Years ago, I used to run a lot of D&D campaigns. All packed with home-brew rules and a variety of player personalities; most of them in real life, some through mIRC channels. Often I got bothered how I never got to be the player, but someone had to take the "living AI role". Today however, these real life interactions with players through a gaming system are some of my most valuable experiences, I often look back at - in attempting to design a video game.
Designing a pen and paper experience is vastly different from video game design:
- You get instant feedback, no worries about making mistakes
- You can easily change bad ideas on the spot with little effort
- You tailor the experience for a fixed target audience, whom you usually know well
- No need to worry much about controls or art assets (even with props)
That list could go on for a while, but let's leave it at those major points and instead focus on the similarities. The knowledge that can be taken away from pen and paper games and translated into video games... And I don't mean solely RPG-centric knowledge.
To me the most useful bit of experience wasn't how to design good challenges, smart riddles or overall fun (whatever that means); but building game-centered relationships with players.
Player Psychology in P&P games
At first it was me and a couple of close friends with similar interests. We would play random campaigns, with on the spot created villages that needed saving from a mindless raiding party of overly dumb goblins. Comic relief fueled those gaming sessions more than any desire to bring the campaigns to any form of closure.
Soon I got introduced to a much wider range of people, each with their individual play style and personality - Power Players, Analysts, Storytellers, Action Heroes, Oddballs and more. Soon it became apparent to me that it's not enough to simply create an encounter with twenty raging goblins that boil down to nice little experience and item packages.
- Power Players wanted challenge to display their min-maxing skills, the goblins needed a tough leader a powerful mage and interesting items, skills, feats, etc combinations.
- Analysts wanted strategy and puzzle elements. It wasn't enough for goblins to simply charge in mindlessly from the woods, they needed tactics; also the environment had to be thought out, a flat plane with a handful of trees just wouldn't cut it any more.
- Storytellers wanted narrative, global and personal. Goblins needed connection to the global story and bits of history. The encounter needed layers of intrigue, and improvisational elements that made the stakes higher were like chocolate candy dipped in cocaine.
- Action Heroes like Power players wanted to display their skill, but not to be bothered with min-maxing and math play. Cool weapons and skills were important, adventure and thrills even more. They wanted combat, it didn't matter if it made much sense story wise.
- Actors wanted drama. The gaming world for them is merely a catalyst for their internal exploration. Goblins needed to be more than savages, they needed internal struggles for doing what they're doing. Maybe they were once a peaceful race, pushed to violence through mind control. Killing them brings a plethora of moral dilemmas.
- Oddballs were gonna go against the norm, against the railroad I would carefully plan out and bring chaos. These quirky players would often make the game hard to balance, but mostly it was fun - it made improvisation an integral part of the play.
Then there were lurkers, explorers, berserkers, sadists, martyrs, pacifists, comedians... all sorts, each requiring the play style to be tailored to their wants and needs. Failure meant unhappy players, and a single unhappy player can make the experience unpleasant for everyone involved. Of course I failed - a lot; but over time I got better at catering to different needs as long as there weren't too many players.
All these players had one thing in common. They wanted to have fun even though they all drew fun from different aspects of the gameplay.
The importance of empowerment in creating fun
Empowerment is the perpetual process of attaining power. Perpetuity comes from learning how to boost power usage in order to gain more control over it.
In game design theory I've often stumbled upon the notion that learning and fun are synonymous in relation to games. I don't quite agree with that, though the differences seem to be very subtle.
Learning and Power are intertwined and usually come together. Yet Learning alone can become tedious and certainly non-fun. The same holds true for Power alone. If you've ever used cheat codes for any game, you know what I mean. Once you have access to everything the challenge is gone and the game becomes bland. Empowerment comes from learning how to adjust your powers to different situations.
What I learned from my Pen & Paper players is that the state of empowerment constituted for most of the fun in our gaming sessions. A small amount was derived from awe and mystery (pure learning) and playing God (pure power), these aspects would always quickly diminish. From observing video game players, the same holds true there.
(I won't go into the social aspect as that's not really relative to singe player game design which I'm aiming at here. Though the social aspect is a powerful fun-inducer in its own right)
Take away the power aggressively and teach harsh lessons and the game ceases being fun and enjoyable for the majority of players. Disempowerment leads to frustration and total disempowerment leads to abandoning the system completely. This is why rigid punisher games have a niche audience - not many people have the nerves to beat the rigid system unfairly rigged against them. The stakes in punishers are huge, but so are the rewards, beating such systems gives a great sense of empowerment to players.
Most fun games empower their target audience in one way or another.
Empowerment through competition
Whether winning or loosing - competition is empowering. You either gain immediate gratification for your superior skills or you learn something new to improve said skills and win at a later time.
Strategy and action games are highly competitive; but competition doesn't come from just directly beating other entities (your AI or human opponents). It can manifest in breaking the usual laws of physics (the cool effect: super-power games heavily rely on this); competing with your own fears and overcoming them (horror games rely on this); and solving puzzles is a competition between you and the puzzle provider.
Power Players, Analysts and Action Heroes love competition.
Empowerment through influence
Being a part of the world, and having importance in the events that unfold is empowering. You're not just a nameless nobody, you're important. Your choices matter as they directly influence the unfolding of events that are to come in the game world.
RPGs and (especially) adventure games rely on this sort of empowerment a great deal.
Action heroes and Storytellers love influence.
Empowerment through outside (personal) gains
Not all empowerment has to come from gaining some power inside of a game. And since you can't bring tangible powers from the game to our real world, what's left is knowledge or wisdom. Usually wisdom.
Philosophical and emotional games, like some later adventures (The walking dead), or those rebellious art games many gamers don't consider games - all of these empower the player outside of the medium. They offer insight, they empower our own personal development.
Actors love personal gains.
So what do you think about empowerment in games? Did I miss something? Do these theories hold merit or any value to game design approach?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!