The Empathetic Model of Game Design
Part 1 - Model
Chapter 1: The Empathetic Model
Welcome to my theory of Game Design. In my study of game design, I’ve come to focus on the relationship between Game, Designer, and Player. I have become convinced that an important way for designers to consider the dynamics of game design is to explore the relationship between the designer’s and the player’s experience. I have, in considering this, developed the Empathetic Design Process.
Pictured above is a visual representation of the Empathetic Design Process. What you are looking at is the visual thesis of my approach to game design. One of each node represents the Player (right), the Game (top) and the Designer (left). The circle represents the Empathetic Cycle: a framework for making empathetic decisions and asking important questions. Before delving deeper into terminology (present in Chapter 3, for the impatient), let’s begin by examining the merits of empathetic design principles with some successful games and game studios.
Chapter 2: The Merits of Empathetic Design
What’s most important to realize about being a more empathetic or emotional designer is to habituate an empathetic style of inquiry. When I first decided to make games, I was most concerned with was emulating what I had already seen in games I had played. This is a great first step, but when the games I had encountered and played for hours were AAA experiences and my longest form endeavors were month-long science projects I was clearly outside of my scope when thinking of the games I wanted to make. Even after running into more manageable ideas and playing around with prototypes where I could start expressing myself in a more recognizable and succinct fashion, I was often attempting to recreate things I had seen with surface level characteristics in mind. I mention this only to point out how easy it is to get into the rhythm of making games without paying attention to the skill and craft required to create the experience. This is not to say that thinking about your favorite games – AAA or Indie – is a bad practice to keep in mind. This book in full is meant to get you to ask questions to steer you in the right direction when deciding what to do for your game.
So what does this have to do with being a more emotional designer? Will your game get a higher score on IGN if you become more comfortable with crying at your keyboard? Obviously not. In this context, following this model of game design will lead to a habit of inquiry that is concerned with empathizing with the player. Being more emotional and empathetic will only make answering your inquiries easier and sharpen your instincts as a game designer. It might sound like an intimidating endeavor incorporate this kind of thinking into your design process, but it’s simply a matter of paying attention to your biases and reactions to the media you are making as you are making it.
Let’s look at Nintendo, a shining example of a developer that regularly practices this mindfulness. To say that the design craft of Nintendo’s games is master level would be the understatement of the century. I really can’t afford to NOT mention their practices when talking about the mindfulness needed for game design. I want to take a bit of time to talk about Shigeru Miyamoto (宮本 茂, Miyamoto Shigeru), a game designer and producer known the world over for his work on
classics such as the original Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, the original Legend of Zelda, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and others1. More specifically, I want to talk about some words by Miyamoto in 1999 at that year’s GDC (Game Developer’s Conference)2. What is important about this talk specifically is the shift in game design that occurred in the 80’s. This period noted a transition of game designers being artists as opposed to engineers. In Miyamoto’s own words, “When I, as an artist, first became involved in game design, I boasted – to myself – that I was one of the five best designers in the world. The reason for this was that there were very few artists involved in [in game design] at that time”. This is not to say that the engineers were incompetent or incapable of making games. We should be grateful for their decisions in paving the way for us today in this medium. However, there has been a definite qualitative benefit to artist designers making games more artistically and narratively focused.
This and additional flexibility afforded by new technologies would open the field to artists. This would end the era of engineers as designers. Miyamoto also notes that there has always been a conversation concerning the interplay of the advancement of technology and the artistry to express advancements.
Today, especially from an independent perspective, a lot of technology is democratically and widely available to anyone with an internet connection (you could even make a whole app on your phone if you wanted to). A challenge in game design that Miyamoto mentions is one of understanding the situation of a project collaborator. That is, even before considering the player, practicing empathy among your colleagues is important to game design. Just being aware of your own job and ideas for a game is not enough to make a game with others. You must be able to think from your development team’s perspective to work with them. To extend the wisdom of Miyamoto’s two-decade-old talk to the end user, while it is possible to make a game (and even an enjoyable one) from a solitary perspective, it will always be better to understand the experience of your peers in whatever setting you are designing in.
That certainly makes sense when thinking about working with others but the situation is different when considering the relationship between designer and player. The job of the designer is not just to design a game but to work with the player to help them achieve the goals you have both set forth for the experience at hand. So as you need to be aware of the woes of engineers and programmers, you need to understand the perspective of the end user. This is why the habit of empathetic thinking is important to incorporate throughout the entire design process. When Miyamoto talks about understanding the perspective of others, such as his coworkers or the player at the end of game production, this approach is clearly empathetic. Miyamoto talks about how the designer needs to understand the ins and outs of memory usage and programming workflows but he talks about the need to incorporate the thinking of players – as when they extrapolate facts about the natural world to games:
We see a man running, we naturally expect he’s going to run up the hill. And if a car is bearing down on him, we expect him to get hit.
-Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo Game Director
What Miyamoto emphasizes in that talk is not just the importance of understanding engineering of an artist, but an underlying need to be able to keep an account of everyone’s expectations throughout the process of game-making.
Clearly thinking emotively is crucial to game design but what does that mean? When I tell you to consider your and others experiences as you are working on your next brilliant title, what am I actually instructing you to do? As I’ve already suggested, the key to being more empathetic is asking more questions... but what kind of questions should you be asking? Questions about the player and their experience:
•Who is your target audience?
•What experience are you trying to make?
•Why are you making this experience?
•How can you convey this to the player/end user?
There are probably a plethora of equally valid and important questions to ask throughout the game design process. However, I believe that these four inquiries are pivotal to making good design decisions – especially if you are designing with the player’s emotional state in mind.
Who is your target audience?
Knowing who you are making a game for will define a lot of your design decisions down the line. The obvious designations and demographics come to mind for this question. Games for younger audiences need to be more accessible (while still being stimulating and full of depth as teens/children are often a lot more receptive to new information than adults). Games for a mass audience need to take into account diverse backgrounds. Recognizable tropes are a useful tool to communicate ideas to the
player. For example, the genre can tell you a lot about the kind of player you are trying to engage, as with arcade fighting games can attract a dedicated, passionate (but relatively small) group of competitive players. An FPS (First Person Shooter) may have the ability to bring a larger more mainstream crowd, however, using more common tropes will lead to more competition with designers using the same tropes. It will be harder to stand out. The most important thing to think about here is that convention alone can only do so much to elevate your design. A game that exemplifies the effective use of tropes would be Them’s Fighting Herds (by studio Mane6). A game development story more on the whimsical side of the games industry, Them’s Fighting Herds began development as the My Little Pony fan game My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic. After being shut down by Hasbro’s legal team, the game gained notoriety online and even gained public support from My Little Pony’s creative director Lauren Faust. Shortly after her support of the game’s development, the team behind the arcade fighting game Skullgirls lent Mane6 the custom engine they used in their game. Given the source material that Them’s Fighting Herds is derived from and its resulting legal Fiasco with Hasbro over intellectual property, this combined with Faust’s support would give the studio a leg up in publicity.
What experience are you trying to make?
One of two reactions probably crosses your mind upon reading this question; “Ah! Of course! Why had I never thought about what I was making?” or “Ah! Of course! Why had I never thought about what I was making?” (In a sarcastic manner). What do I really mean when I ask you to think about the experience you are making? First of all, I expect that you are making a game. To that end you probably want that game to be engaging. FromSoftware’s Director, Midetaka Miyazaki (宮崎 英高, Miyazaki Midetaka) of the Souls series. In an interview with Miyazaki by new site Metro gaming, he lays out his goals and philosophy as a director:
I personally want my games to be described as satisfying rather than difficult.
As a matter of fact, I am aiming at giving players a sense of accomplishment in the use of difficulty.
-Midetaka Miyazaki, FromSoftware Game Director
In other words, Miyazaki wants to make an experience that can elicit satisfaction using difficulty, as opposed to wanting to make a difficult experience. Notice that when Miyazaki says he wants a satisfying game, he wants the game to be satisfying from the player’s perspective. When he says, “I personally want my games to be described as satisfying rather than difficult.” (emphasis added), What he really means is that he wants his games to be described by their players as satisfying rather than difficult. Your target demographic will be the ones describing and telling you what your game is. This will and should sound fairly obvious but its importance is paramount to designing the experience you desire: If you want to truly communicate through your game then you have to be prepared to surrender authority to your player. The player decides what your game is. Anything you have not said in your game is null. This is what makes understanding players (and other people in general) extremely important. As you decide what feelings you want to elicit, whether it’s a sense of fun, fear or satisfaction, you can and should repeatedly check back in with the projected response of the player to ensure that they will describe your game in a way that satisfies your desired experience (We’ll discuss this later on – In chapter 5).
Why are you making this experience?
This question is important to ask yourself during your design process. Checking back in with this inquiry can re-instill motivation and help refocus yourself if you are feeling stuck. This will also help you evaluate different design decisions. A straightforward example of a motivation might be cultural responsibility. For example, Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in Iñupiat) is a game that was made by Upper One Games – a studio assembled by the C.I.T.C. (Cook Inlet Tribal Council) and publisher, E-Line – for the express purpose of preserving and disseminating an Iñupiat (Inuit) story in the modern age. Amy Freeden, E-Line C.F.O, and member of the C.I.T.C discussed with the New York Times what it meant to be producing a game based off of an oral story of Iñupiat culture.
We all agreed that, if done well, a video game had the best chance of connecting Native youth with their cultural heritage.
-Amy Freede, E-Line C.F.O, and C.I.T.C (Cook Inlet Tribal Council) member
While culturally prescient in a way that most games are not, the sentiment of the project is what guided Upper One Games to make the proper decisions when crafting Never Alone. The purpose and specifications of an educational project are certainly a bit more straightforward than the industry’s standard fare. However, the attention to detail needed to execute on a designers vision requires introspection regarding the project’s purpose.
How can you convey this to the player/end user?
Now that you know who you’re making this game for, what you’re making and why you’re making it, the next step is figuring out a plan for development. In the case of Upper One Games, the developers of Never Alone wanted to create another modern way to share Inuit stories (what) for a younger contemporary audience (who) to continue the rich history of Iñupiat storytelling (why). In the case of FromSoftware, Director Midetaka Miyazaki made sure that games in the Souls series were deeply satisfying (what) for an audience that wants to be challenged (who) to cause people to make an experience that answers great challenge with intrinsic reward (why).
It is crucial to understand how certain games execute beautifully on their core themes and ideas.
Understanding the motivation and methods of studios and directors like Upper One Games and Hidetaka Miyazaki are also paramount to figuring out how you should carry out your vision. Perhaps even reading this advice contextualized by an insightful (yet relatively inexperienced) author would be helpful in better understanding exactly how you should proceed in making your games better. When figuring out how to go about designing your games, it is equally important to study the games of experienced designers and to experiment and test your design principles.
When I am talking about making your own experiences, when I discuss the thinking of better designers, and when I decided to write an entire book to implore you, the reader, to start thinking more empathetically about your game projects and become a more emotionally introspective designer, I am asking you to think critically on what you are making.
A game designer’s job is to design games and their systems. If their job is to design the systems necessary to facilitate a game, then it is within everyone’s best interest that designers be able to think meaningfully about the makeup of the systems implemented in games to be.
This is where my emotive angle comes into play. As a relatively new medium, we are developing practices and terminology for game development. This results in a lot of borrowed terminology from other kinds of media. This is helpful as it can result in a shared vocabulary but games are not literature, cinema or paintings. They can be potentially made up of all of these things, with the addition of player agency, individualized experience and so much more.
These designers develop a style and voice all their own. They can share their thinking and wisdom and that certainly benefits the gaming community at large. However, other than the mechanical tropes and conventions of the games that they make, we are often challenged at being able to meaningfully replicate the feel and atmosphere of those works without more directly copying exactly what they have done.
“But wait?” you might be thinking to yourself. “If we are apparently unable to talk meaningfully about the games we make and play? What exactly are fans, reviewers, and designers themselves talking about when they’re telling us about their/others’ games? Surely their opinions aren’t invalid”.
You have the right idea in mind. We do spend a lot of time thinking and talking and indeed communicating what makes a game a game. I have even used examples of designers talking about their games to advance my agenda here in this book. So have I spun a screw loose? Why would I claim there’s a deficiency in the way we think about games while using expert testimony that I believe is invaluable to understanding how to make games?
More plainly, I believe that we miss out on the core content of the experience when we talk about and conceptualize the experience of video games. This isn’t due to any widespread deficiency as there are many practical and good reasons why we talk about games in the way we do. Reviewers are on tight schedules and need to convey whether someone is using their money wisely, people online who are enthusiastic about the community need to be entertaining, and designers are well… designing experiences and if they can communicate what’s necessary for other team members to execute their vision, everything is perfectly fine. When we talk about games, we talk about nearly everything but the actual individual experience of playing the game outside of simple terms to emphasize the mechanical or systemic characteristics of the game.
Part 2 - Theory
Chapter 3: Cultivating a Relationship
When it comes down to it, my recommendation for an empathetic approach is grounded in the fact that the act of creating art is a social one. Especially in a time defined by the advent of social media and technology that makes it easier to express and self-publish ideas, there are few things more personal, public and pro-social as creating cultivating a relationship between you, the artist, and a future consumer of your vision. This is what I believe makes an empathetic model of thinking effective for game design. The main problem with this straightforward social approach, however, is that while a relationship is present, its social structure is not straightforward. To better understand the dynamic to that end, I prepared the Designer’s Triangle.
Above you’ll see a visual summary of the relationship among the Designer, Game, and Player. You are, presumably, the node on the left (Designer), learning how to make the node at the top (Game) for the node on the right (Player). You might have even realized that the images associated with the chapters so far are representative of this triangle being explicated. However, the connections between the three nodes are not as straightforward as they may seem (even in the case of the direct connection).
The developer’s ultimate goal is to establish an effective passive connection between Player and Designer. This does not necessarily entail a kind of public notoriety. I am someone who has a vested interest in game design and designers, yet I am only able to recall a few of the most famous of designers by name. This is the natural consequence of games often being large collaborative efforts. In mass media, it is often easier to attribute the development of a game with even hundreds of collaborators to just one person. This sort of recognition of individuals might be wrapped up in the connection between the Designer and Player but it is not integral to the relationship. What typifies the relationship between the designer and player is the meta-game that occurs as the Designer responds to the hypothetical response of the Player and the Player response to the result of the Designer’s foresight. Looking at it this way, the Designer is working without the perspective of the Player and the Player works without the knowledge of the Designer. The binding link between the two is the Game. The Game, however, is the result of a subtle meta-cooperative exercise between a predictor and an end-user anticipating the decisions of the Designer’s estimations and approximate foresight.
The direct connection is more, well… direct. You, as the Designer, are responsible for actually making the game. Without you, there will not be a game. The game is existentially dependent upon your authorial intent. This is not to say that there is not a feedback loop of sorts. The game design process is one of constant revision and reiteration. The act of creating will inform your future decisions on creating. This is the part of the triangle where you will be doing all of your actual work. It is the inciting action that begins the Triangle.
The cooperative connection between the Game and the Player is the connection that has the most interplay both directly and indirectly. Earlier I mentioned that the design process is an act of participating in a meta-game of predicting how the Game will affect and be affected by the Player. If the direct connection is the inciting action of the Triangle, then the cooperative connection is the means to the end of forming your connection to the Player.
Chapter 4: Conveyance
Video games, like other creative media, are ultimately means of expression. They take something abstract from within the creator(s) and pass it on to their respective audiences. A lot of this information is lost in translation, where either the original message is lost or augmented by the perspective of the consumers of these media. This passage of information from artist to audience is a phenomenon that I call conveyance. When I use the word in this context, I am not talking simply about communicating with art, but all the augmentation and change the message within a piece of media goes through once it has left the artist’s mind and enters the consumer’s.
Video games, by their very nature, are open-ended in their consumption even if they have a fixed ending or a linear structure. You can adjust the way players interact with the world but you can not abridge their physical autonomy. Even in the context of a game where an exact input is necessary (such as a Bullet Hell or a rhythm game) the experience of every player according to their available playtime, skill level, and internal biases will change the game they play. In this way, you have a lot less control over how everything in your media is processed. If you were writing a book and you had a red garment that was the subject of a passage, you could literally describe the color in a way that manifests the emotive content you want the reader to feel. If you were making a film, you could flash back to a trying memory or otherwise convey how the audience should react to the reactions of the actors and the direction of cinematography. If you made a still image, the coarseness of the details erected or
the color palette could tell the viewer a rough approximation of what the artist was attempting to convey. In a game, however, conveyance becomes a layered challenge due to the complexity of latent experiences. It’s important to note that this difficulty is not the ability to have a game interpreted in a 1:1 fashion that is specific to your original intentions. Great works of art are often able to draw out more meaning and emotive content than the artist originally intended. Sometimes the purpose of an art piece IS to inspire a diverse array of reactions and reveal perspectives as well as forwarding a specific message.
For all of these reasons, paying close attention to the phenomenon of conveyance in your game is extremely important. And as with the relationships in the Designer’s Triangle, we need to understand the theory behind this phenomenon of Conveyance. So here’s another helpful diagram:
Conveyance is the movement and transformation of information from Designer to Player through the game. Pictured above is that a phenomenon, which is characterized by its connections: Intention, Perception, and Information.
Intention is deceptively straightforward and warrants wariness from the Designer. Your intentions are what will guide your design decisions but while intentions are what incite these decisions, what you want will never correspond exactly to what you make. This is especially true when working in unfamiliar territory. You are more likely to say something unintended when you are less familiar with the medium you are using. However, mastery does not mean you will always succeed in realizing your intentions. This is okay, as the Player’s interpretation of your work further defines your game and further establishes your relationship with the Player as a Designer.
The Perception connection between Game and Player is why intention requires special attention. This is why your intentions and the end product are NOT perfectly correlated. As with the cooperative connection in the Designer’s Triangle, the perception connection has interplay that occurs between its two nodes. The Game is content consumed by the Player. The content is interpreted by the Player and that interpretation defines what the Game is. This definition feeds back and supplies a continuously modified perception of the game that either changes or reinforces the original conception of the Game on behalf of the Player. In this way, the entities on the Triangle work together to simultaneously define the Game and create the experience of the Player.
Finally, the matter of information. Minding the relationship between the three nodes of Designer, Game and Player will give you a better handle on the information that you are communicating with the Player. What is important to know here is that while Players will inevitably bring their own interpretations to your work, most of what they will find in your game will come from you,
whether you are aware of it or not. In the subjectivity of art in all forms are aspects of your ideas,
beliefs, and behaviors that will translate into the game experience without you knowing. The eccentricities of a single voice can be lost in a larger project with many developers, but there will always be subtle, emotional and political messages in your work. My most urgent advice would be: Be as aware of possible of what you are saying. Remember that your goal is not to dictate the Player’s interpretation. It is to leave the groundwork for a conversation that you are interested in and that they will enjoy being a part of.
Chapter 5: Modes of Approach
An important component in understanding how to communicate ideas effectively through games is to understand how they are interacting with your medium. The tools we use to consume media are often either intrinsically linked to or deeply affect the art we take in. The platform a game takes place in definitely affects the quality of the experience. Quality, in this instance, doesn’t denote whether an experience is good or bad. Rather, it is a matter of kind as opposed to a scale of engagement. It is a qualitative assessment as opposed to a quantitative one.
Relative to the Triangle, the Mode of Approach occurs within the direct connection of Designer to Game. This is not to say that this encompasses all aspects of the direct relationship but if we have to pinpoint where this aspect of game design occurs (as figured out the location of conveyance) it lies within the direct connection of Designer to Game. This is important to note in orienting where you are in the trifecta of the Empathetic Design process.
We have no other way to play a game than through its physically available components. And those components should be working in tandem with the underlying experience. I realize that when thinking about the Mode of Approach, you might be tempted to think of the content in the game as something that needs to be squeezed through the barrier that is the mode (or modes). The game only exists with the mode as its embodying characteristic. There is no Platonic ideal where the game lies.
There is only what we can put out into the world. I say this so that I do not make the mistake of casting
the mode as something that happens against or in conflict with the content of the game. The Mode of Approach is simply another aspect of the all the parts of the design that rely on each other. How exactly does the mode affect the overall composition of the game? It depends but we can better understand how the mode affects games qualitatively by comparing the omnipresent example of the physical mode: The console.
Today in 2018, there are three major entities that set a standard as to what the physical mode of our games will be. We have Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, who produce the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, respectively. The philosophy of each console’s physical mode is can be more easily described in the respective company’s marketing campaigns. For this we will be looking at Sony’s “Perfect Day” commercial, Microsoft’s Xbox One and Xbox One X commercials, and Nintendo’s Nintendo Switch Preview trailer. This is not going to be an exercise in assessing marketing or cinematic quality so I assume that you will be able to find each of these commercials online either by internet search or referring to the footnotes.
In relation to the examination of the physical mode, I feel that Sony’s commercial is most direct in displaying a philosophy of game or content delivery. The perfect day for one of its consumers is to be an active participant in their favorite games. The experiences made are their own and center around them. You never even see the console during the entire commercial unlike with our other two companies. Sony wants to let you know that its console brings you to this experience (as it should). Looking at the commercials for its Xbox One and Xbox One X, Microsoft seems to also want to communicate this but there is a nuanced difference between their and Sony’s approach. Before talking about that and these two commercials in depth, I will first talk about an important fact concerning the AAA console and video game space.
There has NEVER been a time where the most powerful console in a generation has sold the most units. Never.
This information is pertinent for describing the change in marketing that occurs between the Xbox One and the ‘One X’. It makes apparent the difference in the company’s philosophy concerning the physical mode of approach. The first of the two commercials appears to mirror Sony’s. In the overall message. We (insert Sony or Microsoft) have a console that is going to give you the premiere gaming experience. However, the orientation of the experience is greatly different between the two.
Sony’s campaign is centered around the player’s experience, and Microsoft is focused on the experience OF the game. Why this matters is that the juxtaposition of where the experience comes from is an argument of what generates the qualitative experience. Looking at it this way, Sony’s commercial claims that the experience is generated from the players. They are in center stage and the intellectual properties are backdrops or draped over them. Microsoft’s ‘One’ commercial is focused primarily on the game properties. I am aware that the language I have used previously insinuates that the experience lies in the game you are creating. You are crafting an experience but you are, more accurately not a carpenter building a house, but an architect making a home. Unless you are the one living in the structure, what makes the house a home are its inhabitants. IN the very same way, you are the architect for where the experiences might be housed, but the game is only the first step in the experience. What you are making is a tool to assist the player in generating their own experiences.
Looking at the commercials in this way I would say that Sony has a philosophy that focuses more on the elements that make for more qualitatively “better” experiences. This view is limited in scope and isn’t an indictment of Microsoft, but it is important to see how different philosophies can help or hinder an empathetic view on game design.
Back to the fact I mentioned before. How does knowing that the most powerful console has never achieved market dominance help our analysis here? That lies in the change in philosophy present in Microsoft’s commercials? This is where we’ll finally look at Microsoft’s second commercial for its Xbox One X.
In this commercial, we shift a bit more focus to the player. There are more than just the company’s premiere properties taking center stage. This, however, is not a direction to being more player centered. The overarching argument in this commercial is in the graphical fidelity of its console. The course of the commercial is a lot more cinematic and picturesque. The background has Kanye West’s “Power” playing int eh background and at the very end, it completes its claim by stating that the console is 4k capable. This makes sense from a marketing perspective. Microsoft has a powerful console, however powerful consoles do not sell consoles. Games sell consoles. And centering on how the player will experience the games will make those games more engaging.
Now there’s still the matter of Nintendo. Having suffered from lackluster sales with its previous console (the Wii U), there was a lot riding on the success of that console (Speaking on the other side of history, it was an overwhelming success). I do believe that focusing on the hardware was a misstep in Microsoft’s marketing strategy and philosophy so it would not be strange to think I might admonish Nintendo for focusing on their hardware so much in their launch trailer. This assumption would be false, however. This is due to the fact that I was not criticizing the emphasis on hardware. My criticism was
that of emphasizing the quantitative over the qualitative. Microsoft tried to make its quantitative prowess of being the most powerful console into the sensation of being qualitatively superior. Nintendo wants you to know that they are not only delivering beloved properties but that the enjoyment of their console is how it can be incorporated into your everyday life. Players and people take center stage both in their enjoyment and how they enjoy the console and its games. The trailer never boasts about its properties or its power (it can’t really brag about the latter). It simply shows how the Switch could fit into your life. The argument for a Nintendo Switch it will be qualitatively valuable in your everyday life.
Now that was a lot to talk about concerning the physical mode – and it's certainly important, but it is not the only Mode of Approach. The mode (or modes) dictate all the mediums in which players interact directly with the game.
The visual design would be contributing to… the visual mode. Sound design concerns the audio mode and so on. The way in which you pull off commands that tie into each other, like combos in fighting games occur or how the ropes of games guide you to assume that a double jump is possible are examples of the visual mode. Remember that every aspect of the game that your players will experience and interact with will encompass a set of modes. The next time you are looking at a game’s design and compartmentalize some aspects of its design, try breaking it down into its Modes of Approach.
Part 3 - Method
Chapter 6: The Empathetic Cycle
I have spent about 80 percent of this essay extolling the virtues of thinking empathetically and being more emotionally in tune with your prospective players. Establishing exactly why and how to think about approaching design certainly is important but at some point, the rubber has to meet the road. Like anything in life, the best thing ever conceived is always going to be surpassed in greatness by the things that exist. Knowing that you need to think empathetically is just one piece of the puzzle. Being able to apply that knowledge is another thing altogether. For the aim of actually making use of this philosophy of game design, knowing when and how to think of others’ sensibilities is best. Not only that, it is perhaps, the only way to take advantage of the principles put forth. The literal process of thinking more empathetically in design is what I’m calling the empathetic cycle. As it can be inferred by its namesake, the empathetic cycle is a fluid, repeating process. Repetition is key. What exactly are we repeating? Questions. A lot of questions.
Where we begin the empathetic cycle is our subject. it does not matter what it is or at what step in the process you are at. You could be in the game document, halfway through development, working on something as specific and technical as Inverse Kinematics adjustment (the process of determining the orientation of things like legs or arms only based on the location of the hands or feet). What is most important is that they ultimately lead to capitalizing on your vision while also being as engaging as possible. The final thing to ask yourself should probably be whether or not what design decision you are making is going to cultivate the most engaging experience overall. The road to fulfilling that question is filled with too many variables for me to be able to be able to label and specifics that would not be genre specific.
The first thing to do is align yourself with a subject. This could be the jump of a character, the level you are creating, the sound that activates when you pick up an item etc… what is important is that it is something that you can assess qualitatively. Once you have your subject, start asking these questions.
How does this make me feel?
Addressing your feelings on the matter is the first question you should ask, simply because you need a place to start. If you don’t feel that your game is engaging, or makes you feel the way you want it to, I highly doubt that you will be able to convince the players.
Why does it make me feel this way?
Delving deeper into your attraction to the different aspects of your game during development will help lay down a thematic basis. Do you like puzzles because they make you feel intelligent? Then something concerning intelligence and intellectual accomplishment is probably what you want to affirm in your game. Did you want to create a new place to escape so you could relieve stress? Then maybe developing a visual design that emphasizes simplicity and calming color palettes would help you achieve a relaxing atmosphere. Understanding your reactions to certain parts of your game will make your motivations clearer as you move along in the design process.
Do these feelings support my creative goals?
Just as exploring your reactions can help define your motivations, they are also a way to check yourself to see if you are going off track. Maybe a mechanic you thought would help make the game interesting only ended up being useful in a specific situation. Maybe some elements in your game are juxtaposed in a way that undercut your broader message. What is important here is to decide whether or not your feelings towards a part of your game are appropriate in the given context. This can be rather difficult, as we are often very reluctant to cut out things we put work into – even if is bringing down everything else thematically, mechanically or otherwise.
How would this make someone else (my friends, family, acquaintances, target audience) feel? Why would they feel this way?
Putting real people that you know into the role of the player is good practice for predicting player behavior. This might seem tedious at time. Your parents, siblings, children or friends will probably have different interests than you. Envisioning someone who does not care for strategy games playing your game might seem like a waste of time but by going through this exercise, you will have started thinking about how to make your system more understandable – even for players that are not (initially) invested in your game. Alternatively, the less direct or mechanical content of your game might have aspects or themes you haven’t considered. Maybe you need more skin options so that your black friends can feel more at home. it’s possible that the humor you wrote into your RPG is a bit too entrenched in today’s memes to reach your grandmother (This might make it age unceremoniously as well). Perhaps your puzzle game has vibrant colors but your cousin who loves playing puzzle games is partially color-blind so that they would have trouble playing it. These examples are quality of life fixing problems that increase accessibility but you can also find unintended messages in your work. let’s say you have a friend – let’s call her Stacy – who is very politically active. She goes to a lot of forums concerning women’s rights in developing nations, is an advocate for better access female hygienic products for youth and is your go-to spokesperson on all things feminism. Whatever your opinions are, you have a game you think she and other people like her would enjoy. The story is compelling, the controls are intuitive and simple yet allow for depth and you think that it looks just stunning. However, you notice that there are not a lot of women with active roles in your game. In fact, the only prominent female character in your game is the protagonist’s mother, and she dies even before you start playing. It’s fairly early in development and you could make some changes. Is there any good reason why you should NOT accommodate some of Stacy’s sensibilities? On top of (in my opinion) having a more fleshed out game, you will both potentially broaden your target demographic and have a beta tester that is representative of that addition to your target audience.
When I say ask, this is the point where you go outside of yourself and investigate your theories in the world. A familiar example of this is beta testing. When a studio puts out an unfinished game out on the market, they are, more or less, asking for confirmation on their predictions in the metagame of anticipating future player experiences. It also, obviously, helps in checking whether things work on a mechanical level and that certain systems are not broken. The biggest mistake I think that could be made in beta testing or alpha testing (other than not taking bugs into account) is not adjusting the game so that the feelings of the players are recognized. If you see a player travel to a place they really should not be, the solution might be to close that off… or the solution might be to empower their sense of discovery and reward them for taking an unconventional path.
Asking questions outside might also literally be asking others for their opinion. Share your game with your family, your friends, that weird guy who wears that tie-dyed T-shirt; with anyone that will give you meaningful feedback. You can do all the planning in the world, but at the end of the day, you are making predictions without the ability to see into the future. You need to confirm or debunk the hypotheses you made with design.
Revision in game design is not a discrete action, but a continuous process. You will be editing and changing how your game looks, sounds and feels a LOT. A LOT of things will be cut from your game, and even more could be removed from the road-map before it can be put in. You do have a goal in mind for the kind of game that you want to make but that goal will inevitably move, change and mutate into something different over the course of the design process. Be prepared to adjust. This mainly means that you should be prepared to cut. You will not have enough time to put everything you want into your game, and everything you wanted, in the beginning, will not be present in your final product… Unless you know something about game design that even seasoned veterans don’t (If you do. Please tell me. That would be greatly appreciated).
Chapter 7: Empathetic Design; Step by Step
- Devising a Target
- What game are you trying to make?
- Try referring back to Chapter 2. Especially the questions concerning motivation and game makeup.
- Do all of these objectives line up with each other?
- By line up, I am asking if they support each other. More accurately, can they support each other in an engaging way?
- What game are you trying to make?
- Create a Specification
- Remember to mind your limitations. There are not hindrances but helpers in better defining your scope. This is where creative solutions shine!
- What is your skill set?
- How much time do you have?
- What is not essential to delivering your experience? Cut it.
- The Empathetic Cycle
- What part of your spec are you working on right now? How should this make you player think, act, feel? How open is this process?
- Repeat number 3 until all required items are finished
- Also, cycle through all the question in all steps when needed to assure quality production.
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