For a long time, video games have tried to appeal to players in terms of their game character and their inner hero. But outside the walls of the development studio, the publisher and the academic, nobody cares. We need to just be honest about that.
The player has already shown up. Your job is to take him to a place that he has never seen before and blow his mind. You are a wonderworker, a worldmaker, a thaumaturgist. For games to become the art that they have always been meant to be, this is the central lesson that you need to take in:
Forget the person. The art of game design is all about the place.
The mental mode of all games is picking up the gun. There must be a ground-state of rules and actions, achievable goals and penalty outcomes in all games for them to function as games. One of the reasons why Second Life is not a game, for example, is that it does not adhere to all of those rules.
This is natural. All arts have some sort of limit because all arts engage the mind in a certain modes. It’s biological, sociological, conventional, whatever you want to call it. It just is.
You only have to examine the limits that form the boundaries of cinema. In order to watch a film, you have to go somewhere quiet, preferably dark, and with no interruption for your mind to get into the mode of story-time. That’s a limit. To take in a song, you need your hearing to be overrun and expect an auditory pattern, which grounds the song for you. That’s also a limit.
To get in the mode of game-time, somebody has to tell you to pick up the gun. Not you pretending to be someone else and playing the part like an actor. Just you. For a game to function it has to speak to your mind directly and clearly. Here is the gun. What do you do?
Immersion is a process by which your senses and actions get redirected along pathways that extend you. Piloting a game character is like driving a car or operating an RC plane. The difference with a video game (or any game) is that the immersion is happening in another place with its own rules rather than this one.
But for that extension to be interesting and remain immersive or even emotional, the dynamics must be predominant. Your presence in the immersion is pointless without goals, tasks, and things to do – even if those things are self-directed or game-directed. You need structure, learning opportunities and easily interpreted patterns before you can let yourself imagine and become invested.
This is as true for Minecraft as for Tetris, FarmVille or Halo: Reach. So creating a world is a complex task that demands not just imagination, but elegance, form and direction. (This is also why game design is not dead, Chris). It is not just geography or art style, and it has very little to do with story. It’s a balance of dynamic, audio-visual and pace-changing elements all intended to achieve a kind of engagement.
Worldmaking is the act of creating a canvass. Is it a canvass meant to amuse, to be something deeper? All these things can be achieved. All are equally valid.
Bejewelled is a world, as is the World of Warcraft, Gran Turismo and Super Mario Galaxy. All have common reasons for why they work, and it’s to do with the balance of imagination with mechanism, action with reward, exploration with mastery. Much of my book talks about the art of games as worldmaking because I believe that worlds are where the true art of games lies.