When we talk about game design, a lot of our focus is on the game mechanics, narrative or monetisation model. These are important, of course, and do provide the building blocks that make up the bulk of the experience. However, they don’t define the experience from the player’s perspective. Games, at their best, aren’t just a passive medium and the way they are consumed is as much a part of the experience as what the designer created.
As designers and developers, it’s our role to define the components of the experience. We create tools for the player to play through our world within constraints we set. We create mechanics to test their decision making, puzzle solving, dexterity, pattern matching ability or whatever and iterate on them to find the fun.
However, how often do we talk about the contribution that players have on the realisation of our games? How often do we consider how players can contribute in terms of experience and mechanics? I’m not suggesting every game has to be a LittleBigPlanet or Chucks Challenge, but we should at least be aware of the ‘negative space’ our gameplay creates, and how players might be able to fill that with their own meaningful moments.
When we ignore this idea of the negative space, we are effectively treating our game design as a monolog. Too often games become a series of instructions that players have to comply with and if they don’t do it exactly as we decided it should be done, then the player is a failure. Game over. Reset and restart. If that’s your game, please at least have the good grace to attempt to make failing fun and rewarding; and would it hurt to chuck in something which acknowledges that some of us lesser mortals want something fun too?
I believe the more we encourage players to find freedom to use and explore the building blocks we provide, the more engaged they can become through the ‘space to play’ we have created. More than that, we also create reasons for players to want to repeat that content, to explore the possibilities of our tools; to treat our gameplay as an emergent experience.
Too often games become a series of instructions that players have to comply with and if they don’t do it exactly as we decided it should be done, then the player is a failure. Game over.
One of the games I think has really taken this idea on board is Bad Piggies from Rovio, a game which – despite being overshadowed by its’ furious feathery rivals – has been an incredible success. It’s a game that embraces the negative space between the components of play. And I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff.
In the game, you unlock various components that you can use to build up a vehicle of some kind – and it’s only limited by your imagination. You use this vehicle to perform some task within a level, usually collecting boxes and getting to the finish line intact. All of these levels create a feeling that there are many choices about how I might solve the puzzle and that there is a freedom in that for the player.
But the more profound realisation is how the players can decide to go beyond the pre-determined goals and create their own goals about using different layouts, types of components, and so on. This becomes most obvious in the Sandbox mode. Here players can use the components they have unlocked through playing the game’s levels and have (nearly) complete freedom over what they create.
Playing with the Sandbox seems to inspire a lot of creativity and part of that seems to come out of the essential problem solving nature of the game. Curiously it’s the inherent restrictions of such a simple, yet emergent combination of tools seems to bring out the desire to solve puzzles.
According to Mika Porspakka, executive producer at Rovio, people set themselves problems to solve. Say they decide to create an Attack Helicopter that shoots missiles: how do they make that? Players find crazy ways to make things with the components which are available.
The emergent properties of each of the playing components are important here. They have a weight, function and durability, at least in terms of how they connect. Because of this, the player can explore how each one works together and can apply that to create their own concepts. This isn’t telling players what to do, it’s allowing them the space to decide their own experience. Add their use of Everyplay’s video sharing feature and we find over 390,000 player-generated videos.
This isn’t just about players showing off their latest victory in a given level. Players are exploring what they can do with the tools of play. They are seeing what happens when the push the controls to do different things than the designers had expected. They have started to go beyond just the gameplay we intended and start using the game as a way to communicate.
The result is that Bad Piggies’ Sandbox has become more than just an interesting feature with a bit of video sharing. This construction experience has become a focal point for its playing community; an opportunity for the players themselves to show off what they made. This simple act of sharing has in turn become the source of entertainment and a reason to care about the content. And, according to Mika, this kind of creativity seems to spark much greater levels of community discussion than other more traditional games.
For me, this reveals a fascinating truth about how important it is in an interactive medium like games that we don’t just pretend to players that they have some level of control; we can actually set up the pieces and let them truly play with them, building ever greater engagement.
Done well and with clearly communicated constraints, this can empower players to create their own magical moments and share them, building deeper awareness, retention and in the end more lifetime value.