Tuesday, August 2, 2011

super.hype: On the Brink – A Case Study in Failed Expectation Management

Please excuse me as I feebly attempt to distance myself from my usual super.hype format for this week. Instead, I’ll be discussing an aspect of AAA games that I believe goes a long way towards clarifying the reasons for the perceived stigmas, and hopefully goes further by questioning whether or not those stigmas are fair.

At the same time, I feel like an analysis like this is well within the confines of a feature that deigns to be called super.hype, but since it is different, I’m playing it safe.

At least for now. Commence!

Brink – What You Know Can and Will Hurt You

I recently purchased BRINK (at a pretty darn good deal) and started playing through it rather leisurely. Or at least, I tried to be leisurely about it. But it was hard. It was hard to avoid wanting to unlock more outfits, guns, perks, weapon attachments, and audio logs. It was hard to avoid thinking about the fastest routes to parkour through each level and how awesome it felt to get the jump on fools who didn’t lean around corners. It was hard to avoid wanting to play as soon as I got home from work, just to sate my craving for speed, maneuverability, and awesome topography traversal animations.

It was hard to stop playing Brink to write this article.

Not once during my playtime did I wonder what the story behind the game was, or why these two factions were fighting, or what they were fighting for, or why everyone is only dudes with very samey facial structures, or why everyone has access to the same guns even though one faction is clearly ragtag while the other is armed forces. It didn’t bother me in the least that a beautiful, mysterious city loomed large in the background of more open levels, or that each match was preceded by some rather lengthy cutscene and followed by the words “Mission: Successful” and some more exposition at the end. I just wanted to play more. I wanted more BRINK. And to me, all those other things weren’t really very…BRINK.
Still, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of people in the over one hundred dedicated servers (worldwide, at least when I was playing). Maybe one of the hundred had 14/16 in it. Most others were completely empty or occupied by a lone player. The barren multiplayer landscape leaves me wondering, what happened to this game?

To answer my burning question, I hopped onto Google and did a quick search of the critical reception for Splash Damage’s new baby. This is what I found:

Metacritic’s Aggregating Reviewbot currently holds firmly at 70 for Brink. But I have yet to experience as much dissatisfaction and frustration as these reviews might lead me to believe. For the price I paid (granted, at a discount), and more importantly the time I’ve spent, to play this game, I am beyond pleased. If you ask current players (those few, lone wanderers in the barren multiscape), you’ll probably hear the same: it’s a good game, but nobody plays it.

For most of us, me included normally, no further investigation or curiosity might arise from this situation. But some niggling, naggling thing naggled and niggled me far beyond the release of this game, prompting me, prodding me, naggling and niggling me to believe that there was indeed some kind of lesson to be learned here. It wasn’t just the price that prompted this purchase, but the sincere belief that something had gone terribly wrong between the inception of the design and the expectation of the media. And that, my friends, sounded like a pretty darn good story.

While I certainly don’t have access to industryfolk in order to absolutely verify the following claims, I’m going to do my best to try and prove to you that Brink suffered from what I believe is an ongoing, ever-increasing phenomenon for AAA titles: Expectation Mismanagement.

Well, what exactly do I think BRINK did wrong? It’s at this point where that question gets a bit complex: The reviews above would give any sane person the impression that this game is so poorly designed that there is no fun to be had. But design isn’t something that simply makes itself known on 0 Day. Design is something that has been there from the start. Design is what is tested, tweaked, and ultimately perfected before anything else is done. After getting involved in some projects, I’ve now become aware of the fact that design even precedes engine development. You cannot proceed with a game without first approving its design. Is it possible then that the quality team under Splash Damage’s Paul Wedgwood, who began as a community moderator for Quake and essentially pulled himself up by his innumerable hours in multiplayer FPS games, failed to see that their design was simply no good?
Unlikely. You may disagree, thinking that it’s possible for even the most seasoned, well-read and well-traveled individuals can make mistakes of this magnitude. But it simply doesn’t add up. Bethesda has the resources, and Splash Damage has the talent.

I believe the answer lies somewhere else. Part of it, at least, begins to reveal itself in the previews:

With constant references to TF2 and mentions of its competition at its release timeframe, I get this eerie feeling that what people thought they were going to get from BRINK is not what BRINK ever intended from the start.

Information is great. Information lets us interpret the world around us. It’s the basis for conclusions like “man, she’s hot” or “this chair is the bee’s knees.”  But information needs context. With context, “man, she’s hot” may turn into “Yes, but I don’t want a venereal disease” and “this chair is the bee’s knees” will reveal itself as “I don’t want to give my chiropractor MORE money.” With BRINK, I think the story is the same.

So how could have BRINK avoided this sad state of miscontextualized information that led to its demise? Let’s learn from yet another example.
PROUN (I like how both of these titles are in all caps. It makes for some dynamic back-and-forthiness) is an independent title that released earlier this year as well, to great acclaim (and profit). It wasn’t a AAA title by any means, but I think it’s a good example for proper expectation management that can be adapted to AAA releases.
PROUN did a great job managing expectations. There is that small matter of being completely unknown prior to release, and therefore having little expectations, but I think it’s still a valid point to make because people who never played it still had to have some kind of impetus, and thus expectation, in order to make the jump. That this expectation matched up so well to what was actually intended and delivered is what I mean by “great job at managing expectations”. How exactly did it accomplish this?
Honesty. And lack of previews. Granted, high-profile studios and titles will have a much more difficult time with the second, but luckily it’s also secondary to the first. Honesty is the key to properly managing expectations. PROUN accomplished this through the dev’s transparency on his devlog and his willingness to rationalize each decision he made in both the game and its monetization. While PROUN did not have to deal with competing releases in its timeframe, it certainly had to deal with being extremely obscure.

So basically what I’m saying is this --

BRINK, you shouldn’t have shown this:
 When what players will see is this:

You shouldn’t have played up this:
 When what you really spent time on was this:
 And you definitely shouldn’t have allowed this:
click to embiggen
 When what you really intended was this:
BRINK is a good game, when played for what it is. Too bad nobody knew what the hell that was.