Communication: The Key to an Industry’s Future

By Josh Snyder

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With Destiny being released in beta form, developer Bungie is asking gamers to talk to them – but what response will they get?

A recent series of articles published here on Theory of Gaming elicited a strong response from the very readers we aim to reach out to – developers. It all began with a two-part series on the idea of episodic gaming, and culminated in two some-what controversial evaluations of two beloved video games, A Link to the Past and Super Mario World. These essays also led to our very first episode of our bi-weekly podcast to feature a real-life developer as a guest. When it was all said and done, I had one strong takeaway from the experience – why doesn’t this happen more often?

Discussing video games beyond simple fanboy bickering is crucial to understanding the medium as a whole. We all play different games, and we even play the same games differently. Our takeaways from these interactive stories are framed by our own personal experiences, and in some instances the narrative can even change depending on what the player is feeling in that particular moment. Feeling calm and relaxed might mean the player goes the stealthy, non-lethal route in Dishonored, choosing to restore order and balance to the world. But a bad day at the office, and suddenly the fictional world of Dunwall suffers.

But as I pondered the words many kind developers left for us after our recent string of thought-provoking essays, I wondered how the medium would change if these conversations took place more frequently, or at the least, if they involved much less trolling and cursing. The medium is starting to see some evidence of what this looks like, for better and for worse. There are issues lingering on the horizon that signal to me that, some day, if this avenue of discussion is not kept open, everyone could pay dearly.

Why Speak At All?

As I prepped to record our podcast with Michael Andreen, I found myself wondering – why are we doing this? Why is communicating to developers so important? After all, it is the very basis for Theory of Gaming – passionate gamers discussing the medium in a constructive way so developers have some sound feedback to work off of. But looking at other mediums, it quickly becomes clear that this is a phenomenon unique to video games. Movies are made in the far off magical land of Hollywood, and the only impact an audience has is if they are part of the secretive process known as focus group testing. Despite low critical scores and plenty of hate from fans online, director Michael Bay just released his fourth Transformers film. Perhaps even more egregious is the fact that the semi-funny comedy The Hangover spawned not one, but two sequels. Clearly, Hollywood cares little of what the average filmgoer thinks, or more likely, the average filmgoer care little to share their opinions with Hollywood.

The same can be said for the music industry – often, pop music is made in factory-like conditions, where the popstar themselves has little input into music or lyrics. Professional songwriters are brought in, a song is made in a sterile laboratory, and it’s pitched to anyone from Rihanna to Katy Perry. Whoever bites first gets the exclusive rights to perform that song in front of sold out audiences across the world. The music often takes a back seat to the show, and both musicians and their fans know it. It’s all about presentation of an idea.

So what makes video games so unique? If other mediums can be successful without this conversation, why are we having it? The answer lies in the unique origins of the industry. A keen reader will notice that my film and music examples only cover what is widely considered pop culture. Big-budget Hollywood spectacles and Top 40 music appeal to a wide-range of demographics – therefore, the conversation doesn’t need to exist. But as a fan of Scandinavian Black Metal, I can attest that, at the niche level, the conversation does matter. A recent poll making the rounds on heavy metal sites lists the three powerhouse metal countries of Scandinavia – Finland, Norway and Sweden, and asks the reader – which country produces the best heavy metal?

“This isn’t even a question,” I muttered to my wife, who was eager to hear my response. “Sweden owns the competition.”

The look on her face when I said Sweden, or more specifically, when I did not say Finland, was enough to let me know I stepped in it. The mere fact that I am alive today to share this story is a miracle.

But the point is that, the more niche something is, the more vocal supporters of that thing feel they have to be, both as a way to justify their love, and also as a way to stand out in a crowd. Afterall, when the crowd is small, their collective voice needs to be louder to break through against the bigger crowds.

Which brings us back to the very beginnings of the video game industry, an industry still in its infancy when compared to film and music. Video games were initially seen as toys for kids, not something a respectable adult spends time playing. But as those of us who owned a NES grew old enough to own a PS2, we found ourselves constantly defending our choice of hobby, despite the fact that the video game industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Video games grew exponentially in popularity, yet somehow never lost their niche status.

As gamers, we feel a duty to communicate directly with the people who make these wonderful games. Admittedly, most of the conversations are one-sided and immature, as is as the case whenever gamers lash out at Electronic Arts or Activision. But a couple recent examples show that the dynamics are shifting in a way that, on the surface, appears to be for the better.

Screaming in a Vacuum

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Considering the many missteps of its predecessor, it’s great to hear that the developers working on Far Cry 4 have listened to the feedback.

As with many fans of the Halo franchise, I am eagerly awaiting the latest from developer Bungie Inc., the pseudo-MMO, first-person shooter Destiny. Set in an entirely new world, created specifically for gamers to explore, Destiny seems to be the product of decades of development experience from one of the most talented teams in the industry.

One of those talents is sound design. The score from the Halo franchise is iconic, the gravelly sound of Master Chief’s voice is unmistakable. The thundering boom of an exploding Wraith, the stinging zip of a sniper’s bullet finding its target. Even the announcer for multiplayer games has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet somehow, with their latest game (which is estimated to be costing publisher Activision $500 million to produce and advertise), Bungie let this happen.

That is Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, a man who has obvious talent as a voice actor, disinterestedly spitting out unimpressive dialog such as: “That Wizard came from the Moon.”

To no one’s surprise, fans immediately took to forums to voice their dismay that one of the most important characters in Destiny sounds about as uninterested as someone forced to commentate on the speed at which grass grows. Even Bungie was all too eager to admit that the results were less than stellar. Dinklage’s character, Ghost, is the player’s companion – he is with you every step of your journey. And to hear his utter indifference of the lines he’s been paid to read stands to instantly remove gamers from the moment, a crucial error on Bungie’s part since the point of the game was to build an atmosphere designed around immersion.

Fortunately, Bungie listened. As I write this, a beta build of the game is up for players to download and try out, complete with reworked audio. To further ease any concerns, Bungie has clarified that the voice acting will be updated at least once more before the game officially launches.

It might not seem like such a big deal, but before the seventh generation, gamers would have been stuck with this wooden voice acting. With so much money riding on the project, it seems likely that a few fans complaining about the quality of said voice acting would be a low priority, but the industry has changed; feedback like this can now be incorporated into the game before it launches.

Destiny isn’t alone – another high-profile release has seen the tone of its content altered because of vocal fans. Much to the surprise and joy of many, script writer C.J. Kershner recently reiterated that Far Cry 4 will be an entirely different game than its predecessor – the player character isn’t going to be another “white savior in a foreign land,” instead opting for a player character whose identity is tied to the game world. The article can be summed up perfectly with one quote from Kershner: “We don’t create our games in a vacuum.”

Asking Too Much

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Pistons were never meant to be a part of Minecraft, until gamers essentially forced their addition.

In my essay on episodic gaming, I discussed the idea that gamers could have an impact on a game as it is being developed, in a positive way. My thought process was that, if an element gamers found troublesome presented itself in episode one, it could be remedied by episode two or three, instead of affecting the entire game.

What I failed to realize when I wrote that essay is there are plenty of developers out there who agree with me, but the direction they took was not to make episodic games, as I envisioned. Instead, gamers must now learn how to navigate a new wrinkle in the world of interactive entertainment – early access.

Unknowingly, I was party to the most successful implementation of early access yet – I was an early adopter of the hit sandbox game, Minecraft. It has been well documented that when the game first rose in popularity, it was not yet complete. In fact, I had personally been playing the game for a full year before version 1.0 was launched, and I was not alone. During that time, I saw fans change the way the game played (the most obvious was the inclusion of pistons, which originated as a user-created mod). Today, thanks to programs such as Steam Early Access, developers can release unfinished games while asking gamers to pay full price for them; the tradeoff being that gamers can provide feedback on the game, and potentially shape the way the final product looks.

This, of course, has been met with mixed results. For some gamers, it provides them the chance to change gameplay elements that might take the game from being OK to great. For others, early access is a slippery slope, one that will lead to an industry in which nothing is released as a finished product; unless enough people devote their own time to being volunteer quality assurance, no game will ever see the light of day.

How will early access impact the industry? It’s hard to say – chances are it will stick around once it finds a home in a genre that is best suited for such a system of feedback. But regardless of impact, one thing is clear – developers and gamers are talking more than ever before, and at least one side is taking the conversation seriously, which is a great thing. Whether gamers realize it or not, rumors about the possible future of video game development could be drastically altered if this line of communication is not open – if developers do not have the insight into how gamers approach and experience the medium, and if gamers are unwilling to convey this information to them, the way we purchase games could be forever altered in a way that benefits business instead of the consumer.

The Bane of Pre-Order Exclusives

GameStop is a company desperately in need of help. All signs point to an industry that can easily be sustained without brick and mortar stores, and with plenty of other online options available, GameStop needs to give gamers a reason to visit them first for all of their video game needs.

Pre-order exclusives, content that you can only acquire if you pre-order a game at a specific retailer, are nothing new. Get a unique skin for your character at Best Buy; at Target get a unique weapon you’ll most likely never use. These are small incentives retailers use to get gamers to buy a game at their store. Wisely on the part of developers and publishers, these items rarely alter the game in a meaningful way – if they did, they would fragment a game’s population, which could be disastrous if the game relies on any form of online multiplayer.

Yet, rumor has it, GameStop has tried inserting themselves into the development of big games in an effort to ensure they can offer exclusives to incentivise consumers to purchase from them . How would this look, exactly? One analyst said that GameStop could, in theory, make specific gameplay a pre-order bonus. Not a level, a skin or a gun – gameplay. Of course, GameStop quickly backed off on those comments, insisting that they would never interfere with the creative process. But once an idea has been proposed, it’s likely only a matter of time before someone tries it.

Gamers rarely, if ever, get to have meaningful conversations with publishers, the people who fund games and pay developers. But you know who does get to speak to publishers? Developers. They are the ones who can easily relate to a publisher that, sorry, getting GameStop into the studio to see if certain gameplay could be “enhanced” by making it a pre-order bonus would not go over well with the gaming public.

But how are they going to know what to say? Developers are talented, intelligent individuals – it stands to reason that they know GameStop interfering at any point in development is a bad idea. But after listening to the feedback developers were providing us on our most recent essays, it became clear that we each see a different side to this puzzle, and we need both inputs to make it complete. Without one, the other is doomed to fail – games will be produced by developers which will be targeted toward no one in particular, and developers will never have the opportunity to learn why that is the case.

Speaking the Truth

The video game industry enjoys the benefits of being wildly successful, yet it still carries the baggage of being a niche hobby. Because of this, gamers and developers are at the perfect place to communicate and make an impact on both aspects – the development and the final product. This avenue must remain open, even if early access proves to be a bust, if only to avoid a future in which you can play the multiplayer for the next Call of Duty, but only if you pre-order at GameStop.

Gamers must continue to provide constructive feedback and move beyond the pedantic fanboy-isms, while developers must continue to listen and act accordingly. It’s not a matter of should we, but instead, a matter of how often.