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What 'Player Powered' Means and Why That’s Important

The final entry in a six-part series that attempts to define “Player Powered” (the mission of OtherSide Entertainment) and why it’s important to have clear success criteria and a personal mission.

Warren Spector, Blogger

April 7, 2023

13 Min Read
An image of a whale against a soft green and purple background.

This is the wrap-up to my six-part series on what “Player Powered” means. There’s a lot more that could be said, but it seemed to me that good starting point would be to describe my success criteria and how they maximally empower players to own the play experience. All of my success criteria are based on my desire to make games where each individual player’s playstyle and choices gives them ownership of that experience. That’s been my mission since I started making games – to get myself off the stage so players can take the starring role. With each game I work on, I want my team to give up more of themselves to leave room for players to express their creativity.

As briefly as I can put it, Player Powered games are those in which Playstyle Matters – where how you choose to play a game changes the experience of playing it. I’m part of the OtherSide Entertainment team specifically because the company’s mission so closely parallels my own as outlined in the previous entries in this series and as described below.

(I hope what follows stands on its own, but without being too self-serving, if you haven’t read the previous five posts, the rest of this post may make more sense if you go back and check out the earlier ones.)

Let me clear about one thing: This whole series has been about my success criteria – emphasis on the word “my.” These are my beliefs about what games can and should be. (Well, me and a few others, to be fair.) My central point isn’t and hasn’t been to convince you that I’m right, though that would be nice, of course. The more people who agree with me, the more games I get to play and love. But my posts weren’t written with an eye toward getting people to adopt my ideas. What I wanted to do was to impress upon you that knowing what your games are all about, beyond being simply a collection of design, art, and engineering details, is an important part of achieving success as you define it.

Beliefs about what games can and should be, at least in my world as a game developer, provide guideposts that drive all of the design decisions, large and small, that go into making a game. And that drives the implementation details and strategies of the teams that do the real work of making that game.

So here are some conclusions.

I think (hope!) we can all agree that there are great joys in playing games. My success criteria were conceived over the course of many years and a fair number of games to offer players the opportunity to experience joys that I think of as distinctly game-like. What the heck does “game-like” mean? Aren’t all games “game-like”? At one level, sure. But by “game-like” I mean something more, specifically “not like works in other media.” I mean being true to what we can do that no other medium in the history of humankind has been able to do.

To my mind, that starts with our ability to turn every player into a storyteller. This, to me, is the greatest joy we offer – the joy of creativity. When we don’t force players down a single path, asking them simply to guess what we wanted them to do, we’re engaging a part of people’s brains they may not even have known they had.

Diving a little deeper into that idea, we offer the related joy of personal expression and authorship. Until the coming of games, media were exclusively “one-way”. Only the “author” (or director or composer or painter...) got to express their views about whatever subject they chose. Only the “author” got to tell their story and tell you what they thought about what went on in it. The “user” could only interpret (a term I prefer to interact) what was fed to them. In games, we can all express ourselves through play – in other words, through the exercise of our creative muscles. We can all be the author of our own, unique experience. I tell my teams that if two players describe an in-game event or mission the same way, we’ve failed. “Every player a storyteller” is a pretty good thing to shoot for, I think.

In games, that is best expressed when we give players the in-game opportunity to do things that no one in the world has tried or seen before – when we give them tools, an environment, and a set of variables they can manipulate as they wish.

The second joy we offer players is the opportunity to explore their personal belief systems. Not the developer’s belief system or, worse, a character’s belief system. When we offer players the opportunity to answer the questions we ask, we’re not asking them to tell us what we think or what their character – their avatar – thinks. We’re asking them to ponder what they think, as people, in the real world. Games can be about the human on the other side of the screen, the people with their hands on a controller or mouse and keyboard.

Perhaps the best expression of that - my ideal - is when people argue about the meaning of the game, how best to solve problems, and what the state of the world should be at the end of the game. Twenty-plus years after we shipped Deus Ex, people are still arguing about that. And I still get email and fan letters from Epic Mickey players describing their choice to draw or erase things – constructive behavior versus destructive – as the appropriate way to solve problems. How much cooler is that than players revealing the secret to solving a puzzle or telling other players how they beat a boss monster?

Let me be clear, lots of other developers will tell you I’m crazy, that games can and should be something completely unlike what I’ve been talking about. They will have different success criteria and an entirely different game design philosophy. It’s not for me to tell developers what games to make or players what games to play.

So what might you hear from other developers with different success criteria? It only fair to give them their due.

Obviously, a zillion players and tons of money are important to, well, every developer. Let’s take that as a given. And there are ways that might increase the odds of that happening.

Some developers make games filled with “single-solution” puzzles. (As a note, you’re not allowed to say the word “puzzle” on my teams – we create “problems” and “challenges” open to interpretation and solvable in a variety of ways.) There’s real, undeniable joy in figuring out the one way the designer intended a puzzle to be solved. There’s joy in feeling smart, in outwitting a designer, in being able to say, “You can’t stump me!”

There’s joy in demonstrating the skill to complete something challenging. I mean, you feel good when you get to the end of a level or successfully pull off a particularly difficult mission - maybe even one other players find too difficult. “Whew, that was a big deal, but I did everything the designer told me to do and I won!”

Most people like knowing – and proving – that they’re better at stuff than other people. (It’s okay to admit it...) Some developers place skill-tests at the top of their list of success criteria. “Hah! You thought that was hard, designer-person? I aced it! All you other players aren’t as good as I am!”

And it is interesting to hear what other people – developers – think about something instead of having to do the work of thinking about what you believe. There’s joy (or at least comfort) in not having to think more deeply than “I agree” or “I disagree.”

These are conventional and perfectly fine success criteria. Players get them, love them, and buy them (that last of which may be your most treasured succeed criterion!).

The truth that dares not be spoken is that playing games is work. And I admit, Player Powered Immersive Simulations may be more work for players than other, more linear games that hew more closely to conventions developed and perfected by other games and/or in other media.

The work is easier in a linear game where players can’t do anything but what they’re told to do. Games that value puzzles, completion, skill and interpretation are easy to understand and to play. Move forward like a shark and, eventually, you’ll win. People like that.

But “people like that” isn’t enough. The medium requires more if we’re ever going to mature.

I’ve been told that Plato once said something along the lines of “If everyone likes what you’re doing, that’s a good reason to think you might be doing it wrong.”

I totally buy that. You may not. And that’s great. You don’t have to buy what I’m selling. But I’d argue that it’s important you sell something – to repeat yet again a critically important point, it’s important that you have your own success criteria and your own mission.

But if your success criteria push you in a different direction than the pack, if your success criteria don’t follow generally accepted “rules,” I guarantee you’ll get pushback. Doing things that are out there, unconventional, original, not like what everyone else is doing, is risky. And lots of Important People don’t like risk.

People will try to force you to hew more closely to the well-understood and proven successful tropes. They’ll throw at you analytics and data and user feedback. (“User” should be your warning word in a medium designed to bring joy to “players”!) And maybe you buy into all that stuff. That’s great. Go for it.

What I’m saying about testing that almost inevitably drives games toward convention isn’t that you should never do anything based on outside input. I totally believe it’s important to get your game in front of impartial, uninformed testers to see what they don’t understand, in terms of gameplay, user interface, even fiction. But that’s about as far as I’m comfortable going with data as a development tool. The important thing, to me, is to know where your limits are. You have to know what’s at the heart of what you’re trying to do and what you can’t compromise on without compromising what you stand for. You have to know what you believe helps you fulfill your personal mission. Those are the things research can’t touch. Those are the things to fight about. You may lose, but you have to fight for what you believe. And that’s where a personal philosophy and success criteria come into play.

Let me expand on that last thought and try to make the case that this mission stuff is genuinely important. Why do success criteria matter so much? Is fighting for what you believe really so vital?

The stuff I’ve talked about is important for a variety of reasons:

It can provide guidance about where you want to work. I started in digital games at Origin because my beliefs about games were in alignment with those of Richard Garriott as expressed in the Ultima games I loved. When I was still in the tabletop game business I was on a panel with Richard at a science fiction convention and all I could think was, “This guy gets it!” I knew working with him was going to be fulfilling, educational and a lot less painful than if I’d gone anywhere else. You’re going to be much happier if your personal definitions of success are in alignment with those of the place you work and the people you work with.

Knowing what success looks like can help you figure out which people, publishers or funding partners you want to work with. Fit is more important than a lot of people think. I get that circumstances - usually read “funding” - may not make this a realistic or even a possible option. But it’s worthwhile at least trying to work with partners who buy into the same things you do. You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked, “Why don’t you just make a shooter?” or “Couldn’t this be a Mario clone?” You don’t want to go there...

A well thought out philosophy can provide guidance in project selection and planning. If you know what’s important to you, you won’t waste time concepting out ideas that don’t further your personal mission. I’ve told people repeatedly that, if what you want is a baseball game or a Candy Crush clone, I’m not your guy. That said, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a basketball game, partly because I love basketball, but largely because I have no idea how to make one – which is a great, completely unfundable reason to do something! Okay, coming back down to Earth, look at every game I’ve worked on. That’s what I do. If you want it, this could be a marriage made in heaven. If not... Well, I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to finish that sentence.

If you run a studio or a project, having a mission can provide guidance in hiring and staffing. It’s tempting to hire for talent. And talent is important. I used to say “Talent over team-fit.” I was completely wrong about that and it took me far too long to learn how wrong I was. What you really want are people who not only fit into your team and culture, but people who buy into your mission. You’re not likely to turn a shooter freak into a Mickey Mouse fan or a point-and-clicker into a Deus Ex creator. (Trust me – I learned that the hard way!)

Speaking personally, when you get to the age and the point in your career that I’ve reached, you don’t want to look back and wish you’d made games that were more personally meaningful. You don’t want to say, “Yep, I made some games and paid my mortgage.” Your entire career, if you last as long as I have, is going to be assessed on the basis of a very few games. You should always try to focus on developing games that are personally meaningful. (Again, I realize this may not always be possible – you do have to pay the mortgage, after all! - but that doesn’t mean the effort to find meaning in your work is so well worth it...

Finally, personal goals, success criteria, and missions – a philosophy – are important because we’re still a young medium and your personal goals may be just the thing we need to grow up a little.

Games are unique in many ways. They’ve only been around for a few decades. The opportunity to create and define a new medium of expression comes along, how often? Two… three times a century? Games are still young enough to give developers a chance to do the defining. How can you not want to?

In a sense, other media are “solved problems.” There’s value in working in mature media where you can focus on content rather than implementation details. But it’s clear to me that games are not a solved problem. We shouldn’t be repeating the past – we should be making the future. The world of games in 2023 is a frontier and no one knows how to tame it. Maybe you’re the one who’ll figure it out and make people forget guys like me ever existed.

To my mind, that’d be success, too!

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