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Player Empowerment as the Ultimate Success Criterion

A couple of weeks ago, I listed my success criteria as they relate to "player powered" games: aka "Immersive Simulations." This week, I talk about the first, and maybe most important of those criteria: Player Empowerment.

A couple of weeks ago, I listed my success criteria, particularly as they relate to “player powered” games—aka “Immersive Simulations”—like the ones OtherSide Entertainment was created to make. This week, I want to talk about the first, and maybe (maybe…) most important of those criteria—Player Empowerment.

My journey to Immersive Sims began in 1978, on the day I played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. That day was life-changing for me.

My dungeon master was cyberpunk guru Bruce Sterling (before cyberpunk was a gleam in the eye of Bill Gibson or Bruce himself). Bruce was a great storyteller. But what made the experience special wasn’t the story Bruce was telling. What made the experience special was that my friends and I were telling our own story with him.

We had to use our wits and exploit some vague game rules to get around, over or through obstacles Bruce created. The shape of the story belonged to Bruce (and it was a great, great shape) but every detail belonged to me and my friends. Like a great band, we all worked together to create something none of us could have done alone—we all became storytellers that night.

I was completely hooked. I played in that D&D campaign for over ten years. And my entire professional life has (pathetically) been about trying to recreate that feeling I had back in 1978, playing D&D, telling stories with my friends.

Some fellow developers share that mission—something we came to describe as “shared authorship” or, of course, “Player Powered.” (Take the two as synonymous—I’ll probably slip up and switch back and forth. For the purposes of what follows, they’re interchangeable.)

If you look past the surface level narrative framework, every game I’ve worked on has been “about” sharing the storytelling process with players. With each game, I try to give up a little more authorial control, collaborate more fully with players, engage with them in a more equal dialogue.

Here’s the deal: Alone among the arts, games can share the responsibilities (and joys) of creativity with our audience. Games don’t always engage players in this way, but we can and, to my mind, that unique capability means we have a moral obligation to do so.

Sharing authorship involves allowing players to choose how to interact with the game world, to solve problems the way they want to—not the way a designer planned and mandated it.

In my ideal world, those choices say more about the player—the human being behind the controller or keyboard—than they do about some in-game avatar, no matter how artfully rendered. I want to tell a story with players not to players, the way Bruce told a story through interaction with his friends.

Another way to think about this is that games are the first medium of communication in human history that is “two-way”—the first that can turn consumers into collaborators in the creative process. (Think about THAT the next time you work on a game—you’re doing something no one has ever been able to do before. Ever. How exciting is that?!)

In traditional media, characters are funneled down a path, their actions limited by a series of shots ordered by a film director or by chains of words strung together by an author. By contrast, gamers get to make decisions as they play.

Sharing authorship means offering players as many decision points as we can give them and as many opportunities as we can to take control of the experience through their actions.

But games aren’t just about choices or decisions. Player choices and decisions have to have consequences (or you’re just wasting a lot of time and money). If you do thing X, thing Y happens. Or maybe even thing Y, Z or A, in a really clever game.

And in a super clever game, players can recover from consequences they find undesirable (though at some cost—recovery can’t be free…) Recovery is the thing many developers of Player Powered Immersive Simulations don’t consider. It may, in fact, be the most “artful” aspect of creating Player Powered games. But “Recovery,” like the definition of “Fun,” is something we can talk about another time.

Anyway, Sharing Authorship means players aren’t on a rollercoaster—something that appears non-linear but turns into a straight line when stretched out—they’re in a sandbox where choices have consequences, with the aforementioned recovery opportunities.

But wait, there’s more. Choices and consequences are great, but in a Player Powered game, responsive worlds make consequences apparent to players. You get to experience what happens if you pull that trigger, and that should be different than what you see if you don’t pull it.

Sharing authorship means players clearly and unambiguously see the results of what they’ve chosen to do. The game notices and responds to choices logically and appropriately, though not always with 100% predictability. Another topic for another time is how this motive/response dynamic results in games that “tune” themselves to what a player “tells” the game they enjoy. Plenty to talk about there!

There’s much more to the term “Player Powered” than this, but what all this Shared Authorship stuff adds up to is a game in which each play session—each story—is unique. And what makes each play session unique is in players’ hands, guided by, but not forced by, the desires of the developers.

In fact, it may be that the most important thing a development team does is provide a narrative context in which players act. We provide the “why” for player actions, the significance and importance of them.

Like a Dungeon Master in a D&D game, we provide a story skeleton, lacking muscle and flesh, only hinting at what the story will actually look like. By creating that skeleton, that narrative, we bound player experience. We put a box around it within which players have as much freedom as we can give them to put meat on the bones.

I realize I’m stretching the metaphor, but we determine that the skeleton is a human one (or something else) and players get to decide what that human (or something else) looks like.

Alone among media, we can bound player experience through narrative without determining exactly what that experience will be.

We certainly don’t always do this. There are quite wonderful games and game genres that put you on narrative rails that advance the developer-created plot. But we can empower players, and as I’ve said, we should.

So the developer’s part in the narrative dialogue is to define context and significance. Clearly, we’re pretty powerful. But where do players get their power?

Though we create goals—the what and why of the story—players have to figure out the how, their own specific series of steps to accomplish the goals we set for them. They do this using the tools and exploiting the rules of the game, also provided by us. Players agree to make step-by-step plans in the face of challenges we throw up as roadblocks in their path.

Then players agree to act on those plans in reasonable, logical ways. So players decide what they want to do in the moment, decide how to do it, and then give it a go.

And then, of course, players agree to move on to the next challenge. Wash, rinse, repeat until the end of the game (or the next level or episode or battle).

And here’s an interesting side note—if developers do their jobs right, players can replay the game, make different plans, use different tools, exploit the rules differently. Do that and the game—that minute-to-minute experience—plays out differently. That’s the player’s power.

When games are at their best, developers and players play their assigned roles. When that happens, neither the developer nor the player can claim total ownership of the experience. Ownership of a game narrative belongs to both player and developer.

In a game, nothing happens unless developers play their part and players play theirs. Gameplay is a process. And at the heart of that process is collaboration.

This isn’t a new thought, just one a lot of us sometimes overlook or forget. In fact, this idea was apparent early in the development of video games—even as far back as 1981 when science fiction author Orson Scott Card expressed the idea with astonishing clarity. Here’s what he said:

This isn’t a new thought, just one a lot of us sometimes overlook or forget. In fact, this idea was apparent early in the development of video games—even as far back as 1981, when science fiction author Orson Scott Card expressed the idea with astonishing clarity. Now, I disagree with many of Card’s views on many topics, social and political—he’s not someone I’d turn to for life advice—but in this case, talking about games, I think he gets at something important, something worth thinking about. Here’s what he said:

Someone at every game design company should have the full-time job of saying ‘Why aren't we letting the player decide that?’… When [they] let…unnecessary limitations creep into a game, gamewrights reveal that they don't yet understand their own art. They've chosen to work with the most liberating of media—and yet they snatch back with their left hand what they offered us with their right. Remember, gamewrights, the power and beauty of the art of game making is that YOU AND THE PLAYER COLLABORATE TO CREATE THE FINAL STORY. Every freedom that you can give to the player is an artistic victory. And every needless boundary in your game should feel to you like a failure.

First of all, how cool is the term “gamewrights?” Even that speaks to the uniqueness of what we do…

Anyway, the crux of the biscuit here is that Card talks about not imposing unnecessary limitations. He talks about avoiding needless boundaries. He correctly says this isn’t about developers abdicating their creative responsibilities. And it isn’t about making a game without any constraints on what players can and can’t do (though many developers think, misguidedly, I think, that constraint-free play is some kind of grail).

No. Card is talking about exactly what I’ve talked about above—about sharing authorship, about giving players the opportunity to think, plan, execute and create unique narrative experiences for themselves inside a “creative box” defined by the developer.

If we accept players as collaborators, as Card suggested years ago, we come back around to the idea of “Shared Authorship”—the heart and soul of what we mean at OtherSide when we say “Player Powered.”

Next time, success criterion number 2—“One New Thing.”

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