Why the gamer isn’t always right
One topic which I’ve been amused by recently is the difficulty game developers can have in figuring out how to balance their needs as creators with the needs of their players. In simple terms, this conflict can be expressed as creating a game to cater to a given audience, versus creating a game which stands on its own, something innovative and free from convention, able to carve out its own place in the market. While it’s a commonly held view that “the player is always right” in much the same way as “the customer is always right” at a retail store, I’d like to take some time to defend the design side and give some examples of how simply appealing to what’s popular in the industry and with players at any given moment can lead to a weaker game.
How should success inform design?
Choosing to fashion a game around what one’s audience is interested in seems to be the current model that’s driving the industry at the moment; one need but look at the recent cavalcade of “modern warfare” first-person shooters and dance-themed party games to see that, by and large, the “triple A” games industry is running on pandering to common tastes. In examining the vast majority of titles, however, it’s increasingly clear that this me-too attitude to game design doesn’t work out – heck, it doesn’t even lead to the huge sales numbers most publishers expect. While it’s true that fashioning your game after Call of Duty or Just Dance may help secure a certain level of safety, it’s clear that the titles that consistently sell the most aren’t the me-too games, but the originals which defined market trends in the first place. Halo, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Madden, Gran Turismo, Super Mario, BioShock, Pokemon, and so forth are the industry leaders not because they appeal to tastes that have been established by other games in the past, but because they have been the titles to innovate the most within their given retail spaces.
Interestingly, it’s worth noting that the mobile development scene backs this up almost entirely. iPhone, iPad and Android games are sort of a Wild West frontier at the moment, with everyone experimenting with new ideas and trying to put out the next big hit at the sweetest price point. The top games within the mobile sector all have very little in common with each other – Angry Birds, Flight Control, Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope and so forth are all simple games, but they all have very distinct artwork, sound design and gameplay which make them stand out from one another. The mobile scene is obviously far more volatile in many ways, due to how quickly (and cheaply) one can create and release a game, but those titles that truly stand above the rest are selling hundreds of thousands of copies and making millions of dollars.
If anything, these two brief analyses point to one thing: players are less interested pared-down versions of big-budget console titles and well-known franchises, but rather, they’re concerned with things that are innovative, novel and easy to understand. What’s driving both the console game industry and the mobile industry isn’t the release of big-budget shooters or motion-controlled casual games, it’s fresh ideas and experiences. The big franchises exist precisely because they were the first and the best at what they did; so successful were they, in fact, that the only other space left in the market is for games that do something different. In short, looking to games that have been successful in the past is only going to help a game insofar as its creators can learn where to diverge from the beaten path.
Do players’ ideas make for good games?
It’s said that every gamer has an idea for an ideal game floating around in his or her head, but that most of them are worthless. The hard truth is that many of the ideas that even veteran game designers have are no good – whether because they are impossible to implement, aren’t any fun, or limit a game to a tiny audience – and it’s simply because players don’t necessarily know what makes the best game. We live in a society where we rely upon experts, those with knowledge and ability we trust in, to do things for us that we would never trust ourselves to do. We place our faith in doctors, journalists, chefs, and others of various professions to do things we know little about. I’m no surgeon, and it would never occur to me to perform even the tiniest of operations on another, nor would I purport to tell an actual professional how to do his or her job. Game developers find themselves in the same position.
Mind, this doesn’t at all mean that ideas which come from non-professional sources are bad; in fact, those ideas may inspire and drive someone in an expert position to produce something wonderful.
The difference comes in terms of the level of detail and care one is able to weave into a given task, and the amount of knowledge and ability one is able to bring to the process. Gamers may have lots of experience playing games, and consequently know what sorts of games they’d like to play, but actually crafting a quality gaming experience can often involve things that are divergent from or even contrary to what one would expect.
One of the best examples to come to mind is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Billed as a deep, expansive role-playing game, it gave its players the opportunity to explore a rich fantasy world, begging them to “go anywhere, do anything”. During its development, fans of Bethesda cried out for a game bigger, more open-ended and expansive than even Morrowind. Unfortunately, while Oblivion was a commercial success, primarily as it was one of the most visually impressive games on the Xbox 360 upon its release and served as a good demo for the hardware, its game systems left a lot to be desired. The ability to go anywhere and do anything sounded like the ideal role-playing game to fans of the series, but the game ended up being heavily criticised precisely for moving too far in that direction. In attempting to allow players to do whatever they wished, its story coherence, skill system and level scaling were all severely damaged by this desire to provide a sandbox experience. What was one of the game’s biggest selling points ended up being the single source for the majority of its problems.
Again, I’d like to reiterate that players can absolutely have positive input on a game. Some of the best ideas in games have originally come from user-made modifications, as Team Fortress and Counter-Strike remind. Letting focus testing groups and market trends dictate the direction a game takes, however, is something that should be wholly avoided. Games should not be designed by a committee, just as you probably wouldn’t appoint your next-door neighbour with handling your legal defence in court. At best, it tends to lead to copycat efforts which both customers and critics will feel are lacking in ambition and originality, and at worst it can result in the unintentional sabotage of a game’s best features.
Design is the answer
Building a game is difficult; building a successful one is even more so. There are dedicated game designers in the industry precisely because the task of coming up with specific implementations for ideas is a monumental one, and just as important as programming, sound design, animation and so on in creating a quality experience for players. Not every game is going to be successful, and minimising risk by looking too closely at what the majority of players want will produce games that aren’t simply less creative, but end up being trampled by the big franchise names that already have a stranglehold on a particular demographic. New ideas are what keep the industry moving forward; stagnation and fatigue are the only things that can come of playing it safe.
There are things which can be done to minimise risk, which, in my humble opinion, are far more effective than picking a popular gameplay theme, setting or genre. Good game balance, for example, helps provide a more meaningful experience than what one gets in a game that’s too hard or too easy. A unique theme, aesthetic, and identity will keep a game in players’ heads and provoke interest; after all, the best games are built on novelty and will continually please and surprise people, and starting out with “like Halo, but…” as the design document will lead to nothing good. Perhaps most importantly, a consistent, coherent vision of what a game is, and communicating that vision to a development team and to the public, is what gets people to put down their money. These are all things which designers have reign over, and while listening to players and general market trends can help shape up a game, pandering will never compensate for innovation, originality and good design sense. (Source: Gamasutra)