After eight years as a games journalist and two as a part time developer, I have decided what I think of games: I like them. I’ve also figured out some of the reasons I like them, some of the reasons I sometimes don’t, and which of these things I really care about.
I’m far enough through making my own game, Gunpoint, to get a feel for which of these things I can actually do. But I’m still new at this. A lot of them are things I figured out during development, and Gunpoint itself doesn’t reflect them all. So this is a mission statement: a way for me to be specific and public about what I’d like to do in games, and how I plan to do it.
A lot of mainstream games describe themselves as a ‘directed, cinematic experience’. So many that I sometimes wish there was some other medium where people could direct things cinematically.
You can make a movie where people have to press the right buttons to see the next scene, but it’s hard, expensive, and spectacularly missing the point. These things count as ‘games’ in the same way that a wheel on a stick once counted as a ‘toy’, and we’ll look back on them with same tragicomic pity.
Games have the power to be driven by player interaction, and they can be complex and smart enough to generate fresh and amazing experiences in response to it. If you hamstring that to ensure the player gets a pre-packaged experience, you’re crippling this medium to make it resemble a less interesting one.
Games that generate interesting and fun experiences generate them forever. That’s not a great business strategy if you’re planning to sell basically the same thing next year, but I think it’s cool and I intend to do it.
Games should be interactive, but for me that’s not quite enough. I want games to be so interactive that what I do in them can be genuinely my own idea. It’s nice if I can try something the developer never thought of – it’s something else if it works.
A game that lets you be creative shifts the balance of power from the designer to you, and that’s when games explode into something more complex and fascinating than any other medium.
When you run down a street and a building collapses in front of you, it might be surprising. But it doesn’t help you understand the game world, not in a way that you can use to come up with cool solutions to future situations. In fact, the developer usually wants to hide the real rule: the building collapsed because you ran down the street.
If you fire your gun in Deus Ex, the locked door you’ve been trying to get through might suddenly swing open. That’s surprising, but it’s the result of rules you probably already knew: guards can hear gunshots, there’s a guard in that restricted area, and guards can open locked doors.
I want to make games where all the rules are clear enough that you can plan your approach, but intricate enough that you don’t always fully predict the result.
I don’t want to spend my time trying to mimic games that already exist. But I’m also not interested in rebelling against everything the games industry currently produces. The games industry produces Skyrim, Human Revolution, Spelunky – a lot of the games industry is unbelievably cool.
My job is to understand the games I love, and learn enough from them to be able to produce something that’s good in a different way. I love Deus Ex, and I think I understand why. Gunpoint is me trying to turn that understanding into something new: a game entirely about subverting systems in creative ways. It’s nothing like as good as Deus Ex, but I’m hoping it’s different enough that it doesn’t have to be.
If not, I’m sort of boned.
If I’m playing a game and you interrupt it with a text-box tutorial, you have completely lost sight of what’s interesting, powerful and cool about this medium. Playing is the perfect way to learn. The mindset that interactivity has to be stopped in order to teach something is fucking insane.
Games should teach by giving you a safe space to experiment, showing any necessary guidance nonintrusively, and providing a challenge that tests your understanding. Tutorials should be part of the joy of a game, not an awkward, anachronistic lecture.
It’s weird how often games divide into “dumb but fun” or “interesting idea, awkward to play”. You’d think there was some kind of inherent conflict between making interactions feel good and giving the player something to think about.
There isn’t, you just have to consciously focus on both. Good games need both an immediate pleasure to playing them, and something for the player’s brain to chew on while he does it.
Forcing the player to repeat a chunk of progress is wrong. Loss of progress is loss of time, and that means reaching into the player’s real life and stealing something from them. If I can’t make a game exciting without that threat, I won’t make a game.
I’ll never intentionally restrict when you can save your progress, I’ll never require you to do something repetitive to earn a reward, and I’ll never make a task take longer for the sake of bolstering play time. All those are crutches to hold up bad design, and bad design should be left to collapse.
Difficulty is a massive problem in games, and games are being incredibly dumb about it. Half of them are chasing some mythical balancing sweet spot that will somehow suit radically different people, and the other half ask you to commit to an ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ mode before you’ve had any experience of what that means.
I’m not interested in denying people what I’ve made if their reactions and spatial awareness don’t pass some standard I’ve just made up. I want to make games that anyone can progress through, but which always give you something tougher to aim for. That could be optional objectives, perfecting performance metrics, taking on a late-game challenge early, or adhering to a personal play style.
People are different. Games are interactive. Seems like we have something to work with there.
I’d like to keep doing this, which in the long run means that it’ll eventually have to pay for itself. And the ideas that excite me are the ones I think other people will get a kick out of too. If I end up with something people are happy to pay for, that’ll be the best possible sign that I’m on the right track.
So if I make something that turns out well enough, I’ll sell it. If you buy it, I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’re glad you did. If you support me beyond that, I’ll do everything I can to thank and reward you.
And I won’t, you know, randomly fuck you over as part of a futile attempt to fight piracy. That seems sort of obvious, but I guess it needs saying now. Even if I had a non-futile way of doing it, anything that inconveniences actual customers is self-destructive and insane.
I understand why piracy is scary to game publishers, but DRM is a bizarre response to it. Pirates don’t run the world. People who buy things do. You want to find out what happens when those people hate you? I’m kind of curious myself, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.
I don’t think fun is enough. Most of us have access to more fun games than we have time to play. I’ll be happy if I make something fun, but it’s not the ultimate goal. I want to make something that’s actually exciting – maybe not to everyone, but to someone.
That feeling, the buzz of a new world of possibilities, is why I’m a gamer. I think everyone who fully experiences it becomes one. It’s like love, travel, or magic, and it’s why games feel more important to me than other types of art and entertainment. There’s a parallel universe here, and what I can do in it sets my brain on fire.
All I’ve got to do is figure out how to make that.
My theory is that an exciting game is a generative game, a slick, smart and satisfying one, something surprising, challenging and creative. In other words, all of the above.