Wanna Go Steady?
It isn’t uncommon for someone to say they love a game. But when was the last time a game loved them back? I mean, really loved them in a committed way. The best games I have played feel as though they are monogamous with the player, even if the player doesn’t always reciprocate it. And if the game really loves them enough, I mean loves the player in that way love ballads are written, the player can even begin to feel guilty for not spending enough time with the game, or even jealous when someone else begins to spend more time with it. We all have a game like that. It could be a game we are in a relationship with now, or a first love that we sort of drifted apart from. But when we think about it, a wave of emotions flood over us, giving our experience with the game life.
How de we go about creating a game that can foster a loving relationship with the player? In large part, it isn’t much different than how we would foster a loving relationship with another person. Honesty, compassion, respect, surprises, a sense of humor, good looks… we all know the laundry list, but most games still come off as crass or awkward in spite of all the E-Harmony commercials streamed into our brains. So put on a little mood music, poor a little bubbly, and let’s find the ways to a player’s heart.
It may be shallow, but unless it is an audio only experience, looks matter. It is what initially catches someone’s eye. If your game is aesthetically pleasing, you will not only have an easier time introducing it to other people, you will have people introducing themselves to you so they can check it out. But know the difference between a beautiful aesthetic and an ugly graphics whore. It is Audrey Hepburn vs Snooki. Simple and refined wins out over too textured and overly flashy every time when you are looking for an enduring, timeless look. Even if you aren't blessed with the best artistic ability, much like every man that isn't Jon Hamm, if you at least put in some effort and establish a clean, put together look, you will do fine.
An entire series of articles could be written about aesthetics, but half the fun of establishing a great look is finding inspiration from things you find beautiful. Much like putting up a picture of someone you want to look like next to the mirror in your gym, surround yourself with art that inspires you. The more you train your eye to see what is aesthetically pleasing, the easier it will be to maintain a unique, natural style for your game. And those good looks will give you the confidence to start a dialogue with the player. It will also stand out above the crowd of gritty, desaturated machismo.
Most previews and demos give off the impression of "How YOU doin?" when first approaching someone new. Be it cheap gimmicks, false bravado, or played out buzz words, how the conversation starts cements the first impression of the player. Instead of using a tired out pick up line, start the conversation with something genuine and aware of what the player is probably thinking or doing at that moment. This is where you have to not only be aware of what your visual expectations are but also live up to them. It doesn’t matter how amazing your game looks, if you say something boneheaded, crass or disrespectful right out of the gate, you have already turned off the player. But don’t rush right ahead into all your hopes and desires, showing off everything you’ve got, as that only stands to make you seem scatterbrained or insecure. And don’t just show or tell them what you think they want to hear, because then you aren’t being true to yourself.
So identify what the strengths of your game are. Think of a moment or mechanic that really identifies what your game is all about and then walk it back to just a few moments before that. This way you can hint at what it is that makes your game tick, to pull the player in, without scaring them away by being too forceful. Then you can organically let the player find that moment, allowing them to become invested in the conversation.
Once you have broken the ice, both your game and the player will be able to comfortably talk to one another about this shared interest and build more moments like that one. You can drill deeper into what makes those moments tick and how to expand on them in a meaningful way for both. Then they may find other interests they share, or even better, open up one another to ideas that neither had thought of before. Those are actually what move the relationship forward. Challenging one another to think and experience new ideas. That means, as a game, you need to let it to shut up every once in a while and let the player drive the conversation. If you have scripted every moment, every interaction, every command input, then you have essentially created a digital Me-Monster. And nobody wants to stay in a relationship with someone like that.
Find moments in your game when it can stop talking, and just listen. We create worlds that are designed to answer the player when they ask a question. The best games encourage the player to ask as many questions as they can, or challenges the game to react to a new set of actions by the player. Yes, this is scary, because it takes control away from the game, but that’s what you do if you want a great, lasting relationship. This is why many people enjoy Saints Row over Grand Theft Auto. Saints Row listens to the player’s mayhem and encourages it if that is where the conversation lies. They relish every moment that the player asks for a reaction from the game.
Surprises are what keep the spark alive in a relationship. They don’t always have to be big or elaborate, but just something special that says, “Look, I was thinking about you even when I wasn’t with you.” It is definitely an easier time surprising the player when they first pick up your game, by showing them something new. But as they progress further, the harder it becomes to surprise them. It doesn’t help that many games front load all their surprises for fear that the player won’t hang around long enough to get to the big one. But if you pace your surprises out, saving a big surprise for last means you’ve left the player enamored with your game. That is the game they will talk about to their friends with glowing affection. Bioshock is a perfect example of this with its narrative twist towards the end. It reinvested players and got them talking when they thought they had the whole game figured out.
Surprises are also why people love multiplayer games. They get to continually learn something new about the game, as if it exists even when the player isn’t around. They get to take the information they learned about the game from their personal time, and adapt that into an environment where the game has other friends. But to rely solely on the multiplayer aspect isn’t enough anymore when everyone seems to have that.
Unique win conditions or rule sets can be used to spice up the relationship. This is something Halo does well, introducing new or different modes on a regular basis. Player generated maps are also another method, tho they can often just as easily break the voice of the game as much as strengthen it. This means the good conversation you have spent all that time building can be betrayed by a gluttony of point grab maps or levels shaped like penis monsters. Little Big Planet walks this fine line by attempting to moderate the content, but adding in player voting means the voice can again come across as schizophrenic. Downloadable Content is the other method games often employ to surprise the player. Tho DLC is a minefield of player betrayal, so much like a committed life partner, you don’t want to patronize the player with a half hearted “gifts” that you bought more for yourself then them. Team Fortress 2 and Burnout Paradise are perfect examples of surprising the player and extending their relationship through timely and thoughtful gifts, which in turn fosters the player to return the favor through purchasing something else as a gift to the game.
Find moments during development that you can surprise yourself and your team. Often times making those surprises come to life is a challenge, but that is how you know you have come across a surprise that the player is going to love.
But what all relationships boil down to is trust. Players need to trust our games, and our games need to trust the player.
Often times when working on a game we hear, “What happens if the player tries to break this?” Essentially, we are asking what happens if they betray the game. But simultaneously, our answers are “Betray them back.” We tightly script the sequence so that they can’t break it, or water down the experience so much that the player doesn’t even care to try and betray it. But betrayal is going to happen and designing your game around the idea of not letting the player betray the game is like keeping a wall around your emotions. You have to put yourself out there if you want to love, and your game needs to do the same thing. Yes, you can get burned, but you need to trust that the player won’t want to betray you. Instead of trying to plan on how they will betray you, set up a system than let's your game react to the betrayal. Let your game become sad, angry, reclusive or supportive to the player's actions, giving the player the option to respond compassionately or continue with the betrayal.
An interesting example of dealing with this is Furby. Listening to an episode of Radio Lab they touched upon what happens when you turn a Furby upside down, and why that moment can stick with people. When you turn one upside down, it says "I'm Scared" or "Put Me Down." And at that moment, it feels alive. Beyond the cold, plastic eyes and clicking mechanisms inside, we are able to project an emotion into this toy.
Furby has three control points in its design:
- Show emotion
- React to the environment
- Change over time
Those are three elements that drive what games are about, and perfect for building not only a conversation and sense of trust in the player, but genuine reactions for when the game is betrayed. Instead of controlling, the game is responding to the freedom it gives the player. And that is what trust is all about.
Will You Go With Me?
Building and maintaining relationships is something we do everyday, and it is something everyone strives to become more adept at. Building our games to match that human need can create experiences far more rewarding for both the player and us as developers when we finally release it into the world. Think about the relationships that have meant the most to you, both good and bad, and find ways to inject the timeline and lessons learned into your creation. You will find that many more people will be checking the YES block when your game asks them to go out.