Smart Users

One of the most interesting things about games as a service and the new world of long tail video games is watching the interactions between developers and designers and the hardcore fans of a game. Pioneers in the space like Blizzard and Riot have taken their lumps and learned, often with a great deal of pain, what amount of communication works for them. Bungie, a more recent entrant into the space with their FPS / loot shooter Destiny, is once again taking a beating from their players because of the choices they're making with Destiny 2. The game's subreddit boasts more than half a million people who care enough about the game to subscribe to the forum, and by and large it seems they are *not* happy with the current direction of the game.

The interesting thing about the Destiny fanbase, and the hardcore players of just about any popular game these days, is that they're not short on ideas for how to improve things. There are plenty of hot takes, ad hominem attacks, and general shitposts, but there are also plenty of really well thought out, exhaustively researched, statistically-based threads analyzing everything from drop rates (how often you get cool new stuff) to power levels (how strong that stuff is relative to other stuff) and plenty more.

"Users don't know that they want" is an oft-repeated  axiom that has it's origins in the well-intentioned idea that users are experts in their problems but not in the solutions to those problems. Ideally, you are the expert, and you can synthesize the various problems, the poorly-formed lamentations, and the "how could you possible not realize that"s and spin them into some kind of product/design/engineering/service gold. Because you're smart. Because you have the benefit of a broad perspective and lot of inputs. Because you have the resources of an entire company (or just one really obsessed problem-solver) to bring to bear.

But here's the thing. Not all of your users are just bumbling around in the dark, yelling their frustrations into the void. Many of these folks aren't just passionate users and fans, they're also experts in their respective fields. In the world of video games or other consumer products that may not be super relevant. What does the hobbyist statistician know about your monetization model? What does the incredible artist understand about your development pipeline and all the debt lurking just beneath the surface? What does the plumber know about incentive systems and good feedback messaging? Maybe nothing. But they've spent hours and days of their lives with your product, and even if they aren't always exactly sure what keeps them coming back (especially if it's a B2B product and they don't have any say in the matter) they almost certainly know what makes them wish they never had to look at it again. They know what they don't want. Briefly, a incomplete list of things users almost certainly do not want:

  • To be confused or made to feel stupid
  • To be talked down to
  • To have to repeat themselves
  • To have to pay for things (with money, time, or attention) more than once
  • To feel like they've lost, or never had, agency
  • For anything to be more taxing (in terms of clicks, pages, sub-tasks) than it absolutely has to be

There are probably more, and as always there are times when's it reasonable or even desirable to break the rules, but in general just treat your users with respect. Remember: they're using your product, so someone made a good decision somewhere!

Destiny's live team, led by the seemingly tireless Chris Barrett, has the unenviable task of trying to clean up the abysmal mess that the game's directors left in their wake. The game seems to have been a financial and critical success for Activision and the folks leading the studio on the launch did right by their stakeholders, the executives and shareholders. That long tail may be looking a little scary right now, though. They're a visionary group of folks who firmly believed they knew what players wanted better than they did, and in some ways they were almost certainly right. However, that insight paved the way for hubris and turned millions of users against them, either through vocal complains or, worst of all, simple quitting the game.

The later chapters of Destiny 2 are still being written, but the message is clear: ignore your users at your own peril.