What Do Gamers Want to Feel?

This week has been pretty busy, and next week I will be in the Seattle area all week, so if the post quality drops a little, don’t hate me. I am just busy, and a 5-a-week, original-content blog is a hard thing to do.

Anyway, Patrick Shaw at Gamelife wrote an article about a talk that thechineseroom gave at GDC. In the talk, designer Dan Pinchbeck said that the goals of Dear Esther, which I thought was wonderful, were to create a space where players could experience a kind of pure emotional response without any handholding. That is my summary, of course, and what he really said was:

“If you provide vacuum space in games, players will fill it,” Pinchbeck said. “Lack of stimulation is not lack of experience. It allows for a different kind of emotional experience for the player.”

I guess this could be considered a Law of game design: gamers abhor a vacuum. A lack of story or content will always be filled–people who play games want to invest their desires into a game, and if a designer provides enough hook points, the player will fill in the gaps.

I agree with this, to some extent, and it is a brilliant move in game design to make sure that players have their own space to develop. This is the logical end to the emergent gameplay debates–build in affective clasps and hooks for the player, and a full game, narrative intact, will arise from it. There’s a definite connection between that design decision and my blog getting hundreds of hits a week from people searching the phrase “Dear Esther explanation.”

So I am on that side of the argument, and I think games that invite participation and create open spaces for player creation are the best games, but  a thought nags at me: people like to be controlled.

There are a lot of reasons that I think this, but to stay in the world of video games, we can look at pure sales figures: Dear Esther sold around 50,000 copies in the first weekModern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million copies in one day.

I know what you’re thinking: the shooty games are much more popular, are part of a long running series, are in a genre that lots of people play, had lots of publicity, and on and on. And all of that is correct. The numbers are simply telling as to what kinds of genres are favorable to game players and purchasers. If people were clamoring for more Dear Esther-style games, we would have them (and it looks like several are coming down the tube in the next couple years). But none of them are going to sell a million copies.

People like clear narratives and simplicity. There is a reason that we have summer blockbusters–the vast majority of people don’t like to think when they are being entertained. They like the world to be didactically explained to them in painful monologue. They want to be railroaded through a plot with corridors and clearly marked objective points. These will preferably be brightly colored.

I’m not trying to talk those games or their players down. They are fun. But they do demand less of us and make us very comfortable with a very simple and dumb kind of storytelling. We like those games, and so we don’t look for anything else.

So what do we do? We need to start Dear Esther-ing our AAA titles. Make those games smarter. Sneak in randomized dialogue more often–for example, in GTAIV most of the missions have two sets of dialogue, meaning that failing a mission once doesn’t mean you get a repeat of the same conversation. It adds depth to the game, and it doesn’t make me feel like I’m playing something soulless.

So maybe gamers want to “feel in a game’s empty space,” like Pinchbeck says. Or maybe players want to feel like heroes in a hail of bullets. Maybe we need to get those two things closer together.

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