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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Lie to Me: Why Telling the Truth Sometimes Misses the Point

Games are very good at selling themselves. They're visceral, exciting, engaging, thought-provoking - they delve deep into the minds of many, many people, in many different ways. For all games, but especially for the big, blockbuster triple-A releases, the marketing and promotion aspects of the release are vital components in increasing the number of sales they enjoy upon release. Now, if we ignore the fact that trailers seem to be moving further and further away from showing any actual gameplay (another discussion entirely), promotional material usually serves the purpose (amongst others) of showing potential players what they will be getting from their new game - what they will be experiencing that is new or unique, or, perhaps, snippets of story or plot teasers to get players talking amongst themselves.

Let me move away from triple-A budgets for a moment though and look at how marketing works on a much smaller scale. Indie studios often have to advertise their products on a shoestring budget, or - more often than not - on no budget whatsoever (you know, because you spent your last dime on paying your character modeller so that your main character has all of his major body parts - a scenario that doesn't always end well - just ask Rayman). So, marketing, if you can still call it that, essentially comes down to viral methods, word of mouth, and any site that is willing to host an advert or press release for a pint. However, this has some significant advantages, even more so for particular types of games. It means, having stripped away all of the corporate polish, laminated posters and scantily clad ladies in assorted semi-relevant cosplay, developers are free to be a bit sneaky. They're free to lie directly to the player's face.

Don't worry I haven't gone utterly mental and decided I don't, actually, wish to remain a credible individual. I don't mean simply tell players they'll be getting one product and then deliver something completely different - I'm looking at you, BrĂ¼tal Legend - not at all. Instead, we can actually begin to shape the eventual player experience before they even get their hands on a game at all. By manipulating expectation on a more specific level, down at the level of individual game mechanics, we can set certain triggers in the minds of players that, when they come to play the game, may influence the way they play or the decisions they make. 

This isn't some shady subliminal messaging technique, all it requires is a little bit of creative thinking in terms of the intended player experience, and how that experience could be enhanced depending on what players know, or, more importanty, think they know going into a game. This is something which works both ways of course - for example, playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time, I already knew that Aeris died, which directly effected my experience - I didn't bother to level her up as a character, which meant that I felt a significantly less intense sense of personal loss after her death. So how could we apply this in a way that instead improves the play experience? Well, let us take horror, which as a genre lets us be pretty sneaky already. If we were to produce numerous press releases highlighting all of the features of our shiny new artifical intelligence system, capable of responding to a huge range of stimuli with varying different behaviours, and explaining how this would create a game in which players would never, ever be out of reach of the enemy agents, we could do a pretty good job of training players to associate the game with a particular approach to play. Those following that thread of information would be much more likely to take it into account when playing and behave accordingly, frightened to death that their every movement was being noted by the advanced AI. What happens if we then, simply fake the creatures in the game world entirely; if we make clever use of audio, visuals and effects, alongside a number of far simpler enemy agents to simulate, to some extent, apparent artificial intelligence? The player is still getting a frightening experience - potentially, even more so, because much of the scary elements of the game are being formed within their own head, which is as we all know, where all of the most frightening things occur...

There is huge potential in this line of enquiry I think - yes it is potentially risky if it is misjudged, as you are misrepresenting, to a greater or lesser extent. However, as long as you are not misrepresenting something that you are clearly highlighting as making up cost that the consumer directly pays for, I think it is a risk worth investigating at the very least. The above example is still quite extreme - it could be something as simple as showing 5 seconds of gameplay during a promotional trailer that never actually occurs in the final game. If it is set up cleverly, players will notice it and remember it, and expect it during gameplay. This opens up a range of ways this expectation can then be manipulated - either by subverting it slightly, or by completely turning it on its head and doing the polar opposite.

The imagination and minds of people are fantastic at doing design work without you, as a designer, having to lift a finger. Gamers, especially, will fill in blanks a lot of the time, as they're used to suspending disbelief during gameplay. Play with their heads a little bit more, make them play parts of the game that don't even technically exist within their own minds. Honesty is not always the best policy when it comes to making great gaming experiences...