By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
t the deepest level, every game developer is looking to make a hit, a game that everyone will play. Regardless of whether we even care at all about profits or even breaking even, we want to create something that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people will spend time with and talk about and hopefully look back on fondly in years to come, because we are making entertainment, and entertainment is nothing without an audience.
Yet at the same time, there is no set method for figuring out what kind of software will have the kind of almost universal appeal that will draw in millions of people. Larger publishers often operate on the same kind of thinking that substitutes for creativity among Hollywood execs: whatever sold last week is what the people want. This leads to the now-standard practice of attempting to turn any half-way decent seller into a product line, and the relentlessly churning of any design into mediocrity by attempting to fulfill every bullet point from every focus group, email, or registration card survery (no matter if focus groups remain scientifically very questionable and the percentage of the gameplaying public that emails in suggestions or fills out registration cards is by no means a representative selection).
A better course of action to create a hit project, if you have the luxury of not having bottom line-driven management who have never played or made games in their life deciding that they will dictate the creative direction of all projects, is to just set about to make a great game, and forget about trying to find some test-marketed formula for proven hits. Of course, "making a good game" is the underlying topic of all my columns, my fundamental objective as a designer, and something which is still more about guesswork than any formal critical thinking. So this week, I'll address one of the fundamental issues of game design: goals and rewards.
Readers of this site are probably already intimately familiar with the standard goals of most modern computer or video games: defeat the enemy or boss monster, conquer the world, reach the end of the adventure, solve the last sliding-block puzzle, that kind of thing. And of course, these goals are made meaningful by having associated rewards, like pretty cutscenes or even just a congratulatory message. Yet there are some products that are lumped in with games which are lacking clearly identifiable goals and offer little in the way of rewards. SimCity is one such game: although each new edition includes more and more scenarios which have some sorts of defined goals (usually "fix the disaster"), the standard mode which is probably used more than any other has no set goal - you merely keep zoning more areas, putting down your necessary services, trying to keep all the zones in balance so your population and wealth keep increasing - repeat ad nauseam, never being told that you won. Virtual pet "games" like Creatures or even the Tamagotchi are similar - you can raise up your little electronic pals, trying to achieve some advanced set of attributes or perhaps turn your little blob of pixels into one of the rare bigger blobs of pixels, but you don't ever "win." In fact, since your Tamagotchi or Norn always dies, you really only ever lose. These kinds of games, and interactive screensavers like Catz and Dogz, are often referred to as "software toys."
I personally am not a fan of software toys, and I suspect many hardcore gamers like myself feel the same way. To me, a computer is a mix of power and limitations, power beyond what a traditional toy offers, and limitations which inhibit the kind of imaginative play a physical toy offers. When I played with GI Joes as a kid, I knew that they were just lumps of plastic, maybe with poseable limbs and some guns you could change around in their hands, and vehicles with usually crappy features like spring-loaded missiles. I knew the figures weren't going to get up and move around, or talk or bleed or make their own realistic machine gun noises or anything like that, and I knew there was no goal I was trying to achieve with them (except perhaps begging the money for the next figure out of my parents). When faced with such a large set of limitations, the only thing to do with them was to invent my own games to play, relying purely on my imagination for special effects and story and everything else. On the other hand, there were no rules that came with the figures either, beyond the pure physicality of them, and you would find you could be endlessly inventive, even about the physical aspects. Need a decapitated Joe? Pop that head off! Want a jungle battle? Out to the yard with you!
When I sit down at a computer, on the other hand, I expect graphics and animation and sound effects, and above all rules and goals. Rules, in fact, are inescapable in any computer program, because all computer languages are just sets of rules. So here, in my opinion, is the primary problem with software toys: they are far more rules-bound than my action figures of yore, because someone else already decided what the program could and couldn't do, just who can get decapitated, what environment you're going to build that SimCity in, which radioactive monster is going to destroy it, what stupid guessing game your Tamagotchi is going to play with you. Those rules are what we get in exchange for having a great deal more richness in the game than we can get with physical toys: instead of Matchbox cars you have to push around yourself on a vinyl mat among some cardboard boxes you've scribbled windows on, you've got little animated vehicles cruising somewhat realistically around buildings with height and detail - but they can only cruise around to the rules the game developers set, so you can't suddenly decide that a giant-scale GI Joe tank is going to cruise down your street, crushing all the tiny cars and knocking over buildings.
Despite the great limitations, it can still be fun for a while to play with a software toy, as you discover what the rules are and see how you can obey, exploit, or break them - the same process you go through with any game. But once you've seen all the rules in action, and discovered all the possibilities and limitations, that's it for most people. You're never going to be surprised again, unlike when a snowfall at home gives you a new, arctic scenario for your action figures. This is the point where the goals should come in, and the toy should become a game, with the rewards that we are used to getting from computer games. What if the point of Tamagotchi was to breed a certain specific kind of blob, and when you do it plays a special little animation and a song, or maybe gives you a special code sequence so you can register your achievement at Tamagotchi central? What if SimCity worked like Impression's Caesar series, and you had a specific amount of money to earn or buildings to build, and you kept working your way up to control of bigger and bigger cities until you were eventually in charge of something the size of New York or Los Angeles? I might actually be playing SimCity today if that were so.
It can be argued that you don't need goals in a software toy, that you can set them for yourself. However, I don't think there are many people out there who have the dedication to set and stick to a goal in their game playing, or who derive as much satisfaction from doing so as from meeting goals set by someone else. According to recent reports, the computer game playing audience is still primarily college students and college graduates, and we have less in the way of spare time, more responsibilities to worry about, and perhaps just less enthusiasm and ability for relying purely on our imagination to entertain ourselves than we did as children - I know after putting in even a "light" 10 hour day of game design, the last thing I'm ready to do when I come back is think up some compelling reason of my own why I should lay down another few dozen little yellow Industrial squares. Only if I have a built in goal and promise of a reward do I have a reason to keep playing after I've figured out the underlying rules set and basically seen all the game has to offer. Furthermore, in your more typical goal-oriented game, the introduction of new elements is spread over the course of achieving the final goal, so that there are still surprises left and things to see up until the very end. Compare this to SimCity, where you start with all the same tools you will finish up with (even if some buildings aren't affordable yet). Or look at any of the civilian flight sims, where you can from the moment you boot it up fly any plane anywhere in any weather condition. I know most people (myself included) pick up such games, quickly try out the different planes and a handful of different runways, check out the night effects and weather effects, if any, and then shelve the game for good.
Why would anyone design a goal-less game, then, when they could easily put in a few simple victory conditions and even just simplistic rewards for achieving them? You don't even have to lose the flexibility of being able to play the game indefinitely - just allow the player to continue even after reaching a goal, or make the victory conditions optional. I think the these games are purely because of that desire to create the next million-selling hit. Up to now, I have clearly been speaking from the perspective of the hardcore audience, what marketing types have started to call the "core gamers," and while what little hard data there is indicates there are hundreds of thousands of us, we are vastly outnumbered by the ranks of people who own computers but don't get into gaming like we do. These non-gamers are perceived as being frightened of long term challenges and games they can't win. Software toys without any of the trappings and depth and complexity of the kinds of games we like are seen as much more acceptable to the mass market, based on the fact that in the past some of them have achieved great success there. This is part of the explanation for Deer Hunter - the other is that it was developed on a miniscule budget, so I cut the developers some slack for putting together something so shallow that real gamers wouldn't even download it as freeware.
Yet are these types of shallow and goal-less games actually increasing the market for computer games, or just being the one or two titles a year the non-gamer buys, edging out the real games? My mom, for instance, not a gamer at all, got a Tamagotchi as a gift from some relative last year. She got tired of it rather quickly, because the interactions are extremely limited and repetitive. As an outsider to the Tamagotchi craze, I can only imagine that a lot of its success was due to the collectibility factor both of the units themselves and the "collectibility" of raising the rare types of creatures, or just plain trying to keep one alive for a record-breaking time. However, for my mother, an adult uninterested in computer games who has raised children (and real pets) of her own, the "challenge" of continually responding to the thing's dumb beeping in one of about four ways was not fun, and she got no reward after repeating the necessary maintenance, nor did she have the patience to wait out the long amount of time it takes to get an adult version to see if it was one of the rare ones. As with any computer game with few or no goals, once my mother had learned the extremely simple rules of the Tamagotchi, there was nothing to keep her playing, and nothing to make her more likely to try another such product. Granted, when it arrived the technology was somewhat remarkable so I can understand why the Tamagotchi had such poor and limited game design, however it still committed the mistake that has sunk many a computer game: it was not accessible to players of all skills or level. I think this was a large part of why it basically fizzled out, in this country at least.
It is an accepted fact among developers that average people will most likely never play a game all the way to the end, or will only ever play it on its easiest setting. The only people I know who have actually finished Myst are people who have played games before and like games at least a little bit, but for every one of those people there are many more who bought it and played around with it for only a few hours. But why don't most people ever finish Myst? I think it is again because of lack of enough goals. Myst is clearly a game and not a software toy: there are puzzles to solve and a story of sorts to see to completion, but when you start the game you are plunked down with little explanation and no guidance. This is the very thing which some people have praised the game for, but again, these people were most likely already slightly familiar with the conventions of games and more willing to spend the time to experiment. Compare this to a typical Japanese RPG: the most popular of these sell millions of copies in Japan, and inspire fandom which Myst could only dream of (despite its long life near the top of the sales charts). I am sure that a significant percentage of the sales of these RPGs are to first time gamers. The Japanese developers seem to have a fundamental understanding of the setting of short term goals and rewards, and all of these games are specifically designed to avoid overwhelming the new player. Before ever letting the player into a wide open space with a large number of tools at their disposal, all of these games start with some amount of very directed and fairly simple gameplay. Experts breeze through these parts, while beginners become comfortable with how the game is going to work, and get hooked in by the story. When all players reach the wide-open, less linear sections of the game, they are fully prepared for the freedom and ready to proceed, instead of being as lost as even I was the first time I started clicking around through Myst, unable to get a good sense of the space or what I was supposed to be achieving by throwing random levers and clicking on things.
The average Myst owner isn't actually interested in it as a game at all, but rather as a computer demo, or a thing to sit their console-raised grandchild in front of (who will quickly ask "don't you have any good games?"). Despite the fact that Myst is one of the best selling computer games of all time, it didn't draw most of its audience into the actual game, and therefore in my opinion didn't do a whole lot to broaden the games market (besides set the sales expectations ridiculously high for the publishers of those of us who want to make hardcore games). It didn't even broaden the market enough to guarantee that every Myst owner bought a copy of Riven - and that makes perfect sense. It's not like Riven was any worse a game than Myst, but if you didn't know or care how Myst ended, why would you want to buy a game which continues Myst's story? I believe that if Myst had been designed with the constant stream of goals and rewards needed to make it a good game that more people wanted to play and finish, instead of just being a good looking game which was a step backward in its design, we could have a steady stream of ready made "core gamers" to sell our deeper, better games to. Instead, we face an increasing division (in the minds of the people who control the dollars for new projects) between the "core audience" and the mass market, and an increasing number of things that aren't games being made on the cheap to capture the mass market's dollars, instead of better game design being applied to all games to make them more broadly acceptable. Hopefully this trend can still be stopped if a few excellent, mass-appeal games are released soon, or we may find ALL the games we like becoming "niche" titles only available through specialty stores or mail order (and being made with continually decreasing budgets), while the large chains where the mass market shops return to only stocking products whose CDs we wouldn't even use as coasters.
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
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