我们无法直接影响常量，所以只有我们的造物主知道如何使用它们。在游戏领域，看似最为明显的一个常量就是“平台”。平台局限性通常主导着任何游戏开发过程中的考虑因素 （游戏邦注：如控制范例，支持的商业模式，用户群体等），但它们也是可变化的。今天令我们止步的东西也许明天就不再是个障碍（反之亦然），所以平台是一个不断移动的目 标。因此它们并不是常量。
与之相似，人们也很容易将“玩家”视为一种常量，因为游戏就是用来给人玩的，所以我们必须时时考虑到玩家。这一点不假，但并不明确。多数游戏设计常量与玩游戏的心理活 动有关，如玩家怎么想和看待游戏，但它们必须分别来讨论才有意义。“受众”、“市场”或“规则”也同此理。这些都是制作游戏中的一个环节，但也都太容易变化或者普遍了 。
所有电子游戏都是不完善的，即使是那些看起来相反的游戏（如电脑版本的西洋棋）。这是因为玩家只是在捣鼓与一个代码黑匣子，但却无从知晓后者的真正规则和操纵方式。游 戏会根据自己所隐藏的结构来执行规则，通常不会告诉玩家它的运行原理。所以玩家只能边玩游戏边掌握其中规则，由游戏来要求玩家采取行动。这具有令玩家产生好奇心的副作 用。
玩家会对玩法的公平性变得非常敏感。在体育运动中，玩家之间常会产生公平问题（例如在足球中的低级作弊行为在该项运动中被视为合理的），但在电子游戏中玩家通常得自己 控制系统。例如，他们认为游戏对自己并不公平，而开发者则不然。他们要想象其中存在问题，甚至为了玩家而考虑进行一些打破平衡的修改（游戏邦注：例如增加战利品的掉落 率）以此来修复“破坏”的玩法。
另一个就是对游戏背后世界的感觉。电子游戏令人如此着迷的部分原因就在于，对某些人来说故事性的体验就是它所隐藏层次的感觉。玩家通常会赋予NPC（有时候甚至是物体）一 些实际上并不存在于游戏的人格和性格。他们相似《Hyrule》远比自己所想象的更大，并且坊间神话流传着一些可以解开其隐藏秘密的方法。他们看到《传送门》一面墙上的“这 块蛋糕是个谎言”的涂鸦，并想象出一个与游戏设计师的意图毫不相干的故事。
我们所发展出的重要技能之一就是积极过滤输入信息，这样我们才能关注那些最为紧迫的事情。用电脑来打个比方，你的多核大脑可能在处理多个问题，考虑关系或无意义的白日 梦，但至少你的一个核心总在发挥过滤器的作用。你不会死于十字路口，因为你的过虑器时刻关注着往来不绝的车辆并打断你的其他想法，让你知道“嘿，当心点”。尽管我们不 喜欢被这种突发事件所打断的感觉，但它毕竟救了我们的命。
我们预料甚至也需要这一点。没有紧迫感的游戏总是难免平庸，而那些采用了紧迫感的游戏通常最具吸引力和最富情感。但紧迫感的一个副作用就在于游戏越显得紧迫，我们就越 难以关注其中的精妙细节。我们总是以实用性而非重要性的标准来评估情况，而对于富有创意性的游戏来说这就是个问题。在极富戏剧性的情境中，也许有人会注意到契诃夫的枪 ，但在《毁灭战士》中，枪只是其中的一件工具而已。
紧迫感是电影式可叙事方式并不像看起来那样适合电子游戏情境的主要原因。因为玩家太忙碌了无暇顾及故事，或者太投入了不想被故事片段所打断。所以故事与玩家之间总存在 不太和谐的关系。另一方面，那些可利用紧迫感而无需诉诸电影手段来传达情境的游戏通常很成功。无论是《Papers Please》中的慢热形式，还是《求生之路》中的混乱场景，游 戏中出色叙事的关键就在于松开“讲述”形式，而要用提示、直觉等隐晦手段，让玩家自己查明真相。
许多游戏设计师认为足球或西洋棋、《俄罗斯方块》等其他简单的游戏不错，但仍然有改进的空间。举个例子，制作一款电子游戏版本的《Mega Super Soccer》，他们可能就会添 加许多如超级踢和升级道具之类的元素，更改得分条件，设置多种类型的目标或者两个足球等。也许这些改变可以让它成为很酷的游戏，但也可能令游戏陷入一片狼藉的状态。屏 幕上所发生的事情太多了，太疯狂了，对于喜欢足球的玩家来说，这整款游戏看起来可能都太怪了。
这种古怪可能令人兴奋可能很酷，但古怪也很令人费解和模糊不清，这一点就没有那么好了。模糊不清的游戏会流失玩家。所以这个常量听起来就像是提倡优美，但却没有那么简 单。复杂的游戏可能模糊不清，但简单的游戏也不例外。除此之外，复杂的游戏（例如大型多人游戏）尽管繁琐但仍可能极为管用。真正的区别并不在于游戏有多优美，而在于它 有多自然。
所以自然意味着对可预测性的需求。如果我点中X以便击中某物，突然我的角色开始崩出对话，那就相当令人困惑了。如果游戏含有相同输入但却产生不同操作结果的元素，那就是 一种不自然的设计。相反，如果游戏包括多种混合但却产生相同操作结果的机制，那也是相当糟糕的设计，因为它会变得极具抽象性而非直观性。更重要的是，如果复杂游戏的控 制方式没有遵从一个自然的逻辑（例如在一个菜单中布置所有的建设选项），那么它就会变得很古怪。
你无法打破自然常量，但这并不意味着你无法摆弄它。有时候古怪也并非坏事。例如，玩《Frog Fractions》就好像一个古怪得惊人的空间，一般玩家在其中几乎找不到什么“正 常”的东西。但它还是因自己的古怪特点而存活下来并成了一款很棒的游戏。对于更有文化素养的玩家来说（例如那些玩独立游戏的用户），古怪感正是自己玩游戏很大一部分原因，所以如果你瞄准的是这类用户，那就不妨大胆一试。
最后，不要将自然与保守混淆起来。没有一个常量与内容、基调或电子游戏文化有关，也不要说你的游戏就应该遵从特定的文化惯例。我所指的自然仅仅是从生物和认知及过程角 度而言。如果你想制作那些超越常规的游戏，那就去行动吧（我们许多人都已经厌倦了常规的游戏）。只要理解如果你想让玩家获得非同寻常的体验，重要的是确保他们能够自然 地理解游戏所发生的情况。
所有游戏都是设计而成的循环。玩家做一些事情，就会有一些情况发生，而游戏的状态也会更新，以便玩家去做其他事情，如此反复不断。游戏中实际上有4种类型，由依赖性和存 在性而定义的循环。我所指的“依赖性”是指玩家所采取的操作是否需要其他玩家的输入（如果是，就具有依赖性，不是就属于独立性），“存在性”是指游戏是否需要玩家同时 存在于同一个空间（如果是，就具有存在性，不是就是不存在）。这两者都与时间有关。
我因为认为最棒的电子游戏发明时代就是“单人模式”而不时在游戏设计循环中遇到麻烦。多数先于电子游戏出现的游戏（桌游、体育运动等）就属于多人模式。而如今你却可以 与电脑对抗自己玩游戏，这也正是这个行业存在的原因。如果没有单人模式，游戏行业规模可能就只有它现在的100分之一那么大。但这是为什么呢？答案就在于，单人模式循环不 具有依赖性和存在性。玩家完全可以自己玩游戏。
在如果说单人模式是独立性和不存在性的合体，“多人模式”就是它的反面。多人模式需要玩家处于同一个场地，同时坐在牌桌前或者登录死亡竞技场所。无论是合作还是竞争， 如果不是所有人都到齐了，多人模式所使用的依赖机制就不管用了。这令多人模式电子游戏更具时间敏感性。玩家可能彼此联系不上，处于不同的时区，或者网络连接不当，这些 因素对多人模式的影响远超于其他任何类型的游戏，这也可能成为极为严峻的设计局限性。有歧出的是，多人模式问题的一个副作用就在于，多人模式游戏却是最吸此“硬核”玩 家群体的一种类型。
但这里还有其他两种循环。有一种是需要依赖性而非存在性的循环。这就是“连续模式”，回合制游戏的这种循环可以让你长期与世界各地的竞争对手过招，但你可以根据自己的 需要来接招。旧式的连续玩法就是邮件游戏的根源，在现代它就以电子邮件形式进行了一点更新。但是在过去几年中，尤其是智能手机和平板电脑问世以来，连续模式开始变得更 易可用性。例如《Words With Friends》就是一款颇受欢迎的连续玩法游戏，因为人人都有手机了。连续模式还是社交游戏的一个普遍功能。所有的朋友都在请求你帮他们解琐下 一个关卡。
另一种就是要求存在性但不具依赖性的循环，姑且称为“平行模式”。大型多人游戏多数是平行的，所有玩家都处于同一个服务器并体验一个共同的游戏状态。他们可能通过社交 方式或游戏玩法彼此互动。他们可能合作攻下一个地下城，或者推翻一个敌对集团（这一点上更趋近于多人模式）。游戏要求玩家出现在同一个地点以便填充游戏世界，并让人人 都获得乐趣，但玩家可以根据自己的需要玩游戏。《Journey》这类游戏，《Foursquare》或《Geocaching》等游戏，以及多数跨媒体游戏，游戏化现象亦是如此，它们使用玩家的 比较来驱动玩法。
时间通常是游戏设计的一个自然障碍。多人模式游戏更适合拥有大量闲暇时间（如青少年和学生）的玩家，但面向市郊的主妇创造多人模式游戏可能就不是一个好主意了，因为她 们没有时间体验这类游戏。另一方面，时间也可以是一种极为强大的机制。还记得那些关于你的Facebook好友在凌晨4点起来收割《FarmVille》庄稼的新闻报道吗？这就是利用长 期循环理念的游戏例子，它们创造了一种用途可好可坏的“约定”机制。
电子游戏的一个普遍比喻就是，玩家成为角色。游戏似乎在说“进入我惊人的世界并成为明星”。当然许多游戏都是以此为卖点，有相当部分的游戏是假设玩家扮演某个角色并成 为其所扮演的人物。但这只对了一半。玩家当然进入了你的世界并穿戴了你为其指定的面具，但他们并不会真的成为马里奥、劳拉、Master Chief、Cloud或任何电子游戏中的英雄 。玩家不会成为英雄，而是英雄变成了玩家。
所有游戏玩法基本上都有创意性。在踢球中得分具有创意，建设一个《Minecraft》世界也同样如此。这是发自内心地去做一些令自己获得愉悦和有意义的事情。所有通过玩游戏而 生成的自我的一个层面就是自我表达。玩家会基于理想版本的自己，或者认为自己应该呈现的样子来构建一个数字躯体形象，并根据这些自我引发的规则强加的“角色内在”操作 来采取行动。自我表达正是性别和表现问题如此重要的原因。新玩家社区并不会认为自己与白人帝国主义者一样强大，他们在游戏过程中可不想戴着这个面具。
游戏中的自我的另一个层面就是自我决定。这正是“我们为何讨厌过场动画”规则 或者“我们为何讨厌获得虚假选择”规则。玩家可能戴着你所提供的面具在游戏中出场，但他们 仍然想玩游戏。他们仍然想做出一些感觉很重要的代理选择，仍想让自己成为整体游戏的一个组件而非一名旁观者。他们会通过反抗来消极应对教条主义，以对自己来说更有趣的 方式来改述游戏所呈现的选择。
因此玩家通常会表现得像暴躁的神经病，而接纳他们可能就会让游戏设计师感到失望。许多设计师希望让游戏世界“成长”，并且让玩家表现得更高尚一点。有许多设计师希望玩 家关注《古墓丽影》的主题而非因其中的死亡序列而发笑。或者他们在玩《Gone Home》时能够融入其中的氛围，而不是质疑它究竟算不算一款游戏。抓狂的设计师不解玩家为何就 是不能以自己所设想的精神来玩游戏。
但是让我们看看独立游戏热作《Braid》，它让玩家扮演一名寻找公主的英雄角色，但在游戏过程中一些更为阴暗的东西浮现了。英雄逐渐被揭开了他是个跟踪狂的真相，这产生了 令人极不舒服，极不情愿的感觉 ，但却仍然欲罢不能的玩法。再看看另一款独立热作《Papers Please》，你在其中要扮演一个虚构的苏联式共和国的报关代理人——这看起来很 简单，但最终却会发现自己陷入一个尴尬的境地，要负责清除或拒绝那些命运悲惨之人，而这通常与你的实际目标相悖。之后这就会变成你是否要以自私的心态来玩游戏。
自我是一个极难对付的常量，但也是一项极为强大的工具。玩家偏爱像白纸般纯洁的角色，以便让他们成为自己，但这并不意味着游戏开发者就应该降格成为纯粹的“趣味供应商 ”。在艺术上获得成功的游戏设计通常会允许玩家做出无需公开评判的自我选择，会设置一些令其做出移情选择的场景。因此玩家就会与游戏产生一些个人情感联系并成为忠实粉 丝、cosplay扮演者，铁杆拥护者。
有一个说法就是所有游戏都是为获胜而玩。在更广泛的意义上它们的确如此，但它需要对“获胜”这一词的宽松定义。例如，有些人会执拗于在《太空入侵者》这类游戏中能否最 终获胜这一点，这就产生了关于获胜程度的复杂解释。有些人指出像《Flow》这种游戏缺乏规范的目标，要让他们怎么获胜呢？这也会导致语言的曲解和重新定义。最终会涉及到 政治层面。“获胜”听起来非常运动化和竞争性，这与《Journey》玩家所理解的玩游戏原因格格不入。
另一个较不具争议的说法就是，所有游戏都是由目的常量所界定的，玩家只要待在游戏中即可，只要他们相信自己的体验能够推动游戏进程即可。无论我们讨论的是玩家向老虎机 投币，还是运动员在短跑冲刺，冒险游戏玩家在解谜，还是《Scrabble》粉丝在追寻三倍的文字得分，对目的的信仰就是任何游戏对任何玩家的吸引力。相反，如果没有这种信念 ，游戏本身的咒语就会被打破，也就不再是一款游戏了。
目的感可能迷失在许多方面。其一就是当游戏变得模糊不清时，例如我在前文所讨论的自然感。如果游戏看起来随意或不公平，那么它就是毫无目的。另一个就在于，如果游戏太 难或太简单，就无法达到Csikszentmihalyi所谓的“心流”状态。另一个就是，玩家是否已经精通游戏，是否觉得已经没有什么值得学习，没有新的神秘感，没有什么需要揭开的 面纱了。还有一个就是如果玩家是否感觉得到作弊行为。另一个就是游戏机制是否不会引向一个足够吸引人的动态。另一个就是游戏的获胜条件是否靠谱。另一个就是游戏是否变 得很重复。另一个就是游戏是否看起来过于苛刻，过份看重金钱。就好像我们多数人意识到《Snakes and Ladders》缺乏任何技能元素的时刻——只要目的感消失了就不会再回来 了。
目的是一个无聊的时间炸弹。它最终会消失，但对于不同的玩家来说它要在不同的条件下才能实现。极少有游戏能够真正经受时间的考虑，许多大型而亮眼的游戏远比我们所知的 速度更快消声匿迹。但是它们的衰退方式就好像一个长尾。当然，也许你只能获得50%玩家一周的游戏时间，但你可能从5%的玩家那里获得一年甚至更长的游戏时间。只要这些玩家 继续寻找那些满足其目的感的东西，他们就会一直在游戏中逗留。
所以，这要取决于你如何围绕目的而构造游戏。你会一次性载入所有很棒的内容，还是保留一些神秘感？你追求的是短暂游戏时长，让80%的玩家都能达到终点吗？还是接受游戏的 失势并针对那些铁杆玩家设计内容？你采用无度压榨玩家或选择更像是免费模式/订阅式的方法时，游戏的商业模式是否更可行了？你是该制作困难但值得掌握的游戏，还是容易但 值得一次体验完的游戏？
Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There are infinite paintings, but also a more finite sense of what is a great painting versus not. Similarly there are infinite games, but also a sense of what works and what doesn’t. The boundless space of video games is bounded and their limitless possibilities have limits. There are, it seems, rules to game design.
“Creative constant” is a term that I use to describe those rules. They are the foundational, shape-describing pragmatic realities that we designers run into. I call them constants rather than limits because limits sound like arbitrary rules meant to be broken. Don’t get me wrong: there certainly are many arbitrary rules around video games waiting to be smashed into atoms, especially the conventions of genre. However constants are different.
A constant is an always-present factor, a boundary in some respects but also a pillar. The maximum speed of light (c) is a constant, for example, whose affects are felt throughout the universe. c seems to imply that travel to other stars is going to be more difficult than simply building a faster spaceship, but it also plays a role in the translation of mass into energy, relativistic interactions and whatnot. Our knowledge of c has helped in the development of most modern technology.
Constants exist outside our ability to directly affect them, so it’s up to us makers to figure out how to use them. In the gaming sphere it may seem that the first and most obvious constant is “platform”. Platform constraints are often overriding considerations in the development of any game (from the control paradigm through to the supported business models and demographics of users) but they are also mutable. What holds us back today does not do so
tomorrow (and vice versa) and so platforms are always moving targets. Therefore they’re not constant.
Similarly it’s tempting to identify “the player” as a constant, because of course games are always played and therefore we must always think of the player. This is true, but not specific. Most game design constants are to do with the psychology of play, how players think and see, but they need to be separated out to be discussed meaningfully. Ditto ideas to do with “the audience”, “the market” or “rules”. These are all part of the landscape of making games, but fall into being too mutable or general.
Having mulled on it a while, I think there are seven constants of game design that can’t be escaped, but can be toyed with to create powerful play.
In an older version of this idea I used to say that “fun” was the first constant, but fun is a fuzzy word for many people to parse, and for new wave game designers it’s a dumb limit. To play a game like dys4ia is not to have fun as such, but it still has a certain something. I later realized that what I really meant was “fascination”.
I often encounter game designers who want to avoid systems. Dice rolls, rules and numbers all seem so dull, so mechanical and math-y when what the designer wants to create is emotion, story and meaning. So she charges off and makes experience-driven games full of interaction without system or light on interaction (such as not-doing games) and receives a cold reception. “It’s all well and good to walk around,” the gamers say, “but where’s the gameplay?
The gamers have a point. The lack of interesting logic, gears and levers, numbers, operations and mechanics gives games a short half life. They might be interesting to play around with for an hour or two, but they don’t sustain. Within the critical community that might not necessarily be a deal-breaker (it’ s often looking at games as part of an arts conversation) but outside that group it quickly runs into difficulty.
A game needs to be fascinating. It needs active and economic mechanics that bounce off one another to create the illusion of a dynamic problem. Whether that means a massively complex simulation as you would find in Sim City 5, the elegant rules of a sport or the rudimentary lock-key puzzle solving of adventure games, fascinating systems are one of the key vectors that pulls players in and keep them engaged. Then when you have them engaged you can bring the emotion. But it doesn’t survive well on its own.
The difference between a perfect and an imperfect game is the quality of information that players know. Chess, for example, is a perfect game because all of its pieces are out on the board, players know all of the rules, and therefore all possible moves. Poker, on the other hand, is an imperfect game. Players know the rules but they do not know who has what cards at any given moment. They have to guess.
All video games are imperfect, even the ones that appear otherwise (such as computerized versions of Chess). This is because in all cases the player is toying with a black box of code whose exact rules and operations are unknowable. The game enforces rules according to its own hidden structure, usually without telling the player how it works. So the player is as much playing the game to find out what it does as to master the doing, while the game is asking the player for trust. This has many curious side effects.
One is that players become very sensitive to fair play. In sports issues of fairness often arise between players (such as the low-level cheating in soccer that’s considered a legitimate part of the game), but in video games players often have a gripe with the system itself. They believe that a game is being unfair to them, for example, when the developers know that it’s not. They perceive imagined slights where none exist and even consider balance-breaking corrections in favor of them (such as increasing loot dropping rates) as fixing “broken” gameplay.
Another is the sense of a world behind the game. Part of why video games feel so compelling as story-ish experiences to some people is the sense that it has hidden layers. Players often ascribe character and personality to non-player characters (and sometimes even objects) that are not actually in the game because of their interpretations of imperfect information. They come to believe that the world of Hyrule is bigger than they think and urban myths spread
about ways to unlock their hidden secrets. They see the scrawl of “The Cake Is A Lie” on the wall in Portal and imagine a whole story behind it independent of what the game designers intended.
Imperfect information is a wonderful constant. Video games can play with trust, they can be scary, wondrous or magical precisely because we never know what’ s really going on under their surface. As a designer you always have the power to blow players’ minds because of this.
Every day we humans deal with tens of thousands of sensory inputs, from the sound of the traffic outside our windows to the music in the movies we watch, the conversations we have with our colleagues or the flavor of the beer we enjoy. Within all that information there are threats to our survival, degrees of urgency and attention, lower order information that doesn’t need to be remembered and other data that is of high importance.
As such one of the crucial skills that we develop is aggressive filtering of inputs so that we can focus on the most urgent. To use a computer analogy, your multi-core brain may be working on problems, thinking about relationships or idly dreaming, but at least one of your cores is always acting as your filter. You don’t get killed at crosswalks because your filter is paying attention to oncoming traffic and interrupts your other thoughts to say “Hey, watch out!” . Even though we don’t like the sensation of distraction that urgency brings, it saves our lives.
Games are unique among media in that they engage us actively. We interact with and are fascinated by them. We also often play them with a sense of stake. We can lose lives, fail, face daunting challenges and be unable to overcome, all of which are survival situations. Whether in the frantic pell mell of Destiny, the need to complete tasks to progress an adventure forward or the one-coin-left moment playing a slots machine, games have a powerful relationship with
We expect, and even need, it. Games without some sense of urgency feel oddly flat, whereas those that deploy it are often most engaging and most emotional at the same time. But one of the side effects of urgency is that the more urgent the game becomes, the less we have attention for subtleties. We evaluate purely on the criteria of utility than significance, and that can be problematic for games with creative ambitions. Chekhov’s Gun may work in a dramatic context,
but in Doom a gun is just a tool.
Urgency is the main reason why cinematic storytelling doesn’t work as well as it seems it should in the video game context. Either the player is too busy to pay attention, or is too engaged with playing to be interrupted by sections of narrative. So story finds itself in a dissonant relationship with the player. On the other hand games that can play into that sense of urgency and use it to convey situation without resorting to cinema often succeed. Whether in the slow-boil form of Papers Please or the rough-and-tumble of Left 4 Dead, often the key to great storytelling in games is to lose the “telling”, and instead to hint, intuit, lay seeds and let the player discover for herself.
Last week I discussed how video games are both unbounded and bounded by “creative constants”, by which I mean inescapable factors that simultaneously limit and empower the game designer. I discussed the first three – Fascination, Imperfection and Urgency – and promised more to follow. So let’s continue:
The rules of soccer are few. The goal of the game is to trade a ball token for points by placing it in an opponent’s net, with the primary restriction being that you can’t handle the ball. You can kick, head, chest and so on (except for the limited circumstance of the goalkeeper), must keep the ball in-bounds and in-time, and there are a variety of fouls. The result is a marvelous game, the most popular sport in the world.
Many game designers look at soccer or other simple games like Chess or Tetris and think them neat but with room for improvement. To make a video game of Mega-Super-Soccer (for example) they might add many elements like super-kicks and powerups, bringing more elements onto the pitch (mines, laser beams), changing the scoring conditions away from simple trading maybe to something more exotic like having multiple kinds of goal, or two balls. Maybe the changes
would make Mega-Super-Soccer a very cool game, but it would run the risk of devolving into a big mess. There could easily be too much happening on screen, too much craziness, and for the player who likes soccer the overall game might just be too weird.
Weird can be exciting and cool, but weird can also be incomprehensible and opaque. That’s not so good. Games that become opaque lose the player. So this constant sounds like it’s advocating for elegance, but it’s not that easy. Complex games can be opaque, but so can simple games. In addition many complex games (such as massive multiplayer games) can work really well even though they are heavy. The real difference is less about how elegant a game is and more
about how natural it is.
By “natural” I mean that the actions and and rules of your game need to be physically and naturally relate-able to the player, something that they can intrinsically understand. They have to be able to understand the basics of what they’re supposed to do and what to expect for results, otherwise they simply feel lost.
Designers who understand naturalism tend to work from the starting position of fingers and thumbs because those are the root appendages that most players use to play. Ultimately it is from that starting point that the entire of the game is subsequently defined. So the control designs that lean into easy presses of fingers that players naturally use in circumstances that feel right (example: pull a trigger to shoot) tend to require less abstract learning from them. They
just get it and can subsequently store that skill and focus on play rather than interface.So naturalism implies a need for predictability. If I hit X intending to hit something and suddenly my character starts spouting dialogue instead, that gets
pretty confusing. If a game includes different actions resulting from the same input that’s unnatural design. Conversely if a game includes multiple compound inputs for basic actions that’s generally pretty bad too because it then becomes gesturally abstract rather than intuitive. Furthermore if a complex game’s controls don’t seem to follow a natural logic (such as placing all building options within one menu) then it becomes weird.
You can’t break the naturalism constant but that doesn’t mean you can’t play with it. Sometimes it’s good to be weird. To play the web game Frog Fractions, for example, is to be lost in a wondrously weird space where nothing makes anything like what the regular player might consider “sense”. But it runs with its weirdness and is amazing as a result. For many more cultured players (folks who play indie games, for example) the sensation of the weird is a large part of why they like to play games at all, so if that’s your crowd by all means play into them.
Lastly, please don’t confuse naturalism with conservatism. None of the constants are in any way about the content, tone or culture of video games, nor trying to say that your game should conform to certain cultural norms. I mean naturalism solely in terms of biology and cognition and process. If you want to make games that transgress norms, do so (please do, many of us are bored with white-dude video games). Just understand that if you want to bring players along for the ride, it’s important to ensure they can naturally understand what’s going on.
All games are designed in loops. The player does something, something happens and the state of the game updates such that she can do something else, and around and around it goes. There are essentially four kinds of loop, defined by dependence and presence. By “dependence” I mean whether the actions of the player require input from other players or not (Dependent: yes. Independent: no.), and by “presence” I mean whether the game requires players to
simultaneously be in the same space (Present: yes. Absent: no.). Both are related to time.
I occasionally get into trouble in game design circles for saying that the greatest invention of the video game era was – and continues to be – “single- play”. Most games (board games, sports, etc.) prior to video games were multiplayer. Nowadays you can play all by yourself against the computer, and that fact is why the industry basically exists. Without single-play the games industry would be about 1/100th of its modern size. But why? The answer is that single player loops (and by extrapolation, the games based on them) are independent and absent. Other, more plainly, the player can play on her own time.
If single-play is the combination of independence and absence, “multi-play” is the opposite. Multi-play needs players to all be on the same pitch, in the same room, seated at the poker table or logged onto deathmatch arena. Whether co-operative or competitive, multi-play doesn’t work well unless all are present so that the dependent mechanics it uses (pass a ball, shoot a dude) work. This makes multiplayer video games most sensitive to the vagaries of time. Players disconnecting, players in different time zones, players with laggy network connections and more all affect multi-play more severely than any other kind of game, and these can be very heavy design constraints. And, interestingly, a side effect of multi-play’s problems is that multiplayer games tend to be the ones most likely to attract “hardcore” cultures.
However there are two other types of loop. There’s the loop that requires dependence but not presence. This is “serial-play”, the loop of the turn-based game that you can play for long periods of time against opponents all around the world, but take your turn as you like. In an older form serial-play was the root of the play-by-mail game and in modern times it updated a little with email. However in the last few years, especially since smartphones and cellular- enabled tablets have emerged, serial-play has become much more usable. Words With Friends, for example, is an enjoyable serial game that works because everyone’s got a mobile phone. Serial-play was also a common feature of social games. All those friend requests asking for you to act to unlock your friend ’s next level? Serial loops each and every one.
Then the other kind is the loop that requires presence but not dependence, otherwise known as “parallel-play”. Massive multiplayer games are mostly parallel, for example. All players are on the same server(s) and experiencing a shared game state. They may interact with one another, whether socially or through gameplay. They may co-operate to try and take down a dungeon or overthrow a rival corporation (at this point probably verging more into multi-play). The game needs them to be there in order to fill out the world and make it fun for everyone, but players can just carry along as they like. The same is true of games like Journey, of pervasive games like Foursquare or Geocaching and of most transmedia games and gamification that uses player comparison to drive play.
Time is often a natural barrier to game design. Multiplayer games tend to favor players with lots of spare time like teenagers and students, for example, but creating a multi-play based game for suburban moms is would probably be a non-starter because they wouldn’t have the time to get into it. On the other hand time can be a very powerful mechanic. Remember all those stories your Facebook friends used to tell about waking up at 4am to harvest their FarmVille corn?
That’s an example of a game that leaned into the idea of the long-time loop, creating an “appointment” mechanic that could be used for good or evil purposes.
This is the third in a three-part series of posts about the fundamentals of game design, in particular the seven immutable factors (I term them “constants” ) that both limit and empower gameplay. The constants are universal and transcend factors such as platform, and they contribute to how games manage to be fun, to impart story, to seem believable, to engender states of flow and so on. In the first post I discussed fascination, imperfection and urgency, while in the second I covered naturalism and the ever-present difficulties of time.
Now let’s dig into the final two.
A popular analogy which floats around video games is that of the player becoming a character. “Here,” the game seems to say, “step into my amazing world and be the star.” Certainly many games are sold in that way, and a good deal are written with the premise that the player takes on a role and becomes the person she’s playing. But this is only half right. The player does indeed step into your world and wear the mask you assign to her, but she doesn’t actually become Mario, Lara Croft, the Master Chief, Cloud or any of the cast of thousands of video game heroes. The player does not become the hero, the hero becomes the player.
At face value this seems a little counterintuitive. There are, for example, active cosplay communities around many games. There are clear franchise loyalties to characters like Link or Solid Snake that sell games by the truckload. There is the genre of roleplaying games whose entire premise is built around making a character, building a character, having a story experience with a character and so on. How is it possible that players are not becoming characters? The key
is to understand the role of the self.
All gameplay is fundamentally creative. To score a soccer goal is creative, as is to build a Minecraft world. It’s to make something from within, something personally pleasing and meaningful. So one aspect of the self at work through play is self expression. Players construct digital body images based on idealized versions of who they are, or believe they should be, and they act according to those self-derived rules rather than imposed “in-character” actions. Self expression is why the issue of gender and representation has become so important. New communities of players don’t really see themselves as muscular white American-Imperialist dudes. They don’t want to wear that mask while they play.
Another aspect of self in play is self determination. This is the “why we tend to hate cut scenes” rule or the “why we hate being given false choices” rule. A player may be wearing the mask that you’ve provided as their in-game presence, but they still want to play. They still want to make agented choices that feel vital, to be taken seriously as a component of the overall game rather than an observer. They react negatively to didacticism by trying to rebel, to find their own way and to rephrase presented choices in ways that are more interesting to them.
As a result players often behave like petulant psychopaths, and accommodating them can feel disappointing to the game designer. Many are the designers who wish that gaming would “grow up” and that players would be a bit more noble than they tend to be. There are many designers who wish that the players focused on the themes of Tomb Raider rather than bursting out laughing at the death sequences (at 6:15). Or that they’d play a game like Gone Home and get into its mood rather than questioning whether it’s really a game at all. The frustrated designer wonders why players can’t seem to play in the spirit they intended.
However consider the indie hit Braid. The game initially places the player in the role of a hero looking for his princess, but over the course of the game something much darker emerges. The hero is slowly revealed to be something of a stalker, leading to a wonderfully uncomfortable sensation of unwilling yet compelling play. Consider another indie hit, Papers Please. In this game you play the role of a customs agent in a fictional Soviet-style republic – which seems simple enough – until you find yourself in the awkward position of clearing or rejecting people with harrowing life stories, often counter to your functional goals. Then the question becomes do you play into your selfishness.
The self is a very difficult constant to deal with but also a very powerful tool. Players prefer tabula rasa characters that allow them to be themselves, but this doesn’t mean the game maker is solely relegated to “fun provider”. Artistically successful game design usually plays into the idea that the player is permitted to do as she chooses without overt judgement, but sets up scenarios that lead her to make empathic choices on her own. Thus she engenders some personal connection in the game that goes beyond its nuts and bolts and becomes a deep fan, a cosplayer, a devotee. That is, if that’s the kind of game you want to make.
Success. Winning. Mastery. Achievement. Optimizing. Strategizing. Closure. Addiction. Engagement. Rush. Flow. Fiero. Progression… There’s something about the play of games that demands not only that we can take action, that there are rules, dynamism, thrills and spills but also that the play goes somewhere. That after playing there will be a final state, a thing done, seen, overcome or completed. That it won’t be an endless treadmill, a vacuous simulation or a stateless toy.
One way to say that is to say that all games are played to win. In the wider sense they are, but it requires a pretty loose definition of the term “win”. Some people get hung up on whether games like Space Invaders can be ultimately won, for example, which leads to complex explanations of levels of winning. Some point to games like Flow that lack formal goals and ask how can they be won? This too leads to contortions and redefinitions of language. Finally there ’s the political aspect. “Win” sounds very bro-gamer, very sporty and competitive, and leads players of games like Journey to say it doesn’t fit with why they play.
A less contentious way is to say that all games are bounded by the constant of purpose, that players will only stay with a game as long as they believe their play actively pushes it forward to somewhere else. Whether we’re talking about the player dumping quarters into slots, the athlete working on her sprinting, the adventure gamer solving riddles or the Scrabble fan searching for that triple word score, the belief in purpose defines the appeal of any game to any
player. And conversely without faith a game breaks its spell and is no longer really a game.
The sense of purpose can be lost in many ways. One is when the game becomes opaque, such as I discussed when talking about naturalism. If a game just seems arbitrary or unfair then it’s purposeless. Another is if the game is too hard or too easy, falling out of Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” state. Another is if it is already mastered, if it feels that there’s nothing else to learn, no new mystery to see, no new veil to be uncovered. Another is if the player perceives cheating. Another is if the game’s mechanics don’t lead to a sufficiently fascinating dynamic. Another is if the win conditions of the game seem
flaky. Another is if the game becomes repetitive. Another (more recent, and especially in the West) is if the game seems overly gated, cynical and essentially about the money. And – like that moment that most of us experience when we realize that Snakes and Ladders lacks any element of skill – once the sense of purpose is gone it tends to stay gone.
Purpose is a time bomb of boredom. It will eventually go off, but it does so under different conditions for a variety of players. It’s rare that games truly stand the test of time, with many of the biggest and splashiest games dying off more quickly than we realize. However the manner in which they decline often resembles a long tail. Sure, maybe you only get a week’s play time from 50% of players, but equally you might get a year or longer from 5%. As long as those players keep finding something that satisfies their sense of purpose, they stay.
So it’s up to you how you structure your game around purpose. Do you front-load it with all the cool stuff or keep its secrets back? Do you aim for a short play time in the knowledge that 80% of the players will get to the end before they disconnect, but thus only give yourself a limited window in which to work. Or do you accept the fall off and design for those who’ll commit? Does the business model around your game work better if you attempt a smash-and-grab (all
trailer, all entice) or opt for something more freemium/subscriber-ish? Should you make the game hard but worth mastering or easy but worth watching through once?
The choices are yours.