Games are Defined Through their Players

Aug 31, 2015 | 0 comments

I finally got around to watching the film Indie Game: The Movie over this past weekend. The film focuses on the ups and downs of a few indie game developers as they work towards launching their games. Different personalities, different life circumstances, very different games, but the same end goal: creating a game and finding an audience.

Most of the film is punctuated by earnest, hopeful, oftentimes emotional displays of the developers as they work to complete their games; nothing surprising about that. Game development can be as fun as it is harrowing, if you’re not making games because you have a deeply-rooted desire to do so, you won’t last long in the industry, because it’s just really, really hard.

Indie developers to me are the pinnacle of game-making passion; many of them create simply because it’s what they love to do. I found Edmund McMillen particularly inspiring, especially when he talked about a game he created years ago based heavily on his childhood experience. This is one of my favorite moments in the film. I even found his game online and tried it out.

But there were also moments that I found myself cringing. About three fourths of the way through the film, one of the developers related that although his game had a huge following, he was troubled that not every player was playing his game in the way he had hoped — that they were not enjoying it in the way he wanted them to. He seemed to be saying:

“You’re doing it wrong.”

If you’ve seen the film, you may remember who I’m talking about here, but honestly it’s not all that important, because he’s hardly the first gamemaker to say it.  I’ve seen many designers struggle with this same exact thing on different projects over the years. But as someone that has been immersed in crafting player experience for the entire length of my career, I admit being surprised to hear it. There he was, talking about a game that was ultimately successful, that players loved (!),but he expressed what seemed to be genuine disappointment that people did not enjoy it the way he wanted them to.

“But why does that matter?” I thought. “And what about what the players want?”

This moment was a sudden reminder about the core of the creative process: That thing that you’re making, that you love, the one that you’re pouring your heart into, that you’ve nurtured carefully and grown from a seed of an idea into something wonderful — it’s not actually yours.

Games are an interactive medium. Part of making a game is the intention to share it outwardly, to give it away and let others find their way through it, creating their own experience, their own understanding of what it is all about. It doesn’t really matter what your intentions were or what your story was originally; all that matters is the end result, and what players do with what you’ve created. You can invite them in, but you don’t get to tell them what their own personal experience should be, what holds meaning for them.

Basically, you’re not making the game for you; you’re making it for your players — or rather, you’re sharing it with them. Games are a shared experience between creator and player.

People come to games for so many reasons: escape, boredom, fantasy, companionship, fun. Games are places to learn, to find friends, to be someone else, to get lost in an epic storyline, to just have something to do for five minutes while you’re waiting for your bus. These reasons are all valid. And what this means is that there just isn’t one “right” way to enjoy the experience.

So what if they don’t understand your story… Or if they never even read a word of it. Are they still playing your game? Are they having fun? Sweet. You reached that player, in the way that works best for that player. That’s what an interactive medium is about: Making a personal connection with your audience. Because your audience is full of people that love your game, they love it for different reasons, and they may be getting things out of it that you never imagined when you first created it. That should be celebrated! Because, awesome.

Watching people play your game, listening to people talk about your game; reading what people write about your game, these things become an integral part of what the game actually IS.

It’s an absolutely fascinating process to create something and watch it come together piece by piece — but at the end of the day, the real essence of a game is what it becomes when you put it in someone else’s hands and mind. To me, that is what gives a game meaning and life, and it is absolutely the best part.

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