What is the most important thing to know about designing videogames? This is kind of an unreasonable question to ask; and yet I wanted an answer for my first post. Luckily, I found it in a quote from Blendo Games, in their informative and delightful devblog on their upcoming title Quadrilateral Cowboy.
The specific post is mildly technical, but the quote in question is quite an artistic statement:
Players have a finite amount of time and energy for you. Everything that goes into the project has to answer one question: is it respecting the player’s goodwill or squandering it?
This is, I think, a phenomenal point-of-view to have — not just as a game designer, but as an artist in general. There is a viewpoint among both game designers and many fine artists (and auteurs, &c) that they will make the product they want and they care nothing for their dirty public. This is laudable; but it is possible to make something accessible without compromising your artistic integrity. An artist is nothing without their audience; one can still challenge one’s audience in many ways without squandering their goodwill.
First, I encourage you to take up this optional sidequest about pacing and goodwill in cinema:
Optional sidequest unlocked! Read about how goodwill affects pacing in cinema for more XP!
Now, let us focus on two genres of video games, and how their very form generated trends in goodwill.
First I will discuss a genre that tends to fail to respect its audience’s goodwill; and it pains me to say it, for it was in this genre that I first truly fell in love with playing (and later, making) videogames. I speak of PC gaming’s first great school: the adventure game. (Although I will speak of graphical adventure games, many of these blanket statements also often apply to the genre’s forebears in interactive fiction, a genre which I love even more dearly). Games like The Secret of Monkey Island, King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and their ilk will warm the cockles of a veteran gamer’s heart. The richness of the point-and-click interface and the increased storage capacity made the PC an ideal platform for these graphically rich, story-based games, and served as an early contrast to the console-based platformers that were their most prolific contemporaries (with certain major exceptions in the forms of JRPGs). The demand for immersive storyworlds and rich interaction kept the adventure industry alive. But let’s face facts: these games hated us.
Adventure games were a combination of two appeals: imaginative stories and logical puzzles. People liked to use their brains to advance the game, and they liked to hear interesting stories. As conflict drives narrative, and puzzles were a form of conflict, the marriage seemed perfect and symbiotic. To an extent, it was. But adventure games had (and those that are still made, still have) a major flaw, almost inherent to the genre. Inevitably, more or fewer puzzles would be opaque to a player. In the days before widespread internet use (and limited discretionary income for alternative games), this often meant spending entire play sessions of many hours walking back and forth through the available rooms, talking to every NPC, and combining every inventory item in frustration. As soon as the internet became popular, an entire cottage industry was born in providing the solutions to nasty puzzles. When a player is enjoying their story and a puzzle comes along they can’t figure out, this squanders their goodwill.
Some have argued that this is a feature, not a bug, of the genre; adventure game veteran and DoubleFine founder Tim Schafer said that he missed spending weeks on a specific puzzle, only to have it come to him in a moment of euphoric epiphany. This speaks, I think, more for Mr. Schafer’s tenacity than the power of the adventure game. Many people do truly enjoy the challenge of an intellectual puzzle, and that is not in question. The great failing of the graphical adventures was that their puzzles were frequently arbitrary. Instead of training the player towards increasingly difficult but similar challenges, the “logical” puzzles of adventures would, in many-to-most cases, attempt to emulate reality. The thinking is that since the puzzle might present itself in the real world, the solution from the real world could be applied. But of course every real-world problem was multiple solutions, and multiple solutions is so rare a feature in video games it’s often featured on the box! Without a structure to their puzzles, the learning curve of any arbitrary adventure game was thrown out of whack. This squandered the player’s good will.
Meanwhile, as LucasArts was confidently twiddling their thumbs, packing all the bits into their color palette and getting Steven Spielberg involved in projects, id Studios programmer John Carmack was set to revolutionize gaming and set its tone to this very day. Carmack, in developing the famous Wolfenstein 3D engine, practically invented first-person real-time gaming. The importance of this for gaming at large and this discussion in particular cannot be understated. First-person shooters, as they came to be known when they became too prolific for “Doom Clone” to be clever or accurate, presented an entirely new challenge and, as rudimentary as it may have seemed at the time, an entirely new way to tell a story in a video game. Games as early as Duke Nukem 3D were experimenting with in-depth (ha!) character development, and games like Blood were taking mise-en-scene in gaming to a whole new level. There was a new to tell a story, and though its provisions for interacting with characters were weak, it was far stronger at making the character feel a part of the story. But that alone was not enough to unseat the throne of adventure gaming. The new challenge brought about by id’s revolution, curiously believed to be inherently violent, is the reflex-test embodied in emulated shooting. This challenge could be made to have a learning curve, just like the console’s JRPGs and platformers. Almost any gamer could start playing a first-person-shooter and feel like they were making progress, like they were succeeding. Players did not have to invest hours in single puzzles; players did not have to consult online guides to complete the game; this was now rare. Widespread success was the norm. You might call it instant gratification, with the sting of bitterness in your tongue, but the truth is that gamers were having their goodwill respected.
That, I think, is the real reason FPSes overtook adventures as the primary export of video-game-land to PCdonia. Gamers no longer had to feel like they were fighting the games they were playing. Now the games were playing along. Even non-violent, story-focused, puzzle-based games like the Portal franchise have enjoyed critical acclaim and mainstream success because their challenges are sufficiently structured to be fit onto a learning curve. The marriage of immersion and goodwill was the secret to the FPS’s success, not violence.
So when you’re working on your game project, or indeed your film or your novel or your avant-garde song, if you seek popularity as well as acclaim (and who among does not wish for it at some level?), then ask yourself this question: Am I respecting my audience’s goodwill, or squandering it?