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Where console games used to specialize in dishing out punishment to players, designers are now changing tactics
Over the past few years, I have noticed a new and fascinating trend in game design: Games are moving toward reward systems and very much away from punishment systems. I think this evolution really points toward the future of gaming. After all, why would anyone pay money for a form of entertainment that punishes them? Good question! If we are to truly see games being played by as many people who watch TV, or movies, or read books and listen to music, then we need to continue to evolve our art, and deliver fun, rewarding experiences that seldom, if ever, punish a player for inadequate skills and abilities.
When I look back over the past ten years, I think the trend toward rewarding players started when Roller Coaster Tycoon was released. Here was a game that broke many of the conventional "rules" of what would make a game successful, and yet it sold and sold and stayed in the top ten for several years in a row.
I remember playing it and really wondering if anyone would want to play a game that didn't make them curse out loud, spike the controller off the coffee table, and be up until 4 a.m. because they had to figure out some puzzle. Seriously, I had my doubts about whether or not it would be a success. (I dare say that I had the same experience when I first played The Sims.) Both are great examples of fun, well-designed games that didn't have to be an intense battle of wits and reflexes—they were simply experiences that entertained.
This was sort of threatening to us hardcore designers, because we really didn't understand why anyone would want to simply while away the time on their computer. We wondered about that for a bit and then we went straight back to designing games that we understood. We designed games that challenged the player with the unique brand of complexity and difficulty that video games are famous for. And while we did this, The Sims sold millions and millions of copies, Railroad Tycoon sold millions and millions of copies, and the ground had shifted under our feet.
But how is it that we could ignore this incredible new trend in gaming, a trend that was attracting, oh my god, don't say it...women! That's right; these new games were attracting women. And try as we might, we still didn't really understand why they were excited about games like The Sims, or any other game that didn't involve ripping someone's heart out and eating it like an apple. I can't tell you how many times someone has proclaimed that you can't create dramatic tension without some form of violence, but is that what video games are all about...creating dramatic tension?
I know we try to take valuable lessons from television and film, and they both use sex and violence to great effect. Video games can't really use sexual content without getting hit with a pretty stiff rating [Deliberate pun? – Ed.], so all we have left is violence. So we focus on that and forget that we are a different art form altogether, one that has a powerful system of interactivity. When you have interactivity, you have something that film, television, books and music don't have, and you don't need to rely on violence to make games entertaining. For me, this was a big discovery...like discovering I had an opposable thumb. I have spent the last few years laughing at myself for being so slow to understand the obvious.
Okay, so smart game designers like Will Wright had figured out that a fun game didn't require blowing someone's head off with a shotgun, but meanwhile, even in the hardcore space, we were learning something else. Games shouldn't punish the player, but rather reward them. Oh, and it should be a whole lot easier to win. Duh! Can I say duh?
Punishment goes back to the days of coin-operated games, and even amusement parks. You got three baseballs to throw at the milk jugs, and you couldn't win a prize unless you actually had skill. Otherwise, the game would have no meaning, and the game operator wouldn't make a living.
Pinball machines gave you three balls. When you lost, it was "Game Over." When early video arcade games came on the scene, you got three ships, three Pac-Mans, three of this, three of that. When you lost those ships, tough titty, your game was over. And then we brought games into the home, and we kept on punishing. It was like we were creating the intensity of the arcade right in the comfort of your own home! Ha! It was like we forgot that we weren't trying to eat quarters. Doesn't matter, we kept punishing the player.
But not all games in recent years are based around punishing the player. Besides Railroad Tycoon and The Sims, one other game stands out as a notable and very popular exception—Grand Theft Auto. When I do some crazy stuff in GTA and get myself busted, I wind up at the police station. But they let me go, and I hit the streets and continue right where I left off. Brilliant! Ironically, in a game of this kind, the punishment is quite small, and perfectly integrated into the gameplay. Hats off to Rockstar.
I gave a talk many years ago at the Game Developers Conference. On one of my slides, I pointed out that I have a huge collection of games, many of which I have never finished. For one reason and another, I was never able to complete them because at some point while playing, I would hit a "blocker." (A blocker is a term that game designers use to call a part of the game that stops the player's forward progression because of a complex puzzle, or arbitrary twist in the game.) When I hit a blocker, I give it a couple of tries, decide that this seems like a great place to take a break for the night, and lo and behold, the game begins to collect dust and I never play it again. That's the story for most games on my shelf.
And I brought this up at my GDC talk because I wanted to make the point that we were failing as an industry to create games that everyone could get "through." We were spending all this time and money on a part of the game that our customer would never see. I don't know if anyone really thought this was a smart point to make, but looking back, I should have spent the whole hour talking about it. I pointed out that when I buy a DVD, or a music CD, or a book, I always get "through" it. I'm never blocked from watching a TV show, or reading a magazine at the airport. I tried to imagine how many millions of dollars worth of gaming goodness that I was never seeing. How many boss battles and final victory sequences was I missing? Almost all of them by my recollection! Why? I had a ton of excuses. But I was always left with one overarching fact—I wasn't good enough to beat the game. I was slow. I was dumb. I didn't "get it." I'm impressed that the industry made it this far with our carnival-style punishment system.
My last point is the good news: We're finally figuring all this out.
Video games will auto-save your game. Most will auto-load. When you die, you don't lose all your stuff or all your experience points. We are making huge progress. We're finding ways to be entertaining without beating the player down for being dumb and slow. And even though casual games have taught us a lot these past few years about making accessible and non-punishment oriented games, many of them can still get difficult quickly. But overall, we're moving in a good direction.
Games are getting less violent, they're finally attracting women on a regular basis, and they aren't punishing the player as much. The transition will still take years, and many great games will still be designed that are violent, made for the infinitely hardcore male populace, and will punt you through the uprights when you make a slight mistake, but those will be the exception, not the rule.
As it is now, I look forward to playing games with my kids, and my wife, and who knows, perhaps even my mom. I remember my mom bringing home the game Breakout back in the late '70s. She would sit down beside us on the living room floor, and we'd take turns with her playing.
With my next game, I hope she can jump back in and play with us kids. I know it's been 30 years, mom, but games are getting good again—trust me!