The Fun Zone

Yes, I am still banging the drum about overly prescriptive game design.

  • Behavioural modelling is not game design
  • Punishing a player from deviating from your intended behavioural model has real-world parallels and none of them are good
  • Punishing a player for not engaging with your game in the way you, the designer intended them to in an environment with no material consequence is absurd
  • What constitutes fun’ for somebody might be entirely different from what you as a designer intend
  • No I do not intend to play Doom: Eternal’

Look I’m aware that NuDoom and other games with clearly defined and formalised mechanics and loops get a lot of love, but I am so intensely weary of what amounts to a prescriptivist approach to play that has become utterly prevalent in game design over the past couple of decades. NuDoom’s approach of mechanistically enforcing an optimal style of play exactly in line with the designer’s intent (what Hugo Martin referred to as The Fun Zone’) teaches the player by punishing them for deviation, through repetition.

Platformers such as Limbo, Inside and Little Nightmares actively punish the player for not anticipating the designer’s explicit intent in a scene, often forcing a fail state on the player for mistiming moves or simply not interpreting the designer’s tells’ correctly. Call of Duty railroads players through its blockbuster setpieces, as do many other prestige’ games, often having players embody avatars that may make decisions fundamentally at odds with a player’s interpretation of the setting.

The designer’s role in these types of games therefore becomes fundamentally similar to that of a film director, and interaction with the game is reduced to a state of not-quite-passivity, whereby a player’s agency is strictly meted out and parametrised. I feel the prevalence of this approach is fundamentally limiting. It is not a requirement for games to emulate cinema. Game design’s response to ludonarrative dissonance’ has simply been to constrict ludology to fit a given narrative.

I desperately wish there were more games that truly bucked this trend. STALKER will forever remain one of my absolute favourite games of all time due to just going in a wildly different direction which has never been fully replicated, giving the player a fairly standard set of first-person shooter controls, but baking in incredibly rich background mechanics, and giving wide remit on how to tackle almost any given task. I can think of so many games that would benefit from emulating STALKERs wide-remit approach to player agency, be they immersive sims, traditional CRPGs, first-person shooters, open-world sandboxes etc etc.

Cruelty Squad is another great example of this, giving the player large, entirely nonlinear levels and a set of basic mechanics and more exotic tools with which to interact with their environment. There are no incorrect approaches. Experienced players can finish levels in seconds. This is encouraged, but never actually mandated. Cruelty Squad was developed by a single developer in a free, open-source game engine and has by almost all conceivable metrics been an absolute success.

Hell, Breath Of The Wild is one of the most successful videogames ever.

I think game design thinking just needs to fundamentally trust the player more. That’s really just it.

March 31, 2021

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