The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

RSS feeds: v0.91; v1.0 (RDF); v2.0; Atom.

Previous entry. Next entry.

11:22am on Friday, 21st August, 2015:

Experience Losses


There's a growing tendency among game developers to describe what they do as being the creation of experiences rather than being the creation of games. The job of designers is to design said experiences, not to design games, because games are a kind of experience.

I can see why this idea has gained purchase: modern computer games aren't just about gameplay, they're about the whole package. Players can be put off by bad graphics, bad animation, bad interface, bad music and bad voice acting; done well, though, all of these can enhance the player's involvement. If developers don't put together the whole experience in an integrated fashion, players will have less fun.

It's in the best interests of developers to promote this view, too. If the team is building an "experience", then it means that everyone's creative input is accorded equal value. It's not all about the lead designer, it's about the whole company. If you have 200 people working on a game, all of them deserve credit for the final product. It's true, too: they do. So this is all very egalitarian and good for morale - but as a side-effect, it means you don't get any stars. This is what corporate types like. Stars are bad for a development studio, because stars want more money. If everyone is a twinkle, no-one is a star and things will run more smoothly. If you want a star, hey, the studio is the star!

Nevertheless, there clearly is some direction in game development: the individuals involved don't all work independently, with the product just coming together organically at the end. No matter how much companies try to share the love around, people who engage with games (as players, critics or academics) do notice that some games are better than others — even games from the same studio. Ultimately, one individual has to be responsible for that difference. So, who?

If you take the games-as-experience line, you have a problem here. You've said everyone is equally responsible, but few in the real world are buying that. You can pin creative control on the lead designer, so long as you make sure you properly downplay your narrative: the designer is just the humble person who is lucky to have their crazy ideas turned into sane product by this supportive team of amazing individuals. This is the honest way to do it if you really do see design as being about experiences first and games second - indeed, it's the approach taken by Jesse Schell in his wonderful book, The Art of Game Design.

However, this is incompatible with projecting your company brand as being the name to trust. You don't want to raise any one creative above the others at all. Unfortunately, everyone there is creative, so ..?

So you say that the game's producer is the person who is most responsible for the player experience. This does make pedantic sense: just as a movie director is the person who most determines what the viewer sees on the screen, you can argue that the producer is most responsible for what the player actually plays. In this view, designers are like screenwriters, not like directors.

I don't accept this. The reason that movie directors get the auteur label is that (in theory) they look at hundreds of screenplays and choose the one that most connects with the kind of movie they want to make. Even in practice, working with an already-chosen script for a franchise, they get to decide whether a project is right for them or not before taking it on. Producers don't look at hundreds of game designs (either in theory or in practice), and neither do they move around from studio to studio seeking a project they like. Sure, the game industry isn't mature enough yet for that to happen for anyone, but it's hard to imagine its happening ever for producers-as-creative-leads.

All this is incidental, though. Personally, I don't think that the view of game design as experience design is accurate in the first place.

My reason for this is that it fails to give proper emphasis to the role of the player. Players don't play experiences, they play games. They have experiences, but they are partly the authors of these experiences through their play. Designers therefore don't design experiences, they design for players to construct their own experiences. A space in which players can author their own experiences is a place of play; if the play space intrinsically implements the concept of winning and losing (or at least losing), that makes it a game.

Calling games "experiences" suggests that players are more passive than they actually are, and conflates the notion a play space with that of the play that takes place within it. I don't mind using games-as-experience as a rhetoric to help improve a particular design, but to me it falls short as a stand-alone philosophy.

Latest entries.

Archived entries.

About this blog.

Copyright © 2015 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).