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The Ignorance Of Crowds: Why Open Development Is Crap


Open development is just about the worst idea for games.

People like to think they’re pretty special. And people do tend to have a habit of thinking what they think is right, and those who disagree are wrong. In my case it’s actually true, but unfortunately that’s not always the case for others. And really, honestly, the very last thing I want is other wrong people to be influencing the games I’m going to play. Developers have to stop asking other people how to make their games.

One of the biggest mistakes of the caring, sharing internet ways of the 2010s is the idea that if you’re creating something for someone, you need to get those someones’ approval as you create it. I can assure people, based on the last few thousand years of creativity, that this absolutely isn’t the case. In fact, it can only lead to stifling creativity, and deepening the ruts of gaming. Why? Because people don’t know what they want.

People know what they already like. They will inevitably ask for more of it.

Turns out he isn't an idiot - plays chess aged 7 now.

This is partly the equivalent of the child who will only eat sausages, because he’s not tried fish fingers or spaghetti bolognese. He doesn’t want the unknown. A good parent will respond by telling that child to shut up and eat his fish fingers. A bad parent will say, “Well, you know what you like, I suppose,” and feed them nothing but sausages for the rest of their childhood. I don’t want to only play sausages. I want to taste games I’ve never even heard of, games from exotic locations, to eat mysterious new combinations of games that no one’s ever tried before.

And it’s partly because it’s very hard for people to say, “I would like this game to include this fantastically original new feature that you need to come up with.” And that’s precisely what I want my game developers to be doing, on their own, in private.

I’m not arguing that all open development inevitably leads to mediocrity. But I’m saying it bloody well asks for it. Asking people to tell you the sort of thing they already like, or giving them the chance to tell you to change something different into something they already like, is one hell of a shove toward a bland, beige middleground. Player feedback sounds so great, so all-inclusive and community friendly. But I’ve a thought exercise to argue otherwise:

Photo by Vladimir Kirakosyan

Imagine if I stopped all the people in the supermarket while you were shopping, and told them to come to a consensus and fill your cart for you. And remember, this isn’t some fantasy supermarket in Dreamland where there’s the possibility of anyone else there not being a screeching arsebucket who leaves their trolley diagonally across the aisle while they fart into their mobile phone and knock over the milk.

So as these lumbering Homo ergaster attempt to process the instructions, and then begin bawling their likes and dislikes at each other while likely throwing vegetables, what do you imagine is going to be providing your dinner options at the end of this exercise? It’s going to be frozen chips, isn’t it? And sure, you like frozen chips – you’re not mad. But you’ve eaten an awful lot of frozen chips over the years. An awful lot.

World Of Starwarcraft.

The wisdom of crowds, as first observed by eugenicist Francis Galton, argues that “the many are smarter than the few”. And the argument is well made. Because it’s based on averages. The larger the number of people guessing at something, the closer they get to the truth when their answers are averaged out. And that’s the key. Averaging. And we don’t want that from creativity! It’s the death of creativity. When it comes to the creativity, crowds are about the least wise mass imaginable. Crowds should be avoided at all costs. In all senses.

One of the most stark examples of this I’ve seen was The Old Republic. I played the game a few times during its years of development, and saw its erosion to mediocrity at the hands of crowds. The first time it was talked about and shown, it was so promising. That mantra, that line they repeated far past its being true, that this was to be “KotORs 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7” was meaningful at one point. They were hoping to take the magnificent Old Republic universe online, and create a story-driven MMO. Each time I revisited it that goal was being further abandoned, the game becoming increasingly generic and unoriginal, and each time the developers explained, “When we’ve beta tested, these are the features players have been demanding.” What was once going to be the continuation of Knights Of The Old Republic online, through the ignorance of crowds, became World Of Warcraft with Twi'leks.

People wanted raids! People wanted guilds! People wanted customisable pets! People wanted more of the MMOs they were already playing because they knew they already liked those! People are idiots! We shouldn’t ever listen to people!

All of the people pictured are idiots.

I’m not saying that games shouldn’t be playtested. Of course they should. A developer can get too insular, fail to notice the mistakes they’re making and end up developing them into the core of the game. Valve’s model of bringing a person in every week to play a build of a game, and observing their playing, is a splendid one. They don’t then fawn all over that person, asking them what they should do next. They see what does and doesn’t work by the player’s reactions. They mould their vision to fit reality. That makes sense. But “open development”, that’s abandoning your vision to appease the masses. And the masses are so often massive idiots.

Kickstarter is making this so much worse. This ghastly expectation backers now have that they should have some influence over the game itself: NO. NO NO NO. You’re a wallet, and that’s it. Hand over your money, accept the sheer unbridled stupidity of developers then showing all their promotional materials only to the people who already bought the game, and keep your mouths shut. If you’ve got some incredibly brilliant ideas for making a video game, then here’s an idea: go make a video game. But you don’t – you’re just going to loudly crap on about how important it is that there’s crafting. So shut it.

Developers! Stop listening! And damned well stop asking! I have no idea what started this colossal crisis of confidence amongst the development world, but good gracious, could everyone get a hold of themselves? You’re the CREATORS, so get on with CREATING. Have some bloody convictions! You want to make a great game, so go ahead and make it, and stop thinking you have to pander to loud-mouths back-seat-developing your game for you. LISTEN ONLY TO ME.

Gosh, games are going to be so much better now everyone’s agreed to all this.

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About the Author
John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, they killed me out of jealousy. I now run buried-treasure.org

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