Sometimes as a game designer it can be easy to treat your design as an end in itself. This is a problem that I occasionally fall into – you have so many ideas for your game, and it all seems to click together perfectly in your head. Then you end up bringing it to a play group for testing and everything falls apart.
Parts of your game that seemed simple in your head end up being far more complex than you initially imagined. Players start subconsciously picking up on cues that you didn’t realize you had placed, which leads them to make false assumptions about how the game works. At the end of the day you may have learned a lot about your game, but nobody had a great experience with it.
In my experience, when situations like this happen its because I made a fundamental mistake in how I thought about my game. Although I always try to consider how people will interact with my game, sometimes I miss something that would seem quite obvious from the outside. However, this does not mean my game is a failure. As long as the focus is on the players, these experiences can be incredibly educational.
In today’s article, I am going to look at the relationship between players and games. I will look at why players need games, and why games cannot exist without players. I will also look at some ways to bridge the gap between the two, and how to use your player’s unspoken assumptions about your game to your own advantage.
Humans are Meant to Play
One of the classic works in the theory of game design is the book Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. This book discusses the role of games and play in the history of human society and evolution. In this book Huizinga argues that, while the term “Homo Sapiens” (wise humans) emphasizes humanity’s ability to reason about things, equally important is humanity’s ability and love of play. This is where the title of his book, Homo Ludens, comes from – it roughly means “Human Player” or “Playing Humans”.
While many words have been written about why people love playing games (including by me), behind all of these specific reasons lies the core truth – people were meant to play. As I have discussed in my “History of Game Design” series, board games go back at least 5,000 years, and games in general definitely go back much further than that. Playing games, like language or tool-making, is a fundamental part of being human.
Why am I bringing this up? Because it gets to the very core of what a game is – a game is something to be played by humans. A game is not about the design of the game on paper, and it is not about abstract concepts such as “depth of play”, “balance”, or “ludonarrative resonance”. While discussing these ideas can be useful in discussing and reasoning about games, at the end of the day they are not what it is all about.
When designing a game it can be easy to lose focus of what the game is truly about – the players. There are plenty of games out there that clearly don’t have players at their core, and some might even have some temporary success, but at the end of the day no game (or game company) will have long lasting success unless they make sure the core of their game is in the right place.
For as long as there have been people we have been playing games to teach lessons, tell stories, or assert our superiority over one another. However, while it is clear that people need games this begs the opposite question – do games need people?
A Spherical Game in a Vacuum
There is a long-standing debate among the art community about whether art can exist in a vacuum. Is the, for lack of a better word, “goodness”, of a piece of art an intrinsic property of the art itself, or does it depend on the people who are looking at and experiencing the art? Do people appreciate something because it is a masterpiece, or is it a masterpiece because it is appreciated by people?
While I certainly cannot claim to have the definitive answer to this question, I do have a strong opinion on this issue. I believe that art does not exist in a vacuum – art needs people. If a particular piece of artwork evokes a response in a viewer it is not due to any intrinsic property of the artwork itself, but instead due to the intrinsic properties of the audience, which is made up of humans.
Humans, whether by chance or design, have brains that interpret the world in a very specific way. We have stereoscopic vision which affects the way we perceive depth, and our eyes can only pick up a narrow band of light frequencies. Everything that we see is filtered through layer after layer of abstraction in our eyes and brains, and we are so accustomed to it that we don’t even think about it. We assume that the world we see is the world as it exists.
There are thousands of optical illusions designed to take advantage of the weakness of our senses and our brain’s ability to interpret the world. One of my favorite examples is the grey squares illusion, shown below. Look at the squares marked A and B. Clearly square A is a dark square, and square B is a light square. What is tricky about that?
It turns out that the two squares are actually the exact same color. If we were robots that strictly observed the world around us without bias, that fact would be obvious to us. The two squares have exactly the same brightness, and they are encoded using the exact same pixel values, therefore they are the same.
However, people are not robots. People’s sensory experiences are shaped by their brains and their pasts. We know how shadows work in the real world, so our brain automatically adjusts what we see to fit our expectations. We know that the if the square B wasn’t in shadow it would be lighter than square A, so we unconsciously change our perception to fit that expectation.
This is why I claim that art cannot exist in a vacuum. Seeing a piece of art and interpreting the intentions behind it, all of these things can only be done because that art was designed specifically for our perception. When an artist puts their emotions down in such a way that it evokes that same emotion in viewers, that is only possible because the viewers and the artist fundamentally share the same operating system through which everything else is processed.
The same applies to games, perhaps even more so. Every game we make is unconsciously filtered through that same operating system. Take the concept of difficulty for example. Suppose you are designing a single-player campaign for a hack and slash game, and you want to make sure that it strikes the right balance of difficulty – not too hard, not too easy. That balance only exists in the context of human players, and what our reflexes and senses are capable of responding to.
You Know what Happens when you Assume…
While all games are (or should be) designed with the physical constraints and peculiarities of the human body in mind, this idea goes much further. While most humans have similar physical and sensory characteristics, we also share similar ideas about how the world works, and these ideas can be used convey information in your game.
Keep in mind that, when I say people have shared knowledge of how the world works I am not referring to high-level political, religious or moral ideas. I am referring to something much deeper. For example – we all understand that, in the real world, houses don’t jump. If your player walked up to a house in your game and the house began to hop away, I assure you that the player would be quite surprised.
Where does this assumption that houses don’t jump come from? That could be answered in several ways. First, we have all probably seen thousands of houses, and none of them have ever jumped. Therefore, houses don’t jump. Or perhaps you could draw on your knowledge of physics – jumping requires an upward force, and houses have no means of propelling themselves upward in such a way. Finally, you could appeal to biology. Jumping is generally something that living things do, and houses do not live. Therefore, houses do not jump.
You could use any of these arguments to defend your position that houses cannot jump, but at the end of the day you don’t actually need to make any arguments at all. The fact that houses don’t jump is something that you KNOW, deep down in your soul, and does not need to be defended.
Knowing that houses don’t jump is just one of millions of tiny assumptions that we make about the world on a daily basis, without even knowing that we are doing so. We expect objects to behave predictably, the way they always have. If something in a game world does not behave as expected players will notice, even if it is only on a subconscious level, and unless it is done deliberately it can seriously affect the feel of the game. [For more on how the design of objects should reflect their function, see this article]
This idea does not just apply to inanimate objects in the world, however. We also have expectations about how living things behave in the world. We have all probably interacted with a dog before, and we expect dogs in games to behave similarly to dogs in real life. But these expectations go beyond creatures that we are already familiar with. Take the Triceratops for example. Nobody has seen a living Triceratops, so we don’t really know how they would behave. However, we can make a number of immediate assumptions just by looking at them. I don’t think anybody would expect to see a Triceratops climbing a tall tree, for example.
This shared knowledge can even apply to abstract concepts such as color, sounds, or shapes. While this topic could easily be an entire article on its own, I’ll just throw out a few quick examples. People tend to see rounded shapes as more friendly and inviting, while jagged shapes are seen as more threatening. Colors like red draw attention and get you more excited (which is why red is often used to represent enemies).
By drawing on this innate knowledge of how your audience will perceive things, a game designer can convey a large amount of information about how their game works without having to use any text. Players can automatically perceive how a particular item works, or how an enemy would behave, purely based on the visuals and sounds that they make. This can also lead to some very fun and surprising moments when a designer chooses to deliberately subvert these unconscious expectations.
Don’t Let Your Plan get in the Way of Your Design
Finally, I want to look at an example of how my own design assumptions led to a less-than-stellar experience for my players.
For the last few months I have been working on a design for a new party game – a simple card game for 3 – 11 players. Like a lot of party games, this game is about communication with constraints. Without getting into too much detail, one player will draw a question from the deck, and the other players will have to answer that question using some particular constraint given by the question.
In particular, the goal is to create enough constraints on the question to result in fun responses, without putting so much constraint that the player is unable to come up with a good answer. Because of this, I knew that I should try to avoid answers that required specific knowledge from the player. “Answer in the form of an element on the Periodic Table”, for example, would definitely not work.
While I knew that I couldn’t rely on specific knowledge (because I want this game to be open to all kinds of players), there are some questions that I added assuming that players would have no problems with. One of these required the players to answer using a song title. When I added this card I thought that it would be easy – after all, everybody knows hundreds of songs, right?
It turns out that two members of my play group don’t listen to music. What I thought would be a simple and fun question turned into an awkward silence as my players tried to come up with some way to answer the question. Even the players that did know songs still had a hard time coming up songs that worked for the question. All in all, not a great experience.
What did I do? I removed the question, and began to rethink my strategy as when it came to coming up with new cards for the deck. At the end of the day you can do as much theorizing in your head as you want, but the players are where the rubber meets the road. No matter how much you like something, if the players have an issue it is your job to figure out why, and to correct it.
If you remain rigidly stuck to your original design you might end up with a game that you enjoy, but that doesn’t work for anybody else. But if you listen to the players and address their concerns you will end up with a better, more fun game that will appeal to a much larger audience of people.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I answer the question “why hasn’t the Magic bubble burst”?