An interesting question was raised during the “What The Player Wants” panel of the Game Changers event, run by Steve Gaynor, Dan Pinchbeck, and Dan Golding, which was “What does a player want out of the experience of a triple-A game?”. Gaynor, of Gone Home fame, said it best when he stated “On one hand people demand change, and on the other those same people hate the changes that are made. We’re never really sure what players want because players don’t seem to know what they want themselves.” And you know what? He’s absolutely right.
Triple-A has become the gold standard for videogames, a benchmark by which all other games are measured in terms of quality and success. Only vague concepts could be landed on, however, when the panel tried to determine exactly what it was that players looked for in a triple-A game, in terms of characters, gameplay, or the experience that could be derived from it. Dan Golding, a noted Australian arts journalist and a lover of videogames, was the first to make the connection that what players really want out of the experience is a feeling of a decent exchange. We want the potential for a long game, and to know that the money we fork over for each pressed disc, or downloaded title, is going to be a fair exchange of entertainment for money.
The idea of an exchange of money for entertainment is an important notion to maintain, as a game’s financial success is often the best way to judge how well it was able to win over the minds of gamers. It’s also usually a reflection of how much “fun” one might experience while playing the game; however, as was pointed out by Gaynor, “fun” is an abstract concept whose exact meaning is entirely dependent on the personal preferences of each player and it beggars the question: “What is fun?”. For that matter, using the example of “Gone Home”, a game which breaks away from “traditional” FPS gameplay tropes in favor of unconventional storytelling, one could even ask questions like “What is gameplay?” or “What is a game?”.
Call of Duty, despite releasing what is essentially the same game every couple of years and being the butt of 30% of all jokes on the internet, is arguably the most recognisable triple-A franchise on the market and still makes Activision obscene amounts of money. By the above standard, every iteration of CoD could be considered both successful and fun, regardless of how little the design for the franchise has changed over the years. In comparison, Gone Home, an indie title which lacked the production values or budget of triple-A titles, was also able to achieve relative financial success and critical acclaim by turning conventions used in CoD on their head. By allowing total player-agency, the player was allowed to create their own pacing, narrative flow, and thus their own sense of fun.
CoD is permanently fixed in a setting surrounding some war or another and quite often forgoes story telling for great gameplay, occasionally throwing in a ham-fisted attempt at drama and exploring serious themes. Gone Home, however, for those who haven’t played the game, is about a girl returning home after a year abroad to find her family absent and begins searching the house for reasons as to why; it deals with themes such as homosexuality, relationships, dealing with personal struggles, and self-discovery. Far from being a failure with “hardcore” audiences, however, Gaynor remarked that, while enjoying success overall, it received more backlash from the “casual” gaming community as a result of a lack of conventional FPS gameplay.
With a Metacritic score of 84, despite being a totally different take on a similar gameplay genre, Gone Home appears to closely rival the successful reception of a triple-A franchise like CoD. As Pinchbeck would point out later on, this is often because Indie titles enjoy a modicum of success, and even thrive on, those areas less explored by triple-A titles. Even Bioshock Infinite, described by Gaynor as a triple-A title about “a floating sky city with magical racists”, which dealt with an array of themes from segregation, to religious zealotry, and even the concept of the fragility of reality, still had to have a huge amount of FPS action crammed in. So when it comes to what players want, what matters more – something “new”, or something “fun”?
Discussion turned to where games begin their development cycle, and Golding pointed out that the worst idea to start developing a game with is “What do people want?”. Pinchbeck chimed in that before an idea is even pitched to the dev team, beginning down the path of a cold process to create a “formulated success” will produce a game which is just as cold emotionally. “Unexpected gems in gameplay and design could be completely lost as a result of chasing after exactly what players want,” said Pinchbeck, “a better question to ask would be ‘What do I want to play?’, and players reacting unexpectedly to things you make is an indication of a well made title.” He reminded us that developers are often gamers themselves and that the two shouldn’t be considered mutually exclusive.
He then brought up the motherload of player-appeasement, “Early Access Gaming”, whether it be a crowd-source funded title, a la Kickstarter, with a forum for player-investors to participate in, or an early-access game on steam that updates according to player feed-back. The latest trend of Indie devs directly appealing to players for funding and influence seems to be the penultimate way for players to get what they want. Though the point is somewhat lost with early access games, Pinchbeck mused, as while early access might allow financial support for developers to finish the game, when do you declare a game to be “finished” when people are allowed to play it when it’s unfinished? Is the point to simply enjoy the evolution of the game over time, and does player input actually make it “better”?
If I were to ask you right now what your ideal game would be, chances are you’d have a good idea of what it was. Everyone does, as gamers it’s what we do as a matter of course, and if you don’t then chances are equally good that you’ve uttered something like “This game would be so much better if…”. As an audience and as people, we generally seem to have a pretty good idea of what it is that we want; being an audience, however, what we want is generally more of what we already have until we grow tired of it and only ask for “something new”. It’s clear that there’s no such thing as a hard and fast formula for a successful and popular game, and even the standards by which a game can be judged as “successful” are somewhat murky.
Perhaps the best answer to “What does the player want?” is Gaynor’s initial response: that no one really knows for sure, especially the players themselves. In an industry where creative stagnation is a very real and persistent possibility, pandering to the whims of the players isn’t a guaranteed success and may, in fact, be counter-productive. When we think back to when videogaming very first began, no one even knew what a videogame was; it could hardly be said that we “wanted” them. As they grew in popularity, we weren’t asking for better or different games, instead we just wanted “more” games and this has persisted throughout gaming’s history. The reason everyone isn’t making games is because not everyone can, and maybe, just maybe, instead of badgering developers with ideas about what we want, we should be allowing developers to continue doing what they always have: giving us not what we want, but what we didn’t realise we want.