Great Expectations

June 9, 2009

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a bit of a disconnect has been building between games development and the folks who play the games over the past many years, but nowhere is this more evident than in the behaviour that occurs around the pre-release stage of a new game, from it’s initial announcement right up to it’s release and way beyond. The problem being that, as soon as you put the information out there, in the moments between it being read and being digested by the person doing the reading, the information changes simply by being observed and internalised.

An excellent example of this lies within the announcement of Left 4 Dead 2, note that I speak from the advantage of hindsight and connect claim to have predicted the announcement nor the reaction. Here it seems clear – to me at least – that the folks within Valve working on the original had developed so much enthusiasm for the concept that they found it extremely easy to dive into a mass of ways in which they could vary the gameplay to the extent that the result was similar to the original in only relatively superficial ways. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how the fans have percieved it, where the initial reaction was effectively one of rage.

A strong part of the basis for this is an assumption that the announcement a sequel pretty much automatically means that Valve were therefor going to fall back on further development of the original Left4Dead, which is a bit of a problem considering that Valve have built up a reputation for supporting games long after release and now gamers not only expect that to continue, many demand it. The road to hell is truly paved with best intentions.

Part of the problem might be in the name, sequel usually means full price and though they probably don’t represent the majority, there are a number of folks who feel that they haven’t yet gotten value for money out of their Left4Dead purchase, it’s a bit subjective though, afterall the game does have around 20 levels even if they are divided up into 4 specific campaigns, I’m not personally convinced that L4D was bad value for money, even at release. Perhaps much of this anger could’ve been avoided by calling it an expansion pack, Left4Dead: New Orleans or a name with a tinge of dark humour to it (Though at the moment I can’t think of a good name to use), time will tell how this situation is going to be handled.

Meanwhile, take a look at the sequel heavy nature of the industry in general, any game that has been well recieved, particularly games like say Deus Ex & Thief will develop a fanbase who has grown quite comfortable with the existing gameplay mechanics. The moment a sequel gets announced what do you think is the first expecation players will form for the sequel? Yep, that’s right – More of the same, but different. As such, if you plan to make wholesale changes to a core gameplay mechanic (Such as the climbing gloves in Thief: Deadly Shadows) you might want to consider how to bend the players expectations instead of breaking them. For a start, if you are going to make a massive change to core gameplay, just rename it otherwise it’s going to get unfairly judged against it’s predecessor – Just take a look at Deus Ex Invisible War, not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but the core design was so far away from the comfort zone of existing fans that the reaction was reportedly unpleasant to behold.

Of course, it’d be nice if certain groups of gamers were less prone to an emotional over-reaction, but in the absence of that it’s probably better to change a few design ethics to take this behaviour into account, than it is to try and change the mindset and attitudes of thousands of gamers, who seem to have stopped listening to reason.

That said, I can understand why folks prefer rope/vine arrows to climbing gloves, the item scarcity gives them extra value, the effort of having to stop and aim them means they can’t be abused as an easy way of getting out of trouble and frankly, the sound of your arrow successfully lodging itself in the wood is significantly more satisfying that a leathery wall climbing noise. But then, hindsight is 20/20 and there might have been good technical reasons for why putting rope arrows in Deadly Shadows wasn’t possible.

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