Wednesday, January 11, 2006

It's just a game, stupid...

If I had a penny for every time I've heard that... well, I'd have a pile of pennies I guess.

"It's just a game!"

From a certain persective, yes, online gaming is 'just' a game. Little Jimmy is sat in front of the family TV with his console reaching meltdown as he gets to the boss levels of SupaWackaMoleDeathNinjaWars III and mum wants to watch her fave soap.

For her, it's just a game, but to LJ, well, it's time out of time. Time 'in the zone'. He IS that NerfWrangler on screen trying to sap the goojas out of the big bad fella before his own punchbowl of karmic energy is drained and he has to reload back to the last saved position...

So, is it 'just' a game? Or is LJ learning as he plays? Well, if he's watching his energy pool and using the best attacks he's learning about resource management and getting the best return on his investment. He's also learning about strategy and tactics. OK, so it's a simplified strategy and he has limited options for tactics, but within those constraints he's learned what works and what doesn't work.

But what about when it DOESN'T work? LJ is goingto get tamping mad at himself for failing and at the game for being 'broke'. Come on, we've all done it! Taken on that high end MoB knowing that we've not prepared as best we could but we'll give it a shot... and then found ourselves in gaming limbo while our character is shunted to whatever restart point the designers implemented in whichever game we're in.

We might initially be annoyed that we died, perhaps there was XP loss or item decay (both, imho, valid ways for game designers telling you that you're doing it wrong and you need to rethink your strategy/attitude/place in the world) or we're subjected to the sanction/punishment of a corpse run (imho a tedious way for the game designer to extract punishment over time on players that keep getting it wrong.... and deterring the brute force methood of advancement ;) )

But we take it on the chin, laugh off our losses and go back and try again, or go prepare better and try again another time. We might even tell our ingame friends that it was 'fun' getting asshatted by that brute boss but hey, we'll get him next time, eh? Yup, you can even get bragging rights for failing, and why not?

But what if there's a badly designed level, or more simply put, some shitty code that results in you failing even when all the circumstances are stacked so that , with a little skill and effort, you really ought to have won?

Well heck you throw a total tantrum, joysticks get tossed out of windows, DVDs are frisbeed across the room and the whole house knows that something's gone wrong... well, they do in my house ;)

"But, it's just a game...." Come here and say that and I'll rip you a new one...

OK, time for a pretty picture...

In this model Anticipation is the experience the player has before begining the game/level where he is looking forward to gaining a particular reward. This might be the 'loot' drop that the level gives or it might be the advancement in level and concomitant rewards that that brings, including self affirmation and peer recognition.

Expectation is a modifier of anticipation and is a recognition within the player of the likelyhood of his attaining a successful outcome and thus satisfying the 'win' conditions of Anticipation.

Now there are two possible outcomes. Reward or Failure. If the player is successful and completes the level he progresses down the Reward leg of the diagram, obtains all the rewards (both ingame and personal), experiences a sense of gratification and views the level, and thus the game, the game designers, their employers, their shareholders, etc in a more positive light.

OK, maybe that's going a bit far, but he'll definitely be looking at the game positively and will start the next level, or return to the game later anticipating even greater things...

OK, failure. So he gets it wrong, crashes and dies. But he expected to win. He'd got the uber armour and the mega buffs and even, for once, read the manual and worked out the ultimate tactic... he'd done everything you, the developer, asked of him and still bombed.

Or worse... he did all the above and the game didn't drop the reward, or he got to the dungeon and it didn't load, or the MoB was off on a toilet break. Whatever circumstance prevailed, something other than his own preparations took a dive in the third and let LJ down.

His anticipation/expectation turns into frustration. The greater the expectation the bigger the disappointment. And, in turn that frustration turns to anger which can be expressed in a number of ways. Kicking the cat*, throwing his toys out of the pram, or getting on the games official forums and writing up a flame storm.

One thing's for sure, unless we can find a way to prevent the problem happening again his opinion of the game, the developers, their employers, etc, is going to go down the toilet.

So, like your grandma used to tell me, An Ounce Of Prevention Is Better Than A Pound Of Cure. Before the game, to the patch, or the level, gets out of dev hands and into the sticky paws of Joe Public, it must be tested to destruction over and over again.

Test it internally, but not just on the 16gajillion terrabyte development machines that are running the server code and the client code simultaneously but on a bottom to mid-range consumer machine (yah know, the kind that LJ would have got for Christmas down at the MegaLoMart...) connecting over a dial up connection or a slow cable connection...

Then get it playtested, not just by other devs who are going to be more interested in critiquing your coding than anything else, but by 'ordinary' grunt players. Believe it or not, if you want a consumer perspective you do have to speak to the consumer sometimes.

And if a bug is found, make sure that the publish doens't go Live until it's fixed. Again, like your grandma used to tell me, It Takes Ten Good Words to Fix One Bad One. You let that bad code out there you have a bunch of disatisfied players. You've got a situationthat needs fixing that you could have done without. Fixing that problem is going to take time and money away from the rest of the development budget that could have been used on making the next glamourous geegaw even more spectacular. But naw, now it's being used to fix the plumbing...

OK OK, so sometimes a bug will get through. It's got to happen. It's in the nature of buggy code to get out there and make you look dumb. So the next step has to be to get a patch out to repair the damage, and again tha tpatch must be checked and rechecked to make sure it's not going to make things worse.

LJ is still waiting to hump that bad beasty and get his golden swaggle of splod, y'know.

And the longer he is kept waiting, the less +ve he's viewing you, your company, their shareholders...

but hey, it's just a game ;)

*The writer doe not condone the kicking of cats and in no way intends to encourage it by the use of this comment

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