Design Essentials: Player Considerations
Player Considerations is part-2 of the Design Essentials discussion series. The topic opens with the question of player analysis as an element for game design and works out toward identifying specific player interests and desires.
The Question of "If"
One fundamental element in game design is player interest. It may seem an overly simple point at first blush however many games are made based primarily on other considerations. Commercial games are sometimes just clones of previous top-sellers with assumptions about player interests taken from the imitated game. A GM may create an adventure based on other ideas. The team of an indy game studio may be specifically prohibited from risking outside influences to maintain focus on an original design document.
Please note, these examples are intended to represent entirely pragmatic instances of game makers not directly weighing player wants. Marketing ploys to sell more game boxes or other schemes to dupe people are not meant to be referenced (but rants are also welcome feedback).
Player analysis for mass-distribution games is very general in comparison to face-to-face role-playing or board games which delve into personal interaction and preferences. The basic concepts are very similar; examining why a person will want to choose to spend time playing the game being designed to help make said game better.
My Own Inconsiderate Example
For one large adventure campaign I created, I couldn't take players into consideration for the first composition. Circumstances left me little choice. I was unfamiliar with the group's dynamics, accepted house rules and preferred play styles and didn't know what they would want or expect. So I set all such thought aside. Instead I based the adventure on my own interest in storytelling. Unfortunately for this instance I did not bother with any general considerations either.
As I learned from reactions to the adventure I made adjustments specific to their preferences. Still, I maintained a primary goal of improving the campaign as I envisioned the design ahead of turning it into a more typical hack-n-zap-fest. For example while I did add some action to the content I put much more effort into making an Adventure Journal to help the players track the expansive story. These things helped but didn't give the adventure the appeal I hoped to achieve. It could have been just too little too late.
Ideals from the Guide
In chapter one of Game Design: Theory & Practice (Amazon), two major questions are posed: "Why Do Players Play?" and "What Do Players Expect?". The questions are posed to give insight into how to make a game better by considering player motivations and anticipations. It is a given that good designers spend a lot of time thinking about how to make improvements and is offered as a tool to enhance the quality of that time spent.
A small aside to this discussion, Rouse (link) also uses the questions in an effort to distinguish the work of making computer games as an art. It comes across almost as an obligation to justify the classification of an art. The topic is a little out of the scope for this discussion focus and could stand its own article should a champion come forward.
It is by understanding what is attractive about games that other media do not offer that we can try to emphasize the differences, to differentiate our art form from others. To be successful, our games need to take these differences and play them up, exploit them to make the best gameplay experience possible.
Some examples offered from the text:
- Players Want ...
- a Challenge
- to Socialize
- Bragging Rights
- to Fantasize
Upon reading the material I immediately found myself wanting to rearrange the terms into a hierarchical order. For instance, 'Bragging Rights' might come under both 'Socialize' and 'Challenge' but couldn't be completely independent (in my mind). Who could one brag to without a social structure? What would be worth bragging if there were no difficulty? Questions like these made the rearrangement a bit of a puzzle in itself but was a good exercise.
- Players Wants
- Mental (puzzles, tactics)
- Physical (twitch-reflex)
- Creation (my favorite!)
- Luck (die rolling, gambling)
- Social Desires
- Bragging Rights
- Laughs (my other favorite!)
- Group inclusion
- Emotional Escape
- Entertainment (passive)
- Performance (active, bands, GURPS)
In hindsight I realized that if I had made this list of general wants while making my "inconsiderate" example above I might have spotted some pitfalls in my design earlier. Creative opportunities and puzzles outweighed direct challenges by a large margin in the adventure. I didn't have a spare set of encounters at the ready to pick up the action level when needed (at first) but had story to spare. It lacked simple dungeon-crawl excitement, true lethal challenges and packed a story that was a burden to remember between sessions.
It is likely that I would not have abandoned the attempts at putting the players into my epic story with these considerations but I could have made adjustments before starting the game and alienating or boring the players.
Separating "Wants" and "Expectations" may not be important for this discussion. They are split in the source material to define two instances, one for why playing a game is selected over other entertainment activities and one for after play has started. It is in support of Rouse's basic premise that computer games are an art form and speak in their own medium as mentioned above.
Select examples from the text:
- Players Expect ...
- a Consistent World
- Reasonable Solutions to Work
- to Be Immersed
- to Fail (by their own action/choices)
- a Fair Chance
The list of Expectations also struck me as in need of reordering and even of incorporation into the Wants list. Prior to defining the meaning of each item in detail only a rough list is possible as closer analysis will certainly inspire changes. Identifying how immersion is a shade different from the desire to fantasize but still overlaps as do acceptable failure and fun challenges may be represented in a less linear format.
Consistent World >> Reasonable Solutions + Fair Chance1 + Acceptable Failure1
Direction <-> Freedom of Action
Immersion >> Able to Fantasize >> Able to Escape / Relax
Challenge >> Fair Chance2 + Acceptable Failure2
Awareness of what attracts a person to play and what may satisfy or frustrate a player while playing is a good trait for game design. It can help both the big projects and the guy making a dungeon crawl for his game-night crew. Rouse concludes his chapter on the subject by calling answers to the questions "A Never-Ending List". I hope it leads us to a never-ending discussion.
- Question Suggestions
- What would you add to the reasons players play?
- Why do you yourself or your players play?
- How would your list or lists appear?
- What other ideas or views do you have on player analysis?
old edition info:
Game Design: Theory & Practice
by Richard Rouse III ; illustrations by Steve Ogden
ISBN 1-55622-735-3 (pbk.)
(c) 2001, Wordware Publishing, Inc.