I've learned a lot running this business. Many lessons, most of them learned painfully. And I have gained no more aggravating bit of knowledge than this one:
There is no change you can make to your games, no matter how clearly obvious or beneficial, that will not anger some of your fans.
And a brief corollary:
If the change doesn't make someone angry, it didn't matter.
A Visual Example
My first game, Exile, released in January, 1995, looked something like this:
(Actually, Exile v1.0 had charming creature graphics drawn by my ex-wife and horrible button and interface graphics drawn by me. But it was about the same.)
Our newest game, Geneforge 5: Overthrow, looks like this:
As you can see, I have changed just about everything. Repeatedly. Graphics. Style. Interface. And the game system underneath. Everything has been redone, and, as I learned more, redone again. And while not all of the changes have been beneficial (and were then re-changed in later games), the process has been one of evolution toward betterness.
And every change earned me angry e-mails and lost customers. I've gotten more, "Why have you forsaken me? I am lost to you forever." E-mails from customers than I could ever count. It's a depressing thing to happen when you've been really busting your butt and your budget to bring about improvements. But you have to live with it. You just have to steel yourself and always remember this:
People hate change.
Case Studies From My Own Experience
Here are some hugely beneficial (and profitable) changes I made which earned me fury and lost customers.
- Switch From A Flat View to a 3-D Isometric View - My first games were completely flat, as seen in the first illustration. I switched to a far, far nicer pseudo 3-D isometric view in 1998. It looks better, and it enables me to do more things with the game. (Like elevations.) But, over a decade later, I STILL get complaints about it. Lost souls, out in the wilderness, wanting me to return to a design I got completely fed up with in a previous century.
- Switch From Hand-Drawn To Rendered Graphics - Oh, wow. There are a lot of people still angry about this change, made in Avernum 4 in 2005. My old graphics were hand-drawn instead of rendered, which made any sort of animation extremely painstaking and expensive. Using 3-D models to render creatures and terrain enables me to have a wider variety of much nicer icons without crushing my budget. But it changed the look of the games that people were used to, and a lot of customers never forgave me for it.
- Removing the Need to Identify Magic Items - A smaller but highly instructive example. Once, when you got a magic item in one of my RPGs, you had to take it to a sage to get it identified. This was busy work, confused new players, diluted the excitement of collecting lewtz, and just wasn't fun. Dropping it was a total no-brainer. And yet people complained. Why? Oh, why?
- Removed the Need to Carry Around Ammunition For Bows - This is a recent change, part of my desire to eliminate busywork. When you shoot a bow, you just shoot it. You don't need to shop for arrows. I can see why this would break immersion for people, but it seems a neutral change at worst. Not worth the angry complaints I've gotten.
And I should point out one more thing. if someone doesn't like a change, well, you can't win an argument with a customer. If they don't like it, that's their right. They'll have to find their bliss somewhere else. It is your job to make sure that your changes bring in customers to replace the ones you lose.
So What Should I, a Game Developer, Do?
Forewarned is forearmed. You can't do anything about this phenomenon, but you should steel yourself for it so you don't suffer shock, self-doubt, and potentially catastrophic second guessing.
Be sure the changes you make are worthwhile. Be sure that your community of fans is warned about them, so that the culture shock is lessened. Be apologetic but firm to the people that complain about improvements. And be confident. Remember, evolution is necessary. Making the same people happy forever is a surefire route to stagnation and burnout.
One More Thing, For Those Who Are Angry At Me Changing Things
Despite what some people think, I am constitutionally incapable of writing the same game again and again. Writing more than three games without major changes in the engine or system or setting would drive me out of my mind. I need to change the system so that I can open up new design spaces. I need to change the graphics so I don't go loopy staring at the same icons day after day.
There are some people out there who claim they would be honestly happy if I just rewrote Exile, again and again, year after year. But I can't do that. Nobody can. You should always be looking for ways to evolve your work. It'll keep you from going crazy.