14 September, 2011
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.
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?