About Game Design

I was told recently by a co-worker that I “Play games seriously”. It made me think about how and why I’m so into video games. (Warning: Anat is going to go on a long rant about game design)

I’m a voracious reader, and stories have always been a center point of my life’s creative energies. I love movies and books and video games. Video games are different though, because they allow, sometimes, for a person to tell their own story. I mean, take Minecraft for example. It’s just a building game, like Lego, but the stories you can make there, and the events that can happen… It’s the same reason I play the older Final Fantasies or Skyrim or D&D. It’s the reason why I admit to playing The Sims 3; because I can create stories in it.

Actually the way this topic was brought up was that I was mentioning The Sims and someone asked if that means I also play The Sims Social. I said I had tried it, but since there was no way to create a story, and no meaningful choices, I stopped.

This brings me to my next point.
I am a game designer by education and a bit by trade. I play games for two reasons; meaning choices and emotional connection. Both are tricky!

Meaningful Choices: If the choices I make in the game have no meaning, then why am I playing? I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XIII. I wasn’t playing it, I was just pressing buttons to get to the next cutscene. What about the old FFs, you might ask? Even if the story is linear, I still had choices. Do I go to the next town to buy that armor, or do I rush through? Do I spend a tent to rest at the save point? Do I go and get the optional characters? Which class should they be? There was some meaning in the choices.

Lack of meaningful choices is the reason I stopped playing World of Warcraft. While not perfect, Blizzard made some brilliant game design choices. But then, slowly but surely, they eroded their meaningful choices. You want to undo the choice of which server to play one? Sure, pay us. Ok, this allowed people to play together. It really started with dual-specs, in my opinion. I made the choice early on to be a certain build. I was a protection-spec’d Paladin. That was my choice. Others chose differently. By allowing you to be two things at once they said that my choice matter a lot less. Then you could pay to change names, factions… everything. All choices could be undone, thus rendering them meaningless.

Emotional Connection: Don’t misunderstand, an emotional connection does not simply equal story. An emotional connection happens even in something like Pong or Pac Man. It’s the state the game gets you to where you don’t want to lose. Pac Man’s being chased, and you feel tense as you run around trying to avoid the ghosts. There, right there, is the emotional connection. The frustration you feel from a difficult puzzle game… But then there are games that so utterly fail at emotion connections (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XIII) that nothing motivates you to give a shit.

The two, emotional connection and meaningful choices are strongly connected. By making meaningful choices you invest yourself emotionally in the game. By investing yourself emotionally in the game, you have a reason to make those choices and to feel that the outcome was somehow controlled by you.

…That’s my rant.


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