My first featured piece here, The Player and The Game, came out of a very real concern I had as a novice game designer:
"We are at the mercy of the player."
You see comments like it all the time here on Gamasutra. "Different players have different ideas of what 'fun' is." "Different players want to do different things." "We need something like Left 4 Dead's AI Director, but even more responsive." This is why we had a lot of sandbox games of late; it's a mad dash to account for player agency in the most comprehensive way possible.
But I couldn't accept that. The games that really got me into gaming were linear, story-driven experiences, not sandboxes. They weren't huge, comprehensive epics with billions of sidequests like Mass Effect or Dragon Age: Origins either. But no matter how I tried to reason with it, I couldn't avoid the perceived problem of the player; linear, story-driven experiences weren't enough because the masses never want just one thing.
That didn't sound right, though. Linear, story-driven games become popular, like Half-Life 2 and Portal. The whims of the masses didn't seem to be a problem.
Finally, with the help of my partner in crime Dan Felder, I found a way of looking at games in a way that solved the player problem; by looking at the game as the player's direct antagonist. With that realization, self-confidence finally returned.
And now, as a whole, I think the time is ripe for us to throw off the percieved shackles of the player and declare, once and for all:
"We are in control."
...And ideally, the player shouldn't even know.
To start off, the players are already coming to us for their gaming experience. We're not going to them; we're not serving them. They made the effort to come to us, assuming that the premise of our experience was intrinsically pleasing enough for them to take a chance. Already, they want what we're offering.
Once they're inside the experience, they will move forward. Whether you're a trained gamer or new to the whole thing, once you know that you can move forward, you will move forward. Knowing that the player's inherent momentum is either forward or outward, we can decide what shape that path will take, and how rewarding it is.
But the most important thing of all is this: if we do our job right, we can influence and determine the player's desires. Just as a filmmaker's job is to make an audience care about the images in front of them, it is our job to make the player care about what we've given them to do and what we've given them to do it with. It's our job to make successes personally gratifying and losses personally shameful, even if they're scripted events. It's entirely possible; it just takes a bit of work.
This is why relatively linear games like Half-Life 2 rise to popularity - because the developers did their job right and tugged at the heartstrings of every player they could get their hands on. By making action satisfying, by making characters empathetic, by directly affecting the player on their level, we can influence the players directly.
This is where the art of game design lies. Games can affect people directly. They're not just an outlet for the player's whims and pleasures, they're opportunities to make people care about something beyond themselves. And this is the advantage games have over movies: games can let people act upon what they've been made to care about.
First, we can control what the player cares about. We can do this through aesthetic, story, and even the dramatic nature of gameplay.
After affecting them, we can construct an experience that caters to the desires we've endowed them with. By knowing how we affect people and predicting how people may react emotionally, we can create powerful experiences that reinforce and challenge those particular values.
This is how we can tell great stories in games, no matter what genre or style of gameplay. The player is not an obstacle - rather, they're our ticket in.If making great games is hard work, I'd rather work hard on making people like my games than making games people like. That's how I see it.