Let’s just get straight to the point. Fan involvement in the development process of any game should be kept to barest minimum. I know, just a statement in this day and age of internet connectivity and outreach seems perplexing, even downright archaic.
I get it – in today’s industry, connecting with players is seen as advantageous for both of the respective parties. On the one hand, fans are given a level of access to their favourite games and developers that was previously unattainable, allowing them to develop a more personal relationship with their idols and feel like there are having an active input on the development of a respective studio’s latest title. On the other, the developer or publisher can garner significant goodwill by liaising with fans, making them feel like they are a part of the development process as opposed to being silent consumers who are viewed only as walking wallets full of sweet, sweet cash and marking potential.
Both sides view fan participation as a good thing, yet there is a limit to the amount to access fans should have to the development process, as can be observed by the recent transgressions of EA and the Sims Team which have been predicated on the incorrect notion that greater fan participation is a good thing.
Early last year, The Sims 4 development team announced that they’d be involving the community in the creation of the game’s latest Stuff Pack – for those who aren’t Sims fanatics like myself, a stuff pack is a downloadable add-on for the Sims 4 that adds, well, a load of new stuff to the game. They often follow a particular theme, usually offering players around fifty new items alongside a new gameplay gimmick.
As you’d expect, the community rejoiced upon the hearing announcement. After all, The Sims 4 is infamous for lacking features that were fundamental to previous iterations, something the community frequently talk about in the game’s official forums. Thus, you can imagine the excitement that surrounded the first player vote, a feeling I, too, shared.
The first vote – one of five – concerned the overall theme of the pack. Five candidates where presented to the community, each of which inspired wonder and exhilaration within, not only my heart, but the hearts of each and every Sims 4 player partaking it the survey. The five themes in question were: Eco Living, Starter Home, Dangerous, Wedding, and Arcade. All five themes sounded fascinating, yet only one could be crowned the winner. After a frantic round of voting, the winner was revealed to be Eco Living.
Now, at this point I was still swept up in the excitement of it all, oblivious to the problems such user participation has upon the development process. After all, Eco Living was my first choice, and, given the potential such a pack could have had in terms of offering brand-new gameplay opportunities that had before been seen in the historic franchise, I was still 100% behind the inclusion of players in the development of the game.
This sentiment changed, however, upon the conclusion of the fourth vote. The previously three came and went in a manner one can only describe as akin to the season change of nature itself, with the votes on art style, objects and clothing welcomed with open arms like the coming of Spring. Even the infamous the fourth vote was heralded by cheers and excitement, as fans were given the opportunity to decide upon the pack’s unique gameplay feature. From the four potential ideas on offer – food preserves, laundry, off the grid, and carbon conscious – the winner, the number one most-wanted feature by the community, was, brace yourselves, laundry… yeah…
I realise at this point that any issues I have with the winning vote might be construed as defeatist. I’ll freely admit that such feelings do play a part in me creating this article, yet I must also clarify that I do adamantly believe that I was wrong in initially thinking such player control over the game was a good thing. After all, out of the four choices on offer, I cannot be alone in believing that laundry is probably the most mundane and soulless gameplay addition you could possibly imagine.
A quick glance at the other options reveals a treasure trove of intriguing gameplay opportunities. Off the grid and carbon conscious are of particular note, for they could have potentially offered something truly unique, and, possibly, electrifying. However, rather than embrace something new and innovative, the collective community instead decided upon laundry, a topic that barely even qualifies as eco living, especially since the pack includes washing and drying machines, both of which are very inefficient and consume copious amounts of water and power.
By handing the development reins over to the community, The Sims 4 scuppered any possibility of innovation. While players often cry out for innovative new ideas in their games, the reality is that they instead prefer the known quantity, something they are familiar with. Laundry, for example, was a part of The Sims 3: Ambitions expansion pack, something familiar to simmers. Rather than embrace the possibility of something new, the community instead voted for the known quantity. Such an attitude is counter-productive to the creative process. It holds games back, preventing them from evolving into something new and, potentially, better. Improvement isn’t always quarantined, yet how will be know if we do not take that risk?
Innovation, not only in the games industry but in all walks of life, is driven by risk and the willingness to strive to create something new and different, something people haven’t seen before. This is not possible when including the masses, for they lack the creative spark and know how to push the bounds of possibility into uncharted territory. We think we know what we want, yet we cannot truly know that until present with it.
Take the original Sims as an example. Before it was revealed to the public, no one truly knew that they wanted a game like it. How could they? They had no idea such a game could even exist. However, upon its release, people wanted more. They hungered for something like it, for it was now a familiar concept to them. But just imagine for a second if The Sims has had never been created. Would people vote for the creation of such a game? Or would they instead choose something familiar, let’s say, for example, a new Sim City? They’d go for the latter option, of course,
Innovation is what drives the arts forward, and innovation can only could from the individual or a small collective to likeminded persons, like, for instance, an indie development studio. Take any artistic or literary movement within the last couple of hundred years, for instance. Be it the modernist artistic movement from the early 20th century or rise of the novel during the Victorian era, they were all founded and honed by small groups of individuals striving to create something new, as opposed to society as a whole.
The development of fan interaction and engagement with their favourite videogame studios is something that should undoubtedly be applauded, yet we should also be cautious not push the boundaries to the point where artistic creativity and innovation become an impossibility. Leave the development process to the professionals. After all, only they can help revolutionise this wonderful industry. As fans, we must step back and allow them to do their job, to create for us wonderous new experiences that captivate and excite us. Only then can the industry truly move forward.