Last week, I presented some pitfalls and pro-tips for developers looking to audit their game design or narrative materials with a focus on how to set off in the right direction for a productive audit. In this second and final instalment, I look at some of the bad assumptions that can render audit feedback useless or just downright misleading.
Pitfall: We Can Ignore Story, Right?
The belief that “story doesn’t matter” because it’s all about the game design is endemic to the games industry. If by “story” we’re talking about the narrative material that occurs entirely outside of game play (such as cut scenes), then there is some truth to this, but even then it’s all too easy to be distracted by personal or cultural prejudices. It’s easy to say that Metal Gear Solid succeeded despite it’s overly verbose story materials – hell, I even believe this commonplace myself. But it’s striking that fans of Metal Gear Solid rarely complain about it being verbose. Similarly, when fans of Final Fantasy (from VII onwards, at least) talk about what they love about those games, they don't complain about the excessive story content provided they liked the game overall. The vast majority of players (93%) recognise that story adds to their enjoyment of a game – and they should know!
More importantly than this, however, the relationship between a game design and its narrative content – what I would call, since writing Imaginary Games, its fiction – isn’t just peripheral. Puzzle games not withstanding, no major game I am aware of has succeeded by creating a dynamite set of game mechanics and then deciding upon an appropriate gloss (although occasionally people take someone else’s design and then apply a different setting). You don’t add the setting after working out the entire design because the fiction of a game isn’t peripheral. If you start with the design of, say Sid Meier’s Pirates!, you are not going to finish up with a pet management game, a World War II shooter or a flight sim. You’re going to end up with a pirate game. You can transplant it to fantasy or science fiction settings, but you aren’t going to interfere with the core fiction of your reference title because it is integral to the mechanics. And this is true of just about everything except the most abstract of designs (such as puzzle games).
Most game auditors will come at the relationship between game mechanics and setting in an odd way – some will expressly disavow the importance of “story”, and developers should be cautious of these viewpoints when they emerge. The number one reason for the success of a videogame – any videogame, targeting any audience – is that it appeals to its players. And the first port of call for that appeal is the fiction, the setting. Of course, players want a game that’s fun to play too, but contrary to common opinion there is much more latitude about a game’s mechanics than there is about its fiction. If players don’t want to play in your setting, they aren’t playing your game no matter how fun it might be. As soon as you’ve chosen your setting, you have locked in your audience as anyone who enjoys imagining that kind of fiction, and excluded anyone for whom that setting is a turn off.
Pro Tip: You usually can’t fix problems in the fiction of your game by an external audit – so your team needs to be on the ball about it. The problem is, most game design auditors erroneously believe that the fiction is entirely mutable, and most game narrative auditors are brought in far too late to conceivably suggest a sensible change of direction. If setting is a concern (and it should be!), consider getting a quick narrative audit of your concept documents before you do anything else.
Pitfall: What Matters to Your Players?
I’ve spent my entire career as a consultant trying to spread the word that players are more diverse than the games industry gives credit. It's a position that was outlandish when I first started preaching it, but thanks to Nintendo, social games and the ever-widening audience for play, I have ultimately been vindicated. Yet despite this, the majority of people working in the games industry still plan projects as if the cause of success is internal to the systems of the game – if we just get our systems right, the audience will appear. Perhaps. But you would be wise to know what matters to your players rather than just believing that “if you build it, they will come”.
Game design audit’s can produce strange feedback when it comes to taking into account the needs of the players, and it is wise not to take all such comments at face value. This is especially true for a game that is targeting a non-standard audience – which is to say, for a game targeting someone other than 15-25 year old males. When an auditor writes terms like “players” or “kids” in sentences like “players don’t want such-and-such”, be suspicious. All players are not alike, and things that some players detest are bread-and-butter to other players. The more qualified such statements are, the less problematic they become, but even then no-one has a perfect handle on the audience for games. How could they? It’s an incredibly diverse range of people, and one player’s deal-breaker is another’s driver of play.
The most secure test of a game is play trials with actual players, but of course you have to have already built the game before this is possible, and the purpose of game audits is usually to troubleshoot before investing heavily in materials. The best sanity check is often comparison to other successful titles: if your key reference title enjoyed commercial success but has few rivals, you’re exploring a potentially viable niche – but be sure to explore why the game has few rivals. Conversely, if your key reference title enjoyed commercial success but already has loads of competitors, you’re probably wasting your time ploughing money into an already crowded market. A great game audit should be able to discuss your project in the context of other titles in the market, and in the context of your intended audience – audits that talk about games as if they were one-size-fits-all will not help you.
Pro Tip: Everyone wants the next big thing, but no-one knows what it is. It’s risky going after a completely original design, but not as risky as developing a title that has hundreds of competitors. Game audits will often be unable to see originality as a plus, and frankly it often isn’t a plus. Most original titles fail. However, if the audit steers you towards crowded markets, you’d be better off taking the risk than playing safe – because as soon as there are more than three successful franchises courting a particular genre and audience, it’s no longer a safe move to try and tag along. Take chances but do so wisely – and a good audit can help you do this.
Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.