It's safe to say I didn't enjoy Hydrophobia: Prophecy so much, but when it comes to listening to players' comments it's hard to fault developers Dark Energy. Today they're reporting some impressive success from their Darknet system - a context sensitive feedback system that lets the team see customer remarks exactly where they have them during the game.
It's implemented in the Steam version of the oft-revised Hydrophobia game, and has received thousands of responses in the first week - far more than the team were expecting. Dark Energy's director, Pete Jones, explained,
"We were expecting a slow burn with Darknet, so when we switched on InfiniteWorlds the day after launch and the whole game map lit up like a Christmas tree, we were really surprised. People really seem to be embracing the connected development philosophy behind Darknet."
It's unquestionably a brilliant idea. Imagine a map of the game with hotspots wherever players are commenting on events. The team can then see exactly what people are feeding back, and either learn that something was great, or see there's an issue that needs fixing. And fixing they are, with a number of updates already released on Steam addressing concerns. Including increasing the number of checkpoints, which will make the experience less frustrating.
Of course, a cynical person could suggest that the system lit up so vibrantly and so instantly because the game is so riddled with annoyances. But Dark Energy are reporting positive feedback too.
“It’s a mind blowing experience to play back through the game you created and see what the community thinks about the different elements. You see clusters of positive responses around cool moments and you can analyse the map area by area to see which are most popular. But the main idea of course is to actively improve the game, and this is already happening. Thanks to Steam Cloud we’ve already delivered several micro updates to address frustrations flagged up by Darknet, such as adding extra checkpoints to alleviate concentrations of frustration data points.”
It's the sort of thing I'd love to see in more games. Valve's system of monitoring data, rather than receiving direct feedback, is perhaps more representative (with Darknet your feedback is exclusively from the sorts of people who want to leave feedback, which skews your results somewhat), but also must lack something in not being nearly as personal.
Such a system would, of course, also be biased toward negative comments. If I'm enjoying a moment of a game, the last thing I'm going to want to do is snap out of the moment and leave a remark. But if I'm stuck, or annoyed, the fiction's already broken. But then, as the developers say, that's the real purpose.
I think it's an excellent idea, and certainly demonstrates humility on the part of a developer who came to fame for kicking off at negative reviews. Good call.