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Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition Chapter 1

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.

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