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25 Oct 2010

Margaret Robertson's Gamasutra feature about her experience with Minecraft is basically amazing. It's not just her excellent prose, which took me back so vividly to my own first experience with the game. It's her deconstruction of the design principles that make Minecraft work, presented with such clarity as to make me feel like a bit of an idiot for spending as much cognitive energy as I did trying to tease out why the game is so damn compelling, and not arriving at much of a satisfactory answer of my own at all.

Forgive me for cribbing so liberally, but here is the crux of it:

It could be overwhelming, but the dependency structure within the game assures that it's not. I need wood to make a crafting table, I need a table to make a pick, I need a pick to get stone, I need stone to get coal. The tech tree becomes the mission structure, as I seek out each thing to get the next, each a manageable, discrete task.

And each task I complete levels me up, not by adding a number to my profile, but by changing what I have in my pockets. You are what you carry. Your tools, armor, and supplies are what let you accomplish more and die less. When death does come, you lose everything you carry -- often permanently -- and revert to the helpless state in which you arrived in the game.

Chests -- which store the resources you've amassed -- therefore become save points. How many you make and where you put them starts to become a natural, player-controlled difficulty modifier. It's a system which allows Minecraft to avoid the monotony which many RPGs fall prey to, where your progress in the world is cancelled out by the world leveling up to match your increased power.

In Minecraft, the threat the world poses stays largely static, but your own level fluctuates up and down as you gain and lose possessions. It means I'm as likely to encounter that desperate frisson of my first frightening night ten hours in as ten minutes in.

All these design decisions enforce play imperatives which take you through the first few hours of play. It means that when the sandbox possibilities do start to open up -- of building and exploring (I'm told it would take six years of real time to walk around a full Minecraft world) you are deeply embedded into the world. You have a skill-set, a sense of ownership and belonging, which fuel you through the challenge of free, creative play. And that's crucial, because free, creative play is actually quite a grueling prospect, full of the pain and effort of making and losing.

It's the compulsion of exploration and acquisition, of problem-solving and pattern optimization. It's the strategy of survival, tapped into our ancient hunter-gatherer instincts. It's a self-sustained ecosystem and you're not in control of it, you're part of it.

But while Margaret did an excellent job describing what Minecraft is, I think what resonated most with me was her explanation of what Minecraft is not. And this, in my view, is even more important:

I hunker back in the dark, trying to get away from the noise but afraid of losing my bearings in the blackness. It's a long time since I've met this in a game: the unknown. No tutorial has told me how to handle this threat. No preview has shown me concept art of it. No genre convention can give me my bearings. It could be anything out there. It could do anything. All I can do is cower in my ramshackle mausoleum and wait for light.

For years, the trend in commercial game design has been toward ever more-directed play. We've added more tutorials, more informative cutscenes, more NPCs to give orders and point the way. We've developed an entire out-of-world symbology to highlight and explain quest-givers, scripted triggers, collectibles, and QTEs. We've developed systems to let you skip the hard parts or let the game play them for you. We've refined the first 15 minutes of gameplay into a science so universal that it's become comically predictable.

We've done all of this in the name of making games more accessible to a wider audience. And that's fine, but in so doing we've increasingly neglected a very useful game design tool: the threat -- and the promise -- of the unknown.

Of course, we didn't pursue accessibility without reason. There's a lot of games I'm awfully nostalgic about, and I want to point to them and say, "Look! Undirected play! And it was so amazing!" But the truth is, in most cases my first experience with the game sucked. I didn't know what to do or where to go, and I only figured it out through the sheer perseverance of a young kid who was an entire afternoon to burn and only one game to burn it on. Case in point: a while back, the original Final Fantasy was released for the iPhone. That's a game I'm crazy nostalgic about, and haven't played since I was maybe ten years old. Playing it now, with the perspective of a) an adult, and b) a professional game designer, I'm shocked to discover how little it really tells you, and how bad that is. There are things I remember from playing it before, and I find myself realizing that if I didn't have those memories, I would be completely lost in this game today. And as a) an adult, and b) a professional game designer, I no longer have entire afternoons to burn on sheer perseverance.

So that's an anecdote, but it's part of the reason why the accessibility of today's games was, seemingly, a valid thing to pursue. But Margaret's observation still resonates:

It's a long time since I've met this in a game: the unknown.

And that begs the question: how do we recapture the appeal of the unknown without stepping back into a past where most games frankly didn't make any goddamn sense? To put a finer point on it: how do we entice an adult, with adult responsibilities and an adult's harried schedule, to *explore *the unknown and gradually unearth its secrets, instead of rejecting it as something they just don't have time for?

Margaret touched on this:

But you've arrived [in Minecraft] because you've seen screenshots and heard stories. You know extraordinary buildings and contraptions are possible, and closing the gap between those fantasies, and the reality of your powerless arrival in the game is what guides your progress through those first hours. It's fear, uncertainty and doubt elevated to design principles.

In the case of Minecraft, the unknown isn't simply some all-encompassing reality: instead, it lies precisely between your first steps into the world and the realization of those extraordinary things that enticed you to pick up the game in the first place. It's the promise of the unknown that makes the threat of the unknown both exciting and bearable.

What would that look like for contemporary triple-A games, then? We've cribbed a lot of techniques from film in the last several years, and most games seem to have brought along film's methods for telling stories and building worlds as well. However, I would submit that films exist to tell stories, while games exist so you can explore them. Sure, you're thinking of BioShock right now, but exploring stories goes beyond just embedding passive narrative in the world. You start by exploring yourself: who am I, what can I do, and how can I do it? Then you explore your surroundings: where am I, and who and what else is here? And finally, you explore what is in my estimation the most important tool in the game design toolchest, consequence: what will I do, and what will happen as a result of me doing it?

Many modern games have a bad habit of telling you the solution before you've had a chance to tackle the problem. Need to traverse a room filled with booby traps? The scripted camera that just told you that also showed you the correct path to take, the locations of all the switches, and the exit that serves as your final objective. Need to take down a boss by attacking a specific weak point? Your ever-present NPC guide probably told you what weapon to use and where to shoot it as soon as you walked in the door. In the name of accessibility we have robbed players of exploration and consequence.

Minecraft doesn't tell you what to do, it just puts you in a world and starts threatening you and lets you figure out how you're going to deal with that. And the fact that it does that, instead of telling you up front everything that's going to happen and all the right ways to respond, makes it infinitely more compelling because now you're having your experience, not somebody else's (read: the game designer's) that you're just tagging along for.

To be fair, Minecraft does all but require a thorough reading of the wiki before you start playing. But on the flip-side, the game is still very much in-development. It is my fervent hope that when Minecraft is "done" it will open with only the barest of necessities of information: how to move around, how to harvest your first bunch of wood (resource acquisition being a core interaction), and some tooltips to identify (but not necessarily explain) all the icons in your inventory. Leave the discovery of the world's wonders and secrets, resources and dangers to the player. Don't tell: explore.

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analysis game-design video-games