Last week, I talked about the processes I've been using to communicate design ideas with other people on my team. Today, I want to discuss applying those same lessons to communicating outward to the audience. To quote Jaime Griesemer again, "A tool that is useful for generating an idea is rarely useful for communicating it effectively."
What I'll contend is that observation applies equally to communicating the ideas of a game to the people playing it. Simply, nobody wants to read your design doc. Yet how many times has a game offered up a massive text dump of nearly context-less backstory, or had some NPC prattle on about names, places, events you have no knowledge of? It's been almost two years since Jeff Kaplan said Blizzard needed to "stop writing fucking books" in World of Warcraft, because nobody wants to read them, but I'd say his warnings have not been universally heeded.
My experience in game design started with tabletop RPGs (and persists to this day, and it's something I wish more professional game developers spent time with) and this is a phenomenon I've not only seen bog down many a game, but I've committed such transgression myself on more than one occasion. The motivation is simple enough- the GM wants to tell a compelling, rich tale, so they end up writing pages upon pages of backstory with little regard to how relevant any of it will be to the players.
The question running through most players heads will be, "Why should I care?" This isn't a cynical thought, it's a necessary thought process. Players exist in a state of constant triage. Even in a digital game, they're bombarded with new information. They're trying to sort out the verbs they possess, the place they're in, the characters they are meeting, etc. During the process of creation, the GM/designer ought to bear in mind that same question, "Why should the player care about this?" If the only answers to be found are "Because we told them to," it's time to start editing and paring.
As is so often the case, it's a matter of perspective and habituation. The creators have this information so entrenched, it's impossible to ever come at it again tabula rasa. What seem like a few small but "important" details are just noise in the din on everything they're being asked to take in. It's challenging but vital to keep coming back to "Why should the player care?" Ask other people on the team, get them invested. The key is to ensure you can enunciate what reasons the player has to be interested and how what they're being presented with meshes with those desires.
Of course, I'm speaking in absolutes, but there will always be some folks invested in everything right out of the gate, and others that will never be attached. But there's a great wash of folks in the middle and we want to entice, not overwhelm and ignore, as many of them as possible. And different notes appeal to different people. But I'd say it's a safe bet, and this is the point Jeff Kaplan was making about WoW, the number of people who care why they're rounding up twenty orc snouts would be dwarfed (horrible pun intended) by the number of people who only care about the reward.
I'm going to expand this into one post further still, because there are two severe and unfortunate consequences of this excess of information, and it's more worrying than people skipping quest descriptions (that's just wasted effort and, at worst, missed opportunity). I feel they deserve greater emphasis, so I'll leave them for next week.