One of the comments Josh made in the last podcast of reckoning was that some of the devs were playing the beta and secretly joining test guilds. I see a few issues with it.
1/ It’s great for the people who make and run the game to see how it plays ‘at the grass roots’. They can get a much better understanding of any issues facing the player base when they’re in game playing themselves and chatting to people.
2/ It’s a bit duplicitous to be joining guilds and pretending to be just a regular player when you really aren’t.
3/ Can having a staffer secretly in your guild confer any privileges that another guild might not have (ie. balance issues)?
4/ It’s easier to keep staff motivated and feeling involved if you let them play the game
Back when I was running MUSHes, this was a big issue. Partly because the games were much smaller and every combat or conflict between players potentially needed a staffer there to judge the scene (think of the game as a kind of tabletop RP in a text-based virtual world). So we had to be very careful about conflicts of interest and, more importantly, in order to win players’ trust in our staff we had to make our policies very clear and adhere to them. Winning players trust is important because they have no way at all of knowing when a conflict of interest has taken place.
But we were a volunteer staffed game and the reason people became staff was because they loved the game and what we were doing with it. So of course they wanted to play. We found it was easier to avoid burn-out when we let them play the game, just with fairly careful rules on what types of scenes they were allowed to judge (basically to make sure no one ever judged anything that could affect their character).
Some of this doesn’t translate to MMORPGs which are on a much much bigger scale than a little MU* with 100 players, but some of the principles do.
1. Let the staff see the players’ point of view
No matter how much you read forums, you will never really understand how the game actually plays until you get in there and play it. Harking back again to Richard Bartle’s interview, he commented that he plays as a designer not as a regular player. Not all devs, CMs and staff will do that. Some can suspend their day job points of view and just enjoy the game. But even so, it’s likely that what they notice will feed back into game balance discussions and ideas for future work. Just talking to other players as equals will provide plenty of feedback on what people who don’t post much to internet forums think of the game.
2. Is it lying not to tell people that you aren’t a regular player?
It’s not 100% truthful for sure, but it’s a necessary subterfuge so that devs can just play the game without being bombarded with tells, whines, requests, and fannishness the whole time they are in game. A lot of people don’t tell their guilds much about their real life work.
Bottom line is, if they do tell people, then they won’t have as much fun in the game. Because it’ll be like an extension of the day job and they probably aren’t being paid for the extra hours. Plus they can kiss goodbye to any chance of picking up any valid grassroots feedback. People always either hero-worship devs or harangue them.
3. Balance issues
This is the big issue. Having a dev in your guild does confer some privileges even if they don’t intend it. Just by being there, they are aware of any issues you have and are in a place to help resolve them. Human nature also says that they want players to think well of the developers. Now how much they can actually do may be as little as informing the guild of any events that are going on to make sure members are aware of them. Or it may be as much as poking GMs to come sort out tickets (ie. players getting stuck, raids bugging out, quests not working) more quickly, or spawning items for people, or messing with the economy through inside information.
There was quite a famous issue on EVE Online where guilds with unscrupulous devs in them were able to do some insider trading.
Games need to make sure that this doesn’t happen and that the player base trusts them and their staff to play fair. Even if that means staff have to hold back on their characters to keep them out of conflicts of interest. Having said this, the kind of conflicts of interest that can happen will vary from game to game. I’d love to see games have a written policy on what kinds of things staff can get up to in game (we always used to do this on MU*), not because I don’t want staff to have fun but because we do need to trust them.
4/ It’s easier to keep staff from burning out if they get to play
I’m not sure how true this is with MMORPGs but on a MU* it was definitely part of the fun for staff to be able to play when they weren’t ‘on duty’. If you are spending all your work time trying to put together your perfect game, it’s unfair to say “Oh, no, this isn’t here for YOU.” All game creators, whether they are programming computer games, designing board games, or GMing/running roleplaying games are creating the games they wish existed so that they could play them.
Other ways to get feedback
Other than first hand experience, the other way to get feedback is by talking to players. Problem is, the people who are most likely to talk to devs may not be typical and may have agendas of their own. Even with the best possible intentions, players have a skewed view. They see the game as it affects them. They use their access to staff to ask for things they need themselves, and vent about their own issues — sometimes at interminable length. And, even if they try not to do these things, other players will suspect unfairness anyway.
In DaoC, GOA had a scheme called the “eyes and ears” which involved nominating some trusted players as liaisons and to focus feedback. The scheme was widely disliked by everyone who wasn’t personally involved with it. Players could self-nominate and a lot of people did this just for the heck of it. Even the well-intentioned eyes and ears tended to use the scheme to get casual benefits for their guilds — or that is how it was commonly perceived. There was no publically available code of conduct for the eyes and ears, no sign that anyone was keeping track of them or that the scheme was anything other than a way for egotistic players to feel more important.
Using trusted players works fine on a voluntary game. Not so well when people are paying, and especially not in a competitive PvP setup.
Anyhow, I think the benefits of having devs, CMs, and even GMs actually playing the game far outweigh the negatives. I’ve played in guilds where we were pretty sure we had undercover staffers playing alongside us and really, they are just regular players (and often way more pleasant and fun to play with than many others — they love these games and want to be involved with the community, after all). But I also think it’s useful for companies to have policies in place on conflict of interest.
How do you feel about undercover devs?