The White House level in Splinter Cell: Conviction
Making people care about things in games is hard. Not to say it’s impossible – but when most decisions boil down to ‘save the hostage’ or ‘restart the level,’ it doesn’t exactly fill the player with overwhelming empathy. So it makes sense that developers would constantly be on the hunt for ways to increase their game’s emotional resonance for the player.
Yet while there are plenty of ways to cultivate this feeling, one method – re-creating real-life locales in one-off missions specifically designed to elicit emotion from the player – tends to be leaned on as an option that’s so obviously effective, it’s non-debatable.
Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case.
Your helicopter touches down on the deck. You’ve arrived at the outskirts of a magnificent city of the future – gleaming skyscrapers pierce distant clouds, flying robots of all kinds swerve in airborne traffic patterns, and a sunset so real you can’t believe it coats the entire scene in a rosy glow.
A policeman in ultra-sleek SWAT gear approaches to tell you the details of your new assignment here in Next Generation Consoleberg – but all you can focus on is his mouth, his lips moving up and down like some kind of animatronic fish. In an instant you’re pulled out of the game, and the spell of immersion is broken.
Nothing says “videogame” quite like a controller. For those of us raised on the early consoles, holding a game controller evokes memories of getting lost in some elaborate fantasy world, made even more wondrous by our young imaginations. With controller in hand, we would spend countless childhood hours exploring, conquering and discovering strange realities, tethered to the adventure through a lump of plastic that quietly melted away in our hands.
The controller is the gateway to these experiences, and it remains the preferred input method for many of the big, mainstream releases today.
But in the age of the mobile touchscreen device, the dedicated controller risks becoming an anachronism.
Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. His character in the film grapples with rebuilding a shattered life.
There’s a common narrative occurring for people whose lives have been touched by videogames in their formative years. First intrigued by the novelty of interaction and control, you become enamored with the concept of manipulating a digital avatar until you achieve a certain kind of mastery over the process. Timing thumbstick rotations with button presses becomes a second language. A fluency in the average game experience emerges.
Yet as you mature, the straightforward, childlike adventures you loved grow ever so slightly less appealing. You start to wonder why, when film, TV and literature address complex, deep subjects on a regular basis, games repeatedly serve up tropes of rescuing princesses and gunning down masked men.
Screenshot: Starseed Pilgrim
Ever notice how nobody ever wants to add more guesswork? The phrase is always “taking the guesswork out” of something, and lately, games are no exception. More and more games these days come loaded with overdone tutorials, excessive pop-ups and scripted “Press X to Do 1 of 1 Available Actions” sequences.
If you play a lot of modern console games, it can be hard to remember that guessing can be the core of a fun game experience. After all Twenty Questions is nothing but guessing. Crossword puzzles are made up of interlocking guesses, nudging you towards more answers the more you guess. In short, the fun of discovery has been getting the short shrift from major game releases in recent years.
If you’re involved in the game industry in any way, chances are you share a gift common to most developers: enthusiastic proactivity. The competitive nature and innate complexity of learning how to make digital games all but requires not only genuine enthusiasm for your projects, but the wherewithal to see them to completion.
Yet regardless of whether you’re a student looking to break in or a veteran developer pursuing your personal vision on the weekends, taking a careful, measured approach to your side projects can help make the difference between a legion of unfinished prototypes and a few finished masterworks.
Everybody likes feeling important. It’s the reason why you’re more inclined to listen to someone if they address you as “Sir” or “Miss” as opposed to “Hey you” or “Listen, schmuck.” It’s the reason why older siblings often feel a heightened sense of responsibility for younger brethren. And it’s a powerful tool to draw players into your game and give it the time and effort it deserves.
“The deepest urge in human nature is ‘the desire to be important.’” –John Dewey
So how do you go about making your players feel important? There are many methods, and this is a topic well worth investigating in order to find the best ways to utilize its powers for your specific game. Here are a few universal tips to keep in mind when looking for ways to empower your players with almighty meaning.
Screenshot from Restaurant Empire 2.
What’s the one thing missing from every book review that’s ever been written? The number at the end. Isn’t it interesting how books, an artistic medium thousands of years old, has resisted the kind of numerical classification that has invaded film, food, games, and even prospective romantic partners within the last century?
While the widely used star system may have been popularized in the late 1920s to offer a quick way to summarize lengthy film reviews, its ubiquity in film has long since been adopted by professional game reviewers, most often in the form of numerical scores. Yet the more you look at the usage of these grading systems for the unique medium of interactive games, the stranger the fit appears.
The exciting process of game development in action. Photo: Q-Games
Why should anybody care about your game? Ask the seasoned game designer this, and he’ll describe an enticing feature set, an innovative game mechanic or some other combination of reasons why players would be interested.
Playtesting the game in question, you find yourself lost to the point of asking for help. What doesn’t seem clear? he’ll ask. Was the ‘go this way’ arrow not big enough? Were you still fighting in this area and not ready to move on yet? What do you think the game is asking you to do? What are you thinking now? While understanding motivation is a crucial skill in game design, creators often forget its most important use – to examine their own reasons for making games in the first place.
Game designers are among the most curious people in the world. Always on the lookout for new ways to engage players, they’re fascinated by psychological principles, behavioral science and the uncovering sources of motivation. Talking with New York graphic artist David Wallin a few weeks ago, he posited a simple but powerful framework that not only dives to the heart of motivation in game design, but for life as a whole.
The premise of CPR design is simple: You can easily break down the appeal of a certain task by evaluating the challenge it poses, the enjoyment of the process of engaging with it, and by the value of the results that come as a product.