Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

14 September, 2011

Perception of Vision
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:32 AM

I’ve almost recovered from a busy schedule of attending conventions. Almost. But, hey, I’m writing again.

Let’s take a look at what’s on my mind at this moment: vision. Specifically looking at the future of games and how it affects game development.

Vision and MMOs

When it comes to MMOs, the word “vision” has had a checkered past. The Vision(tm) was a recurring character at GUComics, which used the anthropomorphic character to pick on the behavior of Sony/Verant in the early days of EverQuest.

But, for all the mockery, vision is something that sets a game apart. EQ1 had a definite feel to it that attracted people and that has kept some people interested even today.

Entrepreneur Vision

But, what is “vision” besides something people blame for developers not listening to their complaints? I would define looking ahead and anticipating trends and then acting upon that foresight.

Perhaps the most notable example is Apple under the guidance of Steve Jobs. Now, I’m the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of Apple and don’t own a Mac, an iPhone, or even an iPod. But, I can appreciate the way that Apple has captured trends by being just ahead of the curve. The iPod was a music player that came out at just the right time to dominate the market, even if it wasn’t the first. Or, take a look at how the iPad has revitalized the tablet computer market that was moribund for so long. So, at least twice, Apple has come along and offered what people view as a superior product at the right time.

Why vision is hard

The problem is that vision isn’t easy because it involves a fair amount of (hopefully educated) guessing. Entrepreneurial vision has been described as “giving the customer what he or she didn’t even know he or she wanted.”

There’s a well-known video of Malcolm Gladwell talking about spaghetti sauce. The important takeaway is that customers who liked spaghetti sauce didn’t even know that they wanted “chunky” sauce until Howard Moskowitz tried to figure out what people liked about spaghetti sauce. By varying the size of the chunks of vegetables in the sauce, he found out that people actually liked “chunky” sauce. But, nobody had been going out of their way to demand it before his research; now we can’t imagine not having chunky spaghetti sauce on the grocery store shelf.

The moral of the story is that you can’t simply ask people what they want, because they often don’t have the experience to describe what would make them happy. Ask them what they want, and they’ll likely tell you they want a mild improvement on what they already know (preferably for free). To do something innovative and show it to them, and they might suddenly find out that, no, you’ve just shown them what they really want.

Selling the vision

One of the problems we’ve run into as we’ve been talking about Storybricks with traditional MMO players is that some are having trouble seeing how what we’re doing fits with what they’re used to. This isn’t because they’re dumb or ignorant, but because they don’t have the vision to see beyond the current state of things.

Let me use another example: the perennial discussions of permadeath. Usually these discussions devolve into player of typical cumulative character games crying in outrage, “You want to take away the character I’ve spent a thousand hours advancing because I got killed due to lag?!?!” The obvious answer is that you can’t take an existing game like WoW and slap a permadeath mechanic on it. However, we often use popular games as shorthand when discussing concepts; it becomes easy to think about putting a mechanic on top of an existing game since that is what bloggers do most of the time. We need to realize that this limits our ability to discuss things truly innovative ideas.

In the case of Storybricks, it becomes almost automatic for someone to try to fit them as part of an existing game like WoW and have a whole bunch of concerns that may not be valid for the type of game we design: What happens if someone kills a quest NPC? What happens if someone creates an “I WIN” type quest that gives free xp? What happens with raids? This makes a lot of assumptions about what an MMO must be like.

Now, I’ll admit part of this is our responsibility. We need to demonstrate to people how gameplay can be radically different once NPCs aren’t shallow representations. We need to share the excitement about what happens in a game when every problem isn’t solved by poking sharp bits of metal into an enemy, or lighting said enemy on fire. But, we have to balance this explanation with actually getting the work done to realize our vision.

The money problem

Of course, it’s not just players that we have to convince. We also have to convince investors that this is a good idea. The problem is that many of them also lack vision; one quip I’ve heard is that if an investor had vision, he or she would be an entrepreneur instead.

The trick is that investors will listen to an audience, though. If we go to them and demonstrate that there is a market because we have enthusiastic followers for what we’re doing, then they are more likely to invest. But, we also have to convince investors of a whole lot of other things: that we have a strategy for the project, that we will be smart with money, that we aren’t making empty promises.

Vision is not perfect

It’s important to note that vision is not infallible. Apple has had its share of missteps along the way, despite being what many people consider a visionary company. I’ve heard many stories that back in the day Apple shunned game developers because they didn’t want the Mac to be considered “just a toy”. As has been point out many times before, it was gaming that really drove development, acceptance, and profitability of many platforms from the PC to the iPhone to social networks.

And, I’m the first one to admit that we don’t have all the answers when it comes to Storybricks. As I’ve said quite a few times, we’ve been trying to get the word out about Storybricks so that we can get meaningful feedback from people. We want to find out what people think the problem areas are. Of course, it can be a double-edged sword, as we also have to deal with a lot of questions that kind of miss the point of what we’re doing.

But, this is what innovation actually looks like. It’s the process of coming up with something new and exciting, seeing if there’s interest, then developing it to its full potential. We are taking a different approach and developing things more out in the open, and not in secrecy as is normal for most game development. We’re hoping it makes for a better product, even if its not something people are used to.

…and thank you for your support

Let me reiterate that the support from the community has been overwhelming. Its’ really cool when we give a demo to someone and they basically say, “this is what I have been waiting for”. Then they post something enthusiastic on their site and get other people excited.

But, let me ask for a bit patience and understanding. As I said, we don’t know all the answers. And while things are bright and shiny now with the unbounded possibilities that something new offers, I’m sure there will be bumps along the road. I anticipate that we’ll stumble a bit. Hopefully you guys will be there to help us get back up, dust ourselves off, and get back to work instead of pointing and laughing.

This doesn’t mean we want uncritical applause, though. We need intelligent feedback from passionate people, even if that feedback is that you don’t like something we’re doing. But, at the end of the day, we rely on your support to keep going. Not only to keep us on the right path, but to keep our spirits up and to show to possible investors that we have enthusiastic fans for what we’re doing. Hopefully we’ll all see something truly amazing together.

So, what do you think? Do you think Storybricks has a good vision of the future of gaming? What could we do better?







12 Comments »

  1. I’ve voiced my angle of attack before; I want to know about the animation side and just how far you want to push the feel of these NPCs being “alive”. That’s mostly because that’s where I can be most critical as it’s where my expertise lies. Interpersonal relationships are a great addition to the NPC toolkit, and I naturally start thinking of other directions to go, and how to push that further.

    The rest of what I’ll ask when I come up with a good list will be more generic questions about your intended vision, and I’m along for the ride to see what you have cooking. I’m not one to shy away from framing things in a new light, challenging assumptions. I think Storybricks has huge potential in game design… though I’ll admit I’m not sure how to sell it to the money guys. Innovation scares investors.

    Comment by Tesh — 14 September, 2011 @ 1:23 AM

  2. I’m not entirely sure how apposite the “spaghetti sauce” analogy is. The Malcolm Gladwell is a fun watch (although as someone who grew up in a world with much less choice than we have now and who preferred it that way I find it difficult to see the positives on a personal level). Isn’t the relevant point he’s making, though, that we don’t know what we want and producers therefore cannot discover what to give us by asking us? And aren’t you asking us what we want?

    For the analogy to work, wouldn’t you need to be keeping quiet about your hopes and aspirations but feeding out dozens of variations and iterations of Storybricks, lettign us play with them and analyzing what we actually do with them not what we say we do or would do?

    And isn’t that process what the big companies have been doing for the last half a decade with their intensive metrics? Don’t they measure, monitor and deconstruct every action we all take in their MMOs and derive from that data what it is that we do while we are playing? And hasn’t that been the real driver behind the changes that have made MMOs how they are now, not how they were more than a decade ago when Everquest began?

    Isn’t the methodology Gladwell describes actually the antithesis of “The Vision”, and the reason we have games that get easier and easier and have more and more players? We say we want harder, more challenging, more intelligent MMOs but we actually keep choosing to play easier, less challenging, dumber MMOs.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 14 September, 2011 @ 1:55 AM

  3. Vision is the ablity to develop and sell a product, independent of financial concerns. :)

    Comment by Nils — 14 September, 2011 @ 6:08 AM

  4. I’m not sure that animation (or anything art) has much to do with Storybricks, Tesh. Kelly and Brian did show me a game engine when they demo-ed it to me but if I’ve got it right this is a story tool that can fit into any game.

    Should be possible to plug Storybricks into something like heroEngine, shouldn’t it, Brian?

    Comment by Stabs — 14 September, 2011 @ 6:21 AM

  5. Honestly, I think you guys are going the right direction, but really need to push the envelope even further. From what I’ve seen, the Storybricks engine will allow people to develop NPCs with depth and complexity, without needing to master a complicated scripting system to get them to do what they want.

    Awesome.

    However, think about what story is. Setting, Plot, Theme, and Characters.

    Storybricks right now is solving the problem of, “How do I create compelling characters and plots?” But, what about settings and themes? I would love to see Storybricks contain not only the NPC toolsets that have been demonstrated so far, but also quick, easy to use tools for creating maps, levels, buildings, sounds, and more. It would be amazing if you had some kind of RNG system for creating villages to house your NPCs in, for example. Meaning – in the same way that I can click a random button to make my toon in an MMO look different, let me “random” through a number of village configurations with different looks, textures, layouts (where’s the inn, tavern, etc.) – without any work. I can then populate that village that I created in 5 minutes with a selection of characters, sounds, plotlines, quests, etc., and produce an MMO module in hours – instead of days or weeks.

    I’m getting long-winded … but I hope this is making sense.

    If you can do that – give people literally everything they need to design a world, the inhabitants, quest lines, and more – and make it easy to use, that’s an awesome vision.

    Comment by epic.Ben — 14 September, 2011 @ 10:48 AM

  6. Hrm, I’ve given most of you demoes and should have answered many of these questions. I need to better tune my message!

    @Tesh, you’ll want to read this blog from our AI CTO, Phil Carlisle. It’s all about the animations and how important they are http://www.namaste.vg/blog/2011/09/08/phil-what-believability/.

    @Stabs, it’s not exactly a plug-and-play API. We’re building in Unity so…

    @epic.Ben, Did I not show you the ideas behind environment editing? Do you need a mini-demo?

    Comment by Ophelea — 14 September, 2011 @ 11:17 AM

  7. That “chunky spaghetti sauce” explanation illustrates disruptive technology with less aggressiveness than the old Henry Ford quote I like so much.

    If it’s something that people didn’t ask for (*see bottom), how do investors see the return on a product where the demand isn’t visible yet?

    I think you could partner with an interested developer that has a suitable game that Storybricks could be plugged in to. Preferably a relatively small game that won’t be taking years before it gets to market, so your illustration of Storybricks in action can reach people. Possibly even >gasp< a single-player game.

    Thinking big is wonderful and Storybricks sounds like it would fit into some really grandiose schemes, but you know even better than the rest of us what's involved in a huge online multiplayer world. If that's what Storybricks must be a part of, then you may have a chicken-and-egg situation looking for big investment for big development.

    Although it's perfectly possible you may find an angel investor that just believes in Storybricks. What really helps is the interface you've shown so far is pretty illustrative itself and anyone who knows RPG quest design is likely to see the merits.

    * RPG players have bemoaned quest systems for years, but you’ve come up with solutions they didn’t directly ask for.

    Comment by Rog — 14 September, 2011 @ 2:31 PM

  8. In regards to the animation issue:

    I assume that what Storybricks needs are not specific animations, but key expression concepts like “Wary”, “Sad”, “Disappointed”, etc.. A set of communicative facial language that can be interpreted by whichever game is implementing Storybricks.

    It would have to be a fairly rich language, because otherwise it goes back to the blank or incorrect expressions that Tesh is concerned about.

    At some point on my own game, I have to work with FaceFX. I’m only just glancing at the workflow now so I can budget resources, but I wonder if there are already systems in place somewhere to provide this facial language definition. I know that there are phoneme, but I think those are for assembling animations, mainly to match vocal to lip movement (and expression?).

    Comment by Rog — 14 September, 2011 @ 2:37 PM

  9. As just one more data point, my interpretation of Brian’s concluding question is not so much that he’s asking for specific solutions as opening up a discussion.

    What’s great about discussions are not necessarily the particular things said, but the ideas generated through the exchange of differing perspectives. If I’m talking with Person X and Person Y (even if they’re not talking with each other), something they say may resonate, leading me to think of things that otherwise might not have occurred to me.

    If something similar can happen for Storybricks, that’s to everyone’s advantage.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 14 September, 2011 @ 8:40 PM

  10. Stick with it Brian. To quote Henry Ford “If I’d asked people what they wanted they would have said ‘A faster horse’”.

    Innovation is not easy but I hope it pays off for you.

    Comment by EBAnous — 14 September, 2011 @ 11:38 PM

  11. Vision – everyone wants it, but only few can actually see it. :)
    it’s such a fine line to tread between innovation and overwhelming your audience. unfortunately “you just need to think bigger” is not the best selling argument – you have to take them by the hand and get them to believe you.
    we always compare everything to a status quo, that’s normal. but I’ve noticed too that some of the SB reviews I have read have a very “WoW-centric” angle when voicing their concerns.
    I’d love to be more critical myself, but I have to admit that I feel I’m lacking enough info to give intelligent feedback. I enjoyed our demo session, but as you said it’s very early basics and I would have to see and hear more from here. I’m the type of person who listens first and accepts a basic idea. now I’d have to see the next steps, maybe more ‘in action’ and visual examples, possible scenarios presented etc. – otherwise all critique is mere hypothesis. I’m not sure I’m getting my point across, but basically you explained the theory now, so I’d need something more tangible. also, will you make the demo available for self-testing at some point?

    Comment by Syl — 15 September, 2011 @ 9:57 AM

  12. Tesh wrote:
    I want to know about the animation side and just how far you want to push the feel of these NPCs being “alive”.

    We are talking about having fairly in-depth animations. The big issue is the tradeoff between getting something that looks good, but realizing that pouring resources in what could be a temporary Beta test is not necessarily the best use of those limited resources.

    If you know any animators or technical artists that are eager to work hard at a startup, send them my way! :)

    bhagpuss wrote:
    Isn’t the methodology Gladwell describes actually the antithesis of “The Vision” …?

    I don’t think so. “The Vision” in the spaghetti sauce case was considering something like “size of vegetable chunks”. Vision isn’t coming up with something then expecting everyone to love it; vision is looking at things in a new way and coming up with something different than everyone else. As a business, you still have to put out something that people are willing to pay for, the trick to hitting it out of the ballpark is to give the audience what they didn’t even know they wanted.

    So, the problem with strictly metrics-driven design is that it often does lack vision. Metrics tell you what a player does, but not why. Perhaps the player goes for the easier quest, so you change quests to be easier. Vision is when you consider that it’s maybe not just a preference for easier quests, but that the players are so worn out by the time they get to the quest that they just opt for the easier quest.

    Nils wrote:
    Vision is the ablity to develop and sell a product, independent of financial concerns. :)

    I assume from the smilie that you are being sardonic, but in case you’re not: divorcing business from creativity is impossible. History is littered with the burnt-out husks of creative types that thought they shouldn’t have to worry about business. As I’ve said before, I helped write a book on business issues not because I have a passion for business, but because I’ve seen too many people get burned by ignoring business realities.

    epic.Ben wrote:
    I would love to see Storybricks contain not only the NPC toolsets that have been demonstrated so far, but also quick, easy to use tools for creating maps, levels, buildings, sounds, and more.

    We definitely have some ideas in this direction. As Kelly said, we’ve been showing off our idea for how to edit locations. But, we do need to make sure we don’t try to reach too far too fast. We’re not a multi-million dollar project quite yet, so we have to focus on what we think makes sense. And, as I’ve said, we want to make sure we do the Storybricks system right before we build upon that foundation.

    Rog wrote:
    I think you could partner with an interested developer that has a suitable game that Storybricks could be plugged in to.

    One problem is that the Storybricks concept is really and truly different and requires a different way of thinking about things. I think it’d be impossible to just slap Storybricks on top of an existing game design and expect it to work.

    We are planning to release a smaller version of the toolset for testing. It’ll be like a bite-sized example of what we could do. But, we’d still like to put Storybricks into a full game.

    We’ve found a few investors that believe in our vision, thankfully. But, it’s definitely a struggle. This wasn’t a posting of despair so much as a posting about my further observations of being truly innovative.

    Syl wrote:
    but I’ve noticed too that some of the SB reviews I have read have a very “WoW-centric” angle when voicing their concerns.

    Exactly. It think it’s dangerous to try to think about Storybricks as something to slap on top of an existing style of game. But, it does almost sound egotistical to say what I said above, where Storybricks is a completely new way to think of things.

    also, will you make the demo available for self-testing at some point?

    Yes. As I said, we’re going to release a very simple version of the toolset. It’ll be in a very generic setting and without a lot of “MMO features” you might expect. But, it should give people something to play around with, get used to, and use as a basis for meaningful feedback instead of people speculating what it would be like to have Storybricks in a current type of MMO.

    Thanks for all the feedback everyone! I do appreciate it. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 September, 2011 @ 12:49 AM

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