So Elder Game has a neat article about designer lifecycles. It’s a pretty accurate breakdown of designer growth in the MMO industry.
It focuses on the player driving the growth of a designer as they broaden their skills, transitioning from Noob to Artisan pain in the ass to Cynic to either a burnout or a zen master.
The focus on player-feedback being the driving mechanism for designer growth shows some of the shortcomings for MMO design.
I’d like to take a moment to go through their stages and give my thoughts…
Stage 1 : Eager Newbie
Full of energy, life, vigor and positivity and unfocused as all hell. Sometimes they bring a strong understanding of experience creation to the table, other times they do not.
If you’re lucky, they’ve got a broad knowledge set, some technical chops and are intimately familiar with games.
The downsides tend to be that they are huge fanboys. This is both good and bad. It’s good because it drives their development energy.
It’s bad because at times it’s hard to separate yourself as a player from yourself as a developer. What is good to you, good for your character is not necessarily good for the game.
It’s also very easy to get swept up in the player-feedback loop. You either think your game is a sack of shit or that you’re a development god. Both of these can blind you to future growth.
But, stick these guys in a rock-tumbler for a year or 2 on a live game and they begin to grow. They develop the chops needed to execute on their craziness.
Most importantly, they learn how being a professional designer differs from sitting on the sidelines and commentating on a forum.
And thus they transition to the second stage.
Stage 2: The Jaded Artisan
These guys trend towards absolutism. Time and time again you hear “It has to be hard to give them a sense of accomplishment” or “It doesn’t matter if it’s not fun, it’s balanced”.
These guys have formed rigid expectations of play. It’s driven by previous experience.
Player or management reinforcement has created a rigid approach to design and experience creation.
They have the skills, but they don’t know how to think about experiences at a high enough level to see beyond their current playstyle and understanding.
This manifests itself in the form ofexplicitly forcing player behaviour, rigid mathematical balancing and a generally stodgy approach to development.
You tend to do things the way they were done in the past and avoid forward thinking.
How do you break it? Well, The first is to get people out of their comfort zone. Have them do features and content that they normally don’t do.
The second one is more unusual. This point is where I think designers need to move to a different position.
I’ve seen designers who simply lump around at a studio, complacent, comfortable and stagnant.
It’s easy to do this. You get entrenched in the pre-existing behaviour and can’t look beyond all of the earlier work that you’ve done.
It’s easy and comfortable to hang out with your friends, suck down a paycheck, and regurgitate the exact same shit you’ve been regurgitating for 3 years.
People need to move around to continue growth. They need to always challenge their expectations for design, development and hell, even life.
Skip this and you end up a 10+ year veteran of a single company, with a senior design title, desk full of toys, but absolutely no forward thinking design capabilities.
All you can do is make things like other things you’ve seen. You can’t see beyond what already exists.
Stage 3: The Player Hater
I take a little exception to this stage. I don’t think it’s an explicit design stage but more of a constantly growing cynicism of your relationship with the players.
You realize that the players are your customers. You also realize that they will complain about everything.
For example, we gave everyone 10,000 gold in UO one day due to some fuckup. And we received a HUGE number of complaints because we overloaded some peoples inventory.
At it’s core level, we gave people 10k gold and they complained.
It goes to show that you simply cannot make 100% of people happy.
And in a communication based environment, you only see the lowpoints.
People tend to post when they’re annoyed. And they project a negativity that far outstrips the actual unhappiness they have.
So you develop this adversarial approach to player-feedback.
It’s not an explicit stage, but it’s a definite moment where you figure out that the players as a group are mean-spirited, negative and hostile.
The player as an individual can be a very nice person, but the group can be a bunch of asshats.
Stage 4: The Burnout
I believe this is a real stage. And it’s fucking sad.
You get talented people who just don’t have the energy to deal with the same exact bullshit day in and day out. A lot of it comes from staying in one spot for your whole career.
You get comfortable, complacent and simply happy to pull down a paycheck.
Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with player-facing development, this complacency shows.
I’ve seen players ask whether someone “phoned in” a bit of development after it went live.
And in that case, the person implementing didn’t give a shit and loudly proclaimed it.
And the players could tell.
This should never happen. If you really don’t care about the work you are doing, you need a change of scenery.
This doesn’t mean quit.
It does mean having a frank evaluation of why you do what you do. Why are you making games?
Take a sabbatical, re-evaluate your life priorities, figure out where you want to be in 5-10 years.
Backtrack out and break down that goal into small, achievable steps.
Go back to work and begin to execute on those goals.
If you do that, you get to the final stage.
Stage 5: The Zen Master
The baddest of the bad motherfuckers.
The development folks that will enable you to look beyond the status quo, the dudes who chew up and spit out the impossible on a daily basis.
The dudes who can break down the insurmountable into a known quantity and communicate it to junior designers, code and art.
The problem is, these guys are hard to fit into a political environment.
You tend to exchange design sensibility for political acumen. It means you’re singularly focused on product execution, quality, timescales and raw, unmitigated success.
It’s one of the reasons that high grade, high quality senior designers are hard to keep around in big organizations. We’re old, crotchety and hopefully, reasonably wise.
We have a low tolerance for bullshit, power struggles and other non-development focused bits.
We want a forward thinking experience driven by process, know-how and built in such a way that it doesn’t come crashing down 6 months before ship.
These designers are the ones that are pushing the envelope, level of quality and success of the industry year by year.
But only if they are allowed. Only if there is a support structure and focus on development and quality that permits this to happen.
I’m not saying it’s perfect, but some studios get this. They understand that the finished product is all people care about.
I’ve seen amazingly talented people mistep because the studio support structure wasn’t there.
I’ve seen studios go out of business because of decisions made for personal or political gain rather than proper development.
But it’s getting better.
Studios run by veterans, Studios run by people who have a mature level of understanding of the financials and expectations of the next-generation market are appearing all over the place.
And that gives me faith that this designer lifecycle will get refined.
The more refined we can make this, the stronger the design profession will become.
Design is a professional classification of developer as important as code and art. Some places see this, others do not.
Until it is treated as thus everywhere, we still have work to do.
We are a unique group that must bring a process and focus on experience to the table. We’re the jack of all trades for skills, but our finished product is very concrete.
The more designers we can elevate to zen-masters of experience design, the stronger we’ll be as an industry as well as a profession.