Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Calculated Risk

Crikey, there are lots of things I want to blog about.
Let me jot them all down so's I don't forget and I'll come back to them:
Default status; changing trends; return to purity beneath plot; power of brevity; creating anticipation (again); forget the gameplay.

And today I'll disrobe calculated risks using just my teeth!

There are a few nuggets of literary wisdom that have stuck with me - that guide and inform my work. I could fill many blog posts discussing Bob McKee's ideas. I could ramble on and on about Hemingway's conclusions.
But I'd say the most influencial figure in my writing, and even game design, life has been Peter Cox - literary agent supremo and host of litopia. I am indebted to that man.

So here's how it used to go: Newbie writer would sign up to the forums, introduce themself, ask everyone what music they listened to when they wrote, disagreed with stuff they had not the first clue about, asked everyone to read their latest blockbuster, got upset when they didn't like what they were told, and then asked Peter if he would like to sign them up. Oh don't be misled, I was no different.
Mostly, they left after that. However, some would persevere.
With that all done, the most common question thrown next at Peter was: How do you choose?
There was a time - I'm imagining it has passed, but perhaps not - when this question would be augmented with the covertly defensive, but embarrassingly transparent: What about all those agents who turned down J K Rowling?
Peter would explain that there's no formula: that every time out, it's a guess - but hopefully an educated guess.
Or calculated risk if you like! :o)

After M3 came out, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. See, I've always tried to be honest and open in this blog. I believe that writing is about honesty: that a clever writer has the skill and confidence to use words to expose the truth behind stuff, and that the poor writer uses words as a shield. I'm as eager to share every failure as I am to share every success, truly I am; I'll blog when I'm on top of the world, and I'll blog when I'm hollow and spent.

So what I wanted to blog honestly about was the opposition to every reform I proposed. It felt, at the time, rather like Father Ted's award speech in which he took the opportunity to explain over the course of many hours how he was right about everything and how everyone else was wrong.

A writer should be able to pre-empt reactions. Or, to put it another way, if a writer intends to elicit pathos in the reader but actually elicits mirth, well then he has no place writing. Calculated risks are informed by a deep understanding of human beings - of the audience.
So in the interests of honesty, and as a Chekhov's gun to the rest of this post, here are some of my proposals that received the greatest opposition:

Replace the journal with a multi-inventory system.
Construct a proper plot with adult themes.
Create an emotional topography and conclude with a tear-jerking scene.
Include multiple cut-scenes, each with more than five lines of dialogue.
Have ghost animals.
Have ghost animals talking.
Have ghost animals singing.
Realise a fully voice-acted script.
Begin the M3 CE act in medias res, at a time after M4 plays out.

Of these things, the multi-inventory system was adjusted during beta testing, but everything else went down well and made it through to release.
Basically, nobody is on your side if you take risks. But to the writer soaked in human souls, such concepts don't seem as risky as they might to others.

Two changes were made last minute, and without my consent:
HO scenes were made harder. The thinking behind this was that gameplay would be distended.
The establishing shot going into the CE was edited and defiled.
Both changes caused confusion and displeasure, and I would have argued vehemently against them both.

I've almost finished the misc dialogue for M4. Fifty pages and still going.
Countless times a day, I have an idea which I wrestle with, experiment with, and then decide whether to use or to evict.
When I go with an idea, I'm never, ever certain, but I consider the risk to be worthwhile. Sometimes I run a few lines by Ben. Mostly, he responds appropriately. I'll re-read the previous day's work every morning, just as I do with my manuscripts, and re-evaluate my decision, typically making a minor alteration.
Same with puzzles: I thrash out an idea, break it over and over until it no longer breaks, look at the remaining pulp, and then decide whether to pursue the idea or not. Most of my puzzles are low risk because they are scalable: that's to say that they contain enough variables for me to make them harder or easier without altering the mechanics. The dream cards, for example, are highly scalable. It's the fixed puzzles that frighten me - the dials and sliders and tiled puzzle doors!
Of course, it's good to test this stuff out as soon as possible; and with our new super efficient coder on board, I get to test out my puzzles before taking them too far.

I think I can justify blogging on this delicate topic by warping it into an experiment.
I'd like to jot down a few of the more risky ideas I've had for M4, and we can see what happens between now and release. Will they change? Will they be scrapped? Will they make it through to release? Will the public go crazy for them, or will they be horrified and offended?
How well do I really understand my audience?
(Much of this stuff won't make much sense yet - rather like an episode of Doctor Who - but it'll be super to refer back to - rather like an episode of Doctor Who.)
See how every risk is riddled with doubt...

* Lengthy diatribe from Edwina in opposition to Cargan's unreasonable request.
To stop the flow of the game and fix the player passively outside the action for any length of time is, if you believe contemporary lines of enquiry, inherently a terrible idea. Well, I disagree. (That's going to be my 'forget the gameplay' post :o) Besides my multiple cut-scenes and cinematics, I've included an out-of-the-blue outburst - perhaps a quarter of a page of dialogue - in which Eddie attacks the very nature of the iHOG. Oh I'm so dumb that I run around tidying your messes, wiping your noses, running pointless errands...
I'm hoping for resonance - for the stand up and applaud reaction.

* Obsidian puzzle door which requires the player to connect cause and effect, and then to map out a solution.
Contrary to the evidence, statistics suggest that our players don't like having to figure out the mechanics of a puzzle: they like to be told precisely how a puzzle functions, and then to be left in peace to figure out a solution. But then, both RTR and Dire Grove asked the player to figure out the mechanics of a number of door puzzles. Is that really evidence? Is the popularity of those two games in no way related to such puzzles?

* Use of multiple characters, all of which are interactive.
To my knowledge, no iHOG has dared to feature such a large cast. Each character has everything you would expect from a well-developed character. Too much? Certainly, the parallel design of M4 and the variable interaction with multiple characters has ballooned - nay, mushroomed the script! It fills me with horror to look at... but then, any one player will only experience a small percentage of the dialogue, depending on their choices.

* NPC suicide.
Or professional suicide? Can I really pull this off? Is it really wise to place this in the opening act, at the very point where players decide if they will purchase the game or not? Brave or stupid?

* Spiders.
Three major turn offs in an iHOG: big boobs, snakes, and spiders. Have I alienated a vast portion of our audience by integrating a spider - even a cute mechanical child-like spider - so deeply into the design?

* Disjointed jump from SE acts to CE act.
M4 ends at the point where the M3 CE act began. In theory, this should be an Aha! moment of goosebump proportions. But, with a year between releases, will it limp into the sewers to live out its miserable existence in fecal gloom? Whatever, I'm setting up M5 in the same way. A double death of epic proportions?

* Story.
It's deep; it's philosophical; there's an evolving back-story to rival Lord of the Rings; there are twists and emotional shifts round every leafy corner. Does anyone care? Better simply to scare them aimlessly for a few hours?

* Animal parade: reaction-based mini-game.
Our audience doesn't much care for reaction-based games. As with M3, I've included one such mini-game. The bug-catching game in M3 got a few positive mentions. I'm hoping that the animal parade in M4 will combine the success of the bug-catching game with the success of the singing ghost animals. But, at the end of the day, it's still a reaction-based game.

* Rudo's dead-pan humour.
Are people going to take to him? Is he going to be another Jar-Jar? Is he irritating? Or is he hilarious and sensitive and believable and likeable? Humour can go so very very wrong, not least when it's migrated across continents...

* Perhaps I'll make you eat your own fingers...
Yes, there's some high risk dialogue in there, with references to slit throats and crucifixion. Well, we're all grown-ups aren't we? They do this stuff in books and films and tv don't they? Why not iHOGs? Why not?

* Re-use of dream cards.
Sure, they were 'original' features of M3. Now they're no longer 'original'. Will they be received as a dev cop-out, or will the invigorated design and extra twist see them through? Will they be familiar friends or hackneyed foes?

Thing is, I watch The Apprentice and rarely can I figure out if an idea is good or bad; rarely can I guess who has won. Everything makes sense when Sir Alan makes his point... but until he's loosing arrows of humiliation upon his victims, I'm as clueless as can be!

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