern Warfare 2, and Treyarch thought it would be a good idea to follow suit.
Interested in the game after reading Cavie’s review, I did a bit of research on the multiplayer (wary of having to deal with another fiasco like Modern Warfare 3) and to my horror found that Black Ops 2 would use a very similar matchmaking service for its multiplayer (and no publicly available dedicated server software). Beside myself with rage, I set out to find what possible justification Treyarch could have for such idiocy. Their main reasoning was to provide a more ‘fair’ playing experience: with all of the server control in their hands, they could more easily deal with cheaters and clamp down on hacking. Sounds like a noble undertaking for a developer, right?
You see, Treyarch made the fatal mistake of thinking that they had a clue. They heard vague whisperings of complaints about hackers, cheaters, campers and the like and somehow got it in their skulls that it was somehow their responsibility to deal with that. Protip for developers: don’t overstep your boundaries. You provide us with the tools of entertainment (a game), but you don’t decide how we use it. If we hack, we hack. If we cheat, we cheat. Stop being so damned bitchy over your intellectual property, and if hacking and cheating becomes an issue then give us the dedicated server tools and admin commands to deal with it ourselves. [/rant]
The bottom line: Treyarch got overconfident to the point where it thought it knew what gamers wanted so well that it was bold enough to slash a huge part of the multiplayer experience away, only to leave their community with a lot of animosity and a much worsened multiplayer experience with which to justify it. We don’t want developers to come to that point, because it means we have to endure more such idiocy. A good developer, a developer we like never removes functionality without the go-ahead of its community, and adds features tentatively and only optionally.