Cognitive Surplus and Narrative Architecture

How many times have you gone online to look for a bit of info on how to take down that last boss, find all of those steel ingots in Fallout, or god forbid, kill that bastard Ruby Weapon? It’s a different way to experience the world within these games, utilizing the different knowledge of other people’s experiences to augment your own playthrough.

I still have nightmares about this guy

Consumer side to Information Overload

When I was younger, if I didn’t buy the official guidebook for a game I was having trouble with, I’d have to wait until Nintendo Power covered any bits of info that I couldn’t figure out on my own. Most of the time, I’d sit there with a notebook while I played (especially Dragon’s Quest and Final Fantasy), keeping track of the clues that I heard in towns, hoping to make sense of it when I needed to. I remember my notebook for Star Control II was so complicated, that I kept it secret from others because of its horribly nerdy nature (and my pathetic attempts at my own star maps…).

The original Mass Effect

Things are much different these days. The internet keeps us connected, but it also distributes the heavy-lifting of all those notes. Instead of each one of us sitting at home, writing the notes down, we are able to utilize the cognitive surplus of everyone to figure out some of the more complicated aspects of certain games.

Wikis spring up all over the place, and you could find an unofficial one for pretty much any game that you could think of (there’s even one for Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City for crying out loud). The nature of wikis—crowd-sourced data populated by people who contribute because they want to—enable players to be prosumers, simultaneously consuming the entertainment, and producing supplemental content.

Think about all of the different websites out there for the specific tactics and theorycrafting aspects of MMOs. They utilize not only the vast amounts of information available, but also each individual’s time spent on the game, creating a new sort of game guide: one that is created by the players for the players, sometimes filled with so much data that it seems impossible. Here is a bit from a Survival Hunter guide from Elitist Jerks:

With damage over time abilities now refreshing without wasting a dot, “interleaving” a cobra shot between procs is less viable. Instead we can more quickly use our explosive shots without wasting charges. Simply spamming Explosive Shot will result in 8 ticks, with 1 lost. Before 4.2 this would have been 7 ticks. If you wait a small fraction of a second after the 1 second GCD, it should be sufficient to get all 9 ticks quickly. This would be 9 explosive shot ticks in about 3.3 seconds assuming you wait 0.1 between each. This is almost always the best usage on single target, although there may be times when filling in an instant cast ability such as kill shot is worthwhile.

First off, what? Secondly, what? That level of information seems masochistic in nature, but it helps players understand maximum efficiency when playing their chosen class, hopefully preventing them from getting flamed by their guildmates during a particularly difficult raid.

I’m supposed to what exactly?

Here we have networked humans, all contributing and crowd-sourcing the information for each other: what tactics work, which ones don’t, how best to augment playstyles for maximum efficiency, etc. It seems harmless, and it affects games in different ways. For solo RPGs, these player guides help navigate the world, replacing your own brainpower in solving certain puzzles with other, more pressing matters (how to 100% the game, how to best do a speedrun, or how to make that certain alien disrobe for you).

It’s not like this sort of networked content only happens for RPGs, though. Look at Ars Technica’s article on Fez where they talk about how the hardest puzzle was eventually solved. As the players approached the seemingly unbreakable code, forums lit up as gamers argued about the apparent pointlessness of the puzzle, and it took gamers getting together online to finally crack it. Of course, cracking a puzzle is arguably its own reward, so that could explain some of the anti-climactic feelings that some of the gamers are experiencing now.

Now, even the hardest puzzles can be solved, because they’re not played by one person in isolation, they’re in effect being played by millions of gamers who help each other out and stay in contact with each other. The technology to screencap and vidcap some of the hardest parts of a game is cheaper and more accessible than ever. Now we don’t even have to resort to only reading game guides written in courier font, we get to see image-filled wikis filled with hyperlinks and crowd-sourced data.

When I first started playing Fallout 3 (a couple of years after its release), I was able to dive through tons of FAQs, using other people’s trial-and-error tactics to 100% the game. I gave up before I got everything, but I doubt I would have gotten as far as I did without everyone else’s help. Okay, actually, I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did.

Gamer OCD

It wasn’t that all of this additional, crowd-sourced material ruined the game for me (as it might have for some Fez players). I didn’t have the time to take meticulous notes on everything, nor did I have the time to go through and look for all of those damn bobbleheads. Sometimes, I just wanted to run through a vault and be told where to look. I saw another side of the game, one that I wasn’t going to see without the internet’s help.

The Business Side of the Information

There’s a ton of data out there, people willing to add to it, and lots of aggregators (not to be confused with aggrecrocodiles, native to Australia [and I’d like to personally apologize for that shitty pun]). In the last section, I talked about some of the ways that this data has changed our relationship with contemporary games, pointing to complex playstyle-choices, minutiae of trophy-farming, and story-guides.

If we, as gamers, are able to use all of this data, what about the developers? Don’t they have access to similar data-sets?

For MMOs, this activity takes two main approaches/functions: forums and beta-testing. With the forums, like-minded individuals come together, sharing secrets of success, DPS data, and similar stories, all the while with an open channel of communication with the developers and staff. If information about a patch comes out, they post it to the forums, letting the info be disseminated for them (no email-blasting necessary).

Beta-testing is the company’s harnessing of that excess cognitive capacity in order to smooth out the game and figure out balancing issues. The big beta-weekends, server-stress-tests, and regular, months-long beta-testing allow the developers to use a bunch of unpaid interns (who get no college credit) to go through the games, pointing out bugs, glitches, and balancing issues. Most gamers are more than happy to do it, as they get to play the game for free and before their friends.

Pandas>Chuck Norris>Mr.T

Interestingly, sometimes the beta-testing isn’t enough. After Fez was released, Polytron had to release a statement, saying, “FEZ had more testing done in the past 24 hours by about TWENTY THOUSAND PEOPLE (!!) than it had in five years. So, as it happens, bugs popped up. Some pretty serious.” What’s interesting here is that even though it’s no longer in beta, Polytron was still able to collect the data from willing users on how to fix up the game a bit. Sometimes, though, the information isn’t given as much as it’s taken.

Valve has been doing this sort of thing for a while. Look at these stats and graphs from 2006. They create an overall picture of Half-Life 2 Ep 1, and how the gamers were making their ways through the story, maps, and how they were specifically enjoying the game (captions? HDR-enabled?). This information helps dictate what they are going to do with the next installments, future projects, etc.

Where art Thou, Part III?

When Bioware started mining data for Mass Effect 2, most of what they were doing was in order to, “know what players like and what they don’t like, based on the way that they’re playing it, then you can make more of the good stuff and less of the stuff they weren’t interested in.” (Source: IGN)  The optimist in me really enjoys the potential here. I like to think that a company uses that information to make the best game possible, but while Mass Effect 3’s metacritic scores are off the charts, there was also that business with the ending…

Bioware also used some of the mountains of data to see how SW:ToR players were experiencing their new MMO. This article looks at how they play, giving them the kind of information on how to shape the future quests, promotions, etc. In the data, they found that the average gamer played between four and six hours, and they apparently really loved Sundays (God must be a Star Wars fan). It might help them make decisions on questline-length, catering to the four-hour gamer, or if dealt with subtly, they could slowly ease the player into a five-hour session (the analogy here being how you boil a frog by slowly turning up the water’s temperature instead of dropping one into a pot of boiling water, but I digress).

Excuse me?

I’d love to be the eternal optimist here and suggest that maybe it’s a good thing that these companies have this type of data. If you were a published author, wouldn’t you like to have extensive amounts of research that shows exactly what types of characters people enjoy reading about? What kinds of situations/scenarios made your readers fall into the “just one more page” mentality? Whether or not that would help create literature is another story…

Interestingly, when this data is released publicly, it can sometimes be good for the player in other ways.

Now look at this post, again from Valve. Using data from 65 million bullets fired on De_Train map, Valve has mapped out where the hotspots are for different weapons, the two factions, and general tomfoolery (although there isn’t a teabagging filter on the map; that would be helpful for me). What’s interesting about this info is that the information is coming back to the user. Now I can study this before I jump into the map, and now I know where the craziness is probably going to happen. I mean, I could also just play the map a lot, and I’d figure it out anyway, but still. This seems a bit more painless.

The larger issue at play here isn’t necessarily the Orwellian fear that somehow we are giving away access to our previously-private  experiences (in the sense that they were personal experiences before they could be mined for data). That metaphorical ore is now refined to the point that there can be meaningful information to be used, finding out what it is that the gamers identify with, what they focus on, and then create dlc or sequels that highlight those aspects.

Is that a bad thing? Is it like corporate greed, with its amorphous and symbiotic, but potentially parasitic relationship to consumers? Or is it a transcendent experience? One that enables new forms of narratives to exist and live in the new world that we are simultaneously creating as we buy and sell the other narratives?

When Information goes bad

You make games fun; they make fun games. Cognitive surplus enables new approaches to games, used by both gamers and developers to change our relationship with the games and the intellectual properties around those games.

Interestingly, the ways in which gamers and fans can augment the experience go beyond modding or testing a game; they also can fund games and create experiences that exist beyond the realms of the games themselves (Cosplayers, anyone?).

Best. Cosplay. Ever.

Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site enables people to distribute the funding across millions of people, also gives the funders perks for contributing to the game, incentivizing the process (as if good games weren’t the only needed result). I’ve talked elsewhere about some of the potential problems of Kickstarter, but overall, I find it a very positive thing for the gaming world, as it gives some of the power back to the fans themselves. Now we get to decide where the money goes (and apparently most of it goes to Wasteland 2 and Double Fine Adventure).

What about  the story of the Warballoon team? They wanted $20K, got more than $30K, and then they broke down for the viewing audience where that money actually went. They are still positive that Star Command will be made; it’s just that the actuality doesn’t necessarily match the potential. User expectations can create a sense of undue necessity.

Yes please.

Crowd-sourcing, and the increase in openness between developer and gamer could be increasing a sense of entitlement on the part of gamers (mentioned in a previous post and in passing on the Reverend’s review of Mass Effect 3). As this sense of ownership grows, is it necessarily a bad thing that there are gamers who feel jaded at the decisions made by the different publishers and developers out there? EA/Bioware has buckled/been nice before, and they’ll probably do it again, but where do you draw the line?

In the end, the fans, acting as unpaid interns, work to create a world around the game. The developers need the fans for funding, unpaid reviews, and word-of-mouth convos. Oh yeah, and for buying the games. Sometimes it seems as if there is something missing, though—a disconnect between the creators and the fans, and not the one that has existed in traditional arms of the publishing world.

Where gamers are suckers and pirates are kings.

Sometimes, it’s not an honest mistake of a developer not listening to the fans; it’s a developer/publisher acting as big brother. Erling Løken Andersen decided in December of 2011 to create some Fallout-inspired posters as fan art. Subsequently, he received a letter from a law firm representing Bethesda that he was to cease giving away the posters (he never sold them) and turn over his domain (fallout-posters.com) to Bethesda. (Read all about it here) While I understand the need for copyright owners to protect their property, in this day and age, it’s no longer enough to simply protect the content like it used to be protected prior to the internet age. Anderson’s retort was balanced and reasonable, and it reflects the mentality commonly held by many today that sharing and fan-creations (especially when not in direct conflict with an existing product) are a genuine expression of appreciation for quality IPs. Here you have a devoted fan who is basically advertising for the company for free, and he gets preemptively harassed. It doesn’t seem right.

Likewise, Hasbro went after an Australian blogger for discussing unreleased Nerf Guns (yup, you read that right). They contacted him and said that they needed his address so they could ship him some free stuff in appreciation for all of his blogginess, and then lawyers showed up instead. Here you have a dedicated fan, increasing visibility of a product line for other fans, and they bring in the big guns to take him down (I understand that there is some sort of supply chain screw up here, but still).

Shit just got real

It’s almost as if some of these companies have forgotten that core fans, the ones that will spend their cognitive surplus on talking about and creating fan versions of their products actually increase the worth of said products. And they also forgot how important PR is…

What about Crytek’s position about the next generation of gaming consoles fighting piracy by blocking out used sales? When asked about the possibility that the next generation of consoles would prevent used sales, Rasmus Hojengaard, Crytek’s director of creative development said, “From a business perspective that would be absolutely awesome.” While selling used games may not be the most beneficial thing for the publishers, it is the gamers that this sort of thing ends up punishing. These are efforts directly aimed at destroying the unity and cooperation between gamers and creators. While I understand that the nature of used game sales is problematic to say the least, quality content gets bought on day one. Period.

You want to talk about something that scares developers? What about the networked nature of extremely smart gamers? Gamers know now when games come out with on-disc DLC. They’ll crack a disc, read the contents, and post it. They know when they feel fleeced by companies, and they are able to communicate with each other about it.

And they’re scared. But should they be?

That’s right; I’m talking about you, Capcom.

This back-and-forth between gamers and creators is ultimately a good thing. We’ve never been able to be so open with companies, and they’ve never been as open as they are now. What does this mean for the future? Like Jeffrey “Qualitybeats” Demelo said on Twitter, when referring to The Walking Dead: Episode One: “Walking Dead is how I want to absorb…say…60% of my gaming experiences. Monthly, episodic, quality. Support [that] business model!” I believe that that’s a smart move, and it’s one that coud definitely result in positive gamer-feedback-integration.

Real time communications between fans and creators, updating data quickly and seamlessly, eventually ending in something akin to a broadcast model seems to be the way that we’re heading. Fans’ content will be embraced as an integral part of the process, one that companies see as enhancing their own content.

And then we can keep shooting aliens in the face. And that’s a really good thing.

Originally posted on Wouldyoukindly in three parts.

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