19 December 2010

What is “the experience”? - by Eric Schwarz

      Posted 12/19/10 07:53:00 pm  

 There’s a whole lot of jargon that accompanies talk of games, whether it’s simple slang used for marketing purposes and quickly communicating what a game is about (“action-packed”), descriptors and indicators of extremely complex, interdependent systems (role-playing games), or design terms.  One of these words I’d like to examine today is one which I myself use with nearly reckless abandon, and that is “experience”.

To clarify, by experience, I mean “the” experience that players have when playing a game, and not improved skill and ability that comes with longer play-time, although it’s interesting to examine how those two intermingle with one another.  But exactly what is it that defines “the experience”?  I use the word all the time, and yet when it comes down to making a clear definition of it, I’m left a little bit at a loss.  It’s a piece of my vocabulary that I’m well familiar with, but have no concrete means of expressing what it precisely is.  Continuing on from that, even if I know what constitutes the experience of playing, how am I to know how a game designer might use that understanding to make a better game?  In this article, I hope to answer these questions.

Defining the experience

There’s little doubt as to the vague, general meaning of “experience” within gaming lingo; that definition is more or less the same across any form of media, or even beyond media itself and extended to everyday life.  Broadly, we can call an experience something along the lines of “an event witnessed by an individual or group”.  Of course, this sort of definition is pretty boring and general, because then, just about everything constitutes an experience – the squeak of my chair as I write this, the gentle hum of the heater, the itching on the right side of my lip, my lingering worry about getting to bed on time instead of staying up to unlawful hours writing about videogames.  But even here, we’ve got a lot to talk about.

The first thing of note in even this extremely simple example is that it encompasses a variety of senses and feelings.  Even though this situation is, at least compared to what I could be undergoing, wholly boring and mundane, I am able to identify a number of discrete elements which encompass that which I call experience.  These are sights, sounds, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and so on, and they are all things which are fundamental to my understanding of the world; our brains do a good job of filtering these out (ever hurt yourself only to not realise it until you glimpse your injury?), but they can be broken down into things which we can describe – and, most importantly for a game designer, manipulate.

Game design, at its core, is manipulation.  Everything communicated by a game to its player, and in return from its player back to the game, is a manipulation.  Where some forms of manipulation can be described as offensive, malicious, and so on, though, this process of manipulation is integral to the gaming experience.  To manipulate is to craft the experience that players have, and the feedback received by the game from the player recursively affects the experience.

Game designers, however, are by and large limited by a number of things that life, as well as other forms of media, are not.  Games, of course, may only manipulate a few different senses: sight, sound, and touch (force feedback), and while these are important, being deprived of two other whole senses forces designers to rely upon all sorts of compensations – lights have to be brighter, sounds have to be more distinct and identifiable, and so on.  Manipulation isn’t just over senses, of course – through writing, game mechanics, scenario design, level design, and so forth, it’s possible to communicate a hell of a lot to the player without having to, at least theoretically, leverage any senses at all; this stuff all operates on a purely cognitive level, consisting of thoughts and emotions.  In order to effectively take advantage of these aspects, a designer has to be fully aware and in touch with him or herself as a human being.  There’s no value in crafting an experience if one is utterly detached from these sorts of faculties; the outcome would be purely accidental.

Putting it together

Being able to talk about all of these things as isolated events is well and good, of course, because when building a game it’s necessary to have an astute awareness of the precise effects of every manipulation performed.  But despite that importance, it’s not as important of understanding how all of these individual elements combine to form the experience the player has with a game.  It’s a fairly simple idea to be mindful of, but it’s something that can get lost in the shuffle when one spends too much time focusing on every little bit and piece.  Everything from music, to audio design and sound effects, to visual theme and consistency, to the technical character and feel of a game, to the script, voice acting, controls, gameplay mechanics and scenarios, menu design and flow, etc. can have an impact upon the experience the player has with a game; it’s not these individual elements that matter on their own so much as it is their cumulative, lasting impression.

Oftentimes, a game that “gets it right” will have consistency between all of these things; the best games are very often the ones which are able to find some degree of harmony between all elements of the player experience.  BioShock would not be the same reflective, self-aware commentary it is if its soundtrack was replaced by punk rock, just as Civilization V would take on a completely different character if it adopted a different art style or progression mechanic.  When a game makes a mistake and “gets it wrong”, we tend to feel as if one of these things is out of sync, out of place with the fundamental experience the game is attempting to communicate; when the messages the game sends don’t fit, we don’t reciprocate and the cycle breaks down.  Most often, the games that leave a lasting negative impression on us aren’t ones that do everything wrong, but do one or two things poorly or simply differently than how we expected them to; even the worst games can be entertaining, memorable and even enjoyable in situations where we understand that they are bad going into them (the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon).

But there’s one more thing that I have neglected to mention so far, and it’s important to be mindful of as well.  No matter how much time and effort an experience is crafted and nurtured, it can all fall apart at a subjective level if the player isn’t in a position to reciprocate the relationship between him/herself and the game.  People have good days and bad days, they play games alone, with other people, on the bus, at home, at work, they have predilections on one day that may be totally different the next day.  It sounds obvious, but the player is a fundamental part of the game; without the player to experience it, the game may as well not exist.

While there’s very little control a game designer has over this sort of thing beyond the platform the game is released on, building a game with the player's subjectivity in mind is helpful.  Flexibility and openness to player needs goes a long way towards making a game easy to pick up and play, for instance – frequent save points or checkpoint saves can help mitigate some of the tension that comes from the threat of significant progress loss, difficulty curves help to fine-tune whether an experience is stressful or pleasant, and, most importantly, creating that consistency I mentioned earlier helps to draw the player back into the world of the game each time he or she starts it up.  Playing a game can (and should?) be like coming home, or seeing an old friend – inviting and familiar, but ripe with possibility as well.  If the game makes no effort to be accommodating by refusing to communicate its intentions effectively, the response from the player is going to be confused, or even hostile.

Going with the flow

As much as all of this sounds like a bunch of philosophical rambling and decidedly esoteric nonsense, it’s actually not as difficult in practice to think with regards to the construction of the experience.  Doing what “feels right” for a game, and looking to other similar works for inspiration and guidance is often the best, or even the only way to really ensure that the experience of a game is as intended.  A game is built up of dozens, if not hundreds of individual facets of experience; manipulating them for the ideal outcome is all about understanding not just those facets, but how they all interact with one another as well.

To finish up, and get back to that definition, I’ve arrived at something which I think is at least a little more helpful in the context of game design.  To wit, the experience of playing is: the recursive, communicative process by which a game may shape a player’s thoughts, actions and emotions, and in turn how the game responds to the player to continue the process in a mutually beneficial manner.  With luck, it’s reached “getting there” in terms of comprehensiveness.

 There’s a whole lot of jargon that accompanies talk of games, whether it’s simple slang used for marketing purposes and quickly communicating what a game is about (“action-packed”), descriptors and indicators of extremely complex, interdependent systems (role-playing games), or design terms.  One of these words I’d like to examine today is one which I myself use with nearly reckless abandon, and that is “experience”.

 

To clarify, by experience, I mean “the” experience that players have when playing a game, and not improved skill and ability that comes with longer play-time, although it’s interesting to examine how those two intermingle with one another.  But exactly what is it that defines “the experience”?  I use the word all the time, and yet when it comes down to making a clear definition of it, I’m left a little bit at a loss.  It’s a piece of my vocabulary that I’m well familiar with, but have no concrete means of expressing what it precisely is.  Continuing on from that, even if I know what constitutes the experience of playing, how am I to know how a game designer might use that understanding to make a better game?  In this article, I hope to answer these questions.

Defining the experience

There’s little doubt as to the vague, general meaning of “experience” within gaming lingo; that definition is more or less the same across any form of media, or even beyond media itself and extended to everyday life.  Broadly, we can call an experience something along the lines of “an event witnessed by an individual or group”.  Of course, this sort of definition is pretty boring and general, because then, just about everything constitutes an experience – the squeak of my chair as I write this, the gentle hum of the heater, the itching on the right side of my lip, my lingering worry about getting to bed on time instead of staying up to unlawful hours writing about videogames.  But even here, we’ve got a lot to talk about.

The first thing of note in even this extremely simple example is that it encompasses a variety of senses and feelings.  Even though this situation is, at least compared to what I could be undergoing, wholly boring and mundane, I am able to identify a number of discrete elements which encompass that which I call experience.  These are sights, sounds, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and so on, and they are all things which are fundamental to my understanding of the world; our brains do a good job of filtering these out (ever hurt yourself only to not realise it until you glimpse your injury?), but they can be broken down into things which we can describe – and, most importantly for a game designer, manipulate.

Game design, at its core, is manipulation.  Everything communicated by a game to its player, and in return from its player back to the game, is a manipulation.  Where some forms of manipulation can be described as offensive, malicious, and so on, though, this process of manipulation is integral to the gaming experience.  To manipulate is to craft the experience that players have, and the feedback received by the game from the player recursively affects the experience.

Game designers, however, are by and large limited by a number of things that life, as well as other forms of media, are not.  Games, of course, may only manipulate a few different senses: sight, sound, and touch (force feedback), and while these are important, being deprived of two other whole senses forces designers to rely upon all sorts of compensations – lights have to be brighter, sounds have to be more distinct and identifiable, and so on.  Manipulation isn’t just over senses, of course – through writing, game mechanics, scenario design, level design, and so forth, it’s possible to communicate a hell of a lot to the player without having to, at least theoretically, leverage any senses at all; this stuff all operates on a purely cognitive level, consisting of thoughts and emotions.  In order to effectively take advantage of these aspects, a designer has to be fully aware and in touch with him or herself as a human being.  There’s no value in crafting an experience if one is utterly detached from these sorts of faculties; the outcome would be purely accidental.

Putting it together

Being able to talk about all of these things as isolated events is well and good, of course, because when building a game it’s necessary to have an astute awareness of the precise effects of every manipulation performed.  But despite that importance, it’s not as important of understanding how all of these individual elements combine to form the experience the player has with a game.  It’s a fairly simple idea to be mindful of, but it’s something that can get lost in the shuffle when one spends too much time focusing on every little bit and piece.  Everything from music, to audio design and sound effects, to visual theme and consistency, to the technical character and feel of a game, to the script, voice acting, controls, gameplay mechanics and scenarios, menu design and flow, etc. can have an impact upon the experience the player has with a game; it’s not these individual elements that matter on their own so much as it is their cumulative, lasting impression.

Oftentimes, a game that “gets it right” will have consistency between all of these things; the best games are very often the ones which are able to find some degree of harmony between all elements of the player experience.  BioShock would not be the same reflective, self-aware commentary it is if its soundtrack was replaced by punk rock, just as Civilization V would take on a completely different character if it adopted a different art style or progression mechanic.  When a game makes a mistake and “gets it wrong”, we tend to feel as if one of these things is out of sync, out of place with the fundamental experience the game is attempting to communicate; when the messages the game sends don’t fit, we don’t reciprocate and the cycle breaks down.  Most often, the games that leave a lasting negative impression on us aren’t ones that do everything wrong, but do one or two things poorly or simply differently than how we expected them to; even the worst games can be entertaining, memorable and even enjoyable in situations where we understand that they are bad going into them (the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon).

But there’s one more thing that I have neglected to mention so far, and it’s important to be mindful of as well.  No matter how much time and effort an experience is crafted and nurtured, it can all fall apart at a subjective level if the player isn’t in a position to reciprocate the relationship between him/herself and the game.  People have good days and bad days, they play games alone, with other people, on the bus, at home, at work, they have predilections on one day that may be totally different the next day.  It sounds obvious, but the player is a fundamental part of the game; without the player to experience it, the game may as well not exist.

While there’s very little control a game designer has over this sort of thing beyond the platform the game is released on, building a game with this in mind is helpful.  Flexibility and openness to player needs goes a long way towards making a game easy to pick up and play, for instance – frequent save points or checkpoint saves can help mitigate some of the tension that comes from the threat of significant progress loss, difficulty curves help to fine-tune whether an experience is stressful or pleasant, and, most importantly, creating that consistency I mentioned earlier helps to draw the player back into the world of the game each time he or she starts it up.  Playing a game can (and should?) be like coming home, or seeing an old friend – inviting and familiar, but ripe with possibility as well.  If the game makes no effort to be accommodating by refusing to communicate its intentions effectively, the response from the player is going to be confused, or even hostile.

Going with the flow

As much as all of this sounds like a bunch of philosophical rambling and decidedly esoteric nonsense, it’s actually not as difficult in practice to think with regards to the construction of the experience.  Doing what “feels right” for a game, and looking to other similar works for inspiration and guidance is often the best, or even the only way to really ensure that the experience of a game is as intended.  A game is built up of dozens, if not hundreds of individual facets of experience; manipulating them for the ideal outcome is all about understanding not just those facets, but how they all interact with one another as well.

 

 

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Jonathan Jennings
19 Dec 2010 at 11:38 am PST

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