What An Odd Sort of Day…
I would describe myself as a casual sort of gamer. Not casual as in I only have experience of FarmVille, Peggle and Cluedo, but casual as in I’ve played a number of exceptional titles, but do not game on a particularly regular basis. I suspect that I would play a good deal more, but currently owning an Apple Mac, I don’t really have the extensive pick of indie Steam titles at my leisure that I’d like. Both board and computer gaming, however, present an immensely powerful medium for immersive entertainment, from which I have learned a great deal.
Gaming and game design is especially interesting to me because I write music. I find that creating music and designing games have many common challenges, and it’s a fun thought exercise to consider how one might solve similar problems in both areas. What do you want the receiver (listener or player) to feel? How is this portion of the work coming across? Does my design successfully lead the receiver from one realm to another without feeling jarring? Does what I’m presenting make adequate sense?
I may write music that is considered by some to be fairly avant-garde, and I don’t expect that every listener will find it to be their favourite thing, but I always hope that it makes a certain degree of sense. That even if it’s not your thing, you can get that there’s a certain kinda logic off of which everything hangs. It’s my personal thought that a lot of the problems ‘contemporary’ music has had with audiences over the last however many years can be attributed to the fact composers were not so concerned by the thought their music would be heard by human beings. Algorithmically dictated note groups and chords, rigid overarching structures that look beautiful on the page – a lot of compositional devices that weren’t greatly concerned by the thought ‘what reaction is this going to produce in a human listener?’
What makes game design so appealing to me is that the emotive reaction elicited from a player is accepted as a key component to effective design. Largely because the player plays such an active role – because they must make the choice to play and to continue to do so. In music, there is, arguably, only one choice as a listener/audience member – to listen and enjoy/not enjoy/feel ambivalent, or to not. You might be able to get away with a boring 30 seconds, if your listener’s patience will extend that far. It’s not like listeners will just happily sit through boring music (at least not in the comfort of their own homes, in concert you might only be able to escape at interval), but sometimes its easier to just wait and see. In gaming, the art form is constructed from the player’s choices. As such, engagement has a high priority, because there is no option to just go along with it until a good bit comes along. Obviously, this does depend on the game somewhat, and interactivity comes in various doses, but generally speaking, if the player’s engagement ends, so does the game. No chance for redemption in that exciting bit in two minutes, as your listener decides to scroll through Facebook whilst this verse wraps up. Game makers are very concerned by how their game will make players feel, because the very existence of their product depends on how their players respond to it.
That’s not to say players won’t try and pummel through even if they’re not having a good time. You don’t necessarily need to be having fun to be engaged, and having invested time, energy and money so far, players will often want to give things their best shot. It’s also important to be fair to the designers – something really cool was promised to happen later on, so maybe I’ll stick around and see if it turns up.
This is why, in music and games, ‘receiver’ testing is hilariously useful. Sure thing, it’s important to try and test things on yourself for starters. Is the timing/pacing what I’m after? What would I think when I got to this point – is it the effect I want? Of course, there’s the ever present problem of closeness for any creator – you know what you’re doing. There aren’t any surprises. You have an assumed idea of what an unattached person might think of your product, based on certain lines of reasoning, but you won’t be feeling it yourself. What’s exciting for your audience may be old news to you.
So, I turn up with my partner at Watch The Skies!: Global Conspiracy with the expectation of…well…there’s the thing. I don’t really know! I’ve read the rule book and documents sent to us regarding our roles in one of the media teams, but they’re fairly vague, and I don’t find a great deal to be excited about in the rules. Not in a bad way – just knowing that it’s mainly a case of do what you like, and the excitement will happen in the game. It will come from the interesting people you talk to and the story as it emerges. Unless I have a solid sense of what I’m going to get at a live event, I rarely get excited. I’ll be excited when I’m presented with what I should be excited about.
There was one rule/suggestion that had occurred to me as curious, however. It was a suggestion that if you own a laptop, you’d do best to bring it, as having more than one laptop per rival media team would be advantageous. My partner in crime Laurence Kirkby had pleaded with me to bring my laptop, but I’d refused – it’s a bit old by now, fragile and hilariously expensive to replace. Plus, I thought to myself, this is something that must be accounted for within the game. Sure, maybe more equipment would be useful, but the game must have been designed to compensate somehow, so its not crippling if you don’t have a spare laptop. I didn’t think about it much – it had been made clear that we’d be given more briefing on the day, so I assumed it wouldn’t be a problem.
As it was going to turn out, I’m not entirely sure any current technology besides twitter (which some people did have) or highly advanced speech to physical print technology (which does not currently exist) could have aided the situation. We arrive, and our table had been set up with a laptop that did not work and a printer to which it had not yet been connected. Did anyone think this through?
It takes a sizeable portion of time to get equipment replaced and software installed, by which time the game has begun and we’ve not been able to take part yet. I won’t try and give a run down of everything that happened, partly because my partner’s done an admirably awesome job at that in his article, but mostly because I do not remember. Not really. I mean, it was great fun talking with/interviewing other players – people were fun, friendly, imaginative, engaged…great! I love talking to lovely people. But there was just so much information and so little time to process it all, I just got the vague sense of a giant plot with lots of countries, confusion and some aliens we all knew were coming. The biggest problem for me was that it was apparent that the new player role of ‘media’, as it was, hadn’t had the most basic technical aspects addressed, and neither had my player engagement been fully considered. As it was, the role was find. Type. Print. Repeat. Or don’t.
First of all, nuts and bolts. Have all computers and electronic equipment been tested before the game starts? How long does it take to print off the 40 sheets of paper necessary for all countries, corporations and etceteras to get that newspaper? How long does it take to distribute the paper to every single table in the room? Are turns long enough for the media to operate? As it was, answers go, nope, not long enough to have fun writing the news, far too long, and you’ve got to be joking. Perhaps this is something musicians get pretty good with, because you rehearse for ages, get to the venue several hours before start time to make sure all electronic stuff works and is properly balanced or your concert does not happen. Heck, I don’t actually think that this is representative of the game maker’s organisational skills – it wouldn’t be possible to run such a monster event without any foresight, and I’d seen evidence of extensive planning in other parts of the game. The lack of thought with such basic infrastructure, however, eventually led me to question whether our role in the game was all that necessary at all – but more on that later.
Secondly, engagement. Well, to begin with, I was certainly engaged. How could I not be? Fix technical problems so you can play. Listen. Write. Relay. Decide. Print. Wait. Run to tables. Listen and write at same time. Keep going. You’re behind. Where’s the paper? Do this. Go there. Do that. It had been suggested in our player manual that we may want to write in bullet points rather than full paragraphs, as it would save time and make things quicker. But how is that fun? Typing up the bare minimum of what you can extract from players, printing it off and delivering the results to all the tables isn’t all that fun. I was quite pleased that in the first few turns I’d managed to put some interesting spin on what I’d gotten from various players, which had caused at least one player to come back to me to discuss the article. We had a back and forth about it, some accusations and counter accusations, and that was fun. But interactions with players soon became too short and stressful to be enjoyable. There was just to much. No breaks. No stopping. And all you got in the large scheme of things was a tiny portion of what was going on – like peering through a keyhole into a brightly lit room.
As it was, it got to lunchtime, and I realised something important. I wasn’t having fun anymore. Had the game had ended at that point, it would have been good. Intense, and not without needing a fair bit of refinement, but good. As it was, this was not the end of the game. There were supposed to be four more hours of this. That’s it, I thought. I’m cutting it off. And I did so without feeling too guilty, because I did not believe I actually needed to be there.
The media can do good things for countries and organisations – give them good PR and all that, spread rumours they want spread, etc. For them, the existence of the media enhances the game. Or at least, that’s what I assume it did, far too much was going on for me to be able to tell. Perhaps, more to the point, ‘the media’ enhanced their game, but to what extent did ‘rival media teams’ enhance their game? The player documentation for Badger News had told us that we were a conservative news network, not like those other communist networks, but how are our political leanings meant to be apparent in a few bullet points? Therefore, why would it matter which news team any given country went to? More importantly to me as a player, how did competition with rival media teams enhance my game? My not mentioning it thus far is due to the fact it didn’t matter to me whatsoever. It was irritating to be told that another team was doing better than you – why? Because their extensive collection of personally owned equipment worked from the outset of the game? Because they’ve done extensive metagaming in order to produce good looking papers? Because they own smartphones or tablets and I’m stuck with my ancient Sony Ericsson? And most importantly, I don’t care! I don’t care, because I don’t get the time to read and appreciate their output, I’m having enough trouble just playing as it is. It’s like doing open heart surgery and being told that everyone else in theatre has finished their procedures – shut up, I’m concentrating!
So, if I don’t care about the rivalry, and there’s no reasonable way to measure up to the competition anyway, what’s left? If I go, the media will still be there, won’t it? And the media probably don’t need to do an amazing job anyway. After all, if the media were a core component to the game, wouldn’t it have been a fairly high priority to make sure their equipment was working? The media feels like a control role masquerading as a player role. I understand that in the 50 person version, there’s one media reporter, and I can see that working. There’s going to be a greater sense of focus in a game that size, and they’ll have the opportunity to see the impact they create. It may still be hellishly frantic, but at least there’s payoff. As it was in this game, the role is the kind of thing you pay someone to do for your game. You can’t guarantee a fun time trying to cater to 300 players. Had I known what the role was going to be, I would not have agreed to it. Not if I have to pay for it, and for my return from Oxford to London. I’m a bit saddened, because it seems like players in other roles were having a good time, and I wish I could have been a part of that. Not wanting to be a massive downer, however, let me offer one final thought –
– what if, considering there’s no time to have enjoy creating/distributing physical text documents to all the players in a game that large and complicated (and potentially not a great deal of time for players to read it in depth anyway), the role is reimagined entirely. What if, for the first few phases of a turn, a single team of reporters get to snoop around the room gathering information/eavesdropping, getting the lay of the land. Then at a later phase they come together to discuss what they’ve found. Taking it in turns to do so, one media player then gets to elect up to 3 officials to interview on stage for no longer than 5 minutes, either to give an individual a good grilling or act as chairperson in a larger debate. Doesn’t require computers or printers, just a PA, which a good deal of venues already have available to use. Less hassle for all involved, as long as your players are comfy with a wee bit of public speaking, which, for a game with this much player interaction, they probably are. Worth testing, I think.
By Caroline Haines