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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