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Game Design and Development: Navigating Audience Expectations

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Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is being review-bombed on Steam as a ‘total crap’ PC port
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is being review-bombed on Steam as a ‘total crap’ PC port by digitaltrends

It's a miracle that any game is made." - Jason Schreier, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

The Challenges of Game Design in AAA Projects

Game design is a challenging and rewarding profession. It requires a wide range of skills, including creativity, problem-solving, and communication. However, game developers face a number of challenges, including tight deadlines, budget constraints, and difficult working conditions. Doubling up on these pressures are the brutal expectations set by audiences who don’t fully grasp what goes into making a game, but are more than happy to share their grievances. 

As the gaming industry has become the most valuable entertainment powerhouse on the planet, the stakes have never been higher for AAA games. With more people playing games than ever, the hype levels for blockbuster games can be sky-high. Yet, the community can’t help but be hyper-focused on bugs, glitches, and their own opinions about how to best design a game. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss these critiques as the uninformed musings of people who don’t get game creation, but when it comes to an interactive medium that thrives on player agency, it becomes pretty hard to brush aside.

In most artistic mediums, creators typically strive to maintain the integrity of their original vision, focusing on creating something they’re excited about while not bogging themselves down with what audiences may or may not like. Bend too much, and they risk losing the soul of their art. But gaming is a different beast, with interactivity at the heart of the experience. Most art can exist on its own merit without an audience. A painting is still a painting when nobody’s looking, but a game cannot be experienced as intended unless a player picks up a controller and engages with it. As a result, game developers must walk a tightrope, balancing their creative vision with delivering an engaging, thrilling experience that keeps players hooked.

This interactivity demands a more flexible approach to design, as the audience becomes an active participant in the art form rather than a passive observer. Having people playtest a game before release is an essential part of the process, allowing developers to see how the game works in players’ hands before releasing it to the masses. Developers work to maintain the core of their vision but need players to show them what to tweak, adjust, and iterate on based on the feedback they receive. 

Balancing Act: the High Stakes of AAA Game Development

Creating a game, particularly a AAA title, is incredibly challenging and resource-intensive. Jason Schreier nails it when he says it’s a miracle these games even see the light of day. After all, game development involves blending art, tech, storytelling, and gameplay into a fun and sellable package. Still, gamers are a brutal and relentless crowd, threatening boycotts or worse when games don’t launch flawlessly. Ask CD Projekt Red about their stock value after Cyberpunk 2077’s rocky debut. The nuance of what went wrong or discussion around the sheer challenge of making the game? Lost in the noise. Fans are, simply put, brutal. 

Finding the sweet spot between a polished product and deadlines set by publishers (and us eager fans) is a constant challenge. Money talks and studios risk backlash and competition if they delay. Jedi Survivor’s recent launch has been met with some harsh criticism from fans over the performance issues present in the game, but the decision not to delay was very likely to avoid a showdown with the much-anticipated Tears of the Kingdom. How often do gamers consider these behind-the-scenes power plays? Rarely. Instead, we’re quick to judge and forget the hard-earned goodwill studios like Respawn have built up over the years. It feels very chicken and egg.

The Importance of Communication Between Developers and Players

So, what do developers owe players? Quality, ideally, but it’s never that simple. Players need to wise up to the Herculean task of game development and keep our expectations in check if they want to have deeper conversations about the state of the industry. Devs often strive for open communication, but the community’s armchair critiques can be shortsighted. When we ask, “Why can’t I switch weapons whenever I want?” or “Why can’t I jump over that wall?” we overlook how one small change can snowball into a whole avalanche of work.

I’m reminded of a Twitter thread I read by Sarah Arellano, a talented games writer, who discussed writing a “simple” scene where a character takes something out of her purse. Later she had emails from 6 different departments detailing the red alert she sent them all into; the project manager was worried about a new asset being added, the concept art team needed to understand what type of purse it was, the animation team needed to know if the purse would move, and the design team needed to know if it would be used in gameplay or just cinematics… the dominos kept on falling.

The Case of No Man's Sky: Should Studios Always Be Expected to Fix Their Games?

It’s easy to understand why players would be excited about the ability to create their own maps and modes, but what’s shocking is how intensely players have come to love and expect tools like this to be available in long-term games they play. The launch of Halo Infinite is a recent example that sparked outrage among fans due to the absence of Forge mode, a popular feature that allows players to create custom levels and game modes. Having existed since the early days of Halo, the community made it clear that the ability to create maps and game modes wasn’t just desired but considered an integral part of the entire Halo identity. We increasingly see how much players value the ability to shape their own experiences and express their creativity.

No Man’s Sky is a fascinating case study on having a buggy launch and disappointed players. Launching to scathing reviews, the game was once labeled a colossal failure, used as the butt of jokes and the evidence against pre-orders throughout the entire community. But the devs at Hello Games didn’t throw in the towel. They rolled up their sleeves and embarked on a long-term mission to update and enhance the game, ultimately turning it into a celebrated, widely loved title. The once furious players now praise the game, enjoying a thriving community and continuous free updates. 

No Man’s Sky’s redemption arc begs the question: Should studios always be expected to fix their games, or is it sometimes wiser to leave a broken release behind and focus on the next big thing? 

That’s a whole other can of worms…

Overcoming the Challenges of Game Design and Development with Empathy and Understanding

To navigate the murky waters of audience expectations and game development, we need a hefty dose of empathy and understanding from everyone involved. 

Gamers should ideally work to educate themselves about the intricate world of game development and keep their expectations grounded in reality to facilitate productive conversations about what went wrong and how to make it right in the future. Conversely, developers and publishers should prioritize transparent and honest communication, nurturing a healthy relationship with their audience. No one likes feeling duped, and with games carrying heftier price tags than ever, dropping $70 on something that feels like an unfinished product leaves a bitter taste.

The state of gaming is a multifaceted and complex issue, deeply intertwined with the expectations and perceptions of its audience. As we’ve discussed, game development is a complicated process, and striking the right balance between quality, timeliness, and communication is a constant challenge. Publishers play a crucial role in this dynamic, often contributing to the pressure on developers to meet deadlines and deliver profitable products. In addition, the responsibility of fixing and improving games post-release is a gray area, with examples like No Man’s Sky highlighting the potential for redemption but not providing a one-size-fits-all solution. To move forward, the gaming community and the industry must approach these challenges with understanding and empathy. 

By fostering open communication, maintaining realistic expectations, and recognizing the complexities of game development, we can work together to ensure the continued success and growth of this beloved form of entertainment.