Don’t Hate the Player Part I

In my last post, I discussed how games are an art form with the potential for expression equivalent to those of traditional art forms like painting, literature, and film. Today, I’m going to start going into detail about one way that games differ from almost all traditional art forms: interaction.

For most traditional art forms, it’s totally possible for a viewer to not understand what’s going on, smile and nod, and for no one to be the wiser. Of course, to really appreciate art takes work. You need to get a big picture view of the painting while scrutinizing every detail. You need to reread the poem and speak it aloud while analyzing word choices and catching allusions. That said, if you fall asleep in the theater after the first scene of a play, that play will unfold as if you were dedicating all of your mental energy to it.*

Games aren’t like that. If you don’t have the cooperation of players, your game is going to sit idle and unloved. This means your game must capture the attention and interest of players, and also be understandable by them. This may seem obvious, but it can actually be a pretty big challenge for new game designers to handle. It is so important that when designing a game, it is important that you think about your players when you make every decision. But before you can realistically do that, you must answer an important question: who is your player?

Before we get to the meat of the topic today, I wanted to again suggest that any budding young game designers out there (or really anyone associated with games or with an interest in creating artifacts for other people to enjoy or use) look into some of the great new books on game design to have come out over the past few years. Today’s topic is fundamental to game design, and you can learn lots more about it in some of these books. I’ve learned a ton from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop and even more from Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design and highly recommend both.

Who’s Your Player?

Alright, back to the topic at hand: making games for players. I said earlier that young game designers often have a problem with this, which isn’t completely true. It’s very rare that someone creates a game without thinking of a player. But for many first time game designers, the player they have in mind is themselves. This isn’t inherently a problem, but depending on your hopes for the game, it can stifle its growth. The problem comes from the fact that you know yourself better than anyone else, and you know your game better than anyone else, so it’s very easy to create a game that no one else will understand. For this reason, I think it’s a good idea to try to think of other people when designing your game. In fact, it’s really essential that you get other people to playtest your game, but that’s a big topic that deserves its own post.

So, if the game isn’t for yourself, who should your game be for? You might think the easy answer is everyone. Why not make a game that everyone will love? It’s a good thought, but it rarely works in practice. Why? Because the 7 billion people on this planet have very little in common. We’re all human, we all eat and use the bathroom and sleep and… that’s about it. We have different languages, different religions, different values, different lifestyles. Most of the things about us are different. If you try to cater to our commonalities, you will find that you have very little material to work with, and your game feels watered down. Even if you try to scope your audience down a bit to, say, everyone in country X, you will find that differences in age, region, gender, education level, social class, religion, family size, etc will pull your game in so many directions, it just pulls it apart.

Have you ever heard about “hard core” gamers complaining that a franchise they love is being watered down for the “casual” crowd? The company making the game wants to broaden the appeal of their game, but to do so, they must make sure the game is accessible to more people. The “hard core” group has more in common than the broader group: they already know how to play the game in question and they are probably equipped with general gaming skills like dexterity and planning. To make the game accessible to others, the company can’t cater to these specialized skills and interests, or they will alienate potential customers, ahem, players. So, they make the game simpler, which annoys the “hard core” fans they already have. In the worst case, this can lead to games such as Spore which wanted so badly to be loved by everyone that its gameplay was watered down to the point that almost no one loved it.

So trying to make a game for everyone is a difficult and frankly risky endeavor. Instead, I recommend choosing a smaller subset of players for your game. At one extreme, you can target a single person. I mentioned earlier that your first game will often target yourself, which falls into this category. This is fine, though it might make the game impossible for others to understand or enjoy. A step up from this is targeting a specific group of players, most likely a group of your friends. This will make sure the game is less idiosyncratic and will result in a game that will probably be accessible to people outside even that target group. Finally, when you’re ready for the big leagues, you can try for a target population, which means a type of person rather than specific actual people. This is what game companies (and entertainment companies in general) do.

Games for Individuals

When you make your first game, you’re probably making it because you want to make it. You have an idea that you think would be cool and would like to try playing it. In fact, you probably have lots and lots of ideas you think would be cool and want to squeeze them all into your final game. This is great, and you’ll probably have lots of fun (and learn a lot) from doing it, and you’ll have a game you can enjoy when you’re finished. But if you give the game to someone else, you might be sad to learn that they don’t understand how your game works: it’s probably too complicated, too difficult, and might not appeal to their interests and values.

As I mentioned earlier, you know yourself better than you know anyone else. You know your own preferences and experiences very well. You can cater to exactly what you’d want. But the more you cater to yourself, the less other people, who have different experiences and values, will be able to appreciate your game. This doesn’t mean no one else will enjoy it, but it means fewer people will enjoy it.

For one of your early games, I recommend trying to make it appealing for one specific other person. Make a love letter game for your sweetheart. Or make a game your little brother or sister would enjoy. Or make a birthday present for your best friend. You’ll probably find that whatever you make for someone else, you’ll enjoy it too.

Doing this will help you in two ways. First, it will get you thinking about how someone else will feel about your creation, which is a very valuable skill to have as a game designer. Most people are not like you in most ways, so being able to empathize with others and see your game from an alternative perspective is a great way to get a feel for how your game will be received.

Second, no matter how close you are to the person you’re making the game for, you’re less close to that person than you are to yourself. That means you will be catering to more general characteristics and experiences than you would for yourself, which should mean that your game will be appealing to more people (since more people have those general characteristics). Obviously, it’s possible to fill your game with inside jokes and cryptic intimate references that no one else will understand, which can be good, especially for a personal, thoughtful gift, but if you avoid these things, your game should have broader appeal.

Games for Groups

The next step is to make a game for a group. The idea here is to target a small group of individuals who you know. For example, you might make a game that all of your siblings can enjoy, or that you and your close circle of friends can play together.

In order to make a game for a group of people, you will need to abstract away the differences of the people in the group. You’ll focus on their shared experiences and preferences, and in doing so create a game that they can all enjoy. By ignoring the things that make the members of the group unique or unusual, your game will likely cater to more people, since a lot of other people will share the common features that the group members have.

Games for Target Populations

Sometimes you’ll just want to make a personal gift, or something you and your friends can enjoy, in which case making a game for an individual or group is all you’ll want. However, if you want your game to be enjoyed by many people or have commercial success, you’ll need to make it accessible for a lot of people, which means you’ll have to target a population.

A target population is simply a type of person. Exactly what type of person is very open. You could make a game for 13-18 year old boys, soccer moms, first year college students, or model airplane enthusiasts. In any case, you aren’t targeting specific people, you’re targeting a type of person, which is much more challenging. You must think about what all of these people have in common and appeal to that ideal rather than the characteristics of specific actual people. In doing so, you’ll create an artificial characterization of your target population, a collection of traits, experiences, and values that you hope represents most members of your target population. You can think of this collection as a simplified person and for every part of your game, you can ask, would the simplified model like this? If not, it’s likely a large percentage of your target population will not like it.

Now, before we go on, you might have a some arguments against this strategy. You might say, “this is terribly impersonal!”. “You sound like a marketer!”. “How can you create art that targets the few common characteristics of people rather than whole people!?”. I sympathize. I think this approach is impersonal at best and creepy at worst. For example, I used to work for a company that made games targeting middle aged women. They had a bulletin board that said “our target audience” and had a bunch of pictures of women on it. I doubt this was very effective in getting employees in the mindset of the target population, but it sure weirded me out.

So how can you adopt this approach to game design without becoming a stalker or at least forgetting that ultimately your audience is made up of individuals with unique personalities rather than generalizations? My best advice is to remember that this is just a tool. You aren’t actually saying that everyone playing your game will be the bare bones representation you use. Each person who plays the game will be unique, with an individual perspective and quirky characteristics. You just hope that the simplified representation you’re using for design will cover enough that many people will be able to grasp and appreciate the experience you’re providing them.

Another thing to remember is that you’re not assuming that everyone in the target population will be covered by your simplified model of them. Overgeneralizing like that can be dangerous in many contexts. The abstract collection of traits does not cover everyone in the population, and assuming that anyone in the population has those traits is a good way to start stereotyping in the bad way. However, using the simplified model as a rough approximation for members of your target population is about all you can do, since it’s impossible to know or think about each member as an individual. Again, just remember that this is a tool, not a sacred truth. It’s a rough approximation that is imperfect but can still be useful.

Don’t Hate the Player

Now that you have an idea of who your player is, it’s time to start using that knowledge to better your game. Game design is really just making a bunch of decisions, and every decision you make should consider your players. Some of the questions you should be asking: Will my player enjoy this? Will this make it easier for my player to understand how to play? Will this be confusing for my player? Will this make my player feel bad? Will this be boring or exciting for my player? Will this fit with my player’s schedule/monetary affordances? How will this impact my player’s social relationships?

Your job as game designer is not only to not hate the player, it’s to love and nurture the player! You should always be looking out for your players. This doesn’t mean babying them, but it definitely means making sure that whatever game you’re creating for them succeeds in giving the experience that you and they want.

I haven’t quite said all I’d like to say, but this post has already become too long, so I’m going to break it into two parts. Join me next time when I discuss selling out and talk about a couple of my own projects to illustrate some of the dangers of ignoring the player and benefits of thinking about the player!

Read Part II!

* There are notable exceptions to this rule, where audience participation is essential for an art piece, such as improv theater and certain reality shows (if you want to call reality shows art *wink*).

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