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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
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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Charlie Cleveland
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Awesome work, TGC. I'd love to know some practical methods of keeping a team focused on a game's desired emotions.

We use design "pillars" that in the past were more about genre and verbs, but are now more directed towards feelings. But keeping people focused on those emotions isn't exactly straightforward (although having your games as reference is a huge step forward).

Brian Bartram
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"When there's an argument in the studio, let the playtesters solve it." - this, one million times. It's my mantra.

Eris Koleszar
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"Interactive entertainment is content with potential to feed the soul"

This is why I work to be a game designer. This is why I'm so passionate about games. They really hold so much potential that se are just now beginning to understand and tap.

Sara Casen
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"When there's an argument in the studio, let the playtesters solve it." <3

Brian Tsukerman
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A lot of generally great advice, but one sentiment here that sets thatgamecompany's approach apart from others is this idea of prioritizing feelings instead of arbitrary challenges. On the other hand, isn't the challenge of practicing a skill over time the fundamental point of learning and gaining mastery? Yes, not every game has to be built with that in mind, but I personally find it enjoyable to feel my expertise growing as I progress.

Regardless, my favorite paragraph here is definitely "Laziness is a virtue." It's a great way of keeping in mind that you're building a game for the players enjoyment and not just your own preferences, and the final sentence about avoiding frustration unless it serves a design purpose is something I wish a lot more games to take to heart.

Jarod Smiley
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Great set of guidelines and work ethics I must say...

But, I would like to chime in on "gamey" games. I loved Journey, and may play it again soon or recommend to friends. But it isn't something I can go back to after completing once. Gamey titles have that appeal, where you have a sense of accomplishment or progression every time you play the game. (and actually move forward) Journey, Flow, flower, being so simple in mechanics makes that hard after you finish the titles. So I do think there merging of these two styles is something to look forward.

Nice article. I was absolutely floored when I first played Journey btw--proof

Aaron McClay
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Without "Gamey" design we would have no Mario, Zelda, Sonic, Metroid, Mega-Man, Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Tomb Raider, Etc.

Taking away the skill and challenge element from games makes them interactive toys rather than games. Nothing wrong with that, but let's not call every "interactive experience" a game.

There's a difference between finger painting and checkers.

An interactive experience may be more (or less) profound than a game, but the tone of this article presents "experimental" and "skill based" as mutually exclusive ideas. Further, it implies that games without rules or consequence or skill are somehow superior to games that actually require persistence or focus.

"Why do we ask players to jump if it doesn’t serve the narrative?" ummm... because it's fun?

Curtiss Murphy
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Wonderful! Just like Journey, which I think is one of the first games to truly approach art. The elastic multiplayer experience impacted me in ways that few games have. The sadness and elation, as I stood, with my new friend, before the final portal. Step, hesitate, chirp! Step ... step... Chirp! ... step ... Chirp! Chirp! Chirp! ... step. Good bye friend.

(Other Gama article on Journey:

Theresa Catalano
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""Game-y" design is frustrating" is a terrible point to make, and I think illustrates a fundamental problem with thatgamecompany's games. They apparently don't like games that try to be games. This is a huge problem with Journey, it really isn't much of a game, it's more of an interactive experience. It's gameplay has no thought, depth, or creativity. Maybe if they liked games, Journey might have those things.

And saying that "gamey design is frustrating" is just plain wrong. It's the opposite that is true, games that don't try hard enough to challenge or engage the player are frustrating, because they feel like they are wasting your time.