There’s always interesting stories behind competition which makes us learn something valuable. One of those epic battles as to be Coke vs. Pepsi. Maybe epic sounds like a stretch, but some crazy business moves were made behind the scene of this rivalry and “epic” is definitely suitable here.
It is known that Coke as always been ahead of Pepsi and that even in the darkest days of Coke. This fact often is surprising for anybody who is unaware of the details and lives in Quebec because we happen to be the only place in the world where Pepsi kicks Coke’s ass. But that is another story and for those curious people who wonder why, simply look at the following video. This guy is Claude Meunier, he made Pepsi adds in Quebec for years and he was extremely popular as a comic back then. He is now responsible for quite a few cultural classics in Quebec. I would pay to see the face of Pepsi executives when they came here wondering what the hell they did so well and saw the publicities. They must think we are a bunch of crazy aliens...
Ok let’s get to the point now because I was seriously side tracking. In the 80s, Pepsi manage to scare the shit out of Coca-Cola by doing blind test on the Pepsi taste which revealed that most people preferred their taste over Coca-Cola. They started a campaign on that and Coke didn’t find it funny so they did their own test and were shock to realize it was all true. They were devastated since their entire philosophy was and still is base on their classic formula. After much research for a new taste they manage to win the blind test and replace the old formula with a new one under the name of “New Coke”. The executive who launch the all thing said it was the surest move he ever did. But in the end people hated it, especially the dedicated Coca-Cola fans. Pepsi was catching even more terrain and Coke was completely lost in there.
That was until someone at Coke figured it out. Pepsi as more sugar than the original coke and people responded better to sugar in small taste tests. But when they were drinking the entire bottle, they were getting sick of sugar. So they did test with that in mind by having people bring packs of bottle at home and testing it for real. With those, the original Coca-Cola was the big winner. Consequently Coca-Cola was reintroduced and New Coke remains to this day one of the biggest mistakes they ever did.
This is a long way to get to my point but hey I like this story and even though I know it is mentioned in the book Blink which most of you probably red, I still wanted to throw it out for anyone who did not know it. In game design, we often talk about the concept of “Simple but Deep” as an approach to low level mechanics design. I personally hate the term because too much people use it as a way to over simplify a problem. When used right, it is unquestionably true though. I get in daily debates regarding some prototypes that are quickly providing some fun but feel empty to me as an approach. It is hard to describe without saying too much so let’s just say I am a fan of designing low level mechanics with an overall philosophy where the core logic can remain in place for everything you will throw at it. In one case, pressing simple buttons was definitely providing good fun easily, but those buttons where unnecessary and I wanted to try something with analogue sticks and triggers which involved fewer inputs and more precisions for everything the player does. It took several arguments at each steps of the way because it was a bit harder to do and even more to imagine. Now more people believe in it because of the results we got and some were even surprised at certain thing they thought they would hate.
Most of what was going on in the team was related to the way they perceived “fun”. They want immediate fun and when they have it, they stop looking. They taste a single sugar shot and they are happy about it. They forget to ask themselves how much time it will take for them to be sick of it. This phenomenon is regularly experienced when we play Iphone games for example because so much of them are quick shallow games. It is rare that one of those keep you hooked for a while. It is only sugar without subtleties.
But the problem doesn’t stop there. If you’re talking about an avatar for instance, it is not only the quick vs. long term fun that will come into play. You will fight the perception peoples have over animation. Now that is the hardcore stuff. I often said that it was much harder to design and deliver a great avatar and its mechanics than it is to do it for a driving model. Yes I know about the myth of driving model design which is supposed to be super hard, but there is one thing to consider here. Physic is harder to parse than how a human being is “supposed” to behave and therefore, everybody has an opinion on how the avatar should feel. Even worst, an avatar comes with nothing while the car comes with several assumptions on how it should be controlled and everything. I am not saying driving games are easy, but when the box with wheels is replaced with a human body it gets ugly.
Whether it is driving or a human body, the problem remains the same though. People think they understand how it works and consequently carry false assumptions. This was another part of my problem regarding those low level mechanics prototypes. People always argue based on their assumptions of how the player will perceive a given animation. This is two layers of perception noise and I would say they are responsible for most of the design arguments on the PLANET. So nobody will respond the same way to an animation because they do not have the same level of understanding and often knowing more is worst in this particular case.
To add to this, consider this simple story from 7up. They once decided to change a bit the design of their can and added more yellow to it. I can’t remember if it was during customers tests or after launch but people were pissed and said the taste was different and worst. They claimed it tasted more like lemon and they were saying: “Don’t do a New Coke on me.” It was the same damn beverage inside the can. This is how wrong we can be when we are influence by an animation...
So in summary, designers are constantly confronted to reactions towards easy/quick fun as well as all the pre-conceptions the human brain can tricks us into when it is the time to evaluate low level game mechanics. There is no easy way out of this but there is one that will surely help and it is constant communication. I cannot thank enough the teammates I am working with for enduring argumentations and even better for reading the stuff I suggest. They even dig deeper afterwards which is awesome considering they are not designers but still see the importance behind this. Once each member of the low level mechanic team knows they perceive things differently and even better knows they are talking about players who will also see things differently amongst them, it gets easier to push towards quick prototyping and play-tests. Most design argumentations are similar to this one and we just have to find ways to avoid wasting time on argumentations. We have to try shit out. If Pepsi, Coke & 7Up had done that, they could have spotted what was going on more precisely. Often, nothing is what it seems and to figure it out, we must be extra careful on any assumptions we make, it is always the one we don’t know we make that kills us in the end.
So are we really aware of what we test, what affects our judgement and how we should test whit those factors in mind? I feel there is a LOT of work to be done here to get better because as much as the soft drinks industry showed how they can suck at it, they still kicks our ass...