As the first article of my shiny new blog (courtesy of Ville Vanninen: web designer, friend and an all around stand-up guy) I figured I'd touch on the topic of hopes and expectations, and how they affect our reactions and perceptions. This topic was brought to mind by my recent sessions with Bard's Tale (the new 2004 one, not the original series). I picked up the game on some online sale or other, with great prejudice. As a roleplaying game enthusiast I remembered the very negative reception the game got from fans back when it was published, because the gameplay nor the story have any real connection with the original trilogy.
The original trilogy (first volume published in 1985) is held by many to be an absolute legend of the computer roleplaying game genre: it's a classic first-person dungeoncrawler, and its ideas have been copied by many a game after its time. The new 2004 iteration is a top-down action-adventure game, which actually has nothing in common with the original games, save for the name which was used to shamelessly tout the product to the unsuspecting fans of the original franchise. Thus, the fans were expecting one thing, while the game delivered something quite different.
As I said, I had very low expectations of the game when I started on it. This meant that I was positively surprised. The game is genuinely funny (at times at least), the voicework is stellar, and the graphics are alright for their time. (Also, some of the concept art is reminiscent of the old Sláine comics, and you can draw clear parallels between the protagonists, which was interesting in its own right.) What was more fascinating though is that the gameplay in InXile's iteration of Bard's Tale is actually reminiscent of a newer CRPG, which has been acclaimed by everyone as an instant classic of its time: The Witcher. I'd played through the first Witcher game a while back, and playing Bard's Tale reminded me of that to a tee. It was almost like playing some sort of a proto-Witcher, or an earlier iteration of the same game; Witcher 0.5 if you will. This is where the disparity between the receptions and the reputations of the two games struck me: since the games are so similar, why is one reviled as an affront to its genre and the other acclaimed as a refreshing new take on worn out ideas? This is where we come to the topic at hand: expectations.
The hardcore fans who bought Bard's Tale were expecting a similar game to the old classics, a challenging romp through some musky dungeons. I suppose they had good reason to, since InXile's marketing made use of the classic's name and reputation. Expectations were especially high, since the genre of grid-based dungeoncrawlers was not doing so well at the time. What they got was a tongue-in-cheek action adventure, with lots of clicking but not a lot of intellectual challenge. Expectations did not meet reality at all, and the reception was negative. The same people who later bought The Witcher were expecting a brutal action adventure game, with a dark plot and some mature themes. What they got was exactly that, more or less. Disappointed fans led to a bad reception and eventually a bad reputation, whereas a satisfied audience has led to unprecedented success. (20 years ago, who would have thought that one of the best CRPGs ever would be based on a Polish fairytale character?).
This is a perfect example of how respecting your target audience as a designer will gain success for your product. Fullfilling audience expectations can be challenging, but is made more feasible with increased transparency: nowadays it is easy to communicate with your audience, and tell them what you're doing. Here honesty is important, as you have to be able to deliver what you promise in order to keep your audience happy. This seems like a major challenge to many marketing departments, who are prone to promise fans the moon, the sky and everything in between, while in actual fact the product more resembles a a crayon picture of the above, drawn by a five year old.
This brings me to my conclusion, a mission statement of sorts for this homepage. On these pages I'll strive to scribble my musings, with a focus on reading games from a designer's perspective, as well as cultural and artistic phenomena. The topics may vary wildly, as I write this stuff as much for myself as for anyone else, but I'll strive for brevity and clarity as much as I can. And if anyone feels like continuing discussion on a topic I've covered, drop me a line!