Mysterious Motivations of Players

Are players that hard to understand?  Two talks at this year's Game Developer's Conference, given by directors of high profile online games, suggest that we are still a mystery to people who spend tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars making products to sell to us. 
  • Former Diablo III director Jay Wilson stated that Blizzard dramatically underestimated how many players would use the game's auction house feature, how frequently they would use that feature, and what impact this would have on the game's gear incentive curve.  As Wilhelm notes, the game's loot table generally drops random junk under your level, while the auction houses allow players to get optimized loot for their level (the junk gets vendored) for affordable quantities of in-game gold (or cash if you're really so inclined). 
  • Bioware's Creative Director on SWTOR James Ohlen indicated that they dramatically underestimated the speed with which players would consume content multiple times over.  He claims this crucial misjudgement led them to feel that they had more time work on endgame content than they had in reality.  The team was not prepared for the possibility of half a million players at endgame within the first month.  
I can understand when bugs/exploits or poorly thought design choices creep through the testing process.  The crowdsourced efforts of hundreds of thousands of players will inevitably find something that internal quality assurance could not, no matter how much time you have.  It's a bit harder to understand why, eight and a half years into the World of Warcraft era, developers are still underestimating player dedication in this way. 

The reality is we do exactly what the incentives tell us to do.  If grinding out gear is long and tedious and there is a way to skip to the end - Blizzard's motivation for the real money auction house in the first place was recognizing that this would occur and thinking it would be better to cut out the illicit middleman - players will go that route.  If the single biggest selling point of your product is the story, and the only way to get the next chapter of the story is to continue playing, players will continue to play (in the same way you might stay up all night watching a full season of a TV show or reading a good book). 

Perhaps the real failing in both designs is that the primary incentive - chasing gear or story - is so inherently limited in terms of time.  Once that time has run out, players apparently did not feel that the underlying game was worth continuing.  As we've learned time and time again, incentives are very effective at changing player behavior, especially in the short term, but they are very ineffective in changing player preferences in the long term.