There’s a trend going on in game design where the goal is to cheat the player into having a great time. What I mean by this is that many of today’s top games aren’t interactive, really — they are machines that manipulate a person to experience emotions best unlocked in us by the illusion of interactivity.
Now I know that’s some downright geeky “we’re all in the matrix” shizzle right there. Maybe I can clarify with some examples:
- The Endless Tutorial: Most modern games have a tutorial where you are put on a track, learn the rules of how to interact, and plod along unable to really get hurt. You can’t fail most tutorials, just take longer or shorter times to pass them. But many best-selling games continue to automatically scale their difficulty based on my (usually crappy) performance. This is smart: It lets a hard-core player feel challenged while letting a casual player “skip” the hard parts and “play through” the story. You and I each take 2 or 3 wacks at killing the boss, even though you crafted a highly tactical, brilliant, trigger-finger-numbing approach and I just stupidly mashed buttons. Your game’s variables are not at all like mine but your experience is roughly my experience. The line between where the tutorial ends and “real” play begins has blurred.
- Graph Games: Social games, as many have argued and ranted, are not games. Indeed, many of the top games can fairly be called a complicated series of pretty progress bars that simply give “players” an excuse to use (abuse?) the Facebook social graph.
- Tuning for Everyman: The art of “playtesting” is to watch people play your game and tune it to achieve the best effect — so that the experience is frustrating in proper proportion to being rewarding. As audiences become mass market and our games try to capture them all, playtesting for every demographic becomes unfeasible. Tweaking a live game based on analytics certainly helps standardize it to the average clump of players. But ultimately, to appeal to the entire curve, our games itself must become smart enough to know when they are becoming unfun and react accordingly.
Think of it as a pure game of Pong versus handball in the holodeck where your robotic opponent — and even the very laws of physics — are fluid and will shift so that you are calculated to always sawtooth a bit ahead or a bit behind your opponent, except for the very endgame when your opponent bursts far ahead but then you amazingly catch up via series of spectacular moves in the utter nick of time. It’s a false victory, a totally stuffed ballot… But if it feels great, does it matter?
I’m not sure how I feel about this trend. There’s obviously nothing wrong with an engineered arc of emotion — that’s the whole point of narrative forms such as novels, movies, and even some music. In fact, some of the more artsy folk in our industry (weak hand up) have been crowing for years that games don’t provide enough raw emotion. Mastering the discipline of understanding our player’s psychological states and then manipulating it carefully and deliberately can finally make the impossible happen: Players can care so much about a game that they will cry — their webcams plus our whiz-bang facial recognition middleware will let us know the precise moment their eyes mist over.
We game designers need to acknowledge the path we are on, and the slippery slope it presents. I predict that over the next few years game design is going to officially bifurcate into two core disciplines: Interactive Game Design (i.e. creating rules for free play, like sports or board games) and Pseudo-Interactive Game Design (definitely needs a way better name than PIGD).
Take a real hard look at what you are working on with your latest game, what you are trying to achieve, what challenges you are working to overcome. Which type of designer are you slowly becoming?