Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.
This is the third in a three-part series of posts about the fundamentals of game design, in particular the seven immutable factors (I term them “constants”) that both limit and empower gameplay. The constants are universal and transcend factors such as platform, and they contribute to how games manage to be fun, to impart story, to seem believable, to engender states of flow and so on. In the first post I discussed fascination, imperfection and urgency, while in the second I covered naturalism and the ever-present difficulties of time.
Now let’s dig into the final two.
A popular analogy which floats around video games is that of the player becoming a character. “Here,” the game seems to say, “step into my amazing world and be the star.” Certainly many games are sold in that way, and a good deal are written with the premise that the player takes on a role and becomes the person she’s playing. But this is only half right. The player does indeed step into your world and wear the mask you assign to her, but she doesn’t actually become Mario, Lara Croft, the Master Chief, Cloud or any of the cast of thousands of video game heroes. The player does not become the hero, the hero becomes the player.
At face value this seems a little counterintuitive. There are, for example, active cosplay communities around many games. There are clear franchise loyalties to characters like Link or Solid Snake that sell games by the truckload. There is the genre of roleplaying games whose entire premise is built around making a character, building a character, having a story experience with a character and so on. How is it possible that players are not becoming characters? The key is to understand the role of the self.
All gameplay is fundamentally creative. To score a soccer goal is creative, as is to build a Minecraft world. It’s to make something from within, something personally pleasing and meaningful. So one aspect of the self at work through play is self expression. Players construct digital body images based on idealized versions of who they are, or believe they should be, and they act according to those self-derived rules rather than imposed “in-character” actions. Self expression is why the issue of gender and representation has become so important. New communities of players don’t really see themselves as muscular white American-Imperialist dudes. They don’t want to wear that mask while they play.
Another aspect of self in play is self determination. This is the “why we tend to hate cut scenes” rule or the “why we hate being given false choices” rule. A player may be wearing the mask that you’ve provided as their in-game presence, but they still want to play. They still want to make agented choices that feel vital, to be taken seriously as a component of the overall game rather than an observer. They react negatively to didacticism by trying to rebel, to find their own way and to rephrase presented choices in ways that are more interesting to them.
As a result players often behave like petulant psychopaths, and accommodating them can feel disappointing to the game designer. Many are the designers who wish that gaming would “grow up” and that players would be a bit more noble than they tend to be. There are many designers who wish that the players focused on the themes of Tomb Raider rather than bursting out laughing at the death sequences (at 6:15). Or that they’d play a game like Gone Home and get into its mood rather than questioning whether it’s really a game at all. The frustrated designer wonders why players can’t seem to play in the spirit they intended.
However consider the indie hit Braid. The game initially places the player in the role of a hero looking for his princess, but over the course of the game something much darker emerges. The hero is slowly revealed to be something of a stalker, leading to a wonderfully uncomfortable sensation of unwilling yet compelling play. Consider another indie hit, Papers Please. In this game you play the role of a customs agent in a fictional Soviet-style republic – which seems simple enough – until you find yourself in the awkward position of clearing or rejecting people with harrowing life stories, often counter to your functional goals. Then the question becomes do you play into your selfishness.
The self is a very difficult constant to deal with but also a very powerful tool. Players prefer tabula rasa characters that allow them to be themselves, but this doesn’t mean the game maker is solely relegated to “fun provider”. Artistically successful game design usually plays into the idea that the player is permitted to do as she chooses without overt judgement, but sets up scenarios that lead her to make empathic choices on her own. Thus she engenders some personal connection in the game that goes beyond its nuts and bolts and becomes a deep fan, a cosplayer, a devotee. That is, if that’s the kind of game you want to make.
Success. Winning. Mastery. Achievement. Optimizing. Strategizing. Closure. Addiction. Engagement. Rush. Flow. Fiero. Progression… There’s something about the play of games that demands not only that we can take action, that there are rules, dynamism, thrills and spills but also that the play goes somewhere. That after playing there will be a final state, a thing done, seen, overcome or completed. That it won’t be an endless treadmill, a vacuous simulation or a stateless toy.
One way to say that is to say that all games are played to win. In the wider sense they are, but it requires a pretty loose definition of the term “win”. Some people get hung up on whether games like Space Invaders can be ultimately won, for example, which leads to complex explanations of levels of winning. Some point to games like Flow that lack formal goals and ask how can they be won? This too leads to contortions and redefinitions of language. Finally there’s the political aspect. “Win” sounds very bro-gamer, very sporty and competitive, and leads players of games like Journey to say it doesn’t fit with why they play.
A less contentious way is to say that all games are bounded by the constant of purpose, that players will only stay with a game as long as they believe their play actively pushes it forward to somewhere else. Whether we’re talking about the player dumping quarters into slots, the athlete working on her sprinting, the adventure gamer solving riddles or the Scrabble fan searching for that triple word score, the belief in purpose defines the appeal of any game to any player. And conversely without faith a game breaks its spell and is no longer really a game.
The sense of purpose can be lost in many ways. One is when the game becomes opaque, such as I discussed when talking about naturalism. If a game just seems arbitrary or unfair then it’s purposeless. Another is if the game is too hard or too easy, falling out of Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” state. Another is if it is already mastered, if it feels that there’s nothing else to learn, no new mystery to see, no new veil to be uncovered. Another is if the player perceives cheating. Another is if the game’s mechanics don’t lead to a sufficiently fascinating dynamic. Another is if the win conditions of the game seem flaky. Another is if the game becomes repetitive. Another (more recent, and especially in the West) is if the game seems overly gated, cynical and essentially about the money. And – like that moment that most of us experience when we realize that Snakes and Ladders lacks any element of skill – once the sense of purpose is gone it tends to stay gone.
Purpose is a time bomb of boredom. It will eventually go off, but it does so under different conditions for a variety of players. It’s rare that games truly stand the test of time, with many of the biggest and splashiest games dying off more quickly than we realize. However the manner in which they decline often resembles a long tail. Sure, maybe you only get a week’s play time from 50% of players, but equally you might get a year or longer from 5%. As long as those players keep finding something that satisfies their sense of purpose, they stay.
So it’s up to you how you structure your game around purpose. Do you front-load it with all the cool stuff or keep its secrets back? Do you aim for a short play time in the knowledge that 80% of the players will get to the end before they disconnect, but thus only give yourself a limited window in which to work. Or do you accept the fall off and design for those who’ll commit? Does the business model around your game work better if you attempt a smash-and-grab (all trailer, all entice) or opt for something more freemium/subscriber-ish? Should you make the game hard but worth mastering or easy but worth watching through once?
The choices are yours.
It’s in the nature of all schemas to be incomplete, to miss some exception or set of conditions that don’t quite fit. Similarly it’s in the nature of all schemas (especially in the games industry) to be roundly rejected by a portion of readers because they don’t fit their beliefs. I fully expect that some readers will do the same (someone already has). So it goes. Personally I find schemas such as constants to be great tools for framing how I create, a checklist of things to validate against but also a set of spanners that I might deploy.
Knowing that all avenues of exploration don’t yield equal results shouldn’t be a downer. There’s no shame in musicians acknowledging that audiences need rhythm, nor should there be one in accepting that the perfect hero player isn’t real. As I said in my GDC microtalk, future-addiction gets depressing. So does the notion that games are in their infancy or that their design is indescribable. The fact that we can talk about them in increasingly concrete terms helps us to push them forward by avoiding common pitfalls and avoiding waste.
Hopefully you’ll find these articles useful in that vein.