Since knowing I was actually going to be creating my own game, I’ve been paying extra special attention to that fine tension between what a developer wants me to experience and what I want to experience. There have been some great games which have led me to want to do the things the dev has planned, and yet others where I feel my desire to do certain things has been belied by a developer’s restrictions, furthering that gap.
In honour of this mode of thinking, I’ve listed a few principles of player experience I wish to adhere to in games where the genre in question calls for it…
If you’ve spent time crafting a gorgeous game world, you’ve given a player reason to explore. Find a way to reward a player who indulges in a little fanciful roaming. After all, you’ve told them it was ok by making the world in the first place. Acknowledge that you took the same journey as they did when designing the game and recognise their desire to check things out. Acknowledge it by making sure there’s something out there to find, even things with no effect on gameplay. They’re worth their weight in gold.
Long-term temporal rewards
Longevity in a game is just as much about replayability as it is about thinking there’s something more to find. After completing every objective and knocking off an amazing high score in Tiny Wings, I still played the game with a fervour and regularity which one could call an obsession. Why? I was wondering if there would be a tenth island (there is).
Feeding newness into a game even dozens of hours in lets people know there’s still more to find, see and enjoy. Finding a new style of gameplay, type of item or little flourish is just like being rewarded for exploration – it reminds you that your relationship with the developers is still progressing in some way. If the game stops changing, the developers have stopped talking and you feel lonely. Keep on interacting with your players. Always.
So now I’ve surveyed, I’ve wandered, I’ve taken in everything I feel I need to about the game world and I’m ready to plant my first seed. I’m building my first line in Railroad Tycoon, my first city in Civilization, my latest weapon in Home Alone, and I want to be rewarded. I need to see growth, I need to understand where that growth came from and how I affected it, I need to maintain that sense of ownership as the thing I’ve created becomes massive and not lose that attachment (I’m looking at you, Spore). Some people knock stuff up in ten seconds for practical reasons, others evenly space out the braziers in Stronghold for aesthetic reasons – either way, that ability to own is important.
When Railroad Tycoon first fires up, you can scroll anywhere you like in the game world, often taking up to 15 minutes before you make your first action which has any impact. You scour the map, looking for that perfect terrain, that subtle gradient and the best-placed sets of industry surrounded by prosperous towns. When you try out that first line, if it fails, you know damn well whose fault it was.
Failure in videogames isn’t something developers should fear – failure, as any halfwit can tell you, is part of learning and growing. If you let a player have a stab at something, muck it up and have to try again before they get it right, they’ll feel ten times better about their accomplishment than if they’d have been guided to the correct answer (or even led to believe that was the case).
Know how to wield your weapons as a developer. A truly great game designer will understand what incentivised a player to action, and will reward the player for following that incentive. It needn’t be in a positive way (consider the incentive to jump and grab a rope in Limbo leading to you being eaten by a bear trap), but a reaction is necessary. If you tell someone they’re chasing a person and that person is escaping in a plane, don’t punish them for running after said person for not having completed an unclear objective with no plot bearing whatsoever (not that I’m citing a specific game, am I Max Payne 3?). If you give people an object which appears markedly different than other objects of a similar nature, don’t be surprised when the player goes out of their way to click on that object to explore its purpose. Recognise the use of such basic incentives as running right in a platformer, exploring in an open world, interacting with one object because your world establishes a rule where objects can be interacted with. Incentives are aesthetic, narrative, intrinsic, functional and much more besides. Aim to acknowledge to any player that they’ve recognised a rule. Otherwise, you’re letting the player know that you don’t understand the rules of your own game, and the relationship between player and developer begins to break down.
- We pledge to make games based on good ideas first, and any other considerations second. (Except possibly selling out. -Rohan)
- We will not release any games that we ourselves do not enjoy playing.
- We want to recapture the spirit of the 90s games we grew up on – the humour, the ownership over the worlds you could create, the satisfaction of accomplishment based on what you found and made (rather than based on achievements dictated by someone else). (Are we going to re-capture the frustration of configuring extended memory managers, too? -Rohan)
- We pledge create games which come out of ideas based on more than just other games, and draw inspiration from all walks of life. (Or rolls of life, if it’s a racing game. -Rohan)
- We promise not to get too preachy when our games involve politics (and they will).
- We promise to take any and all power having an audience (regardless of size) may grant us seriously. (I had a dream once where I had an audience. In it I realised I was naked behind the podium. :-[ -Rohan)
- We believe in free speech (even for Broodmasters).
- We pledge that Rohan will never again dance at the Opera Bar after drinking Gin.
- Leigh pledges never to post video of it on the internet… again.
- We pledge to be derivative of other games only insofar as we blend said derivative elements in new and unique ways.
- If we don’t have a genuinely new idea, we won’t make that game.
- We promise not to corrupt the integrity of our games with nefarious and soul-destroying monetisation practises. (I can’t think of a witty retort to this one. -Rohan)
- We pledge, promise and will never take ourselves too seriously (see above).
We shan’t let you down! (Not a pledge)
Ask any gamer to think of a particularly fond experience had while gaming, and you’ll probably find yourself seeing a slightly-curled smile and a wistful look in their eyes. Games can produce an intensely personal experience that, much as I love films, books or television series’, can only otherwise be matched by real life experiences. As the gamer tells you about the time they desperately escaped death at the hands of a Deathclaw in Fallout or the time they accidentally took out their best friend in a friendly-fire accident in Counter-Strike, it’s worth thinking about what created these experiences.
A truly great game might create a middling experience for some players, and meanwhile a bug-ridden ill-balanced game might create the opportunity for a perfect moment that someone will be repeating drunk at parties until they die. Identifying just what made these moments work (or not) for yourself and for other players is a difficult thing to do, but it’s the most useful and rewarding thing to do when you’re designing a game. What experiences am I potentially offering the player? What can she get out of this game that I intend her to, and what kind of things might she experience that I won’t intend?
As a way to try and think about our own design, I’m starting a new project: hyper-mega-over-analysing my own favourite game experiences, to try and figure out how (and why) they happened. How much of it was intent and writing by the designer, and how much was me being in the right headspace and situation?
I’m going to start with Lightspeed, a highly underrated space trading game. In this game you command a space cruiser sent by the Earth to make a sector in space safe for the settler ships which are following you. How you do this is up to you – will you wipe out the alien threats, make peace with them, or some combination of the two? What about finding resources and a habitable planet? Will you take those by force, or take the more honourable route?
Being brought up in Star Trek of the Next Generation variety, I naturally found myself going all ‘Captain Picard’ on their bad selves, making peace and brokering deals until I finally found myself unable to reach a satisfactory deal with one particular race.
They weren’t a common species – in fact they seemed to have just the one star system under their control. But they refused to make peace, and I was running out of options. After a carefully infused cup of Earl Grey, I gave in and readied for war.
It took me hours to figure out how to defeat them – they were stubborn, powerful and well-defended. After numerous failed attempts and more blown up fighters than the Battle of Britain, I finally piloted the remote kamikaze that destroyed the space station… the system was mine.
I had never been so pleased with myself. The most difficult enemy I’d ever faced, and I’d defeated them. I paused the game (it was late at night) and had a victory coffee.
With this out of the way, I went back to my computer and decided to inspect the spoils. I launched a probe and scanned the system. To my delight I found the missing resources I was short on, but then something occurred to me – launching a probe was the same thing I’d done (slamming the ‘p’ button) to initiate communication with this now-extinct alien species.
I would never see that pixelated ambassador again. At least, not in this specific game.
I’d wiped out a whole species.
Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, the fact that it came on the back of the elation of defeating a difficult opponent, but for whatever reason, this thought disturbed me in a way I didn’t expected. I saved game and went to bed, pondering what I’d done as I slept.
This kind of subject matter has been dealt with in games a great deal both before and since, but usually with great intent and little subtly.
There is something incredibly important about providing the tools and the environment to make a player think carefully about the consequences of her actions, without feeling in any way manipulated or like the experienced was artificially created by the game’s writers.
This experience was mine, both in making and in feeling, and it has stayed with me for over 15 years now as a result.