Players don’t always know what they want.

Posted On 2 Oct, 2013

This is one of my favorite rants, and I have ranted it many times before in more private venues.

Playing games for enjoyment is a very strange, complex human behavior because it doesn’t really seem to benefit us in a purely evolutionary-fitness sort of a way. Yet we enjoy it so much. There is plenty of discussion about what makes games enjoyable, and what keeps people coming back and playing a game over and over again. I’ve been refining my theories on the subject for a long time and the strongest conclusion I’ve made is that gamers are bad at guessing what will make them enjoy a game.

Disclaimer: When I refer to “gamers” what I’m really referring to is past observations of myself (I’ve observed friends as well, but I’m my best source). I don’t intend to pose this information as fact so much as a statement of my observations and beliefs. I’ve grown dissatisfied with games, complained about games, tried thousands of games and gotten bored or disenfranchised with many an IP. It is likely that I am a terrible example for gamers in general and I probably represent the worst archetype. Regardless, there are games that have hooked me for years, and I have always wondered why I like some games but not others.

Gamer feedback

Gamers are great at telling you what they don’t like about a game, and they are great at suggesting new tools to help overcome irritations in a game. That’s usually a good sign that they are enjoying your game. If it’s boring people tend to leave silently instead of explaining how in-game travel times have ruined their lives. It’s important to listen to this sort of feedback, and consider the perspective of the gamer carefully. A person who complains about in-game obstacles or penalties is usually someone who has bashed their head against those obstacles or penalties and thinks that changing the game mechanics may be an easy way to overcome them. Very rarely do people consider the greater implications of simply modifying a game to remove the challenge.

You can’t improve a game by simply removing the features that irritate you. Of course the word “feature” is a gray area, and you could easily argue semantics. What I mean is specifically in-game things like the high cost of an item, a penalty for making a decision, or the amount of time it takes to perform a task. Those things are put there for a reason, but that reason isn’t always obvious.

This is a formula I have seen repeated over and over again where someone designs a new game by removing irritations from the old one. The customer sees “instantly travel to any location” and they think “oh sweet, no more time spent pointlessly walking through a virtual world, now I can get down to business faster” and they pick up the game. Then after playing it for a while they quit. They don’t know why they didn’t enjoy it as much, they might point out that the world seemed ugly and disconnected or that they didn’t like the art style. It’s because traveling through the world makes you feel like being in a world, and if it takes a long time the world feels big. Removing that changes everything about how people will perceive your game world.

Another example I love is Diablo 3, simply everything about it. Finding items is hard? lets add an auction house. Choosing decent skills is hard? lets make sure everyone gets every ability. Allocating stats is confusing? lets allocate the stats for you. Every design decision that went into Diablo 3 took things that were irritating about Diablo 2 and removed them. They said those things were “not fun”. The end result was a game with the core mechanics of Diablo 2 minus all irritations, obstacles, and puzzles. I played Diablo 2 for years without feeling I had fully conquered it, for Diablo 3 the feeling set in at around level 15. I still hold a theory that pvp was never enabled for Diablo 3 because it wasn’t any fun. Pvp in Diablo 2 was rampant, full of people showing off the awesome characters they had built by overcoming all those irritating un-fun obstacles. That couldn’t exist in Diablo 3.

People want to overcome the obstacles presented by games the same way they want to overcome the ones presented by real life. That seems to be built into the human condition. However, as far as I can tell there isn’t any part of the human condition that prepares us for creating fake problems for ourselves that will be fun to solve. As a result, it’s hard to imagine exactly what will make for the most enjoyment out of a new game, and people tend to have very misguided suggestions.

Designing sandboxes

Imagine a game as if it were a sandbox, and I mean an actual sandbox full of sand where you can make sandcastles. Players will build sandcastles, they will show off their sandcastles to their friends, and then they will go around kicking over sandcastles.

Now ask them how they would improve the game and you will get lots of answers. Some people will be angry over having their sandcastle kicked over and they will suggest rules, regulations and punishments for sandcastle kickers(how does your minecraft server handle griefers?). Others got rich by managing sandcastle hedge funds while overtly kicking sandcastles and they will suggest further sandcastle deregulation. Then you have Bill whose sandcastle was ugly, he will ask for an automated sandcastle building device. Likewise Jeb (whose sandcastles were amazing) has enjoyed the attention from his peers. He obviously demands that sandcastle building tools be nerfed, so that his achievements can remain more meaningful in light of Bill’s failure.

Are any of these players correct? Who should you listen to? I believe a game can be built which satisfies everyone listed above, but it will not arise out of taking an existing design and removing all of the things the players have complained about. It will need some new ideas instead.