On April 2, Jagex introduced PAGs or Player Advocacy Groups. This is an attempt by Jagex to utilize player knowledge and feedback to help shape certain areas of the game. The idea of a player based committee has been around for a little while, and I had made a Reddit post during last summer's dry spell about the need for a player advocacy group. Of course, like any other update, this one has its supporters and detractors. This month we are going to take a look at what these player advocacy groups are, what they do, and look at some of the criticisms of them.
The way player advocacy groups work is that Jagex identifies an area of the game that could especially benefit from concentrated player feedback. In other words, Jagex sets a goal for the group. The next step is to find a leader of a group, also known as a champion. Each PAG will have a champion that is in charge of recruiting his/her team. After Jagex announces a goal or identifies an area of the game that would benefit from a PAG they then set out to find a champion with experience in this area. The next step is for the PAG and Jagex to form a charter outlining the goals and expectations of the group. Members of the group are also required to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and no one except for the champion receives any compensation for their work.
After that, Jagex announces the formation of the PAG and what they are focusing on. Now it is time for the PAG to go to work identifying problems and coming up with solutions. At the end of the process, it is all wrapped up with a retrospective on what was done and how effective it was. All of this sounds great, right? I mean, who would have a problem with players getting a seat at the table right? Well, not so fast, some players have voiced legitimate concerns and the whole concept gets murky when you dive deeper.
Let's begin by talking about one of the most common criticisms that I hear from people in the gaming industry. Their problem with PAGs is that they don't believe players should have any input or influence over a game in general. These people tend to be professionals in the industry that have worked hard and studied design and development. It probably feels like it minimizes their knowledge and hard work when a company utilizes so much feedback from players who don't have a background in design. In other words, they think it should be left to the professionals. These critics also seem to have a problem with players having inside information, even if it is protected by an NDA.
While I understand these concerns I would encourage those who feel this way to think of this example. If you're having a house built the architect knows how to design a home. He knows where to place things to make the most sense. He knows all of the zoning laws and most importantly he knows why things should go in specific places. All of this is his expertise, however, the homeowner is perfectly within his rights to say he would like an open floor plan. The homeowner can say I would like to have my study close to the bedroom. It's through a process of working together that the result reaches its fullest potential and makes everyone happy. It's the same thing when it comes to gaming. While the developers at Jagex are experts at what they do and can tell us why or why not an idea would work it is also true that the players know how they want to experience the game and there is value in that. Hopefully, by bringing the expertise of the developers, and the actual in-game experience of the players, we will get a better product in the end.
Another big criticism is that Jagex is exploiting its player base for something they should be paying a professional to do. This is a criticism that I am especially sensitive to. I am always on the lookout for companies who might be exploiting their workers or customer base. I have no love for corporations that do things like that, but with that being said, the way that it works for the PAGs is that the champion does receive compensation for their work. The members of the champions group do not. Therein lies the dilemma, should the rank-and-file member of the PAG receive compensation? This is a good question. People should be compensated for their work and time. Even if that compensation comes in the form of membership benefits or company swag, they should receive more than a pat on the back and an 'ataboy!'.
Jagex is straddling a line here by paying the champion but not his team. The idea of compensating someone for doing something that they would most likely do anyway for free is hard for a company to swallow, but in this case, that is exactly what should happen. The champion should be financially compensated and his team should be compensated as well with membership and merchandise. This would make it a win-win. This would at least acknowledge the work that was put in by the other team members and look less exploitative.
Lastly, the criticism that many players have latched onto is the elitist make up of the PAGs. At this point, we don't know much about how a champion is picked. The first champion we saw was The RS Guy who is a very successful streamer on twitch. His PAG was focused on ninja updates and he filled the group with elite PVMers, skillers, and achievement hunters. This was what was expected from the community when PAGs were first announced. Part of the community's fear was that it would be the most elite of the community who participated and provided feedback versus having a more diverse PAG. On one hand, you want accomplished players with extensive game knowledge to be the people that are providing the feedback. The question becomes how do you do that and ensure the PAG benefits from players with diverse backgrounds?
Letting the champion pick his team is good in some instances, however, it is only natural for that person to draw from the people and communities around them which could have an echo chamber effect on the PAG. Not to mention there is increasing concern that Jagex will exclusively use their biggest social media influencers, streamers, etc., to be picked as champions. The truth is that we simply don't know how valid this criticism is going to turn out to be. At this point, there has only been one PAG and its focus was on ninja updates. It makes sense to use The RS Guy and his impressive team to work on ninja updates. That makes sense, but what remains to be seen is if this will be the trend going forward or if Jagex will tap other players from other backgrounds. For example, let's say Jagex wanted to find out how to make RuneScape a more accessible game for people with disabilities, will they tap a streamer because of their audience or will they look for someone who has some kind of expertise or experience either with navigating RuneScape while having disabilities or a background in accessible gaming? This is the big question for me and only time will tell.
PAGs are Jagex's latest attempt at soliciting meaningful feedback from its players. We have been down this road before with power to the player, the year of the player, Rune Labs, and more polls than you can shake a stick at. Hopefully this time they have struck the right balance between knowledgeable and insightful player feedback and the hard realities of game design. There is no doubt that there are areas of the game that can greatly benefit from something like this. It is also a fact that the company would not be able to afford to hire special consultants for niche aspects of the game and that is perhaps the PAG's greatest strength. PAGs can perform that task with minimal cost to Jagex and players get a real sense of buy-in with updates going forward. The criticism and concerns are legitimate, however, until we see another PAG it's hard to tell which direction PAGs will go. Will they stick with their content creators and streamers or will they widen the net and solicit the bolt of knowledge that exists in the general player base as a whole? While we may not want to design by committee, feedback by committee is very useful. Hopefully, we will find out more about this in the months to come. Then again there is no guarantee that this will last and that Jagex is getting what they had hoped out of them. Until next time, Happy RuneScaping.