Last updated on August 7th, 2015
Most modern video games are a series of encounters. These encounters vary in name genre to genre and game to game. We call them quests, battles, traps, levels, or dungeons. On the surface, each one pits us against a particular adversary: monsters, treacherous terrain, a countdown timer, a puzzle. But peeling back the gameplay facade – moving past the viewpoint of players as characters and looking at the players as players – the real antagonist is the game designer. Excluding multiplayer, the designer is ultimately the one responsible for any plight a player might face. Each challenge one faces is a battle of wits against the game’s designer, and the game itself is an extended war pitting one against the other. This war is not necessarily the game designer’s focus. In fact, focusing on this dynamic is exceptionally hard. Here’s why.
Never tell me the odds
For starters, the player base for most games (not even including AAA titles that attract nearly any gamer under the sun) is hugely disparate. Even fans of highly specific sub-genres, like traditional RPGs, are of vastly different ages, experience levels, cognitive abilities, attention spans, etc. The disparity when talking about people who play big-release titles is astronomical; I know Halo 4 players under the age of 13 and over the age of 40; people who only play single player, people who only play multiplayer,and those that play both; there are players who have played every entry in the series and those that just started; players that prefer Halo to other shooters, vice-versa, and those for whom Halo is the only FPS. These segments between players really throws a wrench into any plans a designer might have for a challenge that will suit ALL of them. Ultimately, having a homogenous audience that you know makes it easy to anticipate, communicate, and accommodate for that audience. I’ll put it this way: talking with someone you know face to face is much easier than giving a speech to 500 people. And giving a speech to 500 people is infinitely easier than giving a speech to 500 people who all speak different languages.
Designers also find it hard to focus on the player vs designer war because the designers are doing it with one hand tied behind their backs. Let’s face it: if a designer made it a goal to beat a player, the player would be beaten. They could make enemies have infinite health, or include an unsolvable puzzle, or make the player-character die at a certain spot. For them it’s just a few lines of code. So a designer seeing the game as a war against the player is counter-intuitive. But good game designers understand that if there’s a war to be won, it must be won in-universe in a manner that is consistent with the rest of the game. You cannot have death robots suddenly appear in a Super Serious Medieval Fantasy Setting ™ without a really, really good reason.
Another roadblock to the designer’s war against the player is the whole, you know, war part. We’re talking about a protracted campaign. It is easy to design in a vacuum. It is easy to plan a challenge if you know a player-character can only have a particular piece of equipment, or is at a certain level, or only knows certain skills. Now throw in a set of complications. Let’s look at a typical RPG. Toward the end, the player-character has access to hundreds of skills or spells. They could use 3-5 of a possible 8+ characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They’re anywhere from level 30 to level 99, and they may or may not have grabbed the optional power-up or equipment from an earlier dungeon. Obviously taking all the relevant issues into account makes it difficult to plan even for a single encounter toward the end, much less a protracted war that spans the entirety of the game. A war has to consider each of these encounters over time and throw in resource allocation to top it off. In a war, the designer has to address questions like: Did the player use the one-time-use super item/powerup/attack already? Is there a way the game designer can lure the player into using it before it’s too optimal or overpowered? What about recovery items? How many has the player accumulated over the game? How many over the previous mission/quest/dungeon? Will they have enough to survive the next encounter? Will they have enough to survive the next 20 encounters in this dungeon without having to return to a shop?
And what about those designers who prefer to focus more on narrative than on challenge? If you’re designing a game and want every player to be able to experience the narrative, but your youngest player is 6, how’s that going to work out? In a war mentality, you’re pitting your stated goal (let every player experience the narrative) against the lowest common denominator. Practically this means that no challenge can be harder than what a 6-year-old can solve. And your focus, your attention as a designer, is still on the narrative. If delivering great visuals, dialogue, music, etc. is a priority then something has to give. Focus is focus, after all. The war, the most thought-intensive of the non-priorities, will almost always take a back seat.
Phew. Players that are nothing alike? An all-powerful executioner expected to exercise restraint? A war that requires precise resource allocation regardless of increasingly complex variables? Competing concerns and mixed priorities? Sounds pretty tough to get it all right.
What’s in a game? That which we call an FPS…
I once used a certain app on my Xbox 360. People call it a game. The guy who made it calls it a game. It refers to itself as a game. I was never quite convinced. And I mean that literally – I just don’t know what to call it.
It has many of the hallmarks of a modern game. There are day/night cycles. There are tools, weapons, and armor. There are monsters that creep about and try to kill the player-character. Randomness is a big element. It’s available on Xbox 360 and PC. It was (and probably still is) very popular and I certainly had loads of fun using it. I’m sure the creator is very proud of it because whatever it is, it’s great.
But I’m just not sure it’s a game. For those of you who haven’t yet figured it out, I’m referring to Minecraft. At its roots, this “game” is a bunch of building blocks. To sum it up, I would say it’s digital Legos, if Legos occasionally spawned a person-sized spider in your house while you’re sleeping. I think Minecraft is best described as a toy rather than a game. It is a means to produce a game. If I want to create a 1:1 scale replica of the Colosseum in Rome, like this awesome guy, that’s a game. Or maybe we want to help make a 1:1 replica of the Starship Enterprise. These are games we create for ourselves within the context of Minecraft. There are clear objectives and ways we can win (do it correctly) or fail (do it wrong or give up). My point is that the transformers, legos, or dolls we played with as kids aren’t games as such. They’re platforms for games we create.
Ok, maybe Minecraft is more of a toy than it is a game. So what? Well, are there any other so-called games we can apply this logic to? Remember our criteria: for something to be a game, we must have clearly-defined objectives and there must be a way for us to lose.
Disregarding Minecraft and a few others, almost every “game” that’s released does have at least one objective. Rescue the princess. Get out of the warzone alive. That’s 1 of the 2 criteria. What about the other? When you pick up a game, do you have a reasonable expectation that you might lose? In the context of a video game, what does losing even mean? Are we talking about permanent, final loss – a challenge so hard you simply can’t overcome it? That’s pretty tough. By those criteria, only 2 games made me experience the despair that came with the realization that my best may not be good enough. To me, the war was over. The designer had won. But when I was there, on the brink, considering turning my console off and trading in the game, I decided I’d hold on. To be honest, it was mostly a combination of stubbornness and a lack of funds for new games. Eventually I overcame the boss that had held my game hostage, which brought an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and achievement. The other I uninstalled.
Am I saying that games that can be beaten by average players aren’t actually games? No, that’s not my point. But what about the “games” that are difficult not to beat? Or those in which you don’t have at least one difficult encounter?
Video games as content
Jim Sterling over at the Escapist (and Destructoid, I think?) presented his thoughts a while back. Jim usually has some great insight when it comes to games, so I was a bit disappointed when he found himself agreeing with an argument for easier games that doesn’t hold much weight. The argument went like this (and I’m quoting Jim, who’s in turn quoting or paraphrasing someone else, so bear with me):
“…If you paid for content, do you not have a right to all the content you bought? What if books spontaneously combusted if you didn’t understand certain words or movies refused to unpause unless you performed a quiz to prove you knew who all the characters were? Only video games make us work for our entertainment…”
At first glance, this may make sense. It’s true that video games make us work for our entertainment, but are they really the only hobby that does?
My dad enjoys fishing. The amount of work he puts into it is tremendous. Wake up at 4am. Drive an hour or two one way. Buy, check, and clean equipment. Then comes the actual work involved while fishing – wading, casting, reeling, all while paying close attention to the environment and watching for signs of life (or fish, whatever). Granted he’s got it down to an art form, but it’s work nonetheless. Don’t even get me started on the countless hours and hundreds of dollars per year he sinks into hunting. Or what my cousin invests because of his love for cars. So the answer is no, video games are not the only forms of entertainment that make us work for it.
But there’s another false assumption here: the entertainment world is flat. That’s wrong. Content exists at different levels. Some of it, the surface level, is pretty straightforward. I’m a spiky-haired hero who must beat the silver-haired pretty boy. Along the way I discover friends and unravel mysteries about my origins and the origins of the antagonist. Some content is more subtle. Maybe I find an ally who has sealed himself in a coffin, then later I find out he locked himself away out of shame because he was unable to protect the woman he loved. Other content exists even deeper; is the silver-haired pretty boy even the true antagonist, or has a mysterious superbeing been manipulating events over thousands of years?
Just as content exists at different levels, so does our enjoyment of it. Many gamers, for example, enjoy a game more when they play on hard mode or can dissect its story to evaluate each detail. EpicNameBro on Youtube has hundreds of thousands of fans who enjoy Dark Souls significantly more because of his in-depth analysis of the game’s (appropriately) difficult-to-piece-together lore. My first time playing through the game, I was completely oblivious to these finer details. Only after a couple of months and a Youtube video by user Quelaag did I really begin examining the story in-depth. It’s been a heck of a journey and one that has massively increased my enjoyment of the game. I’m sure any Dark Souls lore seeker will agree.
So really, content can and is experienced differently by different people. And that’s perfectly fine. I’m sure that storywise Final Fantasy III/VI offers more than what I got out of it. I don’t feel inclined to go digging and possibly get more out of that particular game, though. Lots of gamers adopt this approach for lots of games. That’s ok. It is not imperative that we enjoy every possible morsel of every piece of media we digest. That would be tedious and nigh-impossible.
That being said, I would argue that all better-than-mediocre media has more than just one or two shallow layers. Games like Demon’s Souls or Silent Hill 2 feel like they bulge at the seams with unexplored territory, so much so that you never quite get the sense that you’re done with the game. Yes, you saw the last cutscene and watched the credits roll, but what else are you missing? What else can be discovered?
I want you to hit me as hard as you can
And now we get to the point. Waging war against the player is hard, but designers didn’t sign up for an easy job. A few “games” aren’t even games. Of those, not all are as deep as they could or should be. Out of the games left standing, each is experienced differently by different players.
What’s the takeaway? Maybe some game stories are too deep for some gamers to understand, or requires too much time for them to bother. Maybe some games will be too difficult for a few gamers to complete. Regardless, game designers would do best to err on the side of depth. There’s nothing like the sense of achievement that comes from digging through lore, puzzling out the finer details of a plot, and emerging victorious from a challenging, perfectly-balanced boss fight. Because honestly, can a game be won when it can’t truly be lost?
Originally posted at https://medium.com/i-3-video-games/350cc1a4e9e4. Posted on Fextralife at the request of the author.