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The Designer's Notebook: Don't March, Dance!
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The Designer's Notebook: Don't March, Dance!

October 28, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

You might be asking, isn't fun enough? Why go the extra mile to create joy if it's difficult? The first answer is that we should precisely because it's difficult -- one of my favorite quotations for game designers comes from Masaya Matsuura, creator of PaRappa the Rapper and Vib-Ribbon: "Do weird and difficult things." Matsuura-san has made quite a lot of money out of doing exactly that.

But apart from the fact that it's a challenge, to realize the full potential of the medium we have to explore the seldom-seen areas.

A few years back I wrote a little piece for GameSetWatch in its My Perfect Game series, in which I described what a joyous game might feel like. One of the comments afterwards suggested it sounded like a mixture of heroin and some sort of hallucinogen.

I take that as a compliment, especially as my inspiration for the piece was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But I think video games can create joy without dangerous chemicals.

Borrowing from the Stanford band's approach, here's how we create joyous games:

1. Keep on dancing. The LSJUMB plays with just as much energy when the Stanford team loses as when it wins. Why? Because the point is the playing, not the winning. If the player fails at a challenge in the game, don't allow that to destroy the pleasure of playing. Move on. Keep the game going, keep up the pace and rhythm.

2. Have lots of great, upbeat content. Many marching bands only know a few tunes that they play over and over. Another of the Stanford band's peculiarities is that it carries a folder of 69 songs at all times (out of a library of over 1000), and prides itself on never playing the same song twice in one day, except for "All Right Now."

Too many games offer the same gameplay over and over. If you want to make a joyous game, fill it chock-full of wondrous things to see and do -- this was something I tried to show in the GameSetWatch piece. Many development projects spend dozens of man-years creating various forms of ugliness. What might we get if we put the same effort into creating pleasure instead?

3. Give big emotional rewards. The Stanford band is loud -- the only rock band that doesn't use amplification. A lot of games are stingy with their rewards, especially the emotional rewards, which is kind of stupid because they don't cost anything. If you give too big a treasure at the end of a quest, you'll have to rebalance the rest of the game, but there's no harm in giving big emotional rewards. When the player does well, celebrate!

4. Encourage novices. Most bands require that members be skilled musicians before they can join. The LSJUMB's web site says that if you don't know how to play an instrument, that's okay -- turn up at practice and they'll teach you. How awesome is that?

The result is necessarily ragged, but the inclusive atmosphere just enlivens the music. Too many games are threatening to novices and intended only for experts. Adopt the same attitude: Don't know how to play? That's okay -- buy the game and we'll teach you! Implement an easy mode, and make sure that it's truly easy. Don't make newbies feel inferior; make them feel welcome.

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