E3, trailers and previews mostly sell games based on potential experience. Look at the haunting graphics of Journey or listen to a podcast about the epic scope of Skyrim, and the promise of experience is there. Come into our worlds, they say, they are thaumatic.
Sometimes they are, however those worlds which are successfully so are based on more than just experiences. Experient design’s goal may be to take the player on an emotional journey, but it’s the games that pay attention to what happens in between emotional events that truly are magical. Experiential highs are just one tool in the making of games, not what they are.
In politics they say that parties campaign in poetry but govern in prose, and with games it is similar. Games often paint wonderful roles and amazing worlds that inspire the art brain, and those are important emotional hooks. Whether it’s an image of a footballer striking the perfect goal or Kratos (from God of War) leaping off a cliff, swords in hand, these images of experience are the poetry.
However the actual play (the prose) of most games is not like that. It’s more ordinary, experimental and about tests. Most football is about passing and tackles, not striking amazing goals, and most of the time Kratos is engaged in fairly routine combat with lower minions rather than gods. Even in heavily encounter-driven games like Shadow of the Colossus, much of your time is actually spent riding a horse and looking at maps.
This is all play brain stuff. It’s pulling levers, testing feedback mechanisms and trying to figure out what your doll can do and how to do it better. While the art brain may be inspired by the potential experience of a game, the play brain finds that the game as a system is often much more ordinary. It doesn’t deliver the highs of experience most of the time so what happens in between, the mid-game, is very important.
If, in between your grand cut scenes or your awesome boss fights, the mid-game turns out to be tedious, then your game is tedious. If the mid-game is linear, full of hollow busywork or scripted actions then your game is linear, hollow, or scripted. That experience is what your play brain remembers when you pick up the controller to play again. Not the potential highs, the tedium.
The key word here is potential.
A design based on the assumption that games are experiences is essentially a design built for the ideal player. It presupposes that she will understand both the context of the game’s actions and their intended significance, be the hero that the story portrays her to be, and essentially get swept away on cue. This player, as you may have guessed, does not really exist.
What actually happens is that the real player sort-of gets what the game is doing, but also gets diverted, annoyed, fascinated by unintended parts of the game and so on. She may find the game too slow, too random, too opaque. She may only play it in stops and starts. She may not grasp the controls, or master them more quickly than the game maker thought possible. Her experience will always be imperfect, and mostly happen in the mid-game.
Experiences may sell games, but the actual game you’ve made needs to account for the imperfect rather than ignore it. Some colossal examples of player rage have resulted from potential experiences whose mid-game stank, like Rise of the Robots or Daikatana. Even when they know that the experience is not supposed to be a game (as we have been debating recently) players can still only be expected to find it interesting for so long.
The ideal experience sounds similar to the description that I often use for thauma, of the capacity of games to be belief engines and really take you to another world if only for a few moments. However it lacks the substance that thaumatic games need. A game constructed purely with experience in mind tends to focus on the aesthetic, the first fifteen minutes, the story or the ceremonies. It wants to hypnotise the player, draw her in and enchant her.
Such games find it very hard to encourage continued or repeated play. The play brain grows bored watching a system essentially play with itself and the player wonders what is it that she is supposed to do. Where does she get to have fun, to start figuring the game out, or to be tested? The game, as it were.
Heavy Rain is not a bad game because of the prevalence of story and the key moments like searching for Jason. It’s problem is in the mid-game, when you’re piloting Ethan around a house opening every drawer and conversing with your son about nothing. It’s when you’re Scott Shelby nursing a baby, or Norman Jayden sitting as his virtual desk sifting through files one after another.
These levers are limited, and the quality of their interaction low. It’s busywork, interaction for interaction’s sake and hard not to think that you could be doing something more interesting instead. Like it or not (as a game maker), the play brain wants problems to solve and tests of skill to overcome, not just stuff to do. It reduces all games to systems, systems that it wants to beat, and when the game does not offer than then it simply becomes idle.
The mid-game of Mass Effect, on the other hand, is of exploring the galaxy, completing missions, levelling up and acquiring lore. It’s somewhat emergent, reasonably fascinating, and the play brain can spend hours altering weapon line-ups or figuring out optimal combat strategies. Although the game tends to overplay its high story moments with chewy dialogue and mistimed emoting, it is forgivable and even engaging. Players understand what the game is trying to do, and they feel it has earned their attention in the mid-game.
The lesson is to think more about the mid-game and less about the ideal experience. Think about how the game is supposed to deliver emergence, interesting outcomes and unpredictable yet fun consequences. Is the game robust enough to handle that? Is it able to permit the player to keep taking meaningful actions rather than time-filling busywork? Does it have enough substance during the mid-game between the exciting explosions or the scary music?
The robust combat of Halo or Uncharted glues the big moments together. The ambient strategy moves of would-be-shoguns in Total War grounds the game for its grander themes. The middle rounds of betting in Texas Hold’Em build anticipation toward thaumatic conclusions. For story-focused as well as purely mechanical games, the mid-game of what you do between climaxes is vital.
Emergent And Experient
Making games is less about just-so experiences of movies or amusement rides and much more about sensation through play. Players play, that’s their job, and your job is to make sure that when they do they find enough meat on the bones of the game to make that worthwhile.
If there is then you have set the stage for grander moments, for experiences and significance. Emotions feel earned, and the delivery is much more powerful because the mid-game substantiates the potential experience. If it’s absent, or token, then you’ve created something not worth playing and that’s the end of the story. Those emotions feel fake.
You’re not a dramatist, you’re a thaumatist, and that means looking at the world as a living place where ordinary play is more important than extraordinary wows. Remember that we have to play it at some point, imperfectly, and yet still find joy in what you made.
So avoid designing for the ideal player or her experience. She’s not real. We are.