Game Design: Theory & Practice 2nd Ed." />

Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition
Chapter 1: What Players Want (excerpt)
by Richard Rouse III


The following excerpt comes from Richard Rouse III's book Game Design: Theory & Practice, which has just been released in a thoroughly revised and expanded second edition. The book covers all aspects of game design, from coming up with a solid idea to creating the design document to implementing the gameplay to playtesting the final game. Before even starting pre-production on a new game concept, it can be valuable for designers to reflect on just what it is players are looking for in the games they play. The following excerpt (roughly one half of the first chapter of the second edition), explores precisely what it is players want.

"But when I come to think more on it, the biggest reason it has become that popular is Mr. Tajiri, the main developer and creator of Pokemon, didn't start this project with a business sense. In other words, he was not intending to make something that would become very popular. He just wanted to make something he wanted to play. There was no business sense included, only his love involved in the creation. Somehow, what he wanted to create for himself was appreciated by others in this country and is shared by people in other countries. ...And that's the point: not to make something sell, something very popular, but to love something, and make something that we creators can love. It's the very core feeling we should have in making games."

   — Shigeru Miyamoto, talking about the creation of Pokemon

It may seem too simple a question to even ask, but determining what players want out of a game is a question all game designers must contemplate if they want to make great games. Further complicating matters, understanding what is enjoyable about a game experience is not knowledge that can be taught; on some level it must be an innate sense that a designer possesses. Designers must have the ability to assess whether something is fun for themselves, combined with the ability to listen to the opinions of others. Frank Capra, one of the most popular film directors from the golden age of Hollywood, often said that he was simply making films that appealed to his own tastes, and that it was luck they were enjoyed by so many other people. Similarly, one cannot simply look at the problem of "what players want" purely from a market-driven standpoint and declare, "I don't understand it, but if they want it, I'm going to give it to them." In order to make a great game, you must first find it fun yourself, and hopefully this can be used to build something that appeals to others as well. But in the end, the spark must come from within.

Game designers spend a lot of time concerning themselves with what game players are looking for in a computer game. What can they put in their computer game that has not been done before and will excite players? Often game designers are so bereft of an idea of what will be fun and what gamers want that they instead only include gameplay ideas that have been tried before, rehashing what was popular with game players last year. Surely if players liked it last year, they will like it this year. But therein lies the rub. Gamers generally do not want to buy a game that is only a clone of another game, a "new" game that only offers old ideas and brings nothing original to the table. Nonetheless, successful games can be useful, not for cloning, but for analysis. As game designers, we can look at the games that have come out previously, that we have enjoyed in years past, and try to determine a set of directives that explain what compelled us to try those games in the first place, and why they held our interest once we started playing them.

Why Do Players Play?

The first question we should consider is: why do players play games? Why do they choose to turn on their computer or console and run Halo instead of visiting the art museum or going to see a movie? What is unique about computer games versus other human entertainment media? What do games offer that other activities do not? It is by understanding what is attractive about games that other media do not offer that we can try to emphasize the differences that separate our art form from others. To be successful, our games need to take these differences and play them up, exploiting them to make the best gameplay experience possible.

Players Want a Challenge

Many players enjoy playing games because they provide a challenge. This provides one of the primary motivating factors for single-player home games, where social or bragging rights motivations are less of an issue. Games can entertain players over time, differently each time they play, while engaging their minds in an entirely different way than a book, movie, or other form of art. In somewhat the same way someone might fiddle with a Rubik's Cube or a steel "remove the ring" puzzle, games force players to think actively, to try out different solutions to problems, to understand a given game mechanism.

When a person faces a challenge and then overcomes it, that person has learned something. It does not matter if that challenge is in a math textbook or in a computer game. Challenging games can be learning experiences. Players will learn from games, even if that learning is limited to the context of the game, such as how to navigate through the forest, survive a particularly hairy battle, or convince the duke that their intentions with his daughter are honorable. In the best games, players will learn lessons through gameplay that can be applied to other aspects of their life, even if they do not realize it. This may mean that they can apply problem solving methods to their work, use their improved spatial skills to better arrange their furniture, or perhaps even learn greater empathy through role-playing. Many players thrive on and long for the challenges games provide, and are enriched by the learning that follows.

Players Want to Socialize

I have a friend who maintains that games are antisocial. This is, of course, absurd, as nearly all non-computer games require a social group in order to function. Games arose as a communal activity many millennia ago out of a desire to have a challenging activity in which a group of friends and family could engage. Computer game designers need to remember that the origin of games is tied to a social experience, and that this communal component is central to their appeal.

For most people, the primary reason they play games is to have a social experience with their friends or family. I am not talking about computer games here, but rather board and card games like chess, Monopoly, bridge, Scrabble, Diplomacy, or The Settlers of Catan. People like to play these games because they enjoy spending time with their friends and want to engage in a shared activity that is more social than going to a movie or watching TV. It is true that lots of people enjoy playing solitaire card games as well, but there are many more multi-player games than there are single-­player. This is because people enjoy a social gameplaying experience.

But how does this apply to computer games? If one considers all the computer games ever created, the majority of them are single-player only experiences. But of course there are plenty of multi-player games, ranging from the "death-matches" found in Doom and its legion of imitators, to the classic M.U.L.E. game of wheeling and dealing, to the persistent worlds founds in MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) or their commercial equivalent, massively multi-player games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest. It is telling about the popularity of multi-player games that from the very inception of gaming there were multi-player games, ranging from Pong to some of the very first games developed on university mainframes that eventually evolved into MUDs.

Death-match style multi-player games are adaptations of single-player shooter experiences. Halo comes with both single-player and multi-player modes.

Many death-match style multi-player games are basically adaptations of single-player games into multi-player incarnations, such as Doom, Half-Life, and Halo. These games typically provide a single-­player game in addition to a multi-player game, both played with nearly the same set of rules and game mechanics. But even in these single-player-turned-multi-player games, players like to socialize while playing. Anyone who has ever played one of these games over a LAN in a room with a bunch of their friends can testify to this. These LAN-fests are usually rich with conversation as players shout back and forth to each other, bragging over their most recent "frag" or proclaiming how close they came to being killed. Games such as Unreal Tournament can also be played over the Internet, where the experience is quite a bit less social, since players may be miles apart and are thus only able to communicate through the computer. Indeed, lots of death-match or Counter-Strike enthusiasts have been known to use their office telephone systems to allow players who are not in the same building or even the same state to talk freely to each other while playing. Those not so well equipped still try to communicate by typing messages into the computer. Unfortunately, the high-intensity, fast-action nature of these games doesn't leave players much time to type messages to their opponents, if they hope to survive for long. But these games do still provide chat functionality, and players, when they are in a safe corner, after they have died, or between games, can send conversational messages to each other. At more hectic points in the gameplay the messages are short and typed on the fly, consisting of only a couple of letters. The fact that players still try to chat with each other in these high-velocity games is testament to the players' desire to socialize.

A separate category of multi-player games is what has come to be called "persistent universe" or "massively multi-player" games. These games tend to be more in the style of role-playing games, where players wander around "virtual worlds" and meet and interact with the other characters in these worlds, characters that are controlled by other players. These games tend to be played over large networks such as the Internet, instead of over LANs, and as a result players only socialize with each other through what they type into the computer. Since these games are considerably slower paced than death-match games, there is a much greater opportunity for players to chat with each other while playing. MUDs were the first popular incarnation of this style of game, and were played primarily by college students from the late 1980s on. At the time, these students were the main group of people with ample free time who had access to the Internet. These games are text-only, and provide their players with quests to accomplish in mostly fantasy settings. The quests, however, take a backseat to the socialization and role-playing, with players spending the vast majority of their time chatting with other players. A lot of people are drawn into playing these games as a way to interact with their friends, despite the fact that these friends are people they met online and who they have never seen in person. Indeed, the persistent worlds, MUDs in particular, draw in a legion of players who are not interested in playing any single-player computer games. These people play games in order to meet and talk to other people. The games are merely a compelling activity these people can engage in together while socializing.

As multi-player games have become more and more common, many game developers have been quick to point out their advantages in terms of competitive AI. Human opponents are much more unpredictable and challenging than any AI that could be reasonably created for most games. This, they suggested, is why people are drawn to multi-player games. Though this may be true, the biggest advantage of these multi-­player games is that they transform computer games into truly social experiences, which is one of the largest motivating factors for people to play games.

Players Want a Dynamic Solitary Experience

Perhaps I have confused the reader by saying first that players want to socialize and then suggesting that players want a solitary experience. Of course the two do not happen at the same time; some game players are looking for a social experience, while others are looking for something dynamic that they can engage in by themselves. Sometimes friends are not available to play, or players are tired of their friends, or simply are tired of having to talk to other people all the time. Similar to the difference between going to a movie theater with an audience versus renting a video alone at home, the antisocial nature of single-player games attracts a lot of people who have had enough of the other members of the human race.

But games are distinct from other solitary experiences such as reading a book or watching a video since they provide the players with something to interact with, an experience that reacts to them as a human would, or at least in a manner resembling a human's reactions. The players are always in control, and can start and stop playing at any time. Thus the computer game "fakes" the interesting part of human interaction without all of the potential annoyances. In this way, people are able to turn to computer games for a dynamic and interactive yet unsocial experience.

Players Want Bragging Rights

Particularly in multi-player gaming, players play games to win respect. Being able to frag all of your friends in Unreal Tournament will force them to have a grudging respect for you: "Bob isn't very good in algebra class, but he sure can annihilate me in a death-­match." Even in single-player games, players will talk with their friends about how they finished one game or about how good they are at another. Players will brag about how they played the whole game through on the hardest difficulty in only a few hours. If one looks at arcade games both old and new, the high-score table and the ability to enter one's name into the game, even if only three letters, provides a tremendous incentive for people to play a game repeatedly. Players who may not have much to brag about in their ordinary lives, who may not be terribly physically coordinated at sports or bookish enough to do well in school, can go down to the arcade and point out to all their friends their initials in the Centipede game. Gaming forums are full of people bragging about how they beat hot new game X in only five hours, and then taking pride in doling out advice to those who have not made it as far. Even without telling anyone, players can feel a tremendous sense of self-satisfaction when they beat a particular game. When players are victorious at a challenging game, they realize they can do something well, probably better than most people, which makes them feel better about themselves.

Players Want an Emotional Experience

As with other forms of entertainment, players may be seeking some form of emotional payoff when they play a computer game. This can be as simple as the adrenaline rush and tension of a fast-action game like Doom. It can be the great satisfaction of having built up a massive metropolis in SimCity. Or it can be considerably more complex, such as players' feeling of loss when their friendly robot companion sacrifices himself for them in Steve Meretzky's Planetfall. The emotions that games are able to evoke in players are much stronger than what can be experienced in other media where the experience is less immersive and considerably less personally involving. Unfortunately, many games' emotional ranges are limited to excitement/tension during a conflict, despair at repeated failure at a given task, and then elation and a sense of accomplishment when the players finally succeed. It may seem strange that players would play a game in order to feel despair, but many people enjoy watching plays that are tragedies or movies that have sad endings, or listening to music that is out-and-out depressing. People want to feel something when they interact with art, and it does not necessarily need to be a positive, happy feeling. Perhaps the sense of catharsis people obtain from these works makes them worth experiencing. Many classic arcade games, such as Centipede or Space Invaders, are unwinnable. No matter what players do, eventually the game will beat them. These games are, in a sense, lessons in defeat — tragedies every time players play them. Yet the players keep pumping in their quarters. This is why players' feelings of hopelessness as a game repeatedly bests them are not to be ignored. The players are feeling something, and at the highest level that is the goal of all art.

Emotional range is not something computer games have explored as much as they could. The example from Planetfall I cited above is one of the very few examples in computer games of players becoming attached to a character in a game, only to have him killed later on. Many developers are wary of making a game too sad. But in the case of Planetfall, the tragic story twist of that game was exploited for all the pathos it was worth by designer Steve Meretzky. It is a moment of tragedy that has stuck in many gamers' memories. Game designers would be wise to concentrate on expanding the emotional experience in games beyond excitement and accomplishment, into more unexplored and uncharted emotional territory.

Players Want to Explore

One of the main motivating forces that propels players through many level-based games is the desire to explore new spaces and see new environments. Anyone who has played a progression-based game like Super Mario 64 or Morrowind knows the feeling of getting to a new and different level and wanting to just look around for a few moments before taking on the objectives at hand. And game exploration is not limited to spatial exploration. There is the exploration of different strategic choices in a game like Civilization, different types of resources to manipulate and combine in a game like Magic: The Gathering, and the exploration of the personalities of the characters you meet in RPGs such as Wasteland or Fallout. Though exploration is not completely integral to a pure gaming experience, the investigation of a fantastic world on one's own terms can be a rich experience that games excel at in a way no other media can.

Players Want to Fantasize

A major component of the popularity of storytelling art forms is the element of ­fantasy. Whether one considers novels, films, or comic books, many people experience these works to "get away" from their own "mundane" lives and escape to an altogether different world, one filled with characters that engage in exciting, interesting activities, travel to exotic locales, and meet other fascinating people. Certainly not all storytelling works portray exciting and glamorous protagonists, but there is certainly a large segment of works that is labeled "escapist." Some critics deride such escapist pieces of art, and indeed a lot of very good books, movies, and comics deal with more realistic settings and topics to great effect. The fact remains, however, that many people want to be transported to a world more glamorous than their own.

Computer games, then, have the potential to be an even more immersive form of escapism. In games, players get the chance to actually be someone more exciting, to control a pulp-fiction adventurer, daring swordsman, or space-opera hero. While in books or films the audience can merely watch as the characters lead exciting lives, in a well-designed computer game players will actually get the chance to live those lives themselves. Even better, these fantasy lives are not weighed down with the mundane events of life. In most games, players do not have to worry about eating, needing to get some sleep, or going to the bathroom. Thus, a game can create a fantasy life without the tedious details. And, most importantly, the level of fantasy immersion is heightened from that of other art forms because of the interactive nature of gaming.

Another part of the fantasy fulfillment element of computer games is enabling players to engage in socially unacceptable behavior in a safe environment. Many popular games have allowed players to pretend they are criminals or assassins. Driver is a good example of this. Though the back-story explains that the player character is actually playing an undercover police officer, players get to pretend they are criminals who must evade the police in elaborate car chases. There is a devilish thrill to outrunning police cars, especially for anyone who has ever been pulled over by the police. Though most players would never consider participating in car chases in real life, there's something tempting and enticing about engaging in taboo activities. The massive popular success of the Grand Theft Auto series is another testament to gamers' desire to break society's rules during gameplay. Computer games provide a good medium for players to explore sides of their personality that they keep submerged in their daily lives.

Players may also fantasize about events in history. If the player could have been Napoleon, would Waterloo have turned out differently? If the player were a railroad baron in the twentieth century, would he be able to create a powerful financial empire? A whole line of historical games, from wargames to economic simulations, allow players to explore events in history, and see how making different choices than those made by the historical figures involved will result in wildly different outcomes. While many people spend their time dwelling on the past, wondering how events could have transpired differently if alternate decisions had been made, games can give players a chance to actually find out how history might have been different.

Even without the elements of excitement and glamour, even if another person's life is not actually that exciting, it can be interesting to spend time as that person. Good computer games can provide players with the otherwise unavailable opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes. As millions of gamers can attest, it is fun to role-play and it is fun to fantasize.

Players Want to Interact

At the beginning of this discussion of what players want, I suggested that it was important to create an experience that players would choose over one of the many other entertainment options presented to them, such as watching television, reading a book, or going to a concert. The one common thread running through all of the "wants" I mentioned above is what our art form can do better than any other: provide an interactive experience. Though we may be envious of a film's special effects budget, a novel's ability to tell a gripping narrative, or the emotive power of a great piece of music, no other form allows the audience to be the guiding force in the experience they are having. Games have found their greatest successes when they have played up the interactive nature of the experience and provided our audience with something they cannot get anywhere else. Game designers need to constantly keep this in mind as they are developing their games if they are to have any chance of winning players' attention.

A Never-Ending List

Of course, this exploration of what players want could fill an entire book. I encourage readers, whether aspiring game designers or those who have already had a number of games published, to create their own lists of what they think gamers want. Think of what frustrates you while you play a game and what parts of a given game give you the greatest satisfaction. Then try to determine why you react to a game mechanic as you do. What did it do right and what did it do wrong? This will allow you to establish your own list of rules, which you can then apply to your own designs. These rules will be part of what makes your games uniquely your own. Without feedback from playtesters it is often hard to determine whether your game is entertaining and compelling or not. But with a set of rules you can systematically apply to your design, you may be able to figure out whether anyone will like the completed game.

Richard Rouse III is Design Director at Surreal Software, a Midway Home Entertainment studio. Most recently, he was Project Lead, Lead Designer, and Writer on the action-horror title The Suffering. Rouse has been developing games professionally for over a decade and in addition to The Suffering, his credits include Drakan: The Ancients' Gates, Centipede 3D, Damage Incorporated, and Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis. You can find more information and his book, Game Design: Theory & Practice at his web site, Your feedback is encouraged at

This article is excerpted from Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition (ISBN # 1-55622-912-7). For more information about the book, please visit the links below:"

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Date this article was posted to 12/14/2004
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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