It is often observed that playing games and making games are different activities. This is kind of obvious, but whatever the technical college advertisements might have you believe, there is more involved in developing a game than playing through it whilst wiggling the diganalog funpad gamestick to tighten up the graphics on level three. However, there are numerous points of intersection, ways in which we can learn more about making games by playing them – or the reverse.
Some of these are obvious: For instance, it’s quite evident that Minecraft has a lot to teach about constructing an environment to serve a purpose, concepts which could easily be useful for any aspiring game designer. Additionally, it only makes sense that, in games reliant upon a delicate balance, such as Starcraft, extensive experience playing the game makes one innately more qualified to speak on balance issues that exist within that game – and, quite often, within others as well
There are points of intersection which are less obvious.
When playing a competitive game, the greater part of victory frequently lies in the ability to get inside your opponent’s head, understand what he wants to achieve, anticipate it, and counter it. As one becomes more advanced, this progresses to controlling what your opponent wants to achieve by feinting and presenting false openings, allowing one to predict with a greater degree of certainty how the opponent will respond. And, of course, these predictions stack, in a classic game of “He knows, and I know that he knows, and he knows that I know that he knows – but does he know that I know that?”
All of which is a very similar process to designing a game for an audience. Now, granted, it’s a little bit more immediate and intimate: There is a particular opponent you are facing against and, in an extended match or over repeated matches, you can learn what lies they’re suspicious of, what will tip them off, and what lengths they will foolishly go to in order to call you on your bluff. Most of that is information that is difficult to access as a designer – hypothetically, you could create an algorithm to read your ‘opponent’ audience’s behavior and create a suitable reaction, but in practice this turns out to be unnecessary. It is made redundant because we, as designers, control the horizontal and the vertical: We control, not only how the game reacts to the player, but the scope within which the player is able to act upon the game.
If we want to make the player look at something, all we need to is make there be nothing else to look at, or place an immediate threat there, or even shift where the thing they’re supposed to be looking at to where they are looking. If we want to make them do something, all we need do is constrain the space of possible options down to that one thing – ideally without making it obvious that that’s what we’re doing.
We are so powerful, constructing these narrative dioramas: Why is it that we fall short so often? Why is it that games so frequently force their players to act in ways they don’t want to, rather than constraining the space of what the player might want to do? Why is it that they take away the player’s ability to act, rather than funneling their actions towards a desired result? Is it easier? Is it just more obvious?
The point is, the game itself is irrelevant, what is important is the experience created by the game. You are not designing a game, you are designing that experience. You are communicating with a player. Any time you shut down the player’s means of interaction, you shut down their ability to engage with the experience. It is unnecessary, and it is destructive to what you are trying to achieve.
You have all the power, here. It’s up to you to use it intelligently.
Caffeine might help.