Oscar Clark analyses whether developers should give up control to engage users

Should a game’s direction be led by the designer or the player?

I’ve been thinking for a while about who ‘owns’ a game experience. I don’t just mean the obvious purchase, but the extent to which the essential direction of a game should be focused on the needs of the player or the desires of the designer.

As with all these debates they end up focusing on the semantics, but I think there are profound issues about the approach we take to design and the outcome; perhaps even our likelihood of success as designers. Let’s be clear however, I’m not talking about the quality of the game, but instead the design approach and the nature of the resulting player experience.

Monument Valley from Ustwo is a superb achievement and one I definitely recommend everyone play. However, for me personally, I found it somewhat frustrating because in the end each stage only had a single outcome. I continued playing though, because this was a beautiful, charming display of the studio’s talent for design.

To me it was an almost passive and very linear exploration; a puzzle rather than a game. This contrasts for me with their previous delightful Whale Trail; a game which absolutely is a personal, engaging exploration of their crazed imaginations, because my actions in this endless runner directly created my own personal narrative.

At the opposite end are games like Createrria from Polish developer Incuvo where they make a game out of making levels for other people to enjoy. This taps into a deep vein of creativity for individual players and makes that both rewarding and entertaining.

We need to think about balance between the vision and the needs of the audience. Without something to say we have nothing worth listening to and without a willing audience we are wasting our breath. 

Those creative players get a different kind of pleasure from watching another player (e.g. through a replay video) playing your level; a curious blend of pride and embarrassment that I suspect I am not alone in experiencing. These aren’t the same feelings we experience in Monument Valley but calling them ‘Tool-kits’ doesn’t do them justice in the same way as some will object to my use of the term ‘Puzzle’.

This creative emotion is also different from the kind we experience from sandbox games like Galaxy On Fire or the now ‘stock F2P’ experiences like Clash of Clans or Royal Revolt with their highly repeatable core loops. The (perceived?) freedom implicit in their design creates a sense of personal ownership of the playing experience can be a powerful incentive to making the game a habit of choice.

I’m not suggesting every game should be a complex sandbox or that we stop making simple games; I’m not even suggesting that the designer’s voice isn’t important. Quite the opposite. However, we need to think about balance between the vision and the needs of the audience. Without something to say we have nothing worth listening to and without a willing audience we are wasting our breath.

This matters to me because I have seen an array of indie ‘premium’ devs talking about how important it is to make a great game whilst conflating this with linear design. That’s not true. Simple games don’t have to be linear! However, the F2P side of the argument isn’t entirely clean. There are some F2P games which have fallen into a trap where monetising loops seem to lose track of where the fun was supposed to be and that’s not going to help you be successful.

It was fascinating listening to the design team at Supercell who were presenting at Games First in Helsinki about their design approach. What was obvious was that despite having a game which still leads the Top Grossing Chart they genuinely have an absolute focus on "optimising the fun". There were more slides with the word ‘fun’ than there were with ‘$’ signs.They clearly love their games and just want to keep making them better.

I believe we have to trust the player and recognise when it leaves our hands, it’s their game, not ours

I think we can learn from the joy of puzzle-box design and bring the same qualities of delight into experiences with longer playability, greater player focus and therefore the potential to deliver greater life-time delight. I appreciate that may sound a bit ‘worthy’ to some F2P guys out there; but it really isn’t.

This industry needs us to produce entertainment which sustains an audience. However, the premium game designers have to learn from us F2P guys too. The premium/console approach leads to short-term engagement and a hit driven industry. That is a costly and essentially unsustainable in my opinion; although there will always be a few survivors whose exceptions stand out.

The design of a linear game takes away a lot of pressure from a designer. We have more control over the experience and that means we can craft the results perfectly to deliver the emotional and artistic vision we have. Sandbox and creativity games mean we have to surrender some of our creative vision to others; to an audience who won’t (can’t?) care about this game as much as we do. They are bound to have different experiences than we expected. That can be a scary idea. It means that we might fail to do our job of entertaining them. On the other hand by focusing on repetition we risk losing some of the essential fun and find ourselves creating a grind which players have to endure to get the payoffs in our game which are hidden behind artificial barriers of money, time or long term commitment.

I believe that there is another way. We don’t have to give up all control. We can create emergent systems which feed a sense of progression without having to make that experience bland.

However to do that I believe we have to trust the player and recognise when it leaves our hands, it’s their game, not ours. That means looking not just for the fun, but also the magical moments that make them feel special. Indeed creating space for those moments to take shape. That takes an understanding of how we can deliver a sense of uncertainty as much as having the room for players to feel they have a genuine choice in how they play. This effects the level of frustration, pace and pleasure moments in each playing loop as well as across the lifetime of the game.

Realising that we need to punctuate the pleasure of playing and satisfy the players craving and engagement changes our attitudes to design at the same time as requiring us to pay attention to what they are doing when they are not playing and what we can do to entice them back. I still think we can make (even) better games.

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