Friday, January 29, 2010

Respect Thy Player

In this article, gameplay programmer Nels Anderson discusses the responsibility of game developers and designers to honor the precious time players spend on their games.

"Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend." -Theophrastus

We entreat customers of our games for their money. But in reciprocity, they entrust us with that most valuable thing: their time. Ultimately, it's the only thing we have that's wholly ours and completely irreplaceable. It's a bigger responsibility than many, across all entertainment industries, realize. And while games may be the only place where we can try again forever (and dammit, it's good to see Duncan again), the time we spend play games never comes back. We ought to make that time well spent.

It's something I've been thinking about a bit lately, in terms of making games with smaller scopes. We should question the seemingly prevailing wisdom that more is better, and not just because feature creep will kill you slowly and painfully. I'm interested in finding ways to create games of smaller scope that still have enough substance to carry meaning. When players invest their time in your game, they deserve you having spent some time asking "why are we doing this?"

It's a bit concerning, in that creating smaller games seems somewhat antithetical to the way the best games are made. Prototype, iterate, test, repeat is much harder on a shortened schedule, with all the other dependencies of core tech and pipeline setup, production considerations, manpower, etc. I'm sure these issues can be overcome, but they are not trivial ones.

This isn't a ubiquitous call for shorter games, don't get me wrong. I have no desire to trade my ~80 hours in Fallout 3. But we have a somewhat clearer idea of what that success looks like. And it requires excellent people, a steady hand and flawless execution. Aside from Valve's Portal, we haven't seen as much emphasis on smaller scoped games. Seems like fertile ground to me.

My marked hesitation toward social games is largely rooted in this. Much as with other casual offerings from PopCap et al., these games seem to be setup exclusively to kill time. They don't have any expressiveness or intended meaning and rarely even any craft worth admiring. And it doesn't help that the most successful ones are basically pyramid schemes that exploit the human psyche. While the same charges can absolutely be laid for many AAA games, there have been plenty that have demonstrated it needn't be that way. I have yet to see such offerings from social games and am skeptical their business climate will allow otherwise.

I actually feel the same way about a lot of MMOs being structured as digital Skinner Boxes. And that's not even considering how much of a markup $10 is to model, texture and rig a single character. Now I'm a big believer in person responsibility and don't think these games should be banned, monitored or any similar nonsense. But wow, I can't imagine being okay working on such a thing.

Steve wrote a similar statement a few days ago and it encouraged me to move this from the back burner. While his claims are a little more structural than mine, it seems cut from the same cloth. The time people invest should come with good return, be it meaningful cognitive exercise or time well spent with others. My Left 4 Dead 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii sessions with friends provided many good times.

It can even come in ways most unexpected. My wife helped me solve the final puzzle of Machinarium, a musical tone puzzle that I have a poor ear for. I tried for about 15 minutes, making an overly complicated graph until finally succumbing and requesting help. She solved it on the second try. Obviously it's much harder to design for those things, but it was still a fond moment.

That's a long-winded way of saying players give us their trust that we will not abuse the time they spend with our labours. Respect that they are choosing to spend some of that most precious time with us and make it time well worth spending.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design on his blog, Above 49. A version of this article appeared there.


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