Not long ago, I got involved in a big debate with a number of other game developers about the religious question of saving games. As a former software engineer, I feel that the ability to save is a fundamental software usability requirement that trumps mere game design considerations. If the player can't save his current state in a piece of computer software, it is a badly-written program, whatever else it may be as a game. If saving the game harms the gameplay, then you had better redesign the game.
However, I know there are other schools of thought on this issue. In the course of discussing it and listening to other people's opinions, I realized that our differences extended beyond the issue of saving games to the actual role of the game designer in the first place. Not the role of the designer within the development team, but rather the designer's role with respect to the player, particularly in single-player games. It seemed to me as if one of the designers I was talking to had an adversarial, even slightly hostile attitude towards his players; that he enjoyed frustrating them and making them do the same thing over and over. To me this sounds like arcade-machine game design circa 1975, whose function is to force players to put in more money at frequent intervals. But in further discussion it transpired that this was the kind of game he liked to play, too. He bemoaned the fact that publishers are now are now designing games in such a way that players can win them even if all they do is bang the controller with their foreheads. He spoke of the pleasure of spending hours trying to get a precise sequence of button presses correct in order to go somewhere.
(If you want to know why more women don't play video games, there you have it in a nutshell. But that's a different column.)
It seemed to me that my interpretation of that role was rather different from that of my colleagues, and I formed the hypothesis that perhaps there were two kinds of designers: those who treated the player as an adversary, and those who didn't. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was too simplistic a model. Game designers fall into a quite a number of categories, and you can identify them by the kinds of games they create and the attitude they take towards the player.
What Kind Of Designer Are You?
The Drill Sergeant. Listen up, you maggots! Forget whatever you already think that you know about videogames. There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way, and you're in the Army now. I'm going to train you, through suffering, to survive in this world my way. My methods will work with the least common denominator; the dumbest, most ignorant grunt on the planet. Brains are of little use here. Follow orders and do what I tell you when I want and where I want, or else.
The Zen Master. The inner nature of the game is inscrutable. Those who strive to beat the game shall not succeed. Only by surrendering to it do we gain mastery. Understanding is not achieved by logic but by sensation. The game contains mysteries within mysteries. Those who would seek to complete it shall never do so, for in concentrating on achievement, they lose sight of the Buddha nature. Empty your mind.
The Competitor. You are my opponent and I intend to beat you. I am the game designer, so I hold all the cards. I shall challenge you. I shall humiliate you. I shall frustrate you. I shall play tricks on you and even cheat you if I feel like it. For every obstacle you overcome I will put up a harder one. When you fail I will display text that mocks you. The only way to win my game is to explore it exhaustively by brute force and memorize everything in it. If you are incredibly, incredibly good I will condescend to allow you to enter your initials into a data file and admire them from time to time.
The God. This is my world. I created it. I am its lord and master. It is beautiful and perfect, because it is mine, mine I tell you! You are a mere puny mortal, and I care nothing for you. You are an interloper in my world, grudgingly tolerated at best. Beware my wrath. I can kill you on a whim.
The Used Car Salesman. Hey, Ernie - I can call you Ernie, right? - let me tell you about this game. This game is great. It rocks. I'm telling you, nobody has ever seen anything like it. It'll blow you away. The graphics, the music - all totally the best! Everybody who has been to our offices for a preview says so. It's going to make a fortune. The kids'll love it. Check out this pre-rendered video. Isn't that cool? What's that? Oh, you want to play it? Well, tell you the truth, Ernie, we decided not to go with a demo on this thing. It's so totally revolutionary, we don't want to show our hand too early - you understand. No profit in giving away slices. Did you see those awesome loading screens? Our development team is brilliant, I'm tellin' ya.
The Evangelist. This is a game for members of my religious faith, and it embodies its principles. It is about the ordeals we, God's chosen few, face in the temptations of sin and the opposition of the unenlightened. There are no moral ambiguities here; all decisions are obvious to any but a damned heretic. You have but to follow the tenets of our faith and you shall win the game and enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Lazy Plagiarist. Well, let's see. We'll do some jumping, I guess. People like jumping. And shooting. And driving. I played a game last week with a sort of blue glowing shield thing that turned red when it got weak. It looked cool, so let's do that. This level doesn't take long enough to solve. Just put in a maze. How do we justify it? Who cares, it's only a game.
The Artiste. This game is an expression of my creative impulse, my magnum opus. You must stand in awe and admire my handiwork, and of course me as well. Be quiet! I did not make it in order to listen to your opinions. You are my audience; it is for you to look and learn. When I play, I have no need of "instructions" or "tutorials" and I see no reason why you should either. Why must you be so petty-minded, thinking only of yourself? Can you not see my genius?
The Gamer. I am a gamer and the only people I respect are other gamers. If you're going to win this game, you had better understand gaming conventions. Shoot at everything that moves. Blow up everything that you possibly can blow up. Pick up everything portable. There is spare armor that fits you, and ammunition that fits your weapons, all over the place. You can't be hit by your own ricochets. No matter how much noise you make, no more than four or five guys will ever come to investigate at any one time. It is normal to store explosives inside air conditioning ducts. Injuries don't slow you down and can be healed instantly. It is morally acceptable and in fact imperative to loot the bleeding bodies of the dead. You may be required to jump off cliffs to win this game, but you can do so without any harm. Do not under any circumstances stop to admire the scenery. If you don't already know all this, you cannot possibly win.
The Engineer. This game is a precisely-crafted, well-tuned machine. Every part has a function. There are no extraneous features here. Story, character, and emotion are nothing but window-dressing. The weenies in the art department may create the images on the screen, but I design the engine and that is all that matters. As the player, it is your job to understand the game's functional elements and learn to master its controls. You will do just fine as long as you comprehend the essential mechanics and don't allow yourself to be distracted by mere surface details.
The Adolescent. Hey, dude, check out the tits on this babe! Do you notice how they bounce when she runs? There's a cheat code where you can get her to take her bra off, too! You know when you've got the Plasma Destructor in the ballroom on level 6, if you fire at the third guy just as he comes in the doorway, you can get his intestines to hang off the chandeliers. Ha, ha! Was that awesome, or what? I put a lot of stuff like that in there. This game has got music in it from the coolest bands in the Universe, uh, at least they will be for the next three weeks. Wow, that move sucked. Don't you know you have to hit AABACCBCABB before you arm the Nuclear Cheese Grater? You are so lame.
The Dungeon Master. I created this world as a place for you to play in. I designed its wonders and its terrors, and I am proud of the place I have built. Yet my world is meaningless without your presence. Like the gods of old, I built the world specifically as a place for you to dwell. My interest is not an impersonal one; I am directly concerned with your welfare. I challenge you to achieve, I encourage you when you fail. I lay the traps… but I also provide the clues that the traps are there. As my customer, your entertainment is my responsibility. Sometimes I am your guide, sometimes your opponent, sometimes your mentor. Above all else, it is my role to see to it that you enjoy yourself. If my game does not give you pleasure, then I have failed.
You can probably tell which kind I consider myself to be! I'm all for skill, craftsmanship, even artistry; but my approach to game design is thoroughly player-centric. There's an important balance to be struck between indulging your own creative desires and building purely for the player; but far too often I think we err on the side of the former. I want the players, as many of them as possible, to enjoy my game. I know that you can't please everyone, and games that try to do so by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink end up as a mess. Nevertheless, a harmonious, attractive, well-crafted design usually has a broad appeal, and that's what I strive for.