Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Justifying My Existence, part 2

Ok, in retrospect I don't know why I teased the ending of the history lesson.  The big reveal is that the human factors engineers went back home to their universities, and continued their research.  The result was the beginnings of human factors as a field.  There were now scientists interested in the systematic study of human beings in the context of a technological system.

Although I use the term "technological," it's important to note that human factors covers more than what we would normally consider technology.  For instance, the way a restaurant kitchen staff interacts with each other to deliver food properly and efficiently can be considered a technological system to the human factors researcher.  The real interest is in understanding humans as part of a greater system rather than the human per se (cf. psychology's study of the individual's mind).  It's a multi-disciplinary field in that regard, as human factors is interested in the cognitive psychology of a person's mental processes, the biomechanics of how they move and act on the environment, the sociology of how their broader cultural contexts influence their behavior, and so on.  As a cognitive psychologist, though, you'll find I'm primarily interested in what's going on between people's ears.

So, I'm not talking about video games nearly as much as I want to be, so let's reign it back in.  Why should video games care about human factors?

Back in 2005(ish), Nintendo's head honcho, Satoru Iwata, explained the company's philosophy behind the Wii.  (I wish I could find the original interview, but it's getting swamped by Wii U stories.)  In essence, he explained that the defining change from one console generation to the next up to that point had been a boost in graphics; but we're reaching a plateau.  It may have been a while since you've seen it, but check out the original Toy Story:

Back in 1995, this blew our freaking minds.

It took 300 computer processors 2-15 hours to render a single frame of the movie.  Perhaps with the exception of the self-shadow effects, the entire movie looks like a current-gen in-game-engine cut scene.  For instance, check out what the PS3 pumps out in real time for the Toy Story 3 movie tie-in game:

Woody facing off with his infamous nemesis, skinny bandana man

Graphics are responsible for innovation in games insofar as they can more veridically represent a developer's vision, and the gap is rapidly closing.  We've hit a point where games are sufficiently pretty.  You're unlikely, for instance, to mistake someone's headband for their face in current-gen graphics.  

Agahnim from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (source)

And as any retro gaming nerd will tell you, graphics don't even affect how the game plays.  Whether you're reflecting energy balls back at Agahnim with your bug net on an SNES or Gannondorf's magic blasts with a bottle on your 3DS, it still feels awesome.  And it's about as much fun in all the other Zelda games since LttP, which just about all used it, too.  (Nerd burn!)

In fact, the only example I could think of off the top of my head where a step up in graphics had a direct impact on gameplay was when Nintendo (ironically) first used Link's eye gaze as a means of providing puzzle hints in Wind Waker.

Fun fact: You automatically direct your attention toward the target of other people's (especially cel-shaded people's) eye gaze (Friesen & Kingstone, 1998).

Getting back to my point, Iwata explained Nintendo would not significantly upgrade the Wii's graphics capability over the Gamecube, and instead would focus on upgrading the means of interacting with the game.  That, he argued, would lead to the next great innovations in gaming.  Granted, it eventually became a lot of mindless waggling, but Nintendo accomplished their goal of shaking up (har har!  PUNS!) the video game industry.  The new gimmick proved profitable and now every major console company is trying to cash in with their own make-an-ass-of-yourself-by-wiggling-some-part-of-your-body-around-but-oh-god-not-that-part-of-your-body-except-maybe-for-that-one-time-you-wanted-to-see-if-your-dong-was-big-enough-to-get-detected-by-the-Kinect method of game control.

(By the way, because I know you're curious now: the answer is yes.)

But here's the thing: the tactic was profitable because Nintendo drew in a whole lot of new, (*shudder*) casual gamers.  The assumption was that the Wii would be a gateway drug of sorts, luring in upstanding members of society with a few minutes of tennis here and a few minutes of bowling there.  They could never figure out how to do that on an XBox with its multiple joysticks, 11 visible buttons, 2 invisible buttons (L3 and R3), and its XTREME 'TUDE.  But this, you're just wiggling a little white stick!  How cute.  

Then in order to justify spending hundreds of dollars on what amounted to an afternoon diversion, those same people would try out something a little headier - like a Metroid or an Okami.  Then BAM, you have a new generation of gamers pre-ordering the next iteration of your system.

Or do you?

Of course you don't.  That question always means you don't.  You tapped into a completely separate market that behaves in a totally different way.  You tapped into a market that tries out that new "Dance Dance Resolution or whatever" game at the movie theater one time on a date but then never again (OMG! He thought I was such a nerd!  Lolololol).

You tapped into a market that can justify buying a $150 Netflix box or a $200 smartphone and sees games as fun, two-minute time-killers that they won't pay more than $2 for.  (Try selling those guys a 50-hour RPG for $50.)

You tapped into a market that would never understand why you'd pay $65 for a 16-bit game cartridge in 1994 no matter how awesome it was or how many times you've replayed it since then, and what does that even mean, the battery died and you can't save your game anymore?

Point is, those profits are punctate.  Nintendo didn't create repeat customers.  It's not a coincidence that console game sales are down and PC game sales are way up (though Steam offering cross-platform games probably also has something to do with that - how am I supposed to resist the complete Assassin's Creed series at 67% off?  DAMN YOU, GABEN!).  It made Nintendo a buttload of money, but it left a lot of gamers with a bad taste in their mouths.

So what role can human factors (and psychology) play in all this?  That's for the next post to explain.

No comments:

Post a Comment