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Archive for August 7th, 2009

Erwin Schroedinger may or may not have liked cats.  Considering his famous thought experiment, one might detect a bit of antipathy towards the critters, as he willingly thought of them in mortal peril, but then, we don’t really know until we open the box and find out.

Do we really know what Star Wars: The Old Republic will be like?  Do we really know what the next Final Fantasy will be like?  Do we know what the next blockbuster game will be that shapes the game industry?

The future is in a bit of a quantum uncertainty state, especially considering the economic stresses and a lot of shadow play behind the financial scenes.  The game industry as a whole is juggling concerns of used games, digital sales, DRM, legal wrangles, censorship, business models and economic viability, and a butterfly over in the Federal Reserve can create storms for the industry at large.

Each individual game that we don’t know about can be said to be in a similar state.  Until each one of us takes a long, hard look and observe something, can we really be sure what it is?  Perhaps most importantly, do we know what it is for us?  Observation and objectivity are kissing cousins, but in the absence of omniscience, all we have is a set of probabilities and guesstimates, measurements of trust and “weighing the options”.  Numbered “reviews” are just one shallow, biased tip of the informational iceberg that constitutes an informed purchase.

For example, I love the Valkyrie Profile games.  I played the original on a whim, since it was developed by Tri Ace, the guys behind Star Ocean: The Second Story.  (A game I picked up on sale and counted myself lucky to have done so.  It’s a great game.)  I picked up the second Valkyrie Profile (Silmeria) a year or two ago, and have enjoyed it as well.  Prowling around Goozex, I happened to notice a third game in the series, a tangential Tactical RPG for the Nintendo DS.  Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume looked interesting, since I’ve been enamored with Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre of late, so I put in a request for it, and wandered over to GameFAQS to check out the reviews and comments on the game.

It doesn’t have a lot of press exposure (a perpetual problem with the VP series), so there are just a handful of reviews.  They tend to fall into two camps, not unlike Schroedinger’s superimposed cat.  Reviewers tend to either really like the game or really dislike it.  There’s another divisive set of opinions, and it’s curious to me that they don’t perfectly intersect with the “like/dislike” split.  Some reviewers think the game is abusively hard, while others think it’s too easy.  There are very few opinions in the middle.  Some like hard tactics games, but think CotP is too easy, so they rate it poorly.  Some like easy games, but think it’s hard, so they rate it poorly.  Some like hard games and see it as hard, so they like it, and some like easy games and see it as easy, so they like it.

It’s actually a lot like genetics, with a Punnet square mapping out the probabilities of player response to the game across the two axes:  Like vs. Dislike, Hard vs. Easy.  Any given player will have their own phenotypical reaction to the game that can only be experienced firsthand, and is entirely dependent on the player.

I find this sort of review set to be more useful than a universally hailed game that nearly everyone drools over.  The smaller sample and clear delineation of opinions is more useful to me in determining my possible reaction to the game than a few hundred mini reviews worshipping something like GTA3, which I hold only in contempt (due to the subject matter rather than the structure).  Of course, clear writing and explanation of why those scores are what they are is a huge help.

At any rate, even though there is a nice set of quantum probabilities for CotP, and I had a fairly good bead on where I’d sit in the Punnet square, I still had to observe firsthand what the game held before I could really know for myself what my response would be.  I found myself looking forward to what I thought the game would be, and hoping for certain specifics.  The game was in a state of quantum flux, or at least, my observation of the game was in a state of flux.  I was cautiously excited and optimistic.

Sometimes, this is the best part of gaming.

It’s interesting to me that sometimes I like that period of anticipation and imagination better than the experience of actually playing a game.  It’s certain that I have more control over my perceptions at that point, and the game is more a product of my imagination than the developers’ work.  It can be everything I dreamed it to be and more.

This is not coincidentally how game development works as well.  Devs have great ideas about what they want to do, and it’s only as the project moves on through time that the quantum states settle down… sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.  This is why the concept stage of a project can be far more exciting than the production phase.

Hype machines, like that built around SWTOR, are the game equivalent of a flux capacitor, framing the experience in such a way that people can superimpose their own wishes and aspirations on the game and get excited about it.  Even though no two people will have the same genotype, they can still get excited about what the game might be when that box is opened.  Good hype magnifies the flux, letting players rush ahead with their own imagination.  Great hype keeps the capacitor from overloading by injecting just enough stabilizing reality to keep expectations within the reach of the developers, or at least within a few percent of reality.

Of course, with all of this, reality doesn’t always comply.  It’s wise to temper expectations, since reality doesn’t usually measure up to our wishes.  This is why sometimes the heady rush of “what might be” is more exciting and fun than the mundane realizations about “how things really are“.

This is why I love being a creative sort of person.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the “what if” and “if only” aspects of life.  Then I go out and create, making imagination into reality.  It’s a nice mix of dreaming and work that I find very satisfying.

This is also why I keep wishing that games would allow players to control more things about the game, making more choices with consequences that reflect the player’s actions, rather than their reactions to dev-imposed ideas.  The reality of a tightly scripted game on rails doesn’t mesh well with the freeform expectations of many players who succumb to the hype machine.  If a game is designed to give players control and mold the game’s reality into something more closely approximating the players’ dreams, it has a chance of forging a deeper connection with the player.

Not all games can work like that, but I think that the best games will try to give players as much control as possible.  It’s why storytelling in games is more about how the player acts and reacts, and less about what the devs created.  It’s one thing to “play” through a barely interactive movie, it’s quite another to mold a game world to your whim.  (And notably, even in something like FFX or FFXII, players are given significant control over how their characters develop.  That is no mistake or coincidence, and without that control, the games would be significantly weaker as games, and may as well have been movies like Final Fantasy: Advent Children.  It’s a different sort of storytelling.  Both are certainly valid and valuable, but will scratch different itches.)

We may not be able to hold on to that “what if” Schroedinger dream state as we go through life, but the more power we have to make the most of what reality does come our way, the happier we are likely to be.  That usually just means controlling ourselves in the real world, and our reactions to events.  In games, though, where “what if” is a key component of how games work and how the narratives function, players can have extraordinary power.  It is a blessing and a curse of games, part of their unique potential and power, and it needs to be exercised carefully.

*Addendum*  I wrote this in bits and pieces, and since starting it, writing about Role Playing has rippled through those blogs that I frequent.  Wolfshead has a great article up, and Psychochild wrote another great one earlier, and even the Rampant Coyote chimes in, each linking to other ones worth reading.  This is tangential to those concerns, but some of the themes of Role Playing intersect neatly with the ideas here espoused.  Namely, player imagination and power to change the world, since those tend to be huge tools for the player interested in playing a Role within one of these MMO worlds.

I’ve actually always thought that would be the draw of these games, to be able to assume a new identity within a completely fictional world, taking part in and changing things aggording to those “what if” questions.  The reality to date has been somewhat… different, and ultimately, underwhelming in my eyes.  I’m actually not all that disappointed, since such design might have the potential to be even more distracting from the real world, and the current generation of these games is plenty deleterious as is.  Still, current MMO design is so underwhelming compared to what I imagined for the genre years ago (reading ads for Ultima Online) that I can’t help but just be less than interested in playing them much.  Designing them, now… that’s another thing entirely.

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