Originally I wanted to write about how much 'access' to the development team players should rightfully expect - I planned to cover subjects such as trying to 'Friend' developers on Facebook, send them emails to their work accounts, etc.
I've decided against that angle, though, because frankly I don't know if there is much to say there. Only a small minority of players have any interest in getting such immediate access to a developer and really I don't have any insight to share (fyi - I've yet to accept a friend request on Facebook from someone I don' t know but have answered every Facebook mail or email I've received with questions).
More interesting, I think, is the question of whether or not developers should read the forums for their games. And, if they do read the forums, should they participate. And if they do participate, should they open the doors to players making recommendations about the in-development game. These are very loaded questions with a lot of room for debate.
Before I get started, though, my usual disclaimer: I'm obviously drawing on my own real life experience for this post, which is colored by my current position: working for a major publisher on teams of hundreds making AAA titles. Certain assumptions I make below don't hold true for all developers (independent developers, in particular, can and do have very different schedules for releasing marketing material then we do at Ubisoft).
First Question - Should a developer even bother reading the forums?
Generally speaking I've always felt comfortable monitoring the forums during and after a game's development. For POP:T2T and the latest POP I would usually check the boards (the official POP forum and the IGN POP board in particular) a few times a week. I always find it very interesting to see what the community thinks of assets we release, conjecture they have about gameplay/story elements, etc.
I'm certainly not alone in this - many people from my team would monitor the same boards, and I would guess developers around the world probably all start by wanting to see what the community thinks about 'their baby' as its being made.
This is where the first 'culling' always happens, though. In any development team there will always be those (in significant numbers, I believe) who can't handle the inevitable negative posts they read after the release of some marketing material. It is generally Game Developer nature (in my opinion) to put more weight and emphasis on the negative comments then the compliments. Combine that with the fact that (at least on the net) people are more likely to complain then they are to compliment and you create a depressing environment for those reading the forums who can not 'let go' of the negative feedback or extract any value from it. For these Developers all they can see is the hate and the choices are simple: become demotivated by exposing yourself to that negativity, or stop reading the boards. Most choose the latter.
To the community participating in the boards this may be frustrating - contained in those 'negative' posts are undoubtedly suggestions as to how the game could be made better - how things could change so that the game would evolve to suit the poster's tastes. By refusing to read the boards these developers are missing out on an opportunity to 'fix their mistakes' (at least, that's how I imagine some members of the community might see it).
There are two obvious problems with this way of thinking: first and most obvious, not everyone on the boards will agree with the poster in question. Something one person may hate (even if they express their hatred very eloquently) may be fine for, or loved by, many others. It is an absolute universal truth that you cannot please everyone, so if you start second guessing every time someone complains on the boards the project will change directions very frequently.
The second issue is that in many ways the developer reading the board might not have any power to make any of the suggested changes. Generally speaking by the time marketing assets are being shown to the community the development of the game is at a very advanced stage. Changes of any type are expensive, risky and simply put not likely to fit in with the game as a whole.
So, powerless to do anything to change the game to suit the needs of those complaining, these developers decide there is nothing to be gained by reading the forums and they stop visiting.
Many can and do continue to read through to the end of development, though. The followup question is why do they so infrequently post? Why not engage in the community discussion and explain why feature 'X' has to work just so, or why character 'Y' looks the way they do?
Second question - should a developer post to the forums?
Games cost tens of millions of dollars to make now and there can be hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to be made (or lost) with a successful title. This isn't something to be taken lightly so a respect for discreteness is generally encouraged and appreciated amongst the development team. Were team members encouraged to participate freely in online discussion about the game there is always the risk of saying something they shouldn't about the game, getting caught up in a debate and saying something that could make their employer look bad or giving away proprietary information.
This is why the trend in larger projects has moved towards Community Managers whose _job_ it is to interact on these boards. These team members know very clearly what can be said, what secrets Marketing is still trying to keep, and how to participate in debate without putting either their game or company in a bad light. They literally are paid to "speak for the team".
Third Question - why can't the community have a greater influence on the creation of the game?
Which leads to the final question - why don't these community managers more frequently solicit feedback on the forums to help give direction to the game? Why not let the true fans have a louder voice in shaping the product they are so passionately awaiting?
To me this is obviously the Holy Grail of community interaction with the development team. There are a few examples of this level of rapport (Valve certainly springs to mind) but it is definitely the exception rather then the rule.
First, as I suggested earlier, the game genre matters a great deal in how involved the community can be in shaping things. On a linear, story driven single player game (such as POP) there simply is not much room to allow community to drive game design or story decisions without giving away much of what will attract people to the title in the first place. How excited would you be to see the next JJ Abrams movie if you had spent hundreds of hours debating over all of the pros and cons of various plot twists and narrative arcs, spoiling the very mysteries that are key to the experience?). Games with a heavy Multiplayer focus, on the other hand, benefit a great deal from extensive playtesting and discussion with the community to keep things fair and balanced.
Second is the very important reality that the opinions expressed on forums are not always representative. Forum members, it could be argued, are more 'hardcore' fans who often have very specific expectations of what a title should or should not be. There is a risk that in trying to cater too directly to this one subset the developer would alienate others. Of course the opposite is also true, and thus the quandary. On POP we tried very hard to make a game that would not frustrate people and so would be open to the mass market. In doing so we eliminated too much challenge for the tastes of the hardcore, including many of the forum participants - the most vocal 'fans'.
So if you've read this far (first I congratulate you!) my personal philosophy regarding the POP forums should likely become clear. Throughout development I monitored them, took the good in with the bad, made sure our community manager was as engaged with the community as the game allowed him to be, but never felt I was in a position that I could post myself to elicit community feedback on a particular direction we were taking the game. I was a 'Fly on the wall' from day one (and still to this day read the forums regularily - although not as frequently as when we were in development or close to launch).
Moving forward I don't necessarily plan to change my attitudes to forums. If the game supports it I'll be the first to open things up to the community to give as much feedback as possible throughout development through the use of a Community Manager. I'll continue to answer emails, facebook messages or blog comments when I can and will continue to encourage my team members to stay quiet when sensitive subjects are at play.
I want a community for the games I work on - I want the players to feel the sort of connection to the property that encourages passionate exchanges of views, excited discussions and endless debates about tactics, strategies and tips. I want to do so in a way, though, that doesn't depress or demotivate me, or open up the door to promises I can't keep.
The balancing act isn't necessarily easy, but I'll definitely try again.