Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rock Band Thinks I’m Awesome, So Why Do I Hate My Voice?

One of the most elusive qualities of pretty much any endeavor in the arts is that of quality itself. What defines quality? What gives art that meaning, that oomph? I can’t answer that question, because it’s pretty damn subjective. One person’s art is another person’s waste of time. Clearly not everyone likes the same music, and what makes a video game fun is different from person to person. Oh, you can certainly try to quantify how great something is by how many people rate it positively, for example, but that still doesn’t get to the root of what makes it great.

Top 2% and Top 3% of Vocal Leaderboards. Breaking the Habit was a sight-read, no less. Not terribly difficult songs, mind you.
A fantastic example of this in action in my personal life is my vocal skills (or middling lack thereof). Rock Band says I’m awesome. Heck, it even quantifies it for me and puts me up on a leaderboard. As seen in the screenshots, I can hit the top 2% - 3% of the leaderboards for some songs (my average is about top 10%). Besides being a great opportunity for a brag post on my fancy blog, this doesn’t mean a whole lot, because of what Rock Band is measuring. It’s measuring timing, and pitch, and nothing else. So I am technically excellent, I have the basics rock solid, so what?

I love going to Karaoke. I can hold my own against most other vocalists, but I can always tell when someone who’s actually awesome and potentially musically trained walks up and takes the limelight. They have a fullness of voice, a timbre I don’t. They have power, but also control. They can evoke an emotional response from the audience.

#1. Technical Excellence indeed. What this doesn't show is that approximately 10% of vocal players are all tied for #1 on this song...

The point being is that just because something is technically excellent, be it polished, well-executed, or by-the-book, but it doesn’t mean it’s awesome or fun. I find the two to be pretty orthogonal concepts. You can have something that is fun, but not polished, or it can be both (or none). I think when those of us in the consumer space judge or critique games (or videos, or music, or any other art medium) we sometimes conflate technical quality with awesomeness. Quite possibly because technical excellence is far easier to objectively quantify.

For the record, I don’t really hate my voice. Not anymore than most people do, anyhow. Some of my friends have told me I have a lovely voice (thank you), and perhaps I do. A lovely voice on its own isn’t enough to be awesome. I still have fun with it, though, so who really cares?

Bringing it to the video game space, when I look at a game like Rift, it was quite excellent from a technical standard. The game was polished, fulfilled the MMORPG checklist extremely well, had a story and extensive skill trees, and I found it dull. It didn’t hit the fun button for me. Yet clearly others enjoyed it. Diablo III and Final Fantasy XIII might be even better examples of games that were extremely well-balanced, highly designed slogs.

On the other hand, you have a game like FTL, a critically acclaimed indie game which is very simple, but pulls off that simple in a very concentrated form. The graphics and sound are definitely indie-levels of quality (stylized 8-bit, which I enjoy, but quickly get over), but the gameplay is straightforward and engaging, with danger around every turn. Another good example is Magic: The Gathering circa ten years ago. Awesome artwork but unbalanced as all get out--go look at the lists of banned cards from some of the really old expansions--and yet MTG had a massive following (myself included).

Sometimes I wonder if the search for quantifiable, technical excellence is overwhelming a more pure form of fun. In the developer’s search for the perfect game-balance, are they sacrificing everything that makes a game unique? Some of the most fun games I’ve played were games that I could break. Final Fantasy VI, VII, and VIII all could easily be completely broken with careful power levelling and the right combinations of items. Diablo II was far from balanced, but it’s still hailed as a masterpiece game.

On the other hand, all of these games that I could break were also primarily single-player games. In a world where most games are either partially or completely online and the amount of data available to show that a class or mechanic is OP leads to player dissatisfaction. Anybody raiding in WoW can attest to the large amount of complaining on forums about even 5% (or smaller!) disparities in damage or healing output. Players demand balance, demand technical excellence, perhaps even at the expense of their own fun.

If you're to look at something as a competitive match, like PvP, world-first races to finish content, racing or fighting games, for just a few examples, balance is extremely important and without that balance that aspect is no longer fun.

So what’s a developer to do? Us armchair designers may want to design our way into a corner inadvertently, but can a large developer really afford to ignore the vocal demanding balance and polish? Or perhaps true balance, technical excellence, and fun may not have to be necessarily at odds. But even if they aren’t at odds, are developers wasting effort on the technical when they could be and should be working on the fun? Where do those boundaries even lie? And perhaps those boundaries are subjective, just like fun itself.

Or maybe I’m totally way off base and this entire concept is crazy. I certainly don’t know, but it’s an interesting set of questions.

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