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The Dual Nature of Crowd-Sourced Input

Posted on Friday, June 13 @ 16:30:00 Eastern by gil_almogi

In this year's Indiecade booth at E3, Please be nice :( and Choice Chamber, caught my attention. Each one is built on utilizing input from players and spectators in order to guide the play experience. However, the results reveal a dichotomous push-pull between player choice and developer control worth considering should other studios consider employing this kind of mechanic.

In Please be nice :(, Aran Koning started his game with a simple prototype: players can use the WASD keys to move a simple block to a goal square, marked by a checkered pattern. The first player who completed the first version of the game was asked to recommend a feature for the next version, which could mean having certain characters, weapons, or other zaniness added. So it has gone for dozens of versions now and the end is nowhere in sight.

Now, I like this concept of taking player input to build a game—you’ve already heard a handful of publisher talking heads tell you how they’ve “really listened to the community” on their new games. And of course, this could mean anything or nothing as is often the case. Here, Koning may have embraced too much input. In one version, I was controlling a Nicholas Cage sprite shooting turtle turrets (hard to explain) to knock down rainbow-colored walls while dodging spiky balls on my way to the goal. It was a mess... albeit an entertaining one.

In this case, user input has quite apparently led the game astray. It is a mockery of its former self, and players with tongues planted firmly in cheeks are petitioning Koning to develop the game until it collapses under its own feature list. Admittedly, this is an experiment, and no money is being paid for this “service,” so the harm being caused is dubious. Players are getting what they asked for.

Choice Chamber by Michael “Bean” Molinari, is another mutation of the player-input system. A single player controls a hero who must fight through screens of monsters with an assigned weapon. The catch is that the game is meant to be streamed via Twitch and as you progress your spectators will vote on the weapons, abilities, buffs, and hindrances you encounter next.

My experience with the game was more refined than Please be nice :( because the developer sought more control over the final output, but once again I was put at the mercy of other people, people I’ve never met. Yet because Molinari set up the world and the survey questions, choice has become more illusive. He has set the parameters by which all will play unlike Koning. Or has he?

When discussing these games with others, it occurred to me that Koning’s game has created a conundrum whereby the players can be fooled into believing that the output, the latest version, is the fault of the crowd. If it plays like a mess, you can blame the previous 130+ folks that offered up feature requests. In the end, though, how they were implemented becomes a huge guiding factor in forming an opinion on this kind of work.

At the end of the day, Koning executed each feature how he saw fit. Just imagine the freakish chimera of a game he’d have created with a full suite of 3D graphics rendering and programming tools. Instead of taking each feature at its most basic level, he could have refined it, molded around user intent so that surveyed players feel like they influenced a good product. Instead, he acts as the snide genie who warns his masters to be careful what they wish for or they just might get it.

This is, of course, not meant to vilify either developer. On the contrary, they have both incorporated user input in a manner we don’t see in our modern games. And not since Mass Effect 3’s contentious ending have we really seen a developer modify a product based on crowd-sourced input. There’s been plenty of writing on the illusion of player choice when it comes to gameplay, but inquiring among the audience for how a game is developed adds a meta layer to that illusion.

It would be helpful to consider the effect of other players on your perception of a product when you observe a game’s development from E3 to launch. When we watch developers and PR folks play a demo, we’re not experiencing how we’d play a game. When we try a restricted demo for an unfinished product, the developer is determining the game we play more than we are by playing it. There are lots of players’ choices happening at any stage of a game’s development, but always keep in mind who has granted those players any choice at all.

Tags:   E3, indie
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