Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Enterprise Failed

My wife and I were discussing Enterprise (the most recent Star Trek television series), and specifically that several of our Star Trek-loving friends didn't enjoy it. "Why was that?" we wondered. I hit upon a theory that I would like to share. One of the most appealing things about Start Trek and core to Roddenberry's vision is a future where all humans are unbiased, peaceful, team-oriented members of the Federation. The Federation, in turn, is an interstellar idealized United Nations. Humans have learned to tolerate each other and aliens, and are open to new adventures and new discoveries. In addition, they are level headed, calm, and easily respected leaders led by the very best decision makers among themselves.

Enterprise is the story of humanity getting from the biased, self-centered jerks we are today to those ideal Federation future humans. Vulcans are also worse than we remember them, playing the role of arrogant overprotective parent. Individual characters display a lot of these problems as well, making them rather unlikable.

Archer begins the series biased against almost everyone, and counters Vulcan logic with emotional decision making at every turn. Trip is a bad stereotype of a country conservative instead of a good down-to-earth stereotype of one. Hoshi is so afraid of herself that you can't respect her even though you want to like her. It's difficult to connect with them because their flaws are so prominent, instead of being hidden away to be discovered in an intense character-development episode later in the series.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sisko - all were cool-under-fire diplomats and logical decision makers that exemplified the idea leadership for humanity. Their crews were already experts in their fields and all likable characters.

This core difference in the humanity presented to the audience is what I believe drove away my Star Trek-loving friends. People watch Start Trek to see those idea future humans and fantasize about a universe where equality, fairness, and teamwork abound. It was completely lacking in Enterprise, and even though the characters transitioned toward it by the end of the series it was too late.

What does this have to do with game design? The same thing happens in games all too often. New games can miss their audience by not understanding what are the most important tenets of their genre. Sequels can miss their audience by not understanding what are the most important tenets of the predecessors in their series. Star Trek isn't just a future space exploration show with Klingons and Phasers. It's a vision of idealized humanity that has overcome its biases and unfairness.

Oh you want me to list video game examples? I'm afraid that's an exercise left to the reader. Post them in comments!

1 comment:

  1. I have a video game example that was the same damned game! I loved Lunar: Silver Star story for SegaCD. It was a pretty typical RPG, and successful enough they rereleased it on Sega Saturn, and again on Playstation.

    I bought the Playstation version, but they had added a feature that drove me mad: Bosses no longer had set stats. They had their own level that was calculated off your hero's level. This guaranteed that every boss battle would be really difficult with a real chance for defeat. It was extra punishing if you let your main hero's level drift higher than the rest of the team, which I tended to do.

    I can't stand RPG's that make battles overly difficult. I don't play for the difficulty in battle. I play to unfold the story. I enjoy finding the side quests that make bosses easy by leveling me up and equipping me with rare items.

    Calculating boss stats off your hero's level is indeed a clever way to ensure your game is challenging. But you lose any player that doesn't like that kind of challenge. I tend to love RPG's that have deep, engaging, non-linear stories. I enjoy the challenge of finding what it takes in the game to make the battles easy. They took that away from me in the PSX version, so I got rid of it pretty quick, didn't bother playing through more than 1/10th.