Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time designing games. It’s always been a bit of a passion, but I never viewed it as a particularly realistic career choice. As a result, I focused my energy on more pratical alternatives like business development and law. Alas, the siren call proved irresistable and I’ve thrown myself unto the rocky shores of the creative. It’s been an eye-opening experience, and I’ve learned a lot. One thing has struck me: you can’t design for everyone.
Well, you can try, but it seems to be pretty tough. There are some notable differences between the general mass of gamers and some of the more idiosyncratic niches. Often it boils down to a choice between depth and accessibility.
I Feel So Alone
So I’m a pretty big fan of depth. My general goal when playing games is to learn the rules and immediately try to break them. The more complicated the rules, the more interesting. Simple games with linear choices are anathema (that would be an awesome game studio name) to me. If I were to design a game for my exclusive consumption, it would be highly complicated, contain horribly sophisticated choices, punishment for poor decisions and a heavy skill element. Clearly not for everyone.
In fact, “deep” games have largely disappeared among large PC and console developers with the rise of the “tentpole” approach to game development. A tentpole strategy entails substantially limiting the pipeline of games and trying to make the few games that do come out blockbusters. The natural outgrowth of this approach is a heavy emphasis on mass market appeal. With fewer games, each release needs to hit a critical number to ensure profitability. Design reflects this business decision.
My recent experience with Diablo III has been a good example of this. In Diablo II, the game boasted a rigorous skill tree system that had some pretty dramatic implications for the strength and style of the each character. This system was further complicated by an elaborate randomized loot drop scheme that contained traits that intersected with the skill trees. Then there was the gem/rune crafting system on top of that, which also had an impact on how people would play. This system has been almost entirely removed from Diablo III.
Diablo III provides us relatively streamlined skill system with no real “consequential” choices. Unlike Diablo II, you can’t really bone your character with poor skill selection. Instead, each character gets access to the full range of skills so the real optimization of the character comes entirely from random loot drops rather than conscious choices on the part of the player. This prevents any player from investing time for naught. Everyone gets a gold star and feels like a winner.
It’s a bit tragic for me. I played Diablo II, Warcraft III, and Starcraft into the ground because of the interesting decisions at each step. Sacrificing depth for the sake of accessibility makes me pretty emotional.
Depth In Mobile
I spend most of my time thinking about Valor, which is about as hardcore as you can get in terms of games. Poor decisions result in you getting obliterated and starting over. I really enjoy the risk and sophistication this attaches to the game, even if it means targeting a niche. Having an identity on mobile seems like a crucial component to success. The simple matter is that there are a lot of very similar looking choices on mobile and user acquisition isn’t a particularly delightful process, so finding a niche can be powerful.
Here’s the thing. People are playing in 5 minute increments throughout the day, which is just a reality of the prime use case for mobile. I think depth is a way to capture the minutes between sessions, to allow the player to consider possibilities and ponder the next move. Most games focus on creating small task oriented sessions with retargeting timers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but depth is the way to get a game on a person’s mind. This is something only mobile can really accomplish. Since the person has consistent access and multiple touch points throughout the day, there’s an opportunity to take advantage of the time in between sessions. This means moving beyond the linear nature of directed tasks (even though they’re very accessible) and considering more complicated systems.
Mobile has been limited by a number of things, but we’re still early in the evolution of the platform. Perhaps we’ll end up and a tentpole strategy at some point, but there’s certainly going to be a period of vibrant diversity. Let’s hope we take advantage of it.
JM: I love this idea. It seems like we’re poised to see something new in games, after we get done trying to shoe-horn the past into the present. But it’s understandable. We are all directed by our own interests. We can’t make business decisions based on our own idiosyncrasies, but then where does the vision come from if not from personal insight? The only solution I’ve found is to try. And fail. And try again.