Player-Centric vs. Designer-Centric Game Design

In my last post, in my conclusion, I made the point that, by focusing on the creation of intense emotion in the player, the designer became focused on a player-centric theory of game design, which I called good and moved on. However, I feel like this doesn’t do the concept justice, so I’m going to go further into it.

Player-centric game design, for the uninitiated, is the leading school of thought in game design, which states that all elements of a game should be designed with the player in mind, so as to ensure the experience the player has is the one intended by the designers and, hopefully, a fulfilling one. The game could be crafted to let the player have fun, or make the player feel pain, or even disgust. My last blog post covered the idea that the experience doesn’t necessarily have fun, so we’ll just call that a given and move on. Basically, player-centric design states that A. a player must be made to feel a thing, and thus B. the game must be made with the player in mind to make them feel the thing. Player-centric game design also tends to the idea that a game should be designed to allow all players the ability to feel the thing.

This seems pretty obvious. Games make players feel things, and you can’t do that unless you consider how your player’s gonna play the game. If a game is supposed to make the player have fun, the game better have non-frustrating controls and mechanics, and have things a player would consider fun. And, for the most part, this tenant is universal. However, the distinction I’ve started to see is in the last sentence of the previous paragraph: player-centric design tends to the idea that a game should be designed to allow ALL players to feel the thing.

Here’s where I’ve started to see a new school of thought, one I call designer-centric game design. This is really an offshoot of player-centric design, one which states that a game can be created with only ONE player in mind: the guy making it. The reason I speak of the game’s designers in the singular is, due to the assumption that a big company, largely driven by profit, wouldn’t release a game targeted for a few people, designer-centric games tend to be indie games made by only a few. In this school of thought, a game is designed to encapsulate an idea or emotion of the designer’s, so that they may either relive an experience of there’s, experience an emotion and experience that they want to experience, or receive the catharsis of having expressed an idea that they’ve bottled up.

Commonly, many designers talk about them making the game that they want to play, and certainly this is the most common example of designer-centric design. However, allow me to give a different sort of example.

Recently, I was able to go to a presentation of an established indie game designer, who very much emphasized this idea of indie games being made for the designer’s good alone. As an example, he showed one of his own games: a game about filling puzzle spaces with a rainbow pattern. The game was a metaphor, of course. For what? The designer’s struggle with his closeted homosexuality, about his construction of “mental mazes”: illogical thought patterns with which he was able to hide away his problems with his identity. The game was, of course, not meant for anyone else to play (something I hope to respect with this article. I will not divulge the designer’s name, nor the name of the game). It was a personal expression. If I had to have the audacity of interpreting why he made the game, I would say that he might have made it as a monument to his struggle, a way for him to remember what he went through and, more importantly, as a permanent and final statement of who he really is. I found this incredibly touching and powerful. Sure, the idea of a designer making a game that the designer would have fun playing was not new to me. However, like I touched on last week, the idea of a designer making a game to illicit other, even more powerful emotions, in this case one of identity, and the defeat of great personal distress, was beyond me. I never thought of games as a means of self-expression.

This mental wall of mine was probably, in part, constructed to my dedication to player-centric design. How could a game possibly make most of it’s players, probably predominantly heterosexual, feel this catharsis of realizing one’s identity. The obvious answer is, not very easily. But that’s not what this game set out to do. It was for one man, a game made by one for one. And, for that one, the game is incredibly powerful, probably one of the most powerful games he’s ever played. Is it not noble to seek to pursue a game that creates that level of emotional response in anyone, even yourself?

With this, I’m going back to my mantra for game design from last post and modifying it, evolving it to this new point. I’m going to simplify it a tad, moving it further away from the realm of theory, and more to the land of applied beliefs. Here’s my new version of the belief/theory:

A game worth playing is one that is capable of bringing about a strong emotional response, positive or negative, from the player, even if the player is the designer themselves.

 

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The Walking Dead, 12 Days A Slave, and Fun

Last weekend, a friend and I went to go see 12 Days A Slave in theaters. He had to do it for extra credit in an American History class he is taking, and I just wanted to goof off on a Sunday afternoon.

Without burdening my point with the summary of the movie, both he and I left that theater in unanimous agreement: the movie was excellent, probably Oscar-worthy, and we hated every part of it.

We weren’t entertained, we were horrified. Depressed. Miserable, even. The movie tells the story of a slave in the American South, as tensions are building between Northern and Southern mentalities in the states, and it does not pull any punches. It is gruesome, brutal, and honest. And it’s great. The narrative is engaging, you feel for the characters deeply, and every twist and turn of the plot has you reeling.

This got me thinking about games, specifically Telltale’s The Walking Dead. This is a game that, much like 12 Days, I would say is absolutely fantastic, parroting most reviews. And, much like 12 Days, I found many parts of the game to be intolerably depressing. Walking Dead is full of characters that you empathize with, combined with horrible situations, making you constantly mourn and empathize with these poor people. I found myself having to take breaks in between episodes to release my emotional distress.

This brings me to the question  I am now bringing up: Does a game have to be fun?

The answer, I think this has proven, is no. For so long we have belabored the point of games having to be fun, but now I’m starting to see games which focus on other emotional responses rather than amusement, games which are seeing critical success.

To look at this from another angle, allow me to present an idea I’ve had for a while. I, very pretentiously, like to call this idea The Fun-Quality Matrix.

fig A. The Fun-Quality Matrix

Basically, the synopsis of the Fun-Quality Matrix is that the quality of an experience is irrelevant to the emotion it provokes. Fun things can obviously be good, as evidenced by most every game ever to receive critical acclaim. Mass Effect, Skyrim, and Halo are all fun. However, things can definitely be good without being fun. In fact, the best examples of many mediums elicit a reaction other than entertainment. Schindler’s List is commonly cited as a horrible, depressing, and fantastic movie, and The Walking Dead can be brutal with it’s treatment of beloved characters. Even more bizarre is Quadrant 2, proving that there’s also success to be had with something that’s crap, but fun. The cinema example I give is the movie Drive Angry, a Nic Cage movie that is by all accounts terrible, but was a great time to watch because of how simply atrocious it is. Ride To Hell: Retribution is in a similar “so bad I love it” category.

Well, what does this analysis show? That a game doesn’t even have to be good, much less fun, to be a success? Not quite. What that original question about fun in games has led me to do is develop a coherent theory about what makes for a successful game. This theory is as follows:

A game can be considered a successful game worth playing if

A. The game is capable of bringing about a strong emotional reaction in the player, most commonly one of entertainment

or

B. The game’s level of quality is so low that the badness of the game is, in itself, the primary feature of the game

This theory seems pretty “no duh”, and that’s because it is. It does, however, provide a good working definition of what defines a game worth playing, one I can work with as I continue my thoughts on game design. It also provides a good guiding light on what a good game should, at a basic level do. Hopefully my games will strive for option A, rather than B, but either process does get hands on controllers and games in consoles (or hands on keyboards and games in Steam libraries, put your pitchforks down PC gamers). Obviously, this theory needs expounding, which I will do later, but for now, this provides a good base for my dogma of game design: make a game that brings about emotions in players.

This theory also immediately makes any game design I set out to make player-centric, which is good, but that’s a different topic. The point this all comes to is this:

Games should bring about some emotional reaction in the player, with as strong an intensity as possible, be the game as fun as Halo or as soul-crushing as Schindler’s List. That’s how a game makes a lasting impression.