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. :)

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