On Players and Designers

Ben Abraham made a post about the claim game developers often make about “players” and what players want. What Ben comes to, in serious tl;dr fashion, is that “shit is complicated.” It is difficult to represent all possible humans in games, and that is hard, but the developer response of “well, capitalism directs us to make product for community and you gotta deal with it” is a woefully incomplete one.

Daniel Joseph responded to the post with his own. Daniel writes that there is a broad assemblage of actual players combined with market research players (aka hyperreal players aka the product of capitalist astrology) that directly, and indirectly, put pressure on developers to create certain products. Daniel ends with a call, much like Anna Anthropy, to saying that we need to make the art we want and for us to stop depending on developers.

So here is my own intervention into the debate: players are real. More importantly, the players that market research creates for developers are real. Actually, they are more-real-than-real. The players that demand attention from developers are, ultimately, fictional. They are as real as the family with 2.5 kids that buys home consumer goods. But the quality of being-fictional has literally no effect on their ability to act in the world. These hyperreal players control vast swaths of development, and necessitate certain things–features are implemented for the hardcore PC player, the console warrior, and the genre game expert.

Daniel is right to call out that these hyperreal players are exploded versions of real players. They are simply the “felt” playerbase, which consists mostly of hardcore game players or QA people or other demographics that actually interface with developers in some way, whether that is through proper channels or just pure harassment (Mass Effect 3 anyone?).

But there are real players out there, too. These players have purchasing power, and despite the makeup of the inclusive video game writing community, academic or otherwise, the large swaths of video game players and purchasers are either literally or figuratively the white moderate. These players aren’t buying media in order to have their lives shaken up or to be confronted with hard truths about inclusiveness; they want to be entertained within the framework of their own ideology.

So what I am saying is that, yes, we can’t just go “welp, capitalism” and be happy with that. But we do have to be attentive to the material reality of the game assemblage when we talk about these issues. The engine for capitalism is ideology, and more importantly, comfort. The resonance of comfort creates stable entities that will do anything they can to remain stable. Designers run up against this all the time–I think the prime issue with Yohalem’s interview that started all of this is that he wanted to operate within this resonance in order to begin a critique. There is no removing you from a comfort zone; there is just an inflection inside of it. In short, he, as the writer of the game, had to assure that players would achieve a certain level of comfort to guarantee that the game would sell number of copies.

And this, at the end of the day, is the only thing that really matters for a video game company. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the writes of games like Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line have to “smarten up” their games in post-release interviews. The machine that is AAA development requires a certain percentage of gameplay tropes in order to capture and hold a core audience. Only through a reading “after the fact” can the writers say “well, in case you missed it, we were doing something amazing there.” But that “smart” game narrative can never be the selling point. The selling point is mechanics and familiarity. A number appended after a familiar title is an assurance of love; you’re going to be gently caressed by a being that you have known before.

This is important. Courting a huge number of hooked players is necessary when your game needs to sell 4 million units to break even (it didn’t, and missed the target by a full million in that quarter).

I’ll just end now by echoing Ben–shit is way complicated, and full representation of possible humans is almost impossible when the economic forces of video games are taken into account. Thankfully, we have when Daniel is calling for–we have a thriving indie community that grasps radical difference and bends it into beautiful games.

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