Articles | Social Media, The Death of Developer Engagement
Earlier today a link was posted in one of the Starcraft 2 discussion channels I troll every now and then. The link was to a thread on a forum in which an individual was contesting an alleged rule against "negative" feedback. Rather, the rule was simply a "Don't be rude" generalization.
The individual, whom we'll call Ducky, made the following statement.
Ducky makes several somewhat contradictory points during his statement, which proceeds to attract a great deal of resentment from the regular posters on the site. The context is the process of reviewing user-made custom content, generally maps for Blizzard's Starcraft 2.
Several things caught me about his statement. The first of which was the assumption that his feedback would be instrinsically "hurtful" because it was (presumably) critical.
An uneasy fog hangs over what tattered remains exist in modding in 2016. The Instant Gratification generation that has all but obliterated the games industry has infected many developers and users in custom content as well. Newcomers are often extremely sensitive to any kind of negativity. That's the thing, though. Development is anything but a pleasant thing to break into, and by the time you're looking at releasing a project you've likely gone through all the motions of being self-critical already. The entire point of asking for testers to give feedback on your project is because you want a review that helps you assess your work.
A "review" in itself is a subjectively neutral piece. Critique is no more innately hurtful than praise. Because someone didn't like X or Y was underdeveloped doesn't mandate that statements about them must be personal attacks on a user or a project, nor should the developer of the project ever consider to view them as such. Yet here we are, in a Starcraft 2 forum, where someone is stating that he was unwilling to post feedback because he was afraid he might hurt someone's feelies. The second silly thing about this is, of course, anyone being concerned that critique is going to hurt anyone's feelies.
The problem with this individual and his statement manifests more clearly in the later parts of his post, though, and helps highlight a severe psychological illness that plagues the Western world in particular.
"I mean, even if someone is an asshole in their feedback - someone else can go clarify the points and go in more detail, catch and elaborate the train of thought."
Ducky states that negative feedback could just be clarified by someone else. With this statement he seeks to absolve himself the responsibility of actually providing content in his review. When you pair this statement with the first paragraph what you end up with is a statement that effective says, "I want to write critical feedback for a project without actually reviewing it". The inverse to such an act would be to simply say, "I like this" or, "This is good!" Equally worthless contributions in a review discussion.
The problem superficially is that Ducky would prefer to use the process of reviewing a project as a conduit to funnel some kind of frustration or grudge into. Either something regarding the project or the project's developer irked him, and he would like to vent that frustration in a negative projectile vomit without needing to necessarily elaborate on why he felt that way. This kind of "reviewing" dominates the games industry in the form of marketing - simply refer to IGN or Gamespot. Individuals who are most certainly not gamers much less individuals experienced in objectively reviewing content are handed scripts from a publisher to push on their sites. The prewritten document may undergo a small edit pass, and covers only a specific subset of content presented by the publisher, and then the site is paid as a form of under the table marketing firm.
These "reviews" flower the superficial and avoid the technical, refusing to educate and preferring to distract. They are honest reviews in the sense the "reviewer" is only spewing bullshit because he's getting paid to do so. Yet they are very similar to the kind of constructs Ducky wishes to make in that they don't actually attempt to tackle a project. Neither individual wishes to actually contribute to any kind of discourse regarding a product or project, they both merely want to ride the waves and be recognized as some kind of authority while doing so. It is a power fantasy, in a way.
The difference between reviewing a commercial product and a project developed by a non-commercial entity is audience. A commercial product review is for another end-user, while, at least in this specific context, a review written for custom content is usually intended for the developers themselves. In both cases the review needs to actually discuss an experience and the mechanisms driving that experience to have any kind of meaning, but the audience makes the difference here. A review on a commercial product will never reach the eyes of anyone who actually worked on it, since the publisher mandates the construction of 99% of reviews regarding their work anyways, and no one on a payroll gives a fuck what anyone else thinks about their work. Custom content is a selfish work developed by an end-user released only out of the sappy goodness of their heart, and if they are to request feedback for it then there's a very critical reason why. Even if it is merely a flow of consciousness, it should provide a useful resource for a developer to improve his work or at least further understand how users are interpreting his work. Ducky's lament for alleged censorship on his review process is voided by his statement in which he expresses his desire to avoid having to actually write a review. Basically, he's a silly goose who wants to identify as a part of a custom content community without actually putting in the effort of actually contributing.
Meanwhile, developers actually interested in their product that ask for reviews are basically requesting to get shit on and wade through an ocean of puke hoping they miraculously find someone who knows even the slightest shred of development skills so they can provide tangible feedback that isn't a one-liner. Design and user engagement analysis are usually at the top of the list a developer wishes to learn more about, and "It sucks" or "it's good" offers basically nothing to him. Recorded playthroughs are super useful for this kind of stuff, since it allows the developer to also assess the psychology of the player during his time with the project and draw his own conclusions from those observations.
Ducky's post continues to confound with this statement;
"About authors replying to feedback - from what I care - just "like" the post and move on"
Ah yes, the "Like" system apparent on all these "web 2.0" data mining websites such as Youtube.
The Like. A "feature" that allows a user to push a button which increases a number on a post or element of a post. In doing so, the user expresses that they either like or dislike something without having to actually interact or say anything. "Liking" something doesn't really express anything, though. In fact, a "Like" is often paired with a statement in which the process of "Liking" it doesn't actually make any sense grammatically. It's simply a system that absolves a user of the psychological pressure of actually interacting with anything but still allows them to feel like they're a part of something. It's the same kind of switch that flips on in the heads of people who play World of Warcraft and think they're identifying with "Gamers".
As a content developer, Likes are cancer. They're this disgusting mosquito-ridden screen between you and the end user. Even for a comment as asinine as "when is he uploading another video", 65 other users who could have made some kind of contribution to a discussion instead opted out of interaction.
Even worse is when this problem is taken to a large scale. Two videos with precisely the exact same amount of creator-user engagement despite wildly different exposure. That a video has 2 million views and 80k likes literally means nothing more than a video with 100 views and 10 likes. None of those Likes resulted in a user actually engaging the developer of the content, only the comments. And, on a platform where comments are listed based on their Likes and Upvotes rather than time or relevancy, a sort of game manifests where users try to attract the most Likes rather than actually engage with the content. Furthermore, unpopular opinions or criticism will immediately vanish with Dislikes or Downvotes, ensuring that no one need actually engage the content in question, and further cementing a sort of echo chamber in which people see only what they want to see. Factor in the overwhelming psychological pressure of Buyer's Remorse and you have a recipe that results in companies building entire branches of their office for trying to control the social media waves surrounding their marketing. Such practices aren't anything new - we simply call such marketers Shills - but Social Media and Like systems greatly encourage such malicious behavior.
So when we step back to Ducky's statements about how he would like less censorship, but prefers when users only "Like" his content, we see an incredibly queer contrast in his post. He would like an avenue by which to direct vitriol to individuals but prefers it when his own players or the authors of projects whom he has bashed do not actually interact with him. Again, the review process is not something he's actually genuinely interested in. He's not interested in hearing what people actually think about his content nor is he interested in interacting with developers. He only cares about seeing a number go up because in all likelihood any kind of commentary he might get otherwise would break the echo chamber effect.
The truth about custom content development is that it's a thankless, often times pointless venture that consumes colossal manhours and energy, and almost no one will actually produce a decent project. Of the myriad of developers I've talked to over the years, only a handful of Westerners actually found success, and almost all of them found the process unpleasant. In recent times I was able to watch two large-scale projects go through the psychological battle of combatting "Upvotes" and "Views" - Carbot's Starcrafts and Pirate's Dwarven Combat. The former was Starcraft 2's first total conversion, fully endorsed by blizzard including private access to tools and information not available to the public, as well as some of Blizzard's staff, and the latter winning the Rock The Cabinet contest netting its lead developer $10,000. Both project leads underwent a kind of stress overload during release, watching likes and upvotes swirl around their content. Rather, the developers seemed more concerned about the state of their Social Media presence rather than what players actually thought about their work.
Pirate had trouble with one data mining website known as Reddit, in which the site's loathed moderators repeatedly censored any of his posts that made headway despite being popular. Despite the censorship, though, he took command of the contest quite convincingly. Immediately after the first hectic days both leads became silent and never talked about the projects anymore. They had prepared for months, months and months, for this one grasp at fame, where they could steal upvotes and appear on the front page of some social media websites, only to vanish again. In some sense I felt that both leads saw their projects as stepping stones, but also that they had become somewhat dispassionate of their work.
Making content is a wholly selfish venture, and the hollowness of their individual successes rung in the nothingness to follow. While I am sure Pirate enjoyed his 10 grand of booze and Vindicator felt vindicated by finally getting the job released, neither of them truly exhibited a lasting impression from success. At least, not in any manner apparent to me. The emotions I saw from the Starcrafts side was almost completely relief and thankfulness that, at long last, it was over, other than some post-release cleanup. Pirate moved on to planning his next project, which mostly equated to tech demoing.
At the heart of it all was a very real, very large void. Starcrafts relied very heavily on feedback posted on the Arcade in-game to get any kind of connection going with its players. For a project that dominated the game screen of Blizzard's own launcher and was featured during a showmatch in Blizzcon, it seemed odd to me that so little was spoken of the developers and their engagement to users. Of all the people I talked to who still played Starcraft 2, only one even knew who Carbot was, and only after the project's release did he know I worked on it - because I told him. One person asked me about Dwarven Combat despite being featured similarly on Blizzard's services.
While it's true that my roles were technical and unsung, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if all the user engagement that evaporated into Likes had instead manifested as actual user engagement. Most users that didn't post wouldn't anyways, but even if 1/8th of those 80k Likes turned into users interested in engagement, suddenly things would seem so much more alive. I'm not the kind of person who thrives on that, but I know many who claim to. What I do know is, is that a paragraph of feedback about a system is far more useful than an extra number on a counter. To that end I have no intentions of ever adding a comment section or a forum specifically for Gameproc. After all, if someone really had something worthwhile to say to me, they'd simply seek out my contact information.
My youtube channel had well over a million views before I began hiding and deleting videos, one of the most noteworthy being an Age of Wonders 2 video that somehow had amassed over 45,000 views. A good chunk of traffic on youtube, somewhere around 70-80%, is bots. But still, a huge amount of users had seen this video. Amongst all those users only a handful commented - simply to mock my voice. No one, not a single one, actually commented about the video content itself - showing a bug I had accidentally created in which Grubs spawned themselves indefinitely, filling the entire battlemap and eventually crashing the game. I thought it was rather humorous, which was why I uploaded it. As it turns out, the video somehow was netting search results originating from a game called Minecraft which supposedly referenced Age of Wonders 2 somewhere. The end result was pubescent internet users flooding searches for the title that somehow landed them on my video, with almost none of them actually attempting to engage me, its creator, for even the most mundane of subjects.
I'd seen this story before, coincidentally.
A site I go to shares music. Game music, anime music, whathaveyou. Individuals either purchase or rip the music and post it for other people to download. The posts are threads. Users post their thanks and any other comments as replies to the thread. It's a very simple system, and the people who release stuff enjoy the little bit of thanks they get. There isn't much feedback or viewing going on, except when audio quality comes into question.
Then the forum received an update that enabled a "Like" feature. Users were now able to push "Like" on a post. What happened is that the amount of posts in release threads dropped massively, because users no longer felt obligated to write their two cents when they could much more easily just push that button. This created a void between the users who released the content and the individuals who downloaded it. It may not seem like much, but the little names and number under the post weren't quite the same psychological contact as someone actually saying "Thanks for your time!" You see, there's a certain honesty in an individual actually taking time to write out a message rather than hitting one button and moving on. That honesty fuels a passion called satisfaction. There is satisfaction in knowing that not simply did someone enjoy your release, they actually took the time out of their gazelle spanking to sit down and write you a message about how they enjoyed your time.
What ended up happening was posters stopped providing links directly to their releases, and instead told users to PM them directly for the link. They did this because they felt neglected and empty. They thrived on that user interaction that occurred between them and people who thanked them for their work, even though it was just piracy (though some rips are VERY involved processes). The Like system actually was killing the community. This was a community where the interaction was almost exclusively positive. There was very little negativity anywhere. Why would people bash someone who is giving them something for free? It was entirely about how that interaction was taking place, and the kind of intentions behind the actions. People who made the content simply didn't get user engagement out of someone pushing a button and not actually saying anything. People who had been releasing content for years and years and years and put thousands of their own dollars and manhours into something as simple as ripping music cds and such.
The Like system was removed and activity skyrocketed, and most people stopped asking for PM's.
Like I said, custom content is something of a thankless venture in most cases. That is what makes it selfish. Those who end up searching only for "Likes" or viewcounts end up finding no substance in such things, because there's no actual user engagement. These kinds of people are destined to give up and vanish sooner than later, as their experience with development will be plagued with an emptiness that grows every time you value imaginary numbers above self-improvement. Those who claim to be developing for a playerbase are referring to their Like count, not any actual physical construct of people. It becomes more about gaming the marketing than about development, which leads to mindsets like those that fueled Ducky's post. Furthermore, when confronted about this post, he had this to say.
All this talk about wanting to be able to critique projects and how he loathes defensive mapmakers and the first thing he does when confronted is, drumroll, roll a nat 20 for defense. Ducky could literally be Jay Wilson - the kind of person who tells off ex co-workers on Facebook while simultaneously releasing some of the most rancid software ever to defecate on the Personal Computer.
Few developers for custom content will ever reap the reward of popularity. No matter how many hundreds to tens of thousands of hours they pour into the perfect horse cock, they're still stuck in the shadow of big media. The attraction of advancing into social media is a potential viral explosion of likes and references, which gives them the impression they mean something. The obsession with becoming popular easily exceeds that of producing a good project, which will quickly curb one's development ethics and lead to poor production. Social echo chambers can delude them into believing this to not be the case, so you end up with trash like Starcraft 2 and Lords of Shadow. An embarassment to all besides those caught up in the frantic frenzy of escaping buyer's remorse within that echo chamber.
Why else would so many bots exist in Soundcloud and Youtube offering botnets to increase your Likes and viewcounts, if not to capitalize on the doe-eyed western mindset that popularity is everything?
That's what I truly draw from this otherwise meaningless troll post on an sc2 forum - people actually develop shit just to get "Likes". Just another reason why the games industry is trash.