What really entertains us?

 

I strongly suspect that far too few game designers really
understand what “entertainment” means. They do appear to be getting better at
it, but are not quite there yet. They are also somewhat unaware of the
unintended consequences” of really good game design – consequences that can
serious damage the long term viability of a game or even the publisher.

Our enjoyment of a computer and video game starts before we
purchase it. This simple fact should be tattooed on the forehead of every games
developer. Developer’s need to understand that they are in partnership with the
publishers of the game (be they internal marketing and sales people, or an
external publisher), and that their relationship with the customer starts
before anyone has hit the ‘install’ button. Expectation, hype, wonder and even
awe, are part of the entertainment value. Simply being able to chat, in the
real or virtual worlds, about the game you want to buy is part of the fun of
it.  Getting the designer aligned
with the marketing team is a critical part of success. Get it right, and the
game will over-deliver and create pure joy. Get it wrong, and the failure to
meet expectations will cause a rightly deserved early failure.

I was going to write about how design itself should be fun –
tapping into the zeitgeist, research, play, blue-sky thinking, grinding the
alternatives – all those should be fun too, and all of those can be improved by
aligning with the marketing people and the research they conduct. I won’t write
about the design process as I am utterly unqualified to do so: designers are
special people, to be valued, who ought to know their own business.

Consumers also obtain entertainment from the process of
acquisition. Long gone are the days when we had to acquire for survival.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pretty solid base for most of us, and we
mainly exist in the top levels of self-actualisation. Shopping has become a
form of entertainment. Comparing, selecting, reading reviews, bargain hunting
and all the time apparently wasted are just another form of entertainment for
the majority of people. Admittedly, digital shopping is rather refined and
sublimated (and, I hate to say, a lot less … fun). Admittedly ‘embedded
install on demand’ makes the purchase decision simpler and removes friction
from the purchase mechanics, but, in my opinion, making it too easy takes most
of the fun out of it. Shopping should be fun, and I would love to see designers
and marketing people working together to create new, fun, purchase mechanics
and opportunities for games.

Still, in the good old ‘atoms’ world, there is entertainment
to be had in simply selecting a box from a shelf, feeling it’s heft and weight,
running fingers over the embossing, opening the wrapper and taking out the
‘swag’. The designers need to think that through as well – bringing the
physical content into line with the intention of the game. (Come on, you wanted
the Bioshock box with the ‘Big Daddy’ in it, didn’t you?)

In the digital world, much of the purchase entertainment
comes from ‘bragging rights’ (without which Farmville would be … just a bad
game). Where customers lose the visceral pleasure of shopping for a box, they
need to gain some other ego reward: bragging, icons, customisation,
reassurance, community and sense of completion are all vital parts of making
virtual shopping for games fun again.

The install process can be fun. Most designers ignore it
completely, leaving the customer’s first experience of their game to be a
horrible rectangular ‘install dialogue’ coded by some colour-blind code-monkey
with no sense of humour. Yes, installers must be 100% reliable, 100% adaptable
and 100% secure. But who said they also had to be boring, distracting or just
plain incomprehensible?

Once installed, there are lots of ways for games to remove
fun. After all the effort a design team put into the characters, locations,
plot, rules and dynamics, why allow anything to get in the way of that? Far too
many games have slow or intrusive load times or loading sequences. If it takes
longer than my MacBookPro takes to reboot after I open the lid, then it is too
slow. I am horrified by iPhone games that appear to take more than 60 seconds
to load. Something on a mobile device should be ready for input in (say) five
seconds, or less. Surely the whole point of mobile games is being able to play
them for one or two minutes on a train or bus ride? Comparing PC games is
always informative. Battlefield Bad Company 2 takes between 4 and 7 minutes
before you are in a game online, on a good day, when it works. Modern Warfare 2
can have you in a game in 2 minutes (despite its other failings). Two minutes
is bearable; 7 minutes earns you an uninstall in my world. Console games can be
better or worse: some Japanese RPGs can take over 8 minutes to load from DVD,
enter, select and restart after endless animations and unnecessary complexity.
Who needs that?

Much has been written about the psychology of fun and reward
in games
. From the ‘two clicks per second’ mechanic of Diablo, to meta-gaming
in First Person Shooters, to the layered social rewards in Mafia Wars /
Farmville, to customisation and self-identification in MMORPGs; there are
endless studies on what fun means. Some studies involved FMRI of the brains of
gamers, some studies compared games to addictive drugs. Each study contains
important information for game designers. Sadly, very few designers read them.
And here lies the problem: designers can be a self-referential lot, locked in
repeating patterns of what entertains them, their little OCD brains fixated on the
rules or the mechanics of their latest piece of inspiration. One cannot blame
creative people for being, well, creative. One can, and should, insist, on minimum
standards of professionalism and communication from designers. It is my
personal view that far too many games are railroaded by a strong lead designer headed
down the ‘one true path’. Which, in the simplest possible terms, explains why
so few games are hit products. No one designer, no matter how persuasive,
intelligent, experienced or just plain shouty and loud, can hope to design a
really mass market product that is fun for (say) 10 million or more players.
They need to reach out, learn and involve the whole team, the marketing, sales,
technical and support people in the design process and really get to grips with
the entire “fun cycle” of a game.

During the game we want meta-rewards, completion,
compulsion, conflict, resolution, character, design, visual appeal, audio
appeal (dear heavens, how often the audio design is left too late, and how much
a good audio design adds to the fun!) and story. We want control mastery,
slickness, intuitive involvement and predictability of response. We want games
to fit our attention cycles, with mounting waves of challenge and reward fitted
to the way our brains work.

We’d really like all our designers to have read “The Design
of Everyday Things
”, for a start.

As a quick digression, let designers look at how babies
learn. Babies are not passive receivers of knowledge, nor are they completely
pre-programmed for life. They learn by interrogation and response. They
actively interrogate their environment and the actors in it (cats, dogs, fluffy
toys, parents) and assess the responses they get by such simple measures as:

·     
Did I get something nice in my mouth?

·     
Did I get something in my hand?

·     
Was I made warm and comfortable?

·     
Did I get attention and smiles?

·     
Did my sounds match the other sounds?

Repeated interrogation, and measuring responses, integrating
experience and having a hugely flexible set of neurons, enables a child to
learn a working vocabulary, walk, eat, brush their teeth and make LEGO models
in just three years. Why the heck are games designers, with 25 or more years or
life experience, not able to do better when ‘core games’ (on console and PC)
are taking 3 to 7 years to build? How come, so often, we find ourselves thinking
“a three year old would not have made that error” when reaching some
frustrating part of the game? While we cannot actually put food in the mouths
of players to reward them (yet …), we should at least ask that designers take
account of how the brain works. After all, with steadily falling age ranges for
games (vis: Club Penguin), it won’t be long before game designers are releasing
mobile phone games for 2 year olds.

Our game experience does not end when we have completed a
level or logged out. The ‘after play’ experience is part of the game. This can
be passive (just thinking about the game), or active (being sent mobile or
social media reminders). We might not have actually finished playing
when we log out. We might be coming back. How is the fun enhanced by the way in
which your game resumes from pauses or gaps in the player’s attention? Do you
make it fun for them to come back, or force them to chose from a boring list of
“save games”? Do you actively invite them back? Do you punish them for being
away, or reward them for coming back? What behaviour do you want to encourage?

Finally, we will have ‘finished’. In a single player game,
this might mean a high score, or completing a story. In a multiplayer game,
this might mean reaching a location, or a level of achievement. This is a
critical point in the experience, and can massively enhance or destroy the fun
in the mind of the player. Like the last episode of Battlestar Galactica (the
reboot), those last few minutes can make or break your memory of the whole
experience, whether it lasted minutes or years. Most end scenes in ‘core games’
are the designer credits. For this, I spent 50 hours playing your game? Are you
insane? I want dancing girls, free drinks and a week on the beach for wading
through your pseudo-manga fantasy storyline! Seriously, the last few minutes of
a major game, or the last few seconds of a light or casual game should be a
reward. Even if I only pause, you should entice me to come back, and come back
soon.

How can you do that? Tell me what I did, and how I did it!
Explain the bits I missed, and show me how to do better, or find more fun. (I
recently worked on a lovely project, where the end of the ‘game’ was a written
up booklet, illustrated, that you could print, that told the story of the level
that you had just played, the way you played it.) We are all used to scoring
points, but advances in narrative and meta-gaming mean that we can document what
happened in text or video and present that as a prize. We can give actual
prizes, valuable points, unique objects and ego massage. Just, please, not the
damn credits.

The final experience is uninstalling the game. Yes, they all
have to die. Designers need to get their heads around the whole ‘pre-cradle to
post-grave’ user experience, not just the in-game stuff. If that installer
leaves crap behind, fails, crashes or is just a blue progress bar, what does
that say about the pride of the development team or the way in which you
treated your customers?

There is one drawback of getting this absolutely right, of
course. Can you guess? Yes, long term: a really great game is compelling,
addictive, rewarding and so damn fine you don’t want to play anything else.
Which means, of course, you will never sell another game, as everyone will keep
playing the last one. Did you think about that in the design phase?

So, my last message is: make it all fun. All of it. Just
ensure you have also designed in obsolescence, or you, and your publisher will
be going broke. After all, the perfect game would be a very bad business in the
long term!

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