As a kid, my school had lots of ways for kids to keep themselves entertained when they weren’t in class. We had play equipment with bridges, rope ladders, slides and climbing walls, as well as fields for playing baseball, basketball, hockey and tennis. Everything a kid could want was waiting for us in the schoolyard… and yet the most memorable experience I have of playing during my childhood involves a simple hunk of wood.
Nestled in the corner of my schoolyard was an old tree stump. An artifact of what had once stood there, the stump would root a love of gaming in anyone with a few small circles of glass, a decent imagination and some time to kill.
Every day before the first bell rang, we’d gather ‘round the stump, crocks, catseyes, kongs and steelies in hand, anxiously awaiting our turn to hurl our precious glass balls at a hole dug into the wood with the quiet, patient hands that only children and passionate fans possess.
The only rule that we played by was that the game had to be fun. The things that were the most fun immediately became standards in how we played our games, and boring variations were quickly tossed aside. Without even knowing it, we were discovering the power of emergent gameplay!
Through experimentation, willingness to try new things and allowing ourselves to explore and redefine the constraints of our environment, we created a game that was entirely ours.
As developers, our greatest challenge is to grab the imaginations of our players. How do we create a game that speaks to our player’s sensibilities, without telling them what and how they should play? In what way can we give our players control over their environments to create that same sense of investment and care that marbles sparked in me as a kid?
In the new world of data synthesis and analytics, it can be unfortunately easy for developers to rely on numbers to “tweak” their game into working… and while we may be able to craft a game that is capable of monetizing effectively by way of having enough DAU, ARPDAU and retention, we can’t forget that we’re ultimately in the business of delivering fun.
As developers, we want to deliver games that make money, allowing us to create more games. We need to avoid getting caught in a constant loop of simply delivering, and remember to craft meaningful experiences that stay with our players and create passionate fans of gaming for years to come. Much like those kids inventing the rules as they went along, we too can make things up as we go, as long as we have a core understanding of what our games are and have a willingness to allow things to fail.
A few weeks ago, I played marbles with my daughter in our backyard. An old stump had been calling me for a while, demanding that I dig a pit, explore its ramps, and pass on to my child that which had meant so much to me when I was young. Only 3 years old, she immediately understood the simplicity of the game, the joys of winning marbles away from her old man, and the capacity to create new rules on the fly and play a game that was entirely hers.
While I was playing with her, I was reminded of what makes games truly amazing. Great games transport us somewhere else. We become part of the game, and the game part of us, and for a brief but shining moment, we escape everything and become those kids at that stump, lost in the joy and wonder that is play.
As developers, our ultimate goal should be to capture that same feeling for our players, and deliver it in a way that is meaningful, impactful, and memorable, and give players the same gift we received as children: a passion for games.
Jacob V is an agile project manager and producer at Big Viking Games. When he isn't making games or drinking coffee, he's hanging out with his kids and being totally awesome. You can follow his regular ramblings on twitter. He's @thejacobvshow and he likes when people pay attention to him.