Potential Problems

I do have a New Years Resolution.

It’s to stop using the word “Potential” when referring to video games – be that an MMO, the first teasing entrée to a survival horror game or the latest big FPS shooter.

I’ve spent many a year looking at games like Age of Conan, Silent Hill: Homecoming and Call of Duty and proudly proclaiming very early on that the concepts, graphics and storylines for these games and more have ‘potential’, as if that is enough to carry the load of a £40 game that inevitably ends up leaving me feeling a little short-changed.

It occurred to me that everything that the games industry does has this mysterious ‘potential’ quality that I so over-value so consistently. On paper, any concept works in theory – be it a mysterious character fighting his innermost demons, a lone soldier separated from his squad trying to overcome seemingly impossible odds to reunite with his bromantic partners, or simply a garishly-dressed douchebag running around a sandbox environment basking in the warm glow of the chaos he or she is creating.

However, in many cases, this potential is never truly realised. Be it through some bad design choices, poor funding or a deadline so inescapable even the likes of David Blaine would say “Heck no!”, many concepts only tend to work in the creative process; when finalised, some of them just seem childish, crass or poorly put together.

Plus I find it gives a false sense of hope sometimes to quantify something as having ‘potential’, because it leads us into an imaginary world where everything goes according to plan; a magical place filled with unicorns and fluffy bunnies who dance to songs by Aqua, where everything is perfectly nice and perfectly safe.

In the majority of cases, such things are not so perfect.

Things go wrong. A video game, a games console or any gadget or gizmo is invariably designed and manufactured with the assistance of people; and we, human beings, aren’t perfect. From the dodgy screens of the Vita release, to the initial pricing for the 3DS and the reception issues that plagued the iPhone for a while, sometimes we as a species see the problems coming too late; this is why hindsight is always 20-20.

But I don’t wish to sound mean here. If we all had the benefit of clairvoyance, then I suspect very few games, consoles or gadgets would ever get off the ground – and I suspect few of us would leave our homes. Mistakes are the means by which we evolve, change and adapt. We learn, it is embarrassing for a little while and then we learn to cope with that feeling of shame and endeavour to never repeat that action.

Mistakes are sometimes the result of success – games like Skyrim, with its myriad of bugs and technical issues, would never see the light of day. No-one would attempt another Silent Hill, ever. Nintendo would have withdrawn the 3DS. Sony would be bankrupt. We’d never see another iPhone.

I in no way wish to say mistakes are bad – because mistakes are an important part of the ever-evolving world we live in, and it is often how we handle and accept the mistakes we and others make that can make the world a better place to live in. Mistakes can happen. Mistakes SHOULD happen, and punishments for mistakes should be accepted and any recompense for those mistakes should be paid in kind. Being part of this world, and of our species, is to accept that mistakes are an inevitable consequence of our nature; our insatiable curiosity and our ravenous desire for progress.

But we cannot live on the promise of potential alone. In the games industry, everything starts off with an initial glimmer of promise; it is how that spark is cultivated and grown that determines in many cases the quality and quantity of a product in the future. Some are given dedicated, unconditional love and all the nutrients and money that can be afforded, whereas others are cruelly left to wither under a sea of errors and choices that stifle its ability to blossom.

And even in the end results, I often see the promise of potential. Alan Wake is a game I liked, but I felt had more potential in its premise than was delivered. Duke Nukem Forever is a game almost dedicated to the promise of potential; a promise that was never realised. The Old Republic has potential; it is waiting to see the choices and directions that BioWare take in the next twelve months that will determine whether it competes as a subscription-based MMO or a free-to-play MMO.

Potential is false hope. It is seeing something that very often isn’t there, or isn’t there yet. It’s a blinding sensation that deludes our opinions and our hopes that this time, maybe things will be better – regardless if history tells us otherwise. It leads us to the inability to form a proper judgement or a sensible conclusion; and to talk down to those who maybe are not enjoying what is on the table.

I have spent a very long time always pinning my hopes on potential – often to be left disappointed, with a purchase that often ends up gathering dust in the back of a cupboard. Learning to lower expectations and be more sensible in how I perceive and criticise things is an important part in being more tolerant and more accepting of things. It doesn’t mean I need to expect the worst – just that potential, like hype, is a mechanic the industry plays on to distract us all too often from choices and decisions that may not make sense or may sound a little odd.

I plan to spend the year not seeing things in terms of their potential – but their actual content. We can cultivate anything from even the worst of materials if we want to – but sometimes, it is more of a challenge than is necessary, and you’ll rarely end up with a bumper harvest even then.

Everything has potential – you can see potential in almost anything. But you have to accept that sometimes, potential cannot be realised and that on occasion, perhaps the rewards are not worth the expense and lengthy process of change that may be required to achieve that goal.

It may mean I buy fewer games, or look forward to fewer, but perhaps better that than the constant frustrations of disappointment.

I won’t stop believing in potential. Merely, stop using it to lift projects and ideas higher than perhaps they should be, because once that stick breaks, there can be only an inevitable sound of crushing failure and disappointment, followed by the not-so-enviable task of cleaning up or changing your opinion from “It will work!” to “It should have worked”.

It’s time to just be realistic. Mistakes happen. Potential sours our perception of mistakes and failures.

Better to judge on what is offered, than to judge on what might have been.

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