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REACTIVE DESIGN

25 May 2009

[ This week's "Monday Musings" outlines a framework for player-centric design, suggesting that instead of asking, "What do we want *players to do, and how do we make *them do it?" we should be asking, "What do *players *want to do, and how do we *allow *them to do it?" ]

Designers Have A God Complex

Many video game designers are attuned to controlled experiences, like you might find in Halo or Half-Life. We argue that this creates a more immersive and consistent experience for players. We call out more open-ended games like Oblivion or many MMOs for their lack of focus, for the fact that players can so easily break the pacing and flow of the story. We posit that carefully-crafted encounters and well-placed cutscenes bring to bear the game designer's deep understanding of fun in a way that the untrained and unconstrained player can never hope to compete with.

In short, we're reluctant to accept the idea that maybe, just maybe, players can be as good at creating their own experiences as we are at creating experiences for them.

I suspect this is in part a path of least resistance. Tightly-directed experiences bear numerous similarities to film, and film is a well-established medium for which there exists lots of literature, lots of examples, and lots of expertise to mine. Open-ended experiences, on the other hand, do not resemble any established medium; as such, they are very much on the frontier of game design theory. And it is with open-ended experiences that our designer God-complex tends to become a liability.

This week's post outlines an approach to shedding our God-complex in order to design more satisfying open-ended games, and it starts by recognizing that we may have been asking the wrong question.

Asking the Right Question

Traditionally we ask, "What do we want players to do, and how do we make them do it?" As such, much of our energy in production is spent keeping players securely strapped in to the ride we've created for them, because when a player runs off the rail he breaks the experience. It takes a significant amount of design, testing, and iteration to "player-proof" a level in this way.

Instead, we should ask, "What do *players *want to do, and how do we *allow *them to do it?" Instead of a roller-coaster, we create a playground filled with interesting things that have interesting interactions. Now there is no rail to which the player must be carefully confined; exploration becomes the designer's ally, instead of his enemy.

It's important, however, to maintain a sense of meaningful play. A playground in the traditional sense -- a swing set, a slide, some monkey bars -- is not as a compelling an experience as players expect from a video game, because there's no particular meaning *attached to the objects in the playground, no overriding *goal, no spectrum on which to measure concepts of success *and *failure, and no conflict.

So how do we imbue open-ended gameplay with meaning?

An Approach To Reactive Design

First, we need a basic framework for the game experience we're trying to create. This includes high-level details like:

  • Target audience
  • Genre
  • High concept
  • Basic fiction

These details establish an "experience space" for the game. In essence, they define the boundaries and allow us to identify particular experiences as "in" or "out". For example, consider the following hypothetical (and stereotypical) game concept:

  • Target audience: 18-35 male
  • Genre: First-person shooter
  • High concept: Join a squad of space marines to fight off an alien threat hell-bent on the destruction of Earth.

I'll spare you the details of the game's fiction, but suffice to say the space marines have access to high-tech weapons and capital ships, and the aliens are swarms of bug-like creatures with psionic abilities. (I told you it was stereotypical!) We'll add a note of interest by saying that Earth has been under assault for some time and many of its major cities have turned into ruined warzones.

Given this game concept, we can place certain experiences *inside *the experience space:

  • Defend a target from attacking aliens
  • Infiltrate and destroy an alien nest
  • Shoot down alien capital ships

And we can place other experiences *outside *the experience space:

  • Developing a romantic relationship
  • Matching like-colored gems for points
  • Engaging in deep, branching conversations with NPCs

These details are simple enough to be summarized in less than a page, but they already greatly focus our design.

Next, we need to choose a design scope to consider. Are we designing a whole campaign arc? A single game level? A specific encounter within that level? For our example game, let's say we're designing one mission. Looking at some of the experiences we've already placed inside our experience space, let's say this is a mission to defend a target from attacking aliens.

Now we brainstorm, but we're going to do it from the perspective of the player, not the designer. Start by considering what the player knows going in. In this case, the player knows he's supposed to defend a target of some value, and that aliens are going to attack it. But he also knows  a lot of things from the high-level fiction:

  • He's a space marine
  • He has access to the world's best military technology, including capital ships
  • The aliens have psionic abilities
  • The city is a ruined warzone

Of course, you'll likely have resolved your own fiction in more detail. ;)

Now, keeping all those bits in mind, think of all the things the player might want to do or enjoy doing at this point:

  • Call in an orbital strike from a friendly capital ship?
  • Set up a defensive perimeter of turrets and trip mines?
  • Fall back into a ruined building for shelter as it's shelled by the invaders?

Try to come up with 15-20 such experiences. Don't think about what you can or can't do, or what you as a game designer think is cool, or anything else. Just focus on what players might expect to do given the fiction you're dropping them into. In short, think of all the ways you can deliver on their fantasies.

Once you have the list, put your game designer hat back on and start to cull the outliers. Outliers are experiences which, among other things:

  • Are technically infeasible
  • Run counter to the game's fiction, tone, or style
  • Are totally one-off (runs the risk of scope problems or gameplay inconsistency)

You should still have 10 or so experiences left. Now look for a trend in those experiences. For example, are there three or four items on the list that all, in one way or another, have to do with being pinned down by withering enemy fire? If so, you've identified an anchor experience for this mission. Anchor experiences can be used to give the mission a unique feel, making it stand out against other missions in your game.

Now that you have a focused list of experiences that deliver on the player's fantasies for the fiction against which they're set, as well as an anchor experience for the mission, you're ready to start building the playground. As you build each area, ask yourself if (and how), for each experience, you can enable the player to have that experience in that area. It is perfectly acceptable -- desirable, in fact -- to enable multiple experiences in a single area. This is the essence of reactive design: building a playground that reacts in an engaging way to as many player choices as possible.

Our example mission tasks the player with defending a target against an alien attack. Looking at our list of experiences, we might decide that the target is a VIP who's hiding in a ruined building. The player might choose to hole up inside the building as well to stay close to the VIP, in which case we could script the attacking force to begin shelling the building, thus fulfilling one of the experiences on our list.

In addition, we might set up the plaza in front of the building with a wide semi-circle of cover with a few distinct entry points, and place a cache of deployable turrets and trip-mines in that plaza. This arrangement provides the player the alternative strategy of setting up a defensive perimeter around the plaza, thus avoiding the shelling and delivering another of the experiences on our list.

Finally, the player might have been equipped with a targeting beacon which can be used to call in an orbital strike at the location where the beacon is placed, to be used in case of emergency. He has just one beacon, and there are several engagements in this mission where he might get into trouble, so it's up to him whether or not to use the precious orbital strike on the aliens in the plaza, or save it for later. In either case, we've made possible the third experience from our list.

In this example, it's entirely possible the player will use all three strategies together; this is perfectly acceptable, and is in fact more engaging because the player has the chance to identify and employ the combined strategy himself -- thus taking ownership of the solution -- rather than having it foisted upon him by the designer. Playground, not roller-coaster. ;)

Shedding Our God-Complex

For some of us, putting so much trust in the player's ability to create a fun experience in our playground is a difficult approach to get used to. We worry that players will expose our dirty laundry, make poor decisions that lead to awkward gameplay, or simply pass right on by our expertly-crafted content without even noticing or appreciating it. But we can take solace in the fact that when players identify and employ their own solutions, when they take *ownership *of those solutions, they feel much more connected to the game than they ever did under our over-protective wing.

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