Managing Expectations

Two weeks ago I borrowed two games from work - yes, having a game library is one of the perks in most gamedev studios. One was Lollipop Chainsaw, the other Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It got me thinking about things we expect from games and how much these expectations affect our reception of a game.

There are generally two reactions to Lollipop Chainsaw: "Another game about boobs? Grow up." and "A busty blonde cheerleader killing zombies with a chainsaw? Count me in!". It doesn't matter which category you are in, you don't expect a compelling story. You don't expect characters you will be identifying yourself with. You don't expect any breakthrough in mechanics or gameplay. All you want is to have fun whacking hordes of zombies. Comments like "Killing people is fun when they are Zombies" only confirm that the game doesn't want to lie what it delivers.

Therefore, when you reach moments where you run zombies over with a combine harvester, when you get inside oldschool arcade games, when you get to ride the chainsaw to collect bonuses on your way, you just get an unexpected, nice bonus. When I heard Children of Bodom in the soundtrack instead of Californian punk, I immediately gave the game +1 on my personal scale. What's more, when you start the game, your mind is already ready to accept an extremely abstract world, where Juliette's boyfriend is just a head dangling next to her skirt. Finding giant lollipops or giant coin medals is not an immersion breaker. You just take it as a part of this irrational world design. 

Deus Ex comes with it's 90 metascore, with well-written cyberpunk world, a whole episode of Extra Credits where they sing the song of glory for the game. It resurrects a respected franchise. It brings Adam, a bastard child of Batman and Neo, who can be augmented in so many cool ways. It lets you decide how you want to play through your game - you can sneak around, hack, persuade or just blow things up. You get loads of various quests, deal with the main intrigue as much as interact with the futuristic city. You can acquire access to thousands of e-mails and palmtops that tell you the stories of pretty much every person in the building you are in. Impressive, huh?

Then how come it's so boring!? Why does searching someone's desk always mean hacking into his computer? Why does sneaking mean spending so much time in identical vent shafts? Why is it nearly impossible for 5 guys to kill you if you hide behind a desk - you just take them out like ducks on a shooting range. The world is incredibly detailed and well-thought. Level design shines and the plot throws you in the middle of a mature game that's supposed to be making you wonder what humanity is. Problem is... you get thrown out of it all the time. You find some dirt on a corrupted cop, you confront him and he sings like a bird... with a civilian standing maybe a meter from him. You can see her in the background all the time so clearly that you don't care what he says, you just keep facepalming at how irrational the situation is. Just behind him sits another guy that you have to talk to for at least 5 minutes, but instead of hearing his story, you just keep wondering whether it's hair or maybe brain growing out of his skull. Seriously, hair looked better in games made 7 years before DE: HR.

Hello, Jensen, would you like to touch my hairbrain?
If you reached so far in my post you are probably asking yourself "Is this noob trying to say that Lollipop Chainsaw is a better game than Deus Ex: Human Revolution?" No, it's not about being a better game here. Yes, I had a lot more fun with Lollipop Chainsaw and yes, the new Deus Ex did let me down. Can I objectively say Lollipop is a better game? Probably not. That brings us to the very topic of this post.

Before we even play a game, we are attacked by opinions, by the hype surrounding the bigger titles. We are biased by our own sentiments to the franchise or by some vague imaginary values we associate with ones we heard about but never actually tried. If you didn't play any of these 2 games and read my post, you will probably expect much more from LC than I did and you might be disappointed. You might expect much less from DE: HR and have loads of fun. My post will be the element that affected your expectations.

A great part of the game-related PR is expectations management. Obviously, everyone wants to sell their product, so they will always be exposing the elements and features strongest in their game. One of the biggest tasks in selling Lollipop Chainsaw was making a cosplay contest to choose the right girl to promote the game on conventions. In Deus Ex, it was hyping up the audience about the world you can explore, the relevant choices that you are going to make and the variety of mechanics that will let you play the game exactly the way you want to.

Just showing off the cool stuff sounds like an easy job? Not really. It is easy with titles like Lollipop Chainsaw or Dead or Alive. Boobs are boobs. Round, come in pairs, defy gravity. DOA5 confused their audience for a moment with some babbling about advanced boob physics, but luckily for them, the pictures were still pretty self-explanatory. Let's analyze the message examples I glued to Deus Ex however. World exploration strongly implies a sandboxy open-world while it might mean "only" the ability to find a lot of hidden passages and lots of notes to get to know the world better. Relevant choices can imply that you will be strongly changing the world and story around you while it might mean "only" the possibility to freely customise your character's development, affecting your future gameplay. Variety of mechanics implies you will be overwhelmed with your options, but it can just mean you can either shoot or hide with nothing exciting about any of the options. Even if you were telling the truth the whole time, some people will feel lied to anyway.

I guess that after so many paragraphs you expect me to somehow sum up this fun rant, so I will invent a proverb. You can then judge by yourself if it did or didn't meet your expectations. So here goes:

Success lies within mixing the right amount of depth and boobs. :)


How did games distort your reality?

Hey guys! During my last vacation I visited some old castles. After one little event, I suddenly did the House M.D. thing - you know, when he shuts up and walks out of the room, because he just had this brilliant idea that has a high chance of killing the patient. I took a little look back at my previous vacation and some other actions I took, and came to a conclusion that... games majorly distorted my reality. 

Exhibit A: The Triforce
The picture below was taken on Gran Canaria, near to some cathedral or botanical garden, in a pretty little town that would make everyone wanna take a slow, quiet stroll, taking in everything around. This noob just looked down and instinctively started to looking for his ocarina to play the Song of Time. Needless to say, it's the only picture I took in that town. 

Exhibit B: GPS walking
The picture below is not mine, but it's pretty damn accurate. I sometimes get directions from my phone, but even if the target is just a few meters away, I keep the navigation on. Why? Because it is fun to see your progress tracked by an electronic device. Because it is just like a minimap in a game, showing you your position, your way, your quest's destination, points of interest - it only lacks NPC's and mob locations.

Exhibit C: My staircase.
Back to the real pictures - it's my actual staircase. As you can see, I live on the top floor of a block without a lift. It's a nice exercise most of the time, but getting home from the saturday's grocery shopping (30-40 kilograms in total) can be a bitch. At some point I counted that there are 8 stair segments and one final section between the top of the stairs and my door. Nine in total. Fifteen seconds later, it ceased to be nine elements. A progress bar appeared, and clearing every segment was getting the progress bar up by 11% - arriving at the door became 99%, turning the key a rewarding 100%. This might sound really fucked up, but it actually made the shopping bags lighter - I knew the progress, the remaining distance. For the last years, I do this progress bar thingy every time I climb the stairs with something heavy.

Exhibit D: The grassland
This was a more one-time thing. After playing Skyrim for a few hours, I got out on a walk and first thing I wanted to do is clicking on the purple flowers in the grass to collect them. Picture from google maps, but showing the spot.

Exhibit E: The stepping stone
Finally, the thing that I mentioned in the beginning. When walking around one of the castle ruins, me and my girl came across a square block sticking out of the floor. Took less than a second to think "if we step on it, a door will open". So we did and even though the block didn't move, there was actually a sound of something happening somewhere. We knew it was a coincidence - some kid probably dropped his wooden sword on the floor. We still looked at each other, smiled and started searching. Didn't find anything, so we came back to the block, continuing the fun. We knew that in games with 2 characters sometimes one has to stand on the block while the other goes through the hidden door and pulls a lever. She stepped on the block, no sound this time. "It must be broken" we stated and went to search for another adventure.

Should we start taking meds?
A game nerd probably loled at most of these examples. A person who doesn't play games probably thinks I'm mentally sick. Hell - even if I am, at least I'm having fun. I am also aware how heavily this post approaches the topic of gamification. Maybe I'll write a separate article on it at some point, but for now, dear reader, I just want to ask you a question: how did games distort your reality and how do you like it?


Working in gamedev: Stability

The stability of a job in gamedev is a topic that might be somewhat controversial. I'll just go ahead and reach conclusion in the first paragraph, then I'll elaborate on that some more. The conclusion is: you never know when the shit will hit the fan. Actually, there are invisible fans everywhere and the colors of shit would amaze a veteran proctologist. On the other hand, you may also be the ape throwing that shit.

Imagine you are a young developer, starting in a company of pretty much any size. It is nearly impossible for you to stay in the company for your whole professional life. It is highly unlikely that you will be there for 10 years. You most probably won't be there even five. If you somehow manage to reach the average, you will work in this hypothetical studio anywhere between a year and three. Why? There may be a number of reasons for that.

Dynamics of the industry
Gamedev is a very young industry. New companies keep popping up and dying on a daily basis. The digital distribution, among other things, causes the whole industry to act in a quite unique manner: even the smallest players can considerably affect the whole market. Current situation in Square Enix clearly shows that even the giants can stand on feet of clay. Sometimes a success of a company comes almost overnight and sometimes they struggle for years having problems with paying their employees. In most cases there is no dishonor in abandoning a sinking ship and catching a cruise on a Titanic for a "change".

Development cycle
If you think about it, preproduction requires a lot less people than production. In bigger companies, with multiple projects, this isn't a problem. While the army of artists and programmers is delivering a game, another, smaller team is preparing another title, so this army can easily jump in once they finish the previous one. In smaller companies however, it happens that after delivering a game, over a half of the team becomes useless for a significant period of time and in many cases the company can't really afford that. So... there are layoffs, but don't worry, because...

Projects, not companies
Most developers don't identify themselves with the company anyway! It might be sad for some people, and I know HR managers are struggling with it constantly, but loyalty among game developers is about as common as cheerleaders dating nerds. If someone is finishing a project, he rarely just looks for another opportunity in his company. He looks around the city, country, even world, depending on his current mobility. Even people in the middle of projects can get "stolen" to other companies, if they realize there is an opportunity to work on a kind of game they like more - an RTS instead of an FPS or RPG for instance.

Most gamedev studios are pretty small and the atmosphere encourages people to get more personal and less professional in their relations. Add to that stressful crunch seasons, where people deprived of sleep are seeing each other for long, long hours. Conflicts resulting in someone quitting or getting fired are more common than you might think.

Personal development
I mentioned elements of it in previous reasons, but I think it deserves a separate one. Studios often focus on certain types of games. Unless there are some secret projects I don't know about, you won't gain experience in shooters working for Blizzard. You won't do RPG's with Rovio. Very often, in order to broaden your experience or just try something new, you have to switch between studios. It freshens up your perspective too. Also, for many ambitious types there comes a time when creating someone's game just isn't enough and they decide to add to the "dynamics of the industry" factor.

From what I've seen so far, these are the main reasons for people to migrate like crazy within the industry. If you stay in a medium-sized studio for a year, around 30% of your colleagues will be replaced with new faces in that time. You probably guessed that QA is the department seeing changes most often, but - surprise, surprise - the close second place is people outside the trenches - marketing, PR, HR, finance, etc. Of course I don't have statistics from all gamedev studios in the world, but it can't be a coincidence that, after only a year, from all the HR managers that I happened to be in contact with none still works in companies I applied to.

To see the intensity of employee migration, it is enough to look at the graph PC Gamer published in 2011. It depicts the journey of some core Blizzard employees and how they migrated throughout industry, affecting it in the process, but also how they were chasing opportunities to make different games. Take Tyler Thompson for instance. After working on Diablo II he migrated twice and ended up working on... The Sims III.

I highly encourage you to enlarge this image and dedicate 5 minutes to analyzing it.
If you ask me, this whole situation is extremely healthy. I have worked for companies where people were kept because of their connections, because of their knowledge that the employer didn't want to leak out, even because their position was some long lost artifact that somehow escaped several downsizing attempts. I can't say for sure that game industry is free of cases like that, but I can bet that there's considerably less of them. If you value stability and rewards for 25 years in the company are among your career goals, gamedev is definetely not an industry for you.