Here is the twelfth edition of my #WordsWithBaun Q&A this time with Mike’s Dumb Thoughts (@MikeThinksAloud). He was in the ETF Alpha program for The Division and is always happy to dig into the numbers that matter in our wonderful game. I am excited to have Mike with us today and hope you enjoy his answers as I did. Here we go!
What is your favorite non-gaming related activity?
Mike — I love cooking and poker, but honestly just hanging out with my wife is the best. Coming up on 12 years of marriage and there’s no one I’d rather do something or nothing all day with than her. This may explain why we’re about to have our 4th kid.
What is your favorite game system of all time? Why?
M — A tie between the first PC I built in college to play competitive Tribes 2 / WoW and the original Xbox I modded. When Halo 2 was about to come out, the French version leaked online a week early, and the only way to play it was to solder a mod chip onto your Xbox so you could install directly to the HD. I overnighted one and did that just so my roommates and I could learn all the maps a few days early. (I still obviously bought the full game).
I’m also going to answer this as if you meant “in-game system”, because I love systems design. I think the way loot and crafting worked in Star Wars: The Old Republic was near perfect. Slot based tokens that could be rolled on or assigned by a raid leader and traded in for the type of gear you wanted, and the ability to dismantle and have a chance to learn how to craft powerful items if you were willing to sacrifice them. It was so well designed.
What surprised you the most about the ETF process?
M — The first is how much the Devs care about our opinions about how to make the game better — which speaks to almost superhuman levels of humility. They rarely tried to defend the things we wanted to change — the things they had come up with — rather they wanted to understand why we thought our ideas were better to help them make future things better. The second is how in-tune with the problems of the game they were when we arrived because of their heaps of internal data and how closely they watch forums and social media. In the reddit post that got me invited, I had suggested a stat-scaling system that kinda mirrored what they were already planning with the world tier system they had been working on for weeks before they even announced the first ETF.
What do you think separates your experience with ETF Alpha compared to Bravo or Charlie?
M — Alpha was very much an experiment filled with nervous tension. They managed it well, but having sat in on Charlie remotely, they have the process down to a well-oiled machine by now. There’s no worry about if this is worth it, it’s just straight to business.
What do you understand about the game/devs after the ETF that you wish others knew?
M — The things you think are easy or hard to fix may be the exact opposite, and just because something isn’t getting carefully molded into the perfect version of itself doesn’t mean the devs don’t wish they could with enough time or resources. Also, it’s insane to think that a game studio of any size can find every bug or issue in (especially a multiplayer) game that will arise before you throw millions of people into it. What matters is how the studio reacts when it’s clear there’s a problem.
What is your outlook on the ETF program since you’ve completed it?
M — I think every game in the space (*cough Destiny2*) should strive to engage its community this directly and with the attitude, and I hope any future updates or games that come out of the Division teams continue the process. I’ve seen how many little things, changes, or items that people love in the game right now are a product of a comment or discussion during one of the ETFs or on our forums, and that guys like Fredrik, Keith or Terry ran with and brought to life. It just can’t be overstated how great those guys are to interact with.
What would you do differently at ETF knowing what you know now?
M — Ha. I’d get an earlier flight to Sweden and not check a bag. Flight issues and a lost bag had me out of sorts the first day there. I think I had been awake for 26 hours when our first day of workshops started.
What current trend in gaming worries you the most?
M — Paid AAA games launching with micro-transaction based progression systems or with content at launch locked behind microtransactions already is the obvious thing that worries me. If you’re supporting your game as a service down the road with free content updates, then sure, you need a way to pay your live team, but putting huge chunks of content behind a second pay wall in a full priced game is just disrespectful. However, I also think that a lot about the game industry is unsustainable after reading Jason Schreier’s “Blood, Sweat and Pixels”. The churn and stress on people, especially in US-based studios, to completely forsake work life balance to make games seems to cause people to burn out and leave the industry early. It’s hard to “learn from the past” when so many of the people who lived the past found it so awful that they left the industry and took their lessons with them. I think you’ll keep seeing better games come out of European based studios where a good work-life balance is ingrained in the culture, because happy people stick around and do better work.
What trend is most exciting?
M — At the risk of sounding like a shill, I think the direction Yves has stated Ubisoft is going with a slower release cadence and a longer-term focus on supporting its games and communities is the future. What has happened with games like Rainbow Six Siege and the Division are just 2 examples of how well it has worked. I’m an “investment gameplay” guy. I don’t want a new CoD every year. I want to really invest in a game and have it respect that time investment. I think the only thing that has to be worked out is the correct way to monetize that long term support, because every paid expansion puts a barrier to re-entry up to folks who may have not LOVED a game when it launched, but heard good things about how it changed. If they’re 4 paid expansions behind, they aren’t likely to hop in and check it out again.
And last Ron Swanson, Andy Dwyer, and Ben Wyatt (of Parks & Rec) are in The Division. Who do they side with? Why?
M — Ron replaces Colonel Bliss as head of the LMB, because there’s no way he’s letting the government back into power. Andy is the first rioter you meet who charges you with a baseball bat despite you holding an assault rifle. Ben is nervously pacing around the BOO while Leslie runs the reconstruction effort (this question will make zero sense if you haven’t watched Parks and Rec).