Friday, March 19, 2010

In which I rediscover oratory; or, The expotition of theatrical game design

After reading through my previous posts, I realized one thing - that they were simply tirades, endless rants that (I believe) contained useful and interesting information, yet presented in a dull fashion. Some bloggers can get away with this; in fact, almost everyone who has another aspect to their blog attached to it (see: webcomics, machinimas, class data-crunching, etc.) are allowed to make such posts, people will read them, and leave enlightened.

I am, however, slightly different, in that: a) webcomics that I made would be drawn with a trackpad in, b) Machinimas are... well... tricky, and while I've tinkered around a bit I've found that using free movie editors just doesn't cut it. I may try to do one using all in-game footage a la Scarlet Toy, but that also takes time. Which is something I am severely lacking at the moment. Lastly, c) there is already a wonderful, marvelous, magnificent moonkin blogger out there and it would be repetitive to post similar information.

So, since posting such posts would be silly, I will instead change the presentation of the posts, using in this the common oratorical device of explaining the macrocosm through the microcosm - explaining major problems, difficulties, etc. through another, apparently unrelated story. In any case, it will be an adventure. School is in session!

(Disclaimer - The picture is entirely irrelevant. Though, very cool.)

My sister recently directed her first play. Now, this was no simple series of one-acts; it was a full-blown musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, involving a huge cast and crew, and a multitude of moving pieces. From music to costuming to production to everything else, she had a huge hand in making sure each piece would line up perfectly. It was a massive amount of work making sure each piece was in line, and there is no way that she could have done it without help - so she divided it up into smaller tasks, directed by their own individual directors - one for music, one for crew, and herself for the characters and cinematography.

Parallels are abound here, and I'll let you bask in the fact that you see them - if you see them - for the time it takes you to read another paragraph. What prompted me to think about this was not the production in and of itself, which was packed with high energy and was extremely entertaining to watch, but rather the weeks up to their first performance. No more than one or two people ever saw the play in action, but when they did, they mentioned key advice and gave input over multiple views. If they had mass screenings of, say, 20% of their targeted audience beforehand, voices would become cluttered, and a number would not ever come back and see it again simply because they had seen it in pre-prediction.

Ah-ha, say ye astute readers. That sounds EXACTLY like modern MMO production! Your script-writers become writers, your crew becomes programmers, your characters become voice and action-capture actors, your costume designers become model artists, your directors become designers. Yes, this is what I'm getting at. Energy, as we see, is an extremely powerful portion of a game's success - look at the impact you see in Portal and you can understand what I'm getting at. Another key piece is division; where 30 years ago games would be made with teams of 5, now hundreds of people can work on triple-A titles, and making sure that communication lines stay open is a must.

But the key point I'm pointing out here is the evolution of Beta testing. Essentially, early MMOs took in a few beta testers after the F&F alpha phase, as a sort of meager stress test and to see a bit of reaction to the game from your target audience. This crosses over to the dramatic realm; first invite a few friends and family - and if you, say, needed to check the stability of the sound system or the capacity of the audience, you'd invite a few more in. Maybe get a few random fans in for a private screening to get some fresh ideas. But that's IT. Beginning with huge closed betas for Warhammer and AoC (10K testers there), then progressing to ridiculously large 'Open Betas' in titles like Pirates of the Burning Sea, Aion, STO, and Allods, it has really gotten out of hand. A player now sees a beta like a demo; and the testers who have a true passion and dedication fade into obscurity, outshouted by the hundreds of whining testers that are annoyed a game is not finished before it has been finished.

What do I suggest? Take a look back at our oratorical device. Pick a select few for hardcore testing. Limit the beta test for others, perhaps allowing them to run through the starting levels of the game only, at specified times to stress test, but no more than that. Jam-pack your audience full to see if they'll fit, and reward them with a promise of a better play in the future, or a cheaper play, or a play with exclusive in-play titles and minipets, but never show them the whole game, just whet their appetite for a better, sharper, more structurally sound experience.

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