Archive | January, 2011

The Law of Unintended Consequences

17 Jan

Originally posted on 04 May 2010 @

Of all the idioms, my favourite is the Law of Unintended Consequences (LOUC) – which basically states that when solving a problem, no matter how thorough your thinking and planning, there will always be outcomes that cannot be anticipated or conceived. It is sometimes known as the Streisand Effect, where the attempt to prevent the publication of an article or photo of little or no interest suddenly makes it vastly more interesting and appealing than it ever would have been if no one had made a fuss.

The thing I like most about LOUC is that it serves as a reminder of the perils of hubris when designing and managing complex systems; the peculiarly human folly of believing we can completely control everything around us. This has particular relevance when researching user experiences, as we’re no longer focusing how an individual process or function works, but taking a holistic view of the whole customer experience and the impacts and consequences different channels have on one another. It also has wider implications for our impacts on society and the world around us; thinking laterally, going beyond the problem, extrapolating the long-term impacts, being considerate of others rather than just ourselves. Oh dear, sounds like Socialism! Call the Hyperbole Police!

Plenty of examples of LOUC can be found in the world of gaming, as you would expect from any complex organised system, but perhaps my favourite comes from first person shooter (FPS) Red Faction: Guerrilla. Released by THQ in 2002, Guerrilla appears at first glance to be a fairly predictable (and somewhat mediocre) sequel to the original Red Faction. A staple feature of FPS games is the default weapon, with which you usually start the game and invariably resort to when you run out of ammo. In Doom it was fists, Doom 2 a chainsaw, Half-Life a crowbar, and in Red Factionit’s a sledgehammer. Ordinarily the default weapon has limited value in getting you through the game and, at best, is good for venting frustration on a locked door or sneaking in a couple of cheeky blows on an enemy before he ‘frags your arse’. However, as one wily gamer discovered (and gaming journalists soon picked up on ), when combined with a reduced difficulty setting, the sledgehammer option suddenly and completely changes the nature of the game play.

Traditionally, FPS’ struggle with the balance between realism and playability: the one-shot kill vs. damage meter debate. Reducing the difficultly level of a game to ‘Easy’ will allow you to take a few more hits before dying, but your reputation as a hard-core gamer won’t be so lucky should any of your buddies find out you’re a wuss. Guerrilla tactfully avoids this problem by replacing ‘Easy’ with ‘Casual’, which cleverly suggests you’re a busy professional who doesn’t have a lot of time to play, rather than outing you as a ‘leet noob hax’ – an individual whose game playing abilities are decidedly sub-par.

Playing on ‘Casual’ mode allows you to absorb more damage meaning you can fight enemies up close and slog their brains in truly awesome fashion with the sledgehammer, no longer have to worry about snipers taking you out with a sneaky head shot and, thanks to the fully destructible environment, you can take out entire buildings at your leisure; smashing the foundations and supports and watching the accompanying destructive orgy from a safe distance thanks to your trusty jet pack. The monumental sales of the Grand Theft Autofranchise emphasise the popularity of sand-box games which remove restrictions and let players explore and interact with a vast world on their own terms…and a healthy dose of unreality via nigh-invulnerability and cartoonish violence just ramps up the fun.

This gets to the heart of the definition of playability and, paradoxically, how difficult it is to define. The usability of an interface can be measured quite effectively using heuristics, and many attempts have been made to compile a set of heuristics for the usability of computer games, but none of them adequately address the issue of playability. Perhaps because, conceptually, playability cannot necessarily be quantified; ‘fun’ is subjective and what one person likes a dozen others may not. Not to suggest that fun is the only measure of playability, far from it, but it is an important one. I daresay the creators of Guerrilla never deliberately intended the sledgehammer/casual game mode combo to be a key mode of play in the game…if so, then one imagines they would have promoted it more instead of waiting for seven years for it to be discovered.

Regardless, the word is out, and thanks to the exponential power of the internet meme, there will most assuredly be a second wind for sales of Guerrilla, and its place will be forever assured in the gaming oeuvre not as the mediocre FPS it was supposed to be but as the kick-arse unintended consequence it ended up.