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Embracing experimental game design at thatgamecompany
Embracing experimental game design at thatgamecompany
November 5, 2013 | By Kris Graft

November 5, 2013 | By Kris Graft
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More: Indie, Design, GDC Next



Games like flow, flower and Journey impacted players in a different way than "traditional," skill-based games. These three games are meaningful beyond the sphere of actual gameplay.

That's because thatgamecompany, the studio behind those titles, is highly experimental with its game design, and uses emotions as a starting point instead of hooky game mechanics.

Sunni Pavlovic, studio manager at thatgamecompany, outlined several points to keep in mind when approaching experimental design for interactive entertainment at GDC Next this afternoon:

Games are for humans. "The problem of thinking about games as for 'gamers' is that it creates this divide, and it's not inclusive," said Pavlovic. "…We have potential to reach a wider audience once we realize games are for humans."

Experimentation does not equal "random." These are not the same. Creating something worthwhile involves focused experimentation. "Focus is the opposite of random, and the lack of focus can lead to disaster," she said.

Experimental studios can save time and money by making careful choices, and focus on the task at hand instead of chasing distractions. "It is important to know when to experiment and when to exert discipline," she said.

Verbs are not necessary. "Games that are about 'I want to win' feel very different [from thatgamecompany games]. Lots of games are about 'I want to win' and not 'I want to feel.'" Running, jumping, punching – what is there, and what range of emotions can come from that? Not many, argued Pavlovic. Journey, for example, wasn't a success due to supposed "mechanics."

"I think in a game, like in life, it's not the action itself, but everything around it that creates that feeling." Love isn't evoked through a specific mechanic, rather through deeper emotions created throughout the entirety of a game.

Small is smart. Scope your game according to your team's size and ability, said Pavlovic. "Just because you're small doesn't mean you can't make something worthwhile," she said. Focus on small features, and flesh them out. Recognize what you can do well, but also what you can't.

Casting is 90 percent of the job. When staffing your studio, you have to look beyond skillsets -- people also have to fit a studio's culture. For a studio like thatgamecompany, people need to be comfortable with an experimental game design. Not everyone's personality is cut out for that. "Experimenting means failing, and you'll be failing a lot in the process," she said, and that can be a big turn-off for a lot of people.

Weirdness is the new normal. "I think weird is beautiful," said Pavlovic. "And talented developers often have weird habits. And that's great." Consider what your team members are contributing to the studio. Let them be themselves, and let them do good work. "You're enabling each other, and letting each other be yourselves," she said.

There is no such things as bad playtests. "Playtests are both inspiring, by showing where a game's broken and where it needs to be fixed immediately, and it's also inspiring when something goes really well, and players' faces light up with delight," she said.

"When there's an argument in the studio, let the playtesters solve it."

"Game-y" design is frustrating. "'Game-y' design blocks relevance to our every day lives," Pavlovic said. Intuitive design allows players to do exactly what people want a game to do.

"The problem with 'gameiness' is that it relies on skill and time. It relates to nothing outside of the game," she said. If players don't have game-y skill, and they don't have time or desire to develop that skill, why punish them for it? "It creates a barrier," she said.

Empowerment is real. Lots of games are about exerting power over something, but that something is typically only in the game. "Once you're out of the game, what difference did it make to you?" she asked. Often, empowerment in games is short-lived and has no real impact on players. "Give them real empowerment in life," Pavlovic said.

Laziness is a virtue. Consider that when a player doesn't want to do something, it's because she would just rather not engage with your mechanics. Maybe the player is frustrated. "No player wants to be frustrated," said Pavlovic. "Why do we ask players to jump if it doesn’t serve the narrative? ...Jumping for the sake of jumping is more work than play. People don't need frustration in their entertainment" unless it serves a real design purpose, she said.

Failure is not a vice. "Individuals take more risk when they feel the safety to do so," she said. When you stop failing, you lose that crucial first step toward improvement. Don't look at failure as purely negative – learn from it.

Humanity Happens. People you work with are...people. "Be kind to your colleagues, don't make work harder than it has to, don't make them push when it's already hard. … Minimize the emotional toll of experimentation," Pavlovic said. Acknowledge the needs of one another and be thoughtful. "Embrace humanity and learn not to fight it when it happens," she added.

Learn to trust and listen to the game. "The game will tell you where it needs to go and why," she said. "Just listen to what it has to say." Go slow, let the answer come to you, and let it prove itself out.

New experiences matter. "Interactive entertainment is content with potential to feed the soul," Pavlovic said. "You could even say the best job in the world is to be a game developer." Game developers have power to create worlds and experiences for millions of people. "Games should allow us to love each other, to care about each other," Pavlovic said.


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