Selling an Experience

by Steve Bowler on September 22, 2008 · 12 comments

in design

For awhile I’ve been struggling to find a way to describe what I feel has changed about game design in recent years.  My own appreciation of games has been changing, and for awhile I thought it was just me.  I’ve been finding games like F.E.A.R. or HAZE or the idea behind Fracture as tired cliches.  Some call them “FPS with a Gimmick,” but I think a better description of them might just simply be “last-gen design.”

A lot of times game designs wind up coming from the “brainchildren” of folks who have no business designing games.  You’ll get the “this is Doom meets GTA” type brainstorm sessions, where they’re really just taking two separate concepts and forcing them together with band-aids and tape.  Sure, they might work, but the problem with them is that they have no vision.  They rely on the backbones of previous experiences that players have had, and are trying to tell the player “we’re like this other game you like,” and the reason why it’s done so much still today is that this worked to great success in previous generations.

When you get right down to the brass tacks, there isn’t a whole lot of separation between games like Doom, or Marathon, Dark Forces or even Duke Nukem.  And yet, I played them all, every one of them, to completion.  I couldn’t get enough of the First Person Shooter concept.  The idea was enthralling, and anyone who gave even a competent stab at the genre got my money.  They sold me an experience.  Yes, yes, before someone jumps down my throat in the comments, their universes are fairly different, but in the end, I got to play the part of “Guy With The Gun,” and back then, that’s really all I needed.  Their roles didn’t really extend much beyond that description.  It was Guy With the Gun meets Star Wars or Guy With the Gun meets 80’s Action Movie.

But nowadays it just isn’t enough.  You can’t sell me a game that’s “FPS with terrain editing.”  I don’t want to play “FPS with Adrenaline.”  I’m not even remotely interested in “FPS with a Horror Flair.”

I want to be poured into a role.  Give me an environment so compelling I can’t resist it.  I no longer care if it’s FPS or 3rdPS or even 2ndPS if you can figure out how to make that convincing.  Let me experience something I could never hope to experience in real life, or at the very least something I haven’t experienced in a game before.  This is where I think design is heading, at least successful design is heading insofar as games are concerned for the future generation.

Games like Mirror’s Edge, where you are a rooftop parkour courier.  Sure, you can argue it’s “FPS with parkour,” but you’d be undersimplifying the example.  It’s not really even an FPS since it’s not meant to be a shooter.  It’s really more of an FPP (First Person Parkourer).  Honestly, I’m not really all that sure I’m going to buy the game (I’m a jaded game designer who sees Mirror’s Edge as a Parkour level puzzler that doesn’t seem as engaging or complex as Portal, and my play time is limited), but I’m excited that the designers aren’t phoning it in and just making it an FPS that has environment interaction in it.  They’re really pushing the idea that you’re a Parkour expert first, and the shooting comes second, if you even choose to shoot at all, as it’s not a core requirement for beating the game.

Rock Band, while it seems obvious, sells you the fantasy of performing in your very own rock band.  It took the core concept of being a Guitar Hero and elevated it to an entirely new level, incorporating friends in a way that transcends the idea of co-op, making each friend you were playing with a sort of medic with shock paddles whose job it is to rescue the weakest player of the group.  It incorporates team gameplay in a way that’s so hidden most people don’t even realize they’re still playing a game, the experience of rocking out is that compelling.

Even Assassin’s Creed, which I’ve criticized heavily in the past, succeeds where other games haven’t previously, in attempting to give you the experience of being an assassin in the medieval era.  It doesn’t attempt to be a 3rdPS with stealth, or even a 3rd Person Brawler with stealth.  It defines its role as an escape artist with a knife on a mission.  Combat is possibly intentionally difficult, because they are truly attempting to reward hiding in crowds, and avoiding public exposure/capture.  The game plays at its best when you’re stalking down guards and killing them silently amongst thirty or more people in a busy city street, and no one’s the wiser that an assassin just slipped a knife through a man’s ribs right there, a foot away from them.

Bioshock, while lacking in innovating gameplay, sells you the experience of being in an underwater city trapped in the past.  It’s not just the first person cutscenes and the passive acceptance of the larger story through the cassette decks.  From the opening scene you are thrust into what is possibly the most believeable yet impossibly fictional world ever created.  We believed that we were in an underwater city, as much as any media could convince us, and I think most of us kept playing it just so we could see what came next.  I still can see the suitcases falling down through the water, the windows slowly leaking in sea-water.

It seems that the more successful the experience is, the more successful the game’s sales are.  Even games like Madden have transformed from a 2D sprite on a football field to an experience that rivals watching an NFL game on your TV.  From the playcalling, to the coach simulation, to even the UI signage which matches the ESPN look, you are in control of your NFL fantasy experience.

So it was with a weary heart that I realized why, exactly, that I no longer care about the idea of a game like Duke Nukem Forever coming to light.  From the limited amount of video that I’ve seen of it, and the core foundation of what Duke Nukem is (FPS with Campy 80’s Action Hero Overtones).  It’s a last-gen game concept attempting to live in a next-gen world of design.  I would no sooner be excited to play it than I would peg my jeans or wear a Member’s Only jacket.

I’ve already experienced those things, and I want to enjoy new experiences.

As designers, could we all agree to eschew the idea of “Genre with a _____?”  I think the consumer has spoken through their wallet that they’re not really that interested in those concepts anymore.

Let’s no longer think in terms of selling them a game.  Let’s instead think of selling them an experience.