What is the goal of a game designer? There are hundreds of articles on the science and art of game design readily available on the web, but rarely do people stop and ask the larger purpose behind our efforts – why we do this at all. What is the goal of a game designer, and how does he or she know when the job is done well?
The knee-jerk answer is often, “to make a more fun game,” but what, truly, does that mean? Fun is hard to define and harder to pin down… And, worst of all, it is completely subjective.
Alex Kerezman and I fully believe that the practice of designing solely to make ‘fun’ games is based on a false premise, and harshly limits the potential for what games can become
The mark of a successful game, especially for the commercial sphere, is how involved players are in the game – and whether they recommend it to their friends. Before a game can be successful – the player needs to be provided with an answer to a fundamental question, “why am I playing this game?”
Trying to make the games more fun is simply a response to this question, one that runs like this.
"You are playing this game because you enjoy the gameplay mechanics"
At first blush this answer seems perfectly logical… But it obscures a deeper truth about gameplay. Overwhelmingly players don’t sit down at a chess board looking forward to playing the game – they sit down to win the game. That’s why playing people in person is so much more satisfying than online – you get to stare your opponent in the eye, usually someone you know, facing your enemy. After all, if people only cared about enjoying the mechanics of chess then no one would ever care if they won or lost. And yet we know that they do, hence the phrase, “it’s only fun if you win.”
But now the concept of fun is getting murkier – it is moving from a clear enjoyment of the mechanics of gameplay to an approval of the experience overall. And yet many of the most enduring entertainment experiences have very little to do with “fun”. Is Casablanca fun? Moving? Yes. Tragic? Certainly! Romantic? Indeed. But fun?... Not exactly. In fact, amongst the many genres of theater, only light comedies seem to approach what we refer to as “fun” – and they tend not to endure the test of time.
Furthermore, if you break down the very core mechanics of gameplay things become stranger still. The most hated issues in poor gameplay, lag, invisible walls at the sides of roads, awkward button placement and more all stem from one overall complaint… They get in the way of what the player wants to do.
Think about it, lag slows the players down when they want to be engaged in a level. Invisible walls are maddening not because they are unrealistic, but they prevent a player from exploring areas that are clearly visible… Yet just out of reach. Few people complain that you can somehow fall through the platforms in the Super Smash Bros. series, but trying to get to a hiding place in Call of Duty and running into an invisible wall along the way hinders the player's progressive desires.
Awkward button placement makes performing the actions that you want to more frustrating, the controller not smoothly responding to your will. It’s also the reason it bothers us so much when we are forced to play with a controller we are unfamiliar with. We know what we want to do, but we can’t seem to make the character do it.
But… If bad gameplay is fundamentally bad because it is less responsive to the player’s desires something even more fundamental pops up:
The desires themselves.
Game play is a facilitator, nothing more, nothing less. How could it ever be otherwise?
A player enters the game with some sort of objective in mind, and not the ones put forward by the game play. A player doesn’t sit down at a chess board wanting to trap the opponent’s king – he sits down wanting to defeat his opponent for his own personal reasons. If he has to trap the opponent’s king to do it then he will gladly mount an attack, but if winning the game meant capturing both of his opponent’s rooks then the King would suddenly find himself all but ignored.
Does this seem obvious? Absolutely. But here is the crucial point – if gameplay is nothing more than a facilitator of player desires, it cannot be the most important thing! A smooth car ride is nicer than a bumpy one, but fundamentally the driver cares about getting to where he wants to go. Just imagine if all auto manufacturers suddenly began trying to create the smoothest ride imaginable… And ended up with vehicles that only went round in circles. The ride might be smoother but the car would fail to serve the driver’s objective and such a company would quickly fail.
Game design needs to focus on the Why of games – hence the title for our blog. Why should the player want to defeat the boss, why should he care if he ever finishes a level and why is he even playing it to begin with?
This focus leads us to an entirely new set of powerful designs. Currently storylines in games are often half-hearted attempts to cram the majesty of Hollywood movies into fragmented cut scenes. It’s no wonder writers often get discouraged. However, looking at games from the Why perspective reveals the true power of game experiences in the realms of story… Even the opportunity for them to be more powerful and moving than movies, books or plays. Sound too good to be true? Well let me explain…
Haven’t you ever been watching a movie and wished you could be there so you could punch that idiot in the face, hug that poor, sweet girl or tell that idiot over there just what you think of him? It’s an intense, almost visceral feeling, one continuously evoked by skilled writers in their work. We are meant to want what the hero wants so that we can cheer along with them once they triumph.
Games can take this a step further – throwing a player directly into the center of the story. A well-written game can make you want to do something, whether rescuing a princess or killing a villain and then throw you into the level and let you go do it! Suddenly the triumphs in the story are your own – and drastically more satisfying than sitting on the sidelines cheering Luke Skywalker.
Naturally, a game does not need to have a powerful story to function – but it is one of the clearest forms for providing the player with desires, while the gameplay itself facilitates the achievement of them. Story structure involves challenging a character’s goals and pushing them through a series of obstacles on their way to ultimate triumph. This is a perfect approach to take when trying to craft a player’s journey through a game – making them want to play levels and accomplish things within the game. Rewards, such as providing more powerful weapons and skills for the completion of tasks are another strong form of player motivation – but they cannot compare to the inherent power of a story that a character believes in.
After all, despite clear, tangible rewards (salary) many people dislike their jobs. Rewards alone make building a powerful experience more difficult – and only the application of Flow can save you, as detailed here by my partner in crime Alex Kerezman ( http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AlexanderKerezman/20100421/4988/Flow_Tasks.php )
So where is the fun? Not necessarily anywhere. Writing this blog entry wasn’t exactly fun for me, but it was engaging, rewarding and exciting… And I’ll certainly be writing more! As artists of game design it is our dream and duty to provide powerful gaming experiences – and a focus on fun game play for its own sake can rob us of the deepest insights into how to create them.
Gameplay is no more than a facilitator, the smooth ride in the car that makes the trip more enjoyable. It is incredibly important and good game mechanics can make all the difference in their title’s success – but they serve to facilitate the player’s greater desires and goals, nothing more. It makes little sense to start the design process with a focus on creating fun gameplay. One might as well try to invent something from the engine out, not knowing what purpose the machine will actually serve.
So what is our new answer to the essential question, “Why am I playing this game?” Simple.
"You are playing this game because it allows you to achieve your fondest desires over and over again."
-Dan Felder, WhyGames Blog