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Opinion: Talkback Games

Opinion: Talkback Games

November 22, 2011 | By Eddie Cameron

November 22, 2011 | By Eddie Cameron
More: Console/PC, Design

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Grapefruit Games' Eddie Cameron compares video games with talk radio, and what developers can do to avoid the flaws of that medium.]

Games are different. Unlike most other creative media, the consumer is required to do something, and the game is required to do something back. A game asks a question, "What do you want to do?" and a player answers. As you can imagine, this interactivity introduces a whole lot of complexity into crafting a game's 'experience'.

A game's author(s) can't lay out the experience as they can in a book or movie, because no two players will put in the same input or receive the same feedback. This leads to that Important Question: "What does authorship mean for interactive media?".

After reading Clint Hocking's recent post about authorship, I started thinking about where precedents may have been set in other media. And what else requires input from its consumers? Talkback Radio.

Talkback radio (talk radio in the US) today has a very rigorous formula. The audience, usually politically conservative, listens to a point of view they already agree with. It is understood that listeners will then call in to agree with/congratulate the host or answer his or her leading questions ("Do you want foreigners taking your jobs? Your children's jobs?").

Every now and again, some curious radio owner may decide listen to the show, disagree with the content, phone in to complain, and then get shouted down for presenting their own opinion. An entire family of mostly similar shows that, along with their audience, are baffling and often hostile to outsiders. Sound like games yet?

The host or hosts (the game designers/writers) craft a script, and the callers (players) phone in with their expected input. In most games there is an understood set of actions that players 'know' to take. If you act outside these bounds, the game stops responding, or it decides that it's had enough and kills you/blocks you.

Players in a first-person shooter know that running backwards won't get them anywhere, so they don't. In pretty much every open world game, your character is killed if you leave the safe area. If players, or listeners, don't input the expected, they get a slap, the dissonance shocks them out of any sense of engagement, and eventually they stop trying or even stop playing.

This doesn't make these games inherently 'bad', but like talkback, it caters to a certain audience and alienates others. How many times have you watched/suffered a non-gamer playing something you love? If they can even work out the controls, you'll often hear "Why can't I do this?"

So how do we avoid falling into the same pit that talkback radio has? Talkback doesn't fully realize its interactivity. Sure, listeners are doing stuff, but their input doesn't change the majority of the show. They get their bit of feedback, and then the host continues.Their actions aren't the performance, the host's are.

In Call of Duty you decide to start shooting a squad-mate. The gun fires and you get the same immediate feedback as shooting anywhere else, but the teammate isn't injured, and in the next cutscene he will still fistbump you.

Wait, Farmville isn't completely evil?
Farmville can't punish you for this

Now, this way of thinking may mislead you into believing that you need to anticipate all player actions and change the narrative to fit them, which is impossible. The problem lies instead with the authors insistence on making their narrative the one 'true' narrative. Minecraft can cope with any player input, you can't spoil the game by running in one direction for an hour.

Another solution is to restrict player input so much that they don't even get the opportunity to spoil the game. Facebook games cater to an enormous audience of non-gamers, perhaps in part because they can't get frustrated by the game telling them they're "doing it wrong" if they click in the wrong place.

Essentially, talkback radio doesn't really listen to its callers. Don't let your games ignore its players. If a player wants to leap around and get all up in Alyx's business while she talks at them, allow it, or even better, acknowledge it by having her remark on it.

Don't ask your players leading questions by forcing a good/bad moral choice on them. Let players make their own choices and have the game react as best it can. Don't hang up on the crazy caller because you don't know how to respond.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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