When I released Common Ground, I discovered that most people sided with Mike, whether consciously or unconsciously. A number of people told me that it had never occurred to them to see if their actions were really being replayed in the later-yet-simultaneous scenes.
In a way, that's good. It means that people were getting caught up in the story, were viewing Common Ground as something other than a game to be poked and prodded. It's possible that some people saw the storyline as a puzzle of sorts: see if you can keep the story from veering off its original track. If this is the case, I suspect it happened on a subconscious level. Players knew how the story turned out last time, so unconsciously worked to make it turn out that way again.
(Aside #3: Personally, though, I blame Jigsaw. It played on the whole "history must be left as is" theme, thus scarring a whole generation of IF players for life. You should try wrecking history some time. Sure, horrible things might happen, but then, so might good things.)
But the point is -- no, wait, I've mislaid my point. Ah, right. The point is, the disjoint between author and player can be troubling. You write a game. You release it. Magically, the community comes to a consensus about your game...and it's not what you were expecting. Everyone's missed the things you thought were neat and have instead focused on things that, to you, are very minor.
You sit there, wondering where you went wrong. You're a player, right? So why didn't you realize this would happen? Why didn't you have a better idea of how people will view your game? Worst of all, you have this sneaking suspicion that you're the only one this happens to. Those other authors don't run into this, do they?
They do. At least, the ones I've talked to do. (I suspect the rest are keeping quiet because, like you, they think they're the only ones who feel this way.)
Here's the thing, though: this disjoint can be a good thing. Remember my beginning truism? Since you can't play your game, you'll have to get other people to play it, then tell you about it. The only way you'll really learn about your game is to hear other people talking about it. That's why I'm so keen on reviews and newsgroup discussions -- they let me learn things about my game that I'd never have found out otherwise.
A quick example. As I wrote Arrival, I found myself growing rather fond of the game. I would chuckle at parts of it, especially Zigurt and Floban's rants. Uh-oh, I thought. Sure, I think this is funny, but will others?
I released it in the competition under a pseudonym, then sat back. Time passed. Eventually the competition was over, and people posted reviews. Lo and behold, Michael Straight had the following to say about Arrival:
Finally, I can't think of any work of IF that has made me laugh so much. I guess this is much more subjective, but I thought the antics of the aliens, especially their comments about the atlas and their attempts to open the pill bottle, were hilarious. And there were tons of little jokes everywhere. The response when you try to take the alien's pills still makes me laugh. I feel like after watching a really funny movie and you keep saying to your friends, "Remember this? Remember that? Bwahahah!"
I felt like dancing. Someone got it. Someone got it. No matter how many people found Arrival boring or unfunny, at least one person was tuned to my frequency. And I wouldn't have known that if not for the competition reviews.
(Aside #4: There were a lot of nice reviews of Arrival which mentioned the humor. I didn't forget them, I swear. Michael's was the first one I saw. There were also some not-nice reviews. Such is life.)
So how can you plan for this disjoint? You don't. The best you can do is know that it's going to happen. Be prepared to feel a little off-kilter when player feedback starts rolling in, and be glad. The disjoint will tell you more about your game than any amount of staring at the source code.
As it's happening, pay attention. Ask yourself why players clued into what they did. See what you can learn from it, and try to use that knowledge in your next game.
And be sure to add as wide a range of actions as possible to your game. You never know what the next KICK HEAD will be.
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This article copyright © 2002, Stephen Granade