Thursday, July 24, 2008

The illusion of reality

At my last job (IRL), my primary role was to project manage a team(s) to accomplish some very specific tasks that we were contracted to complete by various clients. While my main focus was to manage the team and “do the work,” the most important part of that job actually dealt with managing the client. It’s one of life’s ironies that it doesn’t matter if you are doing a great job if people don’t think you are doing a good job. The opposite also holds true, if people think you are doing a great job, then you are doing a great job even if you know you did a shitty one. This is a big reason why shameless self promotion and ass-kissing often leads to promotions.

Perception vs. Reality
Perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding. Reality is the state of things as they actually exist. We all have perceptions about everything around us. We simply need to become aware of something in order to start forming impressions. However, understanding how things truly exist is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The result is that our perceptions are very rarely the reality of a situation.

Plato told the allegory of the cave in which he depicted a scene where a prisoner lived his entire life chained to a chair and only able to watch shadows of puppets on a cave wall. While the shadows were only a manufactured truth, they were also the only reality known to the prisoner.

The allegory is a good one because it teaches us that our beliefs are a product of our perceptions, not a product of reality or the way things actually exist. If we work to undermine or change a perception, then we can even influence core beliefs. Marketers will tell you that beliefs are much stronger than perceptions. Beliefs provide bias that allow two people to view the same reality in wildly different ways.

How strong are beliefs? Well, how would you feel about buying Exxon Ice Cream, or Penzoil Yogurt? Does that sound disgusting? Would you even try it? I wouldn’t, nor would most people. It wouldn’t really matter if it were the best ice cream ever made – people simply wouldn’t buy it based on the associations of ice cream and oil. I know I just couldn’t help thinking that the ice cream would be somehow toxic or dirty.

The point is that reality is mostly irrelevant, particularly when dealing with a person’s opinion or subjective view of something. Happiness, for example, is not a measure of a particular thing, but a measure of your perceptions of such thing. Our beliefs and perceptions play a much larger role in what you think than the actual reality of the subject.

MMOs and Perceptions
Why is this relevant to MMOs? Because a successful MMO needs to manage the perceptions of hundreds of thousands (millions even) of players and potential players. Fail to manage those perceptions and they may start to form beliefs that you can’t easily change. I am consistently surprised by how many people in the MMO industry seemingly fail to understand this concept.

One of the more glaringly examples to me of this mismanagement are nerfs. I wrote an article earlier this month titled “Don’t nerf me, please...” in which I remarked that nerfs are fun for no one and particularly UN-fun to the guy getting the nerf. It amazes me that game companies would actively prefer to take things away from players rather than add things to players who are falling short. The result of a nerf (even a fair one) is that players are left dissatisfied because they perceive something has been taken from them. The act of balancing should be additive, not subtractive. Nerfing should be an act of last resort, not the lazy choice.

Most class changes in Warcraft seem to be a result of feedback (i.e. complaining) on the class forums. I do find it interesting that WAR doesn’t plan to offer any official forums. It reminds me a bit of an old joke but a good one: “I used to be happy with my class and then I started reading the class forums.” This is a great example of how other players are managing and influencing perceptions. Blizzard chooses to employ CMs to moderate the forums (and these perceptions), but they seemingly fail more often than they succeed. Most non-gaming companies handle announcements through carefully worded press releases. Blizzard CMs seem to drop bombs willy nilly with little to no thought. WAR’s strategy by contrast, of no forums and utilizing a newsletter provides a better measure of control. Granted, they can’t delete anti-WAR threads from the forums, but that type of censorship only leads to disaster.

I am the most critical of MMO developers and executives when they do interviews and again, I can’t help but contrast Blizzard’s ad hoc approach to Mythic’s very specific and calculated approach. Kalgan recently announced a Dire Cat form at WWI in Paris. It turns out that he was mistaken (!). Some Druid bloggers, like Big Bear Butt, were left wondering what else Kalgan lied about. By contrast, Paul Barnett’s and Mark Jacob’s recent interviews at E3 were incredibly succinct and professional. After reading many Blizzard interviews on Wrath, I have tended to get the impression that they all sit around smoking pot thinking “oh, wouldn’t it be cool if we did…” in some neverending brainstorm session. Whereas with Mythic, I get the feeling like there is a cohesive and unified direction and plan. Reality or not – this is my perception based on how both companies speak in interviews.

In fact, Mythic has done such a great job at PR that they may end up being a victim of their own success. As many have pointed out before me, the WAR hype machine is in full force and the problem with lots of hype is that it can set expectations unreasonably high. An expectation is your perception of what the future holds for a particular thing. If the eventual experience doesn’t match your expectation, then your actual perception can be quite negative even if the overall experience is enjoyable. In other words, if you don’t experience as much joy as you expected to experience, you can easily be left disappointed. In my old job, the rule of thumb was to under promise and overachieve. Mythic may be setting the bar so high that they can’t do anything but underachieve even if the game is great. We are already seeing a backlash of this with the recent capital city and class reductions. I’ll be very interested to see how fanboys (who have strong beliefs about WAR) will react if the game is not what they expected or wanted.

Where else do you think MMOs fall short in managing customer expectations?

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