Developer versus Player

A few days ago, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (made by Nicalis) got its second expansion, named Afterbirth+. It was a huge and much anticipated event, with the game reaching the top 5 in both the Steam shop and Twitch once it was released. Still, the release was not received that well. While a part of it was bugs and content that seemed incomplete (like the final boss lacking some animations), this is not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to focus on some design choices.

Ever since Rebirth was released, it was apparent that the developers and the players, while converging on the majority of issues, had different opinions on the game’s difficulty. While there were some design choices in the base game and the first expansion, Afterbirth, that didn’t sit well with the playerbase, things were mostly good. However, Afterbirth+ changed that. Afterbirth+ introduced rooms and mechanics that made the game hard in an unfair way. For example, the game now had portals that spawned enemies continuously until you destroyed them. These portals could be found even on the first floor and took a few hits to destroy. Moreover, there now were mimic chests that hurt you, without a visual tell that told you they were mimics. And, perhaps more important of all, there was greedier mode. Greedier mode was a harder variety of greed mode, where you got even fewer consumables and the timing between the enemy waves was even less. Also, the already annoying boss with the special boss armor had a second phase. All of the above, and more, made most Binding of Isaac players understandably upset when the game was released.

Of course, the developers heard the players and introduced balance patches very quickly. These fixed most of the game’s problems, making Afterbirth+ a fine addition to the game. The question is, however, why even make these changes in the frst place? The people who are making Binding of Isaac have been doing so for years now. Shouldn’t they have known that such changes would be thought of as negative by the community? My answer is that there is  disconect between what the fans want from the game, and how the developers want it to be.

Of course, this is true for most games. Every time a new game comes out, there is bound to be at least a few posts in the game’s forum that go “Wouldn’t it be great if x was y instead?” with hundreds of responses agreeing or disagreeing. If you are a developer, one way to handle this is (if you have the time/budget) check if the change is easy to make and if it affects other elements of the game, and, if the answer to these questions is satisfactory for you, make the change. With good testing, this usually results in the community being quite happy. Sometimes, however, developers go a bit overboard in one of two directions.

Some listen to the community too much. One such example is the Early Access of Dungeon Souls. The game’s fans asked for a change and they usually got it quite quickly. However, some were not that satisfied with it, promting more and more tinkering. It seemed like the fans controlled a huge part of the game’s design. While that might seem like a positive thing, the developer himself should have a general plan for the game and try and follow it, without getting swayed by the fans. On the other hand, we have the Afterbirth+. The fans have continuously stated that, while they are fine with a harder game, they want it to be fair. Instead, the developers made Afterbirth+ harder in ways that the player cannot combat. It was basically luck that controlled the game’s runs on the first couple of days. If you got lucky enough to get an overpowered item in greedier mode, you won. If you didn’t, tough luck.

So, how can this be solved? How can the fans and the developers communicate better? Well, let’s talk about Antibirth. Antibirth is yet another Binding of Isaac expansions, only this one is fan made. It came out about a week before Afterbirth+, and its release was much more positive than Afterbirth+’s. The reason for that was that Antibirth was made by fans, players of the Binding of Isaac. Instead of upping the difficulty the way Afterbirth+ did, they introduced new enemy patterns and mechanics. While these did make the game harder, they allowed players to study and learn them, so they could persevere. Basically, the game’s difficulty relied on the player’s skill.

Let’s also talk about Paradox. Paradox is a company that makes Grand Strategy games. This last year, they did the following two things: First, they hired DDR Jake,one of the game’s best players who had a tendency to break it through glitches, as a QA person. Secondly, they implemented Arumba’s (another youtuber who plays the game) ideas into the game. This led to the game getting some changes that were received very well  by the community.

The point I am trying to make here is that, no matter how good of a developer you are, sometimes you might be at odds with the community regarding the game’s direction. This is why you need a middle person, a player of the game who has some game design experience. He/She will know how the game works, and what the players want. Through collaboration with them, you can breathe new life into the game. So, if you are a game developer, listen to your players. But remember, it’s your game too.

– Philip “Snowchill” Alexandris

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