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What does "player powered" mean? Knowing what success looks like and the importance of having a mission

Over the next few weeks, in a series of short posts, I'd like to tell you why I do what I do and why I think it's important or, at least as important as anything about games can be. Here's part one of the series.

People ask me all the time why I make games or, more precisely, why I make the games I do. That’s summed up in the motto and mission of OtherSide Entertainment – “Player Powered.” Paul Neurath of Looking Glass fame founded the studio with that game style in mind. In other words, he wanted to make what are commonly referred to as “Immersive Simulation” games - you know, games like Underworld, System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex and more – I’m looking at you, Arkane!

I love that kind of game. I have no interest in making any other kind of game. I believe Immersive Sims are… well… important. How could I not join him when he asked me to? I signed on as a partner around the time the studio was created specifically because I wanted to make “Player Powered” games. I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to make the kind of game I love. So here I am.

End of story, right?

Well, not so fast. I could stop there, but this wouldn’t be much of an article if I did! So I’m going to keep going and talk about what “Player Powered” means, at least to me.

For starters, here’s our studio vision, one of the things you can find on our website:

“We make deeply immersive games that draw players into richly imagined worlds. Games that empower players to choose their own playstyle, making their experience unique. That encourage players to team up with their friends and weave their own shared narrative. The kind of games that are powered by our player’s vision as much as ours.”

That’s a solid description of Player Powered (obviously, given that it’s our public statement of intent!). But I want to go even deeper and, though some might find it obnoxious, get super personal about it. This article is about how my teams and I express that mission in our games. (And make no mistake – all the philosophy that follows is driven by the hard work of the teams that must put up with me. They do the real work, so try to avoid calling me “creator.” That just embarrasses me and probably ticks off team members. Ticking off team members is never a good idea…)

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED?

Lots of people think games are “just entertainment,” a way to pass some time, experience an adrenaline rush, maybe think about optimal strategies to overcome arbitrary challenges.

That’s great. You can’t really argue with it. But it’s a bit reductionist for me and doesn’t provide much guidance for developers. It reinforces the idea that games are relatively simple things with no real purpose.

I think developers need to think more deeply about what they do. I’d argue that when you make a game you must have a purpose, a reason for making that game and not one of the thousand-and-one other possible games. In other words, you need a purpose for making the specific game you’re making.

And from “purpose” you can take the next step and define success – you need to know that, your team needs to know it, your publisher needs to know it and even players should know (though perhaps not consciously). You need to know not just what you’re going to do and why, but also when – or if - you’ve hit your target.

Developers have defined success a variety of ways. I’m going to start by identifying some possibilities that have general application rather than being specifically about Player Powered games. I promise we’ll get to that…

Some people make games to make money or sell a lot of copies (usually a prerequisite for making a lot of money…). Frankly, if this isn’t one of your success criteria, you’re not likely to be making Immersive Sims or any other kind of game for long, so take this one as a given!

Some people define success in terms of team morale – if the team is happy and (I’d argue more importantly) proud of what they’ve done, that’s a successful project. Of course, you want your team to be happy and proud. (See earlier comment about ticked-off teams. They don’t make great games.)

Some make games for the ego gratification that comes with attention and critical acclaim – or for the validation that comes with recognition from outsiders that they’ve done a good job. Anyone who says they don’t care about kudos is probably lying. In my experience, no one cares about cover stories and awards until they start getting them.

Some make games just to provide people some “fun” (whatever the heck that essentially meaningless word means – but that’s another post for another time…) If a game passes some time in a way that engages and pleases players, that‘s good enough.

So, is that all? Are those the only success criteria?

Obviously, I don’t think so. So let me tell you about the Player Powered success criteria. Not because they’re the only ones or necessarily the best ones, but because they’re a little different and may spark some thinking on your part about what success means to you. Plus, I have a personal mission, I work at a studio that’s built to do this (plus, I admit I like to evangelize!)

Here's the list of things I add to the list above, as if those weren’t hard enough. Stick with me. We’re playing on Expert now!

  • Have I empowered players to tell their stories in collaboration with us – with the developers?
  • Have I delivered at least one new thing in the game that no one has ever seen or done in a game before?
  • Have I allowed players to see the world through the eyes of someone else, someone potentially unlike themselves?
  • And have I made a game that’s about something more than just what’s on the surface? Have I made players think?

My hope is either to convince you to agree with me that these are desirable success criteria or to get you disagreeing so emphatically that you’ll be moved to consider what your mission is. Then we can have a fun little argument in comments or in person at a conference (someday). Just be ready for a knock-down-drag-out argument. Those aren’t just success criteria and Player Powered isn’t just a motto. It’s a mission. On my team at OtherSide, we consider it when we make every one of the myriad decisions required when developing a game.

So in the coming weeks, I’m going to talk about each of my success criteria for a Player Powered game, one at a time, starting with what I consider to be the most important -- Player Empowerment. In a sense, that’s the central characteristic of Immersive Simulations.

I’ll warn you upfront that this is going to be highly personal. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the thoughts of everyone involved in making Immersive Sims, though I think – I hope - most would agree.

See you in a couple of weeks.

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