Some games are made of smaller games, like Wii Sports or the Total War games. Other separations are softer. Vehicle play in Grand Theft Auto feels quite different from on-foot, and GTA is essentially two games which link strongly.
When games mix they can create exciting new experiences, but many mixes just don’t work. Rather than being enhanced by their interaction, these games pull on each other, leaving the overall experience to be one of dysnergy, the opposite of synergy.
Perhaps the game design has forgotten the importance of the player’s role. Role is not a marketing issue. It is how players understand your game and why it's awesome
You Play A…
When you play a game you are not an actor taking to the stage, nor a star of your own personal movie. You are projecting yourself into a world, inhabiting some part of it and through that part taking action.
The question is: What part?
In a previous post I labelled this the player’s doll. The doll is the thing (or things) in the game over which the player exercises direct control. It might be a human figure, a car, a hand of god, anything. It might even be totally invisible. The hand that twists the tetrominos in Tetris, for example, is an invisible doll.
The doll is a purely functional concept. Role, on the other hand, is about the context of those functions. While a doll can technically be programmed to do just about anything, in practise the player needs some sort of clue as to who or what they are supposed to be in the game.
A common problem that I see in fledgling game designs is a lack of a clear role. Sometimes this is because the developer has over-complicated the issue by thinking in terms of story or motivations. Alternatively it’s because the developer has an idea of what the game is supposed to look like at its end, with lots of interesting parts and achievements and so on, and has tried to backtrack from the end to the beginning design-wise.
Such designs usually have a yawning gap between what they are supposed to be versus what the player is supposed to do.
A clear role helps the play brain see the frame of the game, and so figure out what the optimal path to win might be. It gives the player a series of conventions to toy with, and helps establish whether actions feel natural or arcane. An opaque or hazy role, on the other hand, tells the player nothing and makes him very unsure of why the game is supposed to be fun. He might toy with it but find it hard to connect or care about.
Role in this sense is nothing at all to do with character or roleplaying in the pen-and-paper sense. They are about perspective, context and player confidence.
Six Criteria of a Good Role
In television drama, some character types are better than others because of the nature of their situation. Detectives, doctors and lawyers, for example, return in endless variations because they are the kinds of professions that meet many people and deal with fundamental issues (life and liberty) in situations that the audience can recognise.
Roles in games are also constrained by situation, but physically rather than dramatically. A good game role has to revolve around the tangible ability to take action. If it doesn’t, then it’s a bad role.
Not all roles are equally interesting nor make for good games. There is a reason why we often see several archetypal roles repeated, and why – despite the hopes of many a keen observer – certain kinds of role consistently make for weak games.
It comes down to whether the role is one that lends itself to clear actions. If the player can use it to pull on obvious levers to change the world, then it’s good. Those kinds of roles lead to good tests, and a perception of fairness. If not, you’re in trouble.
There are six criteria that I use in evaluating whether a role will work in a game design or not. Ideally all six should be satisfied, but if you have at least four of them right then you’re probably on the right track. The criteria are:
- A consistent vantage point
- A single type of extensible doll
- An unambiguous set of goals
- A natural source of pressure
- A consistent set of actions
- An accessible context
Let’s look at these in turn:
Vantage Point: A consistent vantage point does not mean a fixed camera perspective so much as a fixed sense of where you sit within the game. You understand whether you are taking action or commanding others, and that defines much about the role. In Shogun Total War your role covers both a high-level strategy game across the nation and a lower-level command on the battlefield. These two modes are essentially the same vantage point, so they fit together well. Mixing them with an actual combat engine would not, however.
Single Type of Extensible Doll: Maintaining a consistent relationship between the player and type of doll is what makes a game a natural experience. In Starcraft, all the units that you command are variants on a single type of doll, and in Gran Turismo all cars are variants on a basic car doll. In Halo the Master Chief often transitions between being on foot or being in a vehicle. These two game modes are explained through one being an extension of the other’s doll.
Goals: Is the player supposed to kill everything, build something awesome, become the greatest mayor in the history of history? What exactly? The goals define the role as much as the role defines the goals, so the clearer one is, the clearer the other also is.
Something vague like ‘get married’ with no clear way to do that usually weakens the role. The relationship sub-games in GTA: San Andreas or Fable are unsatisfying distractions from the main games because they are well outside the hit-things-shoot-stuff role that the games have established.
Natural Pressure: When Jack Palance invites the shepherd to pick up the gun, the role of the shepherd is clear. A city simulation is one in which you expect to deal with fires, crime, pollution, population gripes and budgets. They are natural in that context. Not species evolution, dungeon adventures or a sudden change to a first person action section though.
There are moments when you can break from the convention of natural pressure for thaumatic purposes. Portal 2’s end – which I won’t spoil – breaks from the natural pressure of the test format in spectacular fashion, and it works because of what it has been building on. Constantly breaking natural pressure, on the other hand, is a big no-no.
Consistent Actions: Actions to be clear. They also need to be consistent with the role. In a beat-‘em-up you expect to hit things, not talk to them. In a detective game it’s the other way around. When a role is unclear it leads to a lot of designs of individual actions, even whole sub-games, that bear no relation to each other.
Consistent actions are the most important of all the criteria. Sure it’s fun to depart from the main game with the odd mini-game (playing Poker in Red Dead Redemption perhaps) but even they should feel as though they belong.
Accessible Context: Finally the role needs to be based on an activity to which the player can relate. Know your market and the kinds of media that it consumes, because accessibility is about concepts with which the player is already somewhat familiar. Geeky gamers get the whole swords and sorcery idea, whereas mid-40s housewife gamers do not. Agatha Christie fans love an object finding game because the context makes sense to them, but not to sports fans.
Accessibility is why many functionally interesting game ideas, like stock market simulators, never find an audience. It’s also why some more obscure games that journalists and other enthusiastic fans love, like Psychonauts, never connect with the audience outside their particular bubble.
So Do You Know Their Role?
If your answer is you know some of it, or a bit of it, or it’s a combination of a couple of roles then stop. Go back and simplify it. Get it clear in your head.
If your answer is that the player plays a twelfth century monk transcribing texts in a monastery using gestural gameplay then stop. Go back and rethink that context. Make something more accessible instead.
Role is not just a marketing or a branding issue. It is through the role that players understand the world you have made for them and why it is awesome. If they can’t get with the role, then all your other work is probably futile.
(Today’s image is The Rock from WWE, who knows a thing or two about roles.)