Saturday, January 5, 2013

Social Gaming: How Papo & Yo Redefined the Concept for Me

Expanding the definition of coop

I have established before that I don't really play games with people. Whether that means actually playing a cooperative mode with a friend or fighting against anonymous players online, generally my gameplay experience only involves myself. There are some exceptions for games that make it seem worthwhile to foray into multiplayer, but I only buy a game for its single-player offerings. Everything else is just icing or filler. Thus, it came as a huge surprise to me that my fondest memory of playing a game this year with another human being actually involved a completely single-player game, Papo & Yo.

I had read enough about Papo & Yo to be enthralled with the idea before the first trailer appeared. At that point, I was pre-enamored with it. Although I've only thus written about what a departure the soundtrack is, the game as a whole is remarkably different in tone and experience from the majority of games out there. It is certainly rare to play what amounts to a single writer's autobiography, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. However, it is possible that my review of the game was disingenuous – I didn't tell you readers what really happened.

Twitter is kind of a new beast to me. My job was sending me on a trip to Berkeley, CA in February of 2010, and I decided to try the bandwagon out, tweeting about my trip. I did not consider the ample opportunities it possessed, but one thing that began to stick out was how accessible people and companies became. Celebrities and journalists tweet daily and sometimes actually respond to people who follow them. Companies, on the other hand, hire community managers to handle their official accounts and respond to tweets either praising them for excellent service or deriding them for subpar pizza. What they offer is essentially a free but invaluable product by turning companies into humans replete with feelings and fluids. A bad corporation is a bad corporation, but community managers at least entertain the idea that your complaint reaches actual people who care that you had a poor experience. You and I know your complaint probably won't reach the top dogs of the company unless he or she has a Twitter account.

Alright, this was about Papo & Yo. I decided that I would take this review really seriously. This would be the first new game I'd be reviewing within a reasonable window of its release, and I sat with a notebook by my side to make sure I wrote down everything, good or bad, worth writing about. Despite the damage it can do to the experience, I also did a bit of live tweeting, i.e., posting to Twitter while I played the game. This caught the attention of Minority Media's community manager, Deborah Chantson, who heartily replied to me to wish me enjoyment. (Sadly, I did not log any of our tweets, and I cannot yet access my archive, so there'll be paraphrasing from here on.) Because I had only just started the game, there were a number of events in the first few chapters that made me wonder if they were better explained later on, something that is rather important to me. So I responded to Deb, as she calls herself, stating, "I have so many questions."

Thus, the game began to change for me. Deb, out of a sincere desire to assist all the fans, insisted on Direct Messaging me to answer my questions, thinking I was stuck on a puzzle or something. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, but I didn't take into account that the developer had posted a day-one patch to the game to fix issues, which hampered the game's scores with Polygon and IGN. (I don't suggest bringing those up to her.) She was a woman on a mission, and given the timing, I'm inclined to believe she'd pop out of my PS3 with a screwdriver if it would help. Of course, I didn't have any problems navigating the puzzles, which I found to be fairly straight-forward and easy. But Deb was nice, and sincerely wanted to talk about the game. I've never really done that before, that is, talk deeply about a game I was playing while I was playing it for the first time.*

The conversation didn't take long to devolve into other topics, but Deb always maintained a focus on making sure I was having fun. She even tried to excuse herself to let me play, but that didn't work out. I was truly enthralled to be communicating with someone who was passionate about the game I was playing and who also worked for the developer. That is something that doesn't happen often to anyone that isn't a hired tester. And this unique experience has stayed with me. There is playing the same game with someone, plowing through levels with a digital companion at your side. There is playing against someone, killing each other over and over again, or simply getting more points at sports. But this was like playing with a little Papo & Yo guardian angel, someone who has no direct impact on the game but makes the experience special nonetheless.

I understand that I can't really encourage anyone to ask their favorite developers' community managers to babysit them while they play.** However, I will encourage you to feel at liberty try to communicate with those developers somehow, whether it is a reference on Twitter or just an email discussing your experience. There are real people who read these things and pass it on to the ones you want to hear it most. Gaming isn't the same landscape it was 20 years ago. We no longer play in our individual bubbles anymore, and social networking is pervading the lifestyle in remarkable ways. It is easier to access those who care that you are playing something they worked very hard on, and I'm willing to bet they appreciate your effort as much as you do theirs.

Are you a player who had a unique gaming experience with a community manager? Are you a community manager that had a unique gaming experience with a player? I would love to hear about it!

* I'd like to note that Deb and I didn't discuss any specific features of the game nor its bugs, which I do talk about in my review. We mostly discussed the concept and the company, none of which was relevant to a review or my opinion of the game. She found out my final thoughts on the game at the same time as everyone else on the internet.
** I pity the community manager who would chat through someone's experience playing a sandbox game. "I just sold my 20th box of crumpled cigarettes! (Far Cry 3)" "Oh, that's nice."

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