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 my last post, 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 might be better than 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.

Seriously, where is Half-Life 3?

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).

Wait, what?

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?

In the next post, I’ll talk about when cognitive surplus turns bad (for the fan).

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