That's right breaking out the Go stock art. The dual nature of games.

Recently I read a tweet that made me think about how games have a kind of dual nature. On one side games are a personal expression by the creators and on the other, they're an experience consumed and co-created by the player.

Developers give a lot thought about what they're trying to express but relatively little thought to the player. This is understandable, it's hard enough to hold on to the vision of a game, harder still to consider the hazy future when strangers are playing it. But if developers don't consider the audience everyone loses. A game is an experience we want to share, it's important to consider how to share it effectively!

Anyway here's the tweet that sparked this thought:

What is Threes and 2048

You might not be familiar with these games but they're both a type of block sliding game about matching numbers. Threes came first and had a lot of attention paid to the game design. 2048 came later, was very similar to Threes and paid little attention to game design but a lot attention to the player experience. 2048 became so popular that most players aren't even aware a game called Threes ever existed.

The original Threes creator shares his thoughts on the two games here. The response of feeling cheated is natural but the fact is more people wanted to play 2048 than Threes and you can't blame players for that.

Here's Threes.

The tile matching game Threes.

The Tweet and Dual Nature

The tweet shows Threes failing to fill a need that 2048 satisfied. The author, @Athanateus, likes feeling smart but Threes wants him to fail, and fail and struggle and then finally succeed. Apart from maybe the messaging and framing there's nothing wrong with Threes presenting this experience but most players don't want it!

There's a mismatch in expectations; a mismatch in the creator's desired expression and the player's desired experience.

Here's 2048.

The tile matching game 2048.

Player's don't owe you anything

A player is 100% entitled to do as they they want with their time! Don't make the mistake of allowing ego to mislead you and assume you can dictate what your player should enjoy! That's not how it works.

It's the player's precious free time, consider their needs. Imagine a player coming home after a hard day of frustrating work in the service sector, they want the simple pleasures of a virtual farming sim, there's nothing wrong with that!

Help fulfill a players needs and you make moment in their life more fun. Isn't that better than forcing something on them they don't want? You want your game to make people think, or change the world, that's great but you it's still has to be approachable. If your game doesn't appeal and appeal quickly players are 100% justified in putting it down and walking away or getting a refund. They're paying to have a specific need fulfilled and it's you the developer who isn't coming through on their side of the deal.

Consider a brand new player with no knowledge of your game - what is their experience going to be like?

Lessons to Take Away

To create commercially successful games, nothing is more important than the player experience. The more you consider it, the more players are able to appreciate your work.

Valve gets this. Read any of their postmortems or listen to their talks and you'll notice how often they speak about the player and the game experience. For instance here's a quote about the design of Half-Life.

Our goal was that, once active, the player never had to wait too long before the next stimulus, be it monster, special effect, plot point, action sequence, and so on.

This shows a total focus on the player experience.

Jeff Vogel (creator of many role-playing games including Avernum and Geneforge) gets it as well.

I try to write my games bearing in mind that a lot of people will just click through the dialogue quickly and get to the stabbing. [...] if a player just wants to trash bozos and gather loot, I want to get out of that player’s way as much as possible.

Realize and respect what the player wants to do and you'll be a happier, more successful developer.

Applying this to our own projects

To take correct action on our project we need to be clear about three things:

  1. What are we making?
  2. Why are we making it?
  3. Who are we making it for?

Correct answers to these questions mean our projects cannot help but be successful. Often you'll subconsciously know the answers but it's best to consciously examine them to ensure they're not wishful thinking.

If I'm creating a game about Prussian diplomacy and I honestly answer that I'm making it basically to satisfy my own interests and making it for myself then it's easy to complete this project and be happy. If I answer I'm making it because I'm pretty sure it's going to be the next Minecraft and I'm making it for all demographics 8 years and up, then it might be time to do a reality check.

Want players to enjoy your game? Consider their wants and needs!

The more you consider the player, the more well received your game will be. Threes is a mobile game, a game people play to fill in tiny gaps of dead time. Do the players want something mindless or do they want something that could take them months to struggle to solve? Most players chose the simpler more fun, more mindless 2048. They're on the commute, the toilet, or in a waiting room; they just want a few minutes of distraction. I know I see a lot more people playing Candy Crush than solving cross-word puzzles or sudoku. That's ok. There's room for both.

By all means reward cleverness in a game, reward hard work but don't lock away all the fun in a dungeon of drudgery.