December 17, 2009

How Valve Is Designing Their Community's Behavior

In the past week, both Valve and Blizzard have rolled out huge, long-awaited patches to Team Fortress 2 and World of Warcraft respectively.

The patch notes for WoW's 3.3 patch are just staggering. There's some great stuff in there: they've finally fixed their Looking For Group tool, added new content, and made tweaks to every class as well as a huge amount of powers, missions, and items. It took me about 20 minutes to wade through all the text in the patch notes.

TF2, on the other hand, received 7 new items and about 40 achievements. Presumably those patch notes would take about 2 minutes to review, right? Except TF2's patch notes have taken over a week to reveal themselves and still aren't finished yet.

The patch notes for TF2's War Updade are complete with challenges, conflict, a narrative, rewards, and even merchandising. In other words, it has many aspects in common with a game.

I've talked before about how Valve uses every opportunity to teach their players, but I've been really impressed at the lengths to which they've gone to entertain and motivate them this time around.

Good community members > good players

The really amazing part of this update, though, is what it communicates about Valve's values to their community, and how it reinforces it.

I've spoken about designing your audience before, in the sense of making sure you have the right players, but Valve is taking this a step further and designing how their community actually behaves.

Take a look at both of these posts. Notice anything in common? Both of them include players being called out by name for their great contributions, and rewarded with unique items that can not be acquired through the game:
Note: Pretty much any time we reveal a new weapon, somebody on the forums claims they thought of it first. But this time, assuming it’s Tom Francis and jibberish, they are absolutely correct. As a special thanks to them for doing our work for us, they'll each be getting a unique version of the Equalizer of their very own.
Think for a moment about how important and powerful a statement this is. By playing the game well, players can help their class get a new item this weekend, which is cool in itself. But by making some fan art or posting an insightful suggestion on the forum, they can receive a completely unique in-game item that nobody else will ever be able to own.

TF2 is also known for redistributing player maps as part of the game proper, which is great exposure for players who contribute to the community that way, especially if they'd like to break into the industry.

By rewarding their players so enthusiastically for the behavior the company values, Valve is making a very clear stand for what is important to them in their community, not to mention causing no end of evangelizing. Imagine how many people this guy will end up convincing to play Valve games in his lifetime.

It's a really interesting contrast to WoW's community-developer relationship, which has been famously rocky this past year. It often seems like WoW devs' main form of interaction with their playerbase lately is to yell at them for misbehaving (which as any parent will tell you actually encourages misbehavior).

This is one of the reasons so many other people like Valve so much: they realize that their players are worth much more than money, and treat them accordingly.


Stabs said...

WoW has done a little of this: 2 members of raid guild/theorycraft site Elitist Jerks were made into NPCs in The Burning Crusade.

The problem WoW has is a very aggressive community. This goes back way before Ghostcrawler. Phrases such as "Huntard" have been coined.

It is very noticeable that there is a terse snappy and somewhat teenage boy style to WoW's players that contrasts with most MMOs. In EQ2, SWG, DDO, Eve people are much more adult in the way they interact even when they are being douches (as is standard in Eve).

I suspect that there may be a correlation between the behaviour and the success of WoW. I can't quite put my finger on why this might be. Maybe things are higher stakes, maybe the famous hardcore people are famous partly for being unpleasant (eg the jerks part of Elitist Jerks, the Onyxia Wipe guy, the use of electric shocks by raid leader Kungen). If people aspire to be like these best of the best then what can a designer do to mellow people out?

And if the designers did mellow people out would that mean you wouldn't have ten times as many subs as your closest competitors?


Mike Darga said...

Yeah I probably leaned on the Blizzard/Valve comparison a bit too heavily. It may not be a useful comparison outside of this current patch, but I was struck by how differently the two communities seem to be reacting to things lately.

I strongly doubt that people being childish in WoW is a positive force on their game, but it probably is true that once you've got such a huge community it becomes much harder to control it.

WoW has also done a lot of nice things like incorporate functionality from player mods into the vanilla UI, although I don't remember them ever giving much credit to anybody for it. The Elitist Jerks thing is a good example though, thanks.

Kevin said...

The age group between the two games is definitely different. Of course I'm talking completely out of my ass, but I would guess WoW has significantly more 14-21 year olds than most FPS.

FPS is too hard for the youth these days. They need a watered down virtual chat channel where they can call each other fags and kill faeries.

Mike Darga said...

I dunno Kevin, I think that's too much generalizing even for me =)

Old players will be jackasses just as much as young players, when presented with an environment that encourages it.

Certainly I've heard many horror stories about people in Halo and Modern Warfare.

I'd like to think that Valve's playerbase being generally good is more a consequence of the way they incentivize such behavior, rather than a result of being a shooter or not.

Stabs said...

"From the survey data, the average age of the WoW player is 28.3"

Regarding addons if anything Blizzard have done the opposite.

This change in policy seemed to damage the addon community for no reason in particular. Quite disappointing really.

Nels Anderson said...

The ability to have great community interaction like this make me a bit jealous that I'm (currently, at least) working offline games. While one can kind of do things like this with offline games, it's difficult and much smaller in scope.

Seriously, I don't think anyone has put legs on a game like Valve has with TF2. I'm constantly in awe.

Eolirin said...

I think Blizzard is saddled with two things, when it comes to their community.

The first is that it's big; issues with managing communities scale at faster than linear rates with size. So it's just plain hard to cope with to begin with.

But they've also had a long history of having very snarky adversarial community mods. If you look into forum interactions, even the moderators tend to demean people. This really helps set a tone, and that tone reinforces a lot of the dysfunction that already is going to exist in a population that size.

Because Valve really drops the ball in a lot of areas too, and they're certainly not nearly as transparent or open with information as they could be (Like when the L4D2 demo got delayed on the PC for close to 2 days and they didn't even make an official announcement letting anyone know what was going on). And their fans do have a tendency to completely explode when there's a more controversial change; there's a lot of grumpiness over balance on the various forums, especially right around patch updates, and then there's stuff like the L4D2 boycott movement. So the size of the Valve fanbase is definitely big enough for dysfunction too, and they could do more than they do as well... but they *are* doing more than Blizzard. Especially in how they try to engage the fanbase, like flying in people involved in the L4D2 boycott, and flying out to Australia because of a much more successful than anticipated joke.

Mike Darga said...

Another thing that I find really interesting but forgot to mention was how Valve often posts TF2 updates in character.

The Announcer or The Soldier yelling at people for cheating is funny and effective at the same time. I doubt they use these same characters to moderate their forums, but it's an interesting idea.

S.Blakemore said...

Although I love the creativity in the recent update to TF2 I don't believe WoW would get away with it. Since the update I have played TF2 and have found myself in maps where 45% of the players are demomen and 45% are soldiers (with the last 10% consisting of the rest). If blizzard attempted a patch like this there would be a complete outcry at the balance issues it created.

Since the games are really different in genre their patches have to be different too. Blizzard needs to update content and add new things whilst being completely equal to every class and every spec (which they don't exactly achieve but they try). If blizz singled two classes out, the other 8 classes would freak out (a large portion of the blizzard community need very little reason to complain). Many players of WoW don't even admit that it's a good game (whilst still spending their £9 a month).

I really like how Valve are able to give certain classes their moment in the spotlight without too much outcry. But this comes from being able to choose your character numerous times during a fight. Players of WoW need to invest in leveling a character to max level so any preferential treatment to another class is abhorred.

But I think that blizzard cares about its community greatly too. The forums are read by members of blizzard all the time and even commented on by the lead game designers. There's plenty of competitions held by them and even members of the blog community have been immortalised in the game such as the Resto Druid blogger Phaelia


... who had a piece of resto druid armour named after her.

Mike Darga said...

Great comments Steven, thank you. I agree with all of it.

I do think it would be interesting to see more companies allow something about the structure or lore of the world to be permanently impacted as happened here with the special item to the winning team.

It's probably something that will only be done by more pvp-focused companies, but it's certainly an interesting way to get your daily numbers up. I imagine social gaming companies in particular should be drooling a bit at this kind of promotion, but we'll see.

S.Blakemore said...

People love to have something that other people don't. It's a great motivator to play more. I think this is one way where WoW is falling down slightly since they've made it so easy to get some of the best gear in the game. But this was so people could easily gear up their characters to the latest tier of raid instances so it seems you can't have one without the other (or if you can Blizzard haven't thought of it).

The story of the weapon being chosen from a players suggestions is a great motivator to make more and more players contribute to the community and get excited about new additions and developments.

Also one of the great things about the new TF2 update was how they really played up this War between the two classes making you feel like you're part of a larget conflict within the already set paramaters of the level. When one of your kills gets added to the counter it makes you feel like you've really contributed and I think that's a very positive feeling for a player. I know the high points in a multiplayer game for me is when I feel like my involvement is either the reason something happened or contributed towards it.