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Q&A: Strange Agency On Analyzing The RPG

Research firm Strange Agency has written an in-depth report analyzing the RPG genre - Gamasutra catches up with them for a conversation on the company's analytical software and how it's applied to the role-playing game.
UK based Strange Agency are an interdisciplinary research group specialising in videogames and semiotics. Beginning in 2004, though only launching earlier this year, the group has worked on the Strange Analyst software, which catalogues gameplay data for over 10,500 games. The software allows users to compare titles, and track gameplay patterns, with the aim of reducing risk in game development. Recently, Strange Agency released The Empirical Analysis of the Role Playing Game (RPG) Genre for Video Games, a report detailing gameplay patterns within the RPG genre. The report was written with three main aims; to prove that genres can be analysed using large data samples, to show the role of gameplay activity groups in demonstrating Key and Unique Selling Points within the genre, and to show how technology governs the emergence of sub-genres. Gamasutra contacted Strange Agency Managing Director Clive Fencott and Technical Director Jo Clay via email to ask about the company and the report. What is the background of Strange Agency, and what service are you offering to the games industry? Strange Agency develops revolutionary gameplay analysis software and essential market research reports for the computer and video games industry. Our unique services support the vision and creativity of the industry, enabling insight into market trends, gameplay patterns, technological developments and player demographics; revealing the true potential of games in conception. The company was established in 2004, as a spin out from the University of Teesside; one of the top universities in the world for studying and researching games. As well as distributing Strange Analyst and our Strange Agency Reports (STARs) we also provide confidential consultancy in the form of Secret STARs. What was the methodology of the report? Our analysis software has created a database of over 10,500 gameplay activity profiles. From these we gathered profiles for every role-playing game, 272 at the time but almost 500 now. At Strange Agency, we analyse games in terms of gameplay activity groups. These activity groups define what the player actually does in the game - it’s a measure of the gameplay - so we literally calculated the RPG genre by taking the average of all the RPG gameplay activity profiles in our database. To delve deeper, we then selected 21 RPGs developed for each of the 3 major consoles (7 titles from each the PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox) and 21 RPGs available on the PC. This meant we could compare the mean activity profiles for console and PC to see if there were any differences. As a result, we did find differences between the platforms, and enlightening ones they were as well. What does the report offer to developers working within the genre? The report offers developers and publishers real insights into how they can manipulate gameplay activities to create an RPG with edge, or an RPG that crosses over multiple genres. Why did you decide to look at the RPG genre? Our in-house analyses indicated that role-playing was the most complex of all games genres. We realised that if we could generalise RPGs, then we could analyse and understand any genre or sub-genre. What do you think gamers look for in an RPG? A great RPG has to include a strong story that drives the player’s activity. This story tends to involve major conflict between not just individuals or groups, but whole civilisations or ideals. To really immerse the player in long term play, their character must be integral to this conflict, as a saviour or a propagator. Gamers really revel in the ability to enhance their skills in the game, whether it’s through levelling up, new weaponry or magical abilities. Trading, a complementary activity group, is desirable, as is the opportunity to create and customise characters. The split tends to appear with the importance of the strategy element. This activity can encourage and also isolate gamers, so it very much depends upon your desired target audience. What part does cross-genre synthesis play in a successful title? It varies. Many RPGs match up to the standard RPG activity profile pretty closely and are successful. Although there’s more to a successful game than its gameplay activity profile, building in non-standard activities can create an edge and perhaps a whole new consumer market for a game. Some RPGs, for example, will lean more to the action adventure genre, whereas others are tactical and strategic. Tweaking the levels of activity groups, that characterise these alternate genres and others, enables new RPG variations to emerge. This is what happened with the sneak-em-up genre, what became stealth games, which took the first-person shooter and created a whole new market for people that wanted to do more than simply twitch and shoot. But our technology also shows the dependencies between activity groups. Throwing activities in, without considering how they relate to existing ones and the gameplay profile as a whole, can cause problems. What part does an 'edge' play in a successful RPG? So an edge might be created through an innovative activity profile. After all, gameplay is at the heart of games - this so often gets forgotten. People play games because they want to do something different, so gameplay is often at the heart of people’s retail choices. I need to know what kind of activities I am buying into as a player. Of course an edge can be represented by features, such as graphical capability, an eye-catching license and so on but gameplay activity will always be the most distinctive unique selling point. What other interesting or surprising findings came from the report? First of all was the significant differences between console and PC based RPGs. Effectively the technology has determined two related but distinct sub-genres. Secondly, our analysis not only showed what was expected of an RPG but also where the leeway was; what could be varied, or even left out all together, and still leave you with an RPG. One of the report's main purposes is that it "shows how technology can govern the emergence of sub-genres" - what examples would you give of titles that have emerged through new technology? The Wii is an obvious example here. Take Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting; this game would have been a tricky customer on any other console than the Wii. Albeit games like Graffiti Kingdom were playable and fun on the PS2, you could never get the same control as you can with Nintendo’s Wii. We’re looking forward to including Wii games in our database in a month or so, enabling us to actually quantify some of the gameplay differences between Wii and GameCube, for example. The online capability of the Xbox 360 has also launched the success of games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and GRAW. Although online has been available on the PC for years now, the console audience is a different one altogether. Also, going back in time, Super Mario 64 was one of the first games to fully exploit the use of the analogue controller in its gameplay, on the Nintendo 64. Not only did this console enable this sophisticated interaction, but also the 3D graphics that accompanied it.. Using Strange Analyst, we can track the gameplay timeline in relation to console technology advancements and, to some extent, predict future changes in gameplay. What other reports will we be seeing from Strange Agency? Our latest report Games Women Play reveals the gameplay activity preferences of hardcore women gamers. If the games industry is going to expand and sustain itself in the future, the hardcore female gamer cannot be ignored. This untapped, but significant, community is largely neglected, whilst the casual female gamer attracts the majority of press attention. There is a lack of understanding about the games women play and what it is that attracts the female gamer. Our report evaluates the most popular gameplay activities and provides a set of guidelines defining the ideal game for women. Strange Agency is also currently investigating the hype around Brain Age (Brain Training) and older players in general. For companies using your services for risk analysis, does the use of empirical genre analysis mean that more unique titles might be considered too risky because of their untested Key Selling Points, or is it possible to take into account Unique Selling Points at a pre-development stage? What they’d find is that a lot of ‘safe’ looking titles, titles that appear to be strongly grounded in an apparently well understood genre, are actually pretty innovative and combine activity groups, gameplay features, from other genres: cross-genre synthesis. Games such as Grand Theft Auto, Big Mutha Truckers, Shenmue and many others have done this quite successfully. In fact, a lot of games in the driving genre exhibit this synthesis. By using our gameplay activity analysis method, developers can safely ‘test’ new gameplay edges before any real game content has been created. Strange Analyst actually allows developers to compare and contrast gameplay activity profiles to identify these edges for themselves. The report also details the "new games potentials" within the genre - would you suggest that there is still room for innovation within the genre, or would developers be safer working within existing genre guidelines? There is definitely room for innovation, in this and just about any other genre, and to innovate by synthesizing new genres with old. Using our software you can actually create new genre gameplay ‘templates’ and see if anything already fits the bill, or have you spotted something really new. We see our empirical approach enabling far more creativity and originality in the industry, whilst convincing the publishers that this originality makes good commercial sense. Being able to spot the subtle, even hidden, differences between games is a very liberating experience for those who really do want to innovate. All the signs indicate that developers and publishers are crying out for unique IP, yet remain terrified by the risk of it. Strange Agency can support developers and publishers move forward with this process and encourage the evolution of the games industry.

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