Designing players

Game design is a field that is constantly evolving and has some new terminology on a regular basis. I'm still digging through the standard literature, but there is a heavy emphasis on something commonly called Experience Design in game dev discussions. The process is usually as follows:

  • You take an experience that becomes your target experience, e.g. relaxation
  • You create a game idea out of this experience, including a theme, e.g. jigsaw-like puzzles of pretty landscapes, your refuges from everyday stress
  • You build a prototype, playtest, evaluate, and reiterate

And in the end all things fit together: You have a target experience of relaxation that is mirrored through the pretty illustrations, and through the slow-paced and low-stake puzzle gameplay. You complimented the design by following a consistent style of graphics and animations that fit a theme of "escape your stress": Spheres that expand to let you escape into the landscapes you create yourself. It's all designed to reinforce this one experience. It all says: You know what? Just take a few minutes, build yourself a nice place to pause and just do it. Leave your stress behind.

Player Design We play to experience, but also to become someone.

Voilá, Experience Design. You're gonna find out with many playtests if players actually get the experience out of it, but that is not what I want discuss right now. What I want to discuss is going one step further: Not (just) using a key experience as a basis for your design values, but using change in the player. So we're going from "this game is designed to be relaxing" to "this game is designed to make the player relaxed". This might sound like a subtle difference, but it has some serious implications.

And to illustrate, I want to use Lia as an example (which is still not released due to the current situation, but will hopefully be released this year). Lia is a game in which you interact with a cheeky AI that challenges you to do social interactions in a party context by giving you tasks, conversation topics, and little games. The key experience here is finding the courage to confront other people and having new and exciting social interactions. This at least is the idea - and it could stop here (and maybe it should). But this game was not just designed for these experiences, but it was designed to use these experiences to create change within the player. What do I mean with this?

You start with simple little tasks and games, but as you progress, the challenges get harder, more reliant on your social skills and are reflective your progress and personal aims. The cheeky AI gets less cheeky and more involved in what you have achieved, and when you played through it all, you have done things that you otherwise would not have done, and you've changed. You've changed by design. This change is mirrored by Lia herself, who changes with you, sees you grow and discovers that she has no more place in your live. When the game is completely solved, there are no more challenges and conversation topics left. Instead, Lia says her goodbye and leaves, and you are left with an empty display and some new perspectives.

Player Design First contact with Lia, but what's next is up to the player.

These design decisions are in place to reinforce this change and not just the experiences. In the end, you don't need Lia anymore - you have seen it all. This game is not designed for the "new you", so it also changes. Part of this approach is also sometimes called Meta-Game Design as it considers the "game beyond the game" as an essential factor. Not just what happens when you play, but also what person you become during playtime. Now for me, this sounds like good practice for every game project, but it is especially relevant for purposeful games.

If you're designing a learning game, don't just design a game that "makes learning fun". Make a game that is specifically designed for the change between not knowing something and knowing something. Some tools and ideas for that process include for example adaptivity and dynamic progress, but also player-focused theming. If you want to tell a story with a great twist, you have to feed the player information throughout that makes the twist possible. You don't just design the twist, you design the changes in perception.
You design the player.

Written by Maximilian Croissant