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What a fortnight it has been! I was absolutely stoked to see that my 'Age of Conan' beta editorial had been featured in the latest issue of 'Clan of Conan'; I do put a lot of effort into these editorials and so I do take some personal satisfaction in such a positive response to an item of work and any attention it receives. So a big, warm "thank you" is warranted and given to you all for your ongoing support - Mitra's Method wouldn't be much without the folks to read it, or the gang here at WarCry that allow me to step up on my soap-box every fortnight and preach to the masses lessons and avowals of Conan-kind, by Crom!
Okay, enough of the mushy stuff (Aquilonians aren't known for their sentiment anyway) because it's time to talk business once again.
While 'Age of Conan' is well into beta testing, I'm personally reminded of duties that are expected of a beta tester (apart from being present, of course): feedback, ideas, and suggestions. These three entities are integral to the testing stage as they provide developers with important information to process, synthesize and then to make changes to the software accordingly. We already know of one Technical beta test that has taken place (Friday, April 27), and we can only assume (those of us not in beta anyway) that things went well: data has been mined, feedback has been left and so forth. I'm positive the beta boards are abuzz with words of anticipation for the next scheduled Technical test (but God knows when that is!). But what about the rest of us? Surely even we, devoid of a beta client, have a role to play in the ongoing development and cladding of this game.
In my browsing of the official 'Age of Conan' community forums over the last coupe of weeks, I took the time to make note of the various ideas and suggestions strewn through each section, namely the "Hyborian Adventures" and "The Border Kingdoms" sections. A lot of these ideas are good; it's quite evident that there are many avid Conan fans that take good care of their brains (it must be because they wear a cotton cap) and are able to spew out some creative, innovative and fantastical ideas. However, there's always a flipside. In recent readings, and it might just be due to an over-eagerness or anticipation for 'Age of Conan' (usually reflected by the individual's age), I've also noticed some ideas or suggestions that haven't quite been so creative, innovative or fantastical. In fact, it would be fair to say they've been overtly demanding, unrealistic (whilst being imaginative - that's a plus though), based on what has been seen in "other" MMOs ("Will it be just like in [insert MMO title here]?"), and usually something that has been suggested before over, and over, and over again, and in a cacophony the usual response is "Use the 'Search' function!" How do we help those with good intentions and poor delivery?
My intention this fortnight is to provide you, the Mitra's Method faithful (and those unfamiliar with the way), some guidelines and advice as to how to effectively leave feedback, and offer your ideas and suggestions to the 'Age of Conan' development team. This fortnight, with the help of Jørgen Tharaldsen (Funcom product director) and a few members from the Funcom QA (Quality Assurance) and development teams, we go on a mission to make sure you with bright and brimming ideas do not travel through Hyborian cyber-space unnoticed and unheard. You might know how to walk "the walk", but do you know how to talk "the talk"? Even if you do know, let's see how we can make our communication with Funcom QA and developers more effective! First, here's my advice:
Leave no stone unturned
Before you post and put forth that awesome, scintillating, one-of-a-kind, you-beaut, no-one-else-would-have-though-about-it idea, you should use the search function first just in case, and perhaps read the FAQ and browse through the forums beforehand. While no one is suggesting that by doing a search first it makes your idea or suggestion any less unique than what you think it is, it would pay to do a bit of back-logging first. Start off with what category your idea or suggestions falls into (PvP, PvE, crafting, raiding, guild structure and dynamics, etc.), look in the appropriate forum section first ("Hyborian Adventures" for general discussion about 'Age of Conan', "The Border Kingdoms" for PvP-related discussions, and so on), read the stickies, click back a few pages and if nothing becomes apparent, then lastly try a search with one or two key words relating to your idea or suggestion.
If your search yields vague or very generic results, then it would be quite safe to say you've got a unique idea on hand. On the flipside, if you do manage to find something already posted relating to your idea or suggestion, the best thing to do then would be to read through, and even contribute and generate a bit more discussion yourself. You don't necessarily need a new thread for your own idea to be heard.
"This game should have [insert feature here] just like in [insert other game title here]..."
Yes, while we all may have enjoyed particular features of other games played in the past, it's important to remember that 'Age of Conan' is not those other games. Developers may very well have gotten inspiration from games they have played in the past and wish to implement similar features in this game, but their intention, I'm sure, is not to copy any said features to the letter. Features in a new game not only need to be unique, but they also need to be contextual; so what might have worked in one game, might not work for another.
A few things you'd need to consider before putting forward an idea based on what you've seen in another game are these: What made the feature work well in the "other" game? How could the feature be implemented in 'Age of Conan'? Is the feature suited to 'Age of Conan'? How would the feature work in 'Age of Conan'? Unfortunately, "[insert feature here] should be in 'Age of Conan' because it was cool/sweet-dude-sweet/fully sick/wicked-cool in [insert game title here]" is not a valid reason. Why isn't it a valid reason? Well firstly because "cool factor" is subjective; what wows one person may not necessarily wow another. Secondly, your suggestion needs substantiation. So as a guide, if you can adequately answer the above four questions regarding your suggestion, it's worth posting. If you're having a hard time answering any number of those questions, then you'd might like to rethink your suggestion and go back to the proverbial drawing board.
Having to put your suggestion back on the shelf shouldn't be any disheartening; if anything, a bit more thought into the idea will allow you to examine it further and possibly present a stronger case the next time you consider posting it.
Presentation is everything
One rule I was taught during my days as a student of literature and journalism, is that a reader will determine whether they would like to continue to read a news piece or feature article by the time they've finished reading the introductory paragraph or sentences (so if I've held your attention this far, I'm doing well).
A developer is busy, no doubt, and in a community of 40,000 members, it would be quite difficult to sift through every single idea and suggestion presented. What you can do to make this easier and less time-consuming for QA and development is to present your ideas and suggestions concisely. Be brief, use clear and simple language (without being patronising of course), and as mentioned earlier, substantiate! An individual whose ideas and suggestions are exemplary, would be those of Wexx's on the official 'Age of Conan' forums. Take his most recent discussion thread on "Racial class diversity - The Final Say!".
Whether you agree with Wexx or not, you have to admit that what he has put forward there is very well thought out, and given quite concisely considering there's just under 500 words there (not counting what is presented diagrammatically), plus the diagrams help too (good for those who are more visual learners). If you believe a tree can be measured by the fruit that it bears, then just take a look at the discussion Wexx's post has generated!
Feedback and suggestions like this are hard to ignore for the afore mentioned reasons. This is concise and effective communication in action, people, make note of it!
Okay, so that's my advice. Now we move onto what those at Funcom have to say. With much, much thanks going out to Jørgen Tharaldsen, we have Ole Herbjørnsen (Lead Designer), Jason Stone (Game Designer), and Ørjan Mathis Tvedt (Senior QA & Customer Service Manager) giving us their pearls of wisdom, so you're hearing it straight from mouths of the horses (no offense intended).
First batter to the crease (that's cricket talk, just so you know), is Ole Herbjørnsen:
"One thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot of lurkers from the dev team on the official forums. They read what you write and discuss with their peers. Sometimes we agree with the input from the fans and make changes. One example being the revamp of the class names. Other times the suggestions are good but there may be inherent technical limitations which prevents us from incorporating them no matter how good they are. Another source of information are the polls which some of the dedicated fans have setup for the community. These are great and allow us to get a feel for what the community thinks is important!
When it comes to specific advice on providing input I think first of all it is essential to clearly explain why something will or will not work. How does the suggestion fit in to the bigger picture and how do you think it will impact gameplay and result in a positive gaming experience. Citing good examples will help people to visualise and connect with the idea you are proposing as well. This will make it easier to follow your line of thought, and it shows that you know what you are talking about."
A subtle reference to Wexx there, if you didn't notice - like I said: "hard to ignore". Let's see what Jason Stone has to say:
"The most simple rule of thumb or piece of advice I can give as far as feedback goes is this "Ideas are plentiful, solutions are rare" it's not the brainstorming a basic premise or cool idea that creates the challenge, it's finding a way to make it happen. All games and MMOs to an extreme are so complex and things are so tied together in mysterious ways that might not be apparent to an end-user.
Be precise - Most of the time developers will not have a lot of time to read what it is you have to say, especially if it is buried deep in a thread;
Be objective - Try to keep your post objective about what it is you are discussing and not cover a bunch of non related issues into a single post;
Be patient - We can't change everything, instantly. Try to think of how the changes or ideas you are supporting would have to be implemented and the additional cost in time that might require; and
Be respectful - While you may feel that a design decision is wrong, or not in line what you would like to see there are many, many factors that go into game design decisions many of which you might not be aware of. We all make mistakes, but try to give us the benefit of the doubt.
If people follow these guidelines in general I quite enjoy reading their feedback and do take it seriously. Even if it is not something that ends up being changed we are always interested in the input."
And bringing up the rear is Ørjan Mathis Tvedt with the QA approach in terms of beta feedback:
"One of the most important reasons to have a beta is to gather feedback from the test community. Now, getting the feedback is a different matter. You can always use different channels such as forums, ingame tools and server tools which basically gather whatever data you want or need. We use a good mix of everything.
Closed beta forums where our test community has access
Here you'll find dedicated Funcom employees who gather feedback from the testers via the forums. A selection of the development team can also ask direct questions to the testers if needed. A nice way to get a general grasp on what the testers like and what they don't like. The community also bring up very valuable suggestions during the whole beta phase that is brought to the development teams attention.
By using tools which the tester access from within the game you'll also get more feedback. As soon as the tester meets a problem or get a good idea they'll be able to access report tools from within the game while their ideas is still fresh in their memory. Here we also have dedicated people who go through all the feedback we get from the community. If it's a bug we have an internal team trying to reproduce the problem before sending it to the production team. In that way our Quality Assurance team can add additional information if needed. If they have problems reproducing the problem they'll be able to contact the tester directly for further testing.
Basically a datamining system which logs trends in the game. This is a good way to notice unbalanced content without actually getting the feedback directly from the testers. It's not always that tester A knows that tester B, C, D etc. has been getting the same sort of problems.
Most important don'ts are; Don't assume that someone else already reported the problem. We can never get enough feedback or bug reports from our test community."
Did I mention yet this was a bumper issue?
Whether you're a humble 'Age of Conan' community member, or one fortunate enough to have received a beta invitation, this is advice we can all put into practice in helping the Funcom team make 'Age of Conan' the best game they can possibly make it. A game does not last without support from its community, so the next time you're thinking about putting in your own two cents or throwing your hat onto the rack, just think of what you've read here today - just think of Mitra.
Until next fortnight, this is Stephen "weezer" Spiteri,
Want to contact me? Then email me here.
© Stephen Spiteri, May 2007