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October 22, 2020
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Gamer Archetypes and Lack of Authorial Control

by Steve Mallory on 12/21/09 12:13:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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As a Game Designer, the use of narrative in games always intrigues me, as illustrated by my first two posts.  So, let me start with an admission: I don't really have a problem with a forced narrative structure and story that creates a memorable experience for the player.  These games become a very important bridge between the three very important groups that plays games: the hardcore gamer, the hip gamer, and the casual gamer.

Now, let me quantify those terms:

The Hardcore Gamer: If you're reading Gamasutra, you are a hardcore gamer. These are the men, women, and children who are early adopters of technology, who want the cutting edge graphics, and who demand a lot out of their entertainment dollar. They read all of the reviews, and tell all of their friends which games are fun, and which are not. The vast majority of game developers are Hardcore Gamers.

The Hip Gamer: Unfortunately, this is a pretty nebulous segment of the market, because it tends to ebb and flow based on what games are hot.  They read the reviews, but tend to be more circumspect about what they purchase, relying on friends, blogs, reviews, and the like to drive their game purchases.

The Casual Gamer: This is, by far, the largest game market segment.  Casual Gamers play everything from simple card games that come preloaded on PCs (Solitaire anyone?), to party games.  Casual Gamers explain the Wii-fixation;  the Wii system is targetting, perhaps too successfully, the Casual Gaming Market, much to its derision by both Hip and Hardcore gamers. The Casual Gamer market is the most difficult to target a game toward, and not just because it is the largest, most diverse market. Casual Gamers don't purchase many games per year, and really don't keep up with the industry unless it makes mainstream news outlets, yet represent the largest potential market in gaming.  As a result, publishers make a concerted effort to target this market.  Getting your game heard amongst all of the noise of casual games can be a challenge unto itself, even if the game is awesome.

Don't get me wrong based on my previous posts, where I advocate designers abdicating authorial control in favor of player-crafted experiences. I don't believe that completely abdicating authorial control to the player is a positive thing, and that memorable moments in games can be highly scripted, narrow, focused and give the player zero authorial control because tightly scripted experiences appeal more to Casual and Hip gamers.

A narrow, tightly focused experience - a great example being Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 1 (The convoluted story of MW2 is worthy of a post on its own) or Half Life 2 (along with its episodic content) - may be passe for Narrative Design Theorists, but it these games have successfully bridged the gap between the Hardcore, the Hip and the Casual gamers. These focused games, the very antithesis of open-worlds and letting the player create their own moments rather than sharing in self-authored moments, give one very important tool to those that don't always play games: direction.

Hip Gamers and Casual Gamers, those that maybe purchase one or two games per month, look for a guided experience and crave direction so they can come close to finishing the game. My Wife, the antithesis of a gamer, loved Half Life and Half Life 2 because of their level structure and episodic feel of the story and, more importantly, always knew that there was a path - somewhere - leading her to the next encounter. The game was a line, from A to B, and she knew that if she worked hard enough, that she could reach the end and get to the next crafted experience.   

Conversely, when she watched my play GTA IV, she kept asking me: "Where are you going?"  And no matter my answer, she followed up with "Why?"

That exchange is something very important that I think a lot of developers need to understand:

We need to make games for the Hip and the Casual Gamers as much, if not more, than we make games for us. We need to understand that Hip and Casual Gamers appreciate when games share many of the tropes used by classic media - the familiarity of these tropes is more engaging for them than player-authored experiences.  We, as developers, are more likely to be self-directed than the average gamer.

What has made game narrative so bad, by and large, is as much a function of the game development process as it is who has been entrusted to write the games.  Game Designers have largely been entrusted with this role, alongside having to perform system design, content design, and game tuning. The more a Game Designer has to spend working on everything but the story, the weaker and less engaging the story becomes.

If we want games to be treated as an art form, we should continue finding our own unique narrative voice (as unique as film, drama and literature), but we should do so without alienating a vast portion of gamers simply in the name of "art".  Even film, drama and literature understands this, creating forms of their art that is for mass consumption while others are for more rareified tastes.  There will continue to be a market for directed games while we, at the same time, attempt to expand the narrative voice of games.  

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