Spam Spam Spam Humbug: Episode 19 – Great Expectations

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New Patrons & Shout-Outs

Firstly, I’d like to send some thanks in the direction of Dominus, from the Exult team, who recently backed the Ultima Codex on Patreon! To those of you who’ve been in the Ultima fan project scene for a while, Dom needs no introduction; those of you who don’t know him might be interested to know that he’s the caretaker of the Exult project (the cross-platform engine for Ultima 7 and its sequel, Serpent Isle). He also handles nightly builds for Nuvie and Pentagram, I believe.

I also want to give a couple shoutouts this week to Tony B and Derek Gray, both of whom approached me (respectively, on Facebook and Twitter) over the course of the last week to offer up their thoughts on the podcast. Tony’s comment was succinct: when I mentioned in the Ultima Dragons Facebook group that SSSH was something I had begun on a whim, he quipped that I should begin more things on a whim. Derek, meanwhile, had a couple of things to say:

I just started listening to it a few days ago, and it should have been the minute you started it.

…listening to the podcast is like having the conversations I never got to have before because I never knew anyone that had heard of Ultima until I was an adult and made friends on the Internet. It’s like being 13 with Ultima VII again.

So, a big thanks to both. It’s always edifying to hear comments like these.

New Ultima Dragons

There have been a bunch of new members who have joined the Ultima Dragons Facebook group: Xiao, Alek, Nathan, Kimberly, Lyndon, Juliet, William, Michael, Justin, Walter, Toby, Thomas, Denis, and Craig. Welcome and SPLUT! to all.

Follow-Up From Previous Episode(s)

Gema Dragon left a lengthy comment at the Ultima Codex that was really too good not to include in the follow-up section, because it speaks to what was (admittedly) a bit of a blind spot in our coverage of the combat in RPGs and the necessity thereof.

Also, Iceblade sent me a message via Facebook to correct a statement I made about Ultima 9 and the voices of the Shrines of Virtue. It turns out — I had forgotten this — that not all of the Shrines are voiced by a female voice actor; they may not even all be voiced by the same voice actors. More than that, four of the Shrines — Valor, Honor, Spirituality, and Justice — are voiced by one or more male voice actors, whereas the other four — Compassion, Sacrifice, Humility, and Honesty — are voiced by one or more female voice actors.

Podcast Topic(s)

One of the first lessons on successfully communicating with the public in any service industry is to “appropriately set customer expectations”, meaning you, as a medium between the customer and the service, should choose your words such that customer expectations will be met or exceeded by the projected quality of service to be provided. A simple example is that if a job should take two hours you’d inform the customer it will take two to four hours. This simple technique is not only honest, as things are generally more complex, unpredictable and time-consuming than one might initially anticipate, but also affords a reasonable margin of error for the service provider should they intentionally choose to delay delivery in order to maximize quality. Unfortunately in the games industry this concept is either poorly-understood or intentionally ignored. Poor planning, egocentrism and lack of communication between the studio and marketing department often result in a marked disconnect between gamers’ expectations and the studio’s final product.

Historic examples over over-delivering: Games with little to no pre-release marketing or hype, particularly early games (8-bit era). Games quietly delivering on assumed feature expansion with little pre-release hype (mid-series Ultima games). Truly ground-breaking games such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Wolfenstein 3D and Ultima Online. Low-budget independent titles such as Minecraft, Spelunky and Dwarf Fortress.

Historic examples of under-delivering: Fable, Godus, Duke Nuk’em Forever, Doom III, Ultima VIII, Ultima IX, Street Fighter III, Mass Effect 3 (less about the original ending vs. the Extended Cut, and more about how people felt let down that the game didn’t really offer a wide range of possible endings so much as a single, final choice and a post-game slideshow that walked players through the consequences of their major decisions…although some of these consequences were heavily affected by the galactic readiness score, which in turn was based on those decision points).

Examples of recent game releases guilty of either charge: Broken Age (broken up into chapters midstream), Divinity: Original Sin (NPC schedules and day/night cycles cut).

Examples of upcoming releases whose ambition is such that they might prove to be guilty of either charge: Shroud of the Avatar (billed as a continuation of the Ultima and Ultima Online traditions, but much of its development has been caught up with player houses and towns of late…to say nothing of its comparatively static world that lacks many of the simulation-like features that made Britannia and Sosaria seem so alive), Star Citizen (tons of concerns about feature creep, disappointment with currently-released modules, issues with managing development between multiple studios), Divinity: Original Sin 2 (which in some respects really just feels like a big mod for the first game).

Theories on why this occurs: The big problem with all these big-named KS made games is that they (usually) cater to the features that are going to be the most popular and give them the biggest bang for their buck. This is why they do things like feature surveys, etc…Or even worse, they end up throwing everything in that backers say they want. (This is a big problem with KS games)

It’s simple really: if it’s not going to bring in more money by adding a feature, and by that I mean get someone that isn’t already backing it to back it, then there is no need to add it. The big KS games are in the business of making money, not making the best game. They rely on licenses or franchises (or the legacy of same) to sell, and we can obviously see they do quite good. However, we all know that having a franchise alone does not produce a good product. I can promise you that if a significant number of backers said they wouldn’t back a game unless it had day/night, npc schedules, or insert feature here, then they would make sure they put it in. The reality is that most of the backers will support the game with or without those features, and so they are not needed to sell the product.

What can be done to mitigate this issue: I’m reminded here of a G.K Chesterton quote: “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.” And I think it’s something to keep in mind as we tread into this territory. Like as not, a lot of the problems here are systemic and far-reaching, which some of the best minds in the industry have fallen prey to and have not found a way to surmount. So we should be careful in thinking we can propose a solution.

I feel that these type of games lack clear vision and design from the get go. You can’t ask players what they want, because in all honestly they don’t know. Furthermore, even if you gave them everything they asked for, it wouldn’t be a cohesive design. Features need to be part of the design, not just a bullet point. It’s what I call a Mr. Potato Head design. Do you want the Big Lips? Ok, plug them into the potato. You want the Angry Eyes? Ok, plug them in. Yes in the end you have all the parts, but it’s still a Mr. Potato Head! I don’t know about you, but most people stopped playing with their Mr. Potato Head a long time ago. Why? It’s because there is no depth to it. Once you tried all the body parts it was old hat and it quickly went back in the box. Whereas LEGO (or the game equivalent, Minecraft) has tons of depth, which is why it’s still being played by all ages.

A lot of these modern KS based RPG games are really starting to feel like Mr. Potato Head designs. There is just no cohesive vision or design going into them. It’s making it worse that they are asking players what features they should put in too. I mean, isn’t that the game designers job?

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