Playing to a digital audience: Missouri S&T professors publish book on video game industry

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Digital Role-Playing Game and Technical Communication: A History of Bethesda, BioWare, and CD Projekt Red, book cover.

In their new book, The Digital Role-Playing Game and Technical Communication: A History of Bethesda, BioWare, and CD Projekt Red, two Missouri University of Science and Technology researchers evaluate the evolution of video game companies and their methods of conveying complex information to consumers. 

The book, written by Dr. Daniel Reardon and Dr. David Wright and published by Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, focuses on digital role-playing games (DRPGs) that function similarly to tabletop role-playing games. Players create their own characters and influence the direction of the game with the choices they make. In a tabletop game the options are limited only by the imagination of the players, giving them greater ownership of the story than in other forms of media.

“A movie is something you passively consume,” says Reardon, associate professor and associate chair of English and technical communication at Missouri S&T. “A game is something you create as you play it. The challenge of DRPGs is to build games that allow for as much player creativity as possible within the programming limits of the game software.” 

Within games, technical communication can mean using the game itself to communicate information to its players. The “dialogue wheel,” designed by BioWare for the game Mass Effect 2 gives players a range of dialogue options to interact with non-player characters. The placement of an option on the wheel indicates which way that choice will influence the player character. 

“As those choices accumulate, the player character can become more compassionate or more ruthless over time,” says Wright, associate professor of English and technical communication at S&T. “The options available to the player, and the ending of the game, are affected by those choices. This co-creative aspect of DRPGs encourages greater investment from players, which has both pros and cons.”

The authors also discuss the enthusiasm of fans who feel invested in the games they play and provide free word-of-mouth advertising. But Reardon cautions that fan enthusiasm can easily tip over into fan entitlement. 

“When game companies don’t make the same choices that fans would -- whether because of artistic decisions or the technical limitations -- the fans’ anger can sink a game,” says Reardon. “With so much money involved, companies must be very careful.”

While the video game audience was among the first to adopt online communication, every industry is now dealing with an online audience. By looking at the ways in which games companies have succeeded or failed, people in other industries can consider how to approach technical communication with their own customers. 

“The games industry has become like the movie industry in that they’re both zero-sum games,” says Reardon, noting that the games industry is on track to out-earn both the film and live-sports industries combined. “Entertainment has been reduced to a two-digit score.”