October 28, 2005
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Ownership

Yesterday, I took a brief break from polishing software (we've got two late betas almost ready to leave the building) to subdue some evil-doers in City of Heroes. Coincidentally, yesterday they rolled out a major update, so City of Heroes was new.

First observation: I've come to believe in light documentation; people hate to pay for things they don't use, and it's easy to spend $50 per user on reference manuals that most customers will never open. But this was extreme: entire features and function sets were undocumented. Suddenly, you got salvage when you subdued bad guys. What is salvage? Did you notice a new inventory tab in the interface? What do you do with salvage?

Second observation: some details -- exactly how much damage your flaming arrow does, exactly how much endurance your first aid consumes -- were changed for play balance, and the chat channel was absolutely full of rabidly angry players. The principle, I think, is that people felt they owned the abilities of their heroes, and that something they owned had been stolen

As I understand it, the play balance issue stems, in part, from creeping inflation: high-level characters are giving their low-level friends so much influence -- the currency of City of Heroes -- that it's unbalancing the game. The developers didn't want to simply devalue the influence or tax away everyone's excess wealth, but people are upset anyway.

Third observation: angry users -- especially when they happen to be petulant kids -- are tough. The game provides those angry users with a built-in broadcast channel and an audience. It's got to be a headache for HQ. My comments on comments apply in spades.

Fourth observation: I thought at the time that it was a real mistake for the game developer not to have a spokesperson (or 20) live on the chat channels in order to balance the angry villagers. But a low profile might have been the right answer: sometimes, you can't beat the hecklers.