Illusions, Part The First

Robert McKee, regarded by many… people… uh, who have a valid opinion of such things… erm, to be one swell teacher of screenwriting and an all-around Sage On Writing says during his workshops something that I will now attempt to reproduce for your edification (because it is true).

(I will absolutely not apologize for the length of the previous sentence.)

Normal people – that is, non-writers – have the right to live shallow lives. They can go about their existence skipping out on understanding what is really happening in the world. They can look at the surface layers of the people around them and be content with that. Not so, writers. Writers are, if they wish to succeed, required by their audience to live deeply. They must search endlessly for the Truth, even if that forces them to change their world views, to alter themselves in profound ways – because that is what their readers want from them. Writing which does not ring True does not work.

(That is not to say that every piece of writing must be profound, or Important. There is a great difference between being wrong and being banal. Banality sells; dishonesty does not.)

So: writers must live their lives deeply. Their audience expects it of them.

Bad news: the situation for game designers is the same.

If game designers are wrong about the Truth around human motivation, their game will not necessarily grow into a subject for coffee-bar discussion about whether or not the ideas the designer was engaging with were interesting or not. The game will simply fail to engage its players, and the ideas will never be examined.

Designers Cannot Fool Themselves About Players


Wait, no. Before we dig into this topic, there’s a few things we need to discuss.


I am writing this assuming that you, the Game Designer, wants to entertain a large group of people, one that we would affectionately refer to as a “mass market audience”.

If not, if you are content to make electronic entertainment pieces that simply find whatever audience they manage, then what I have to say in this [book? series of blog posts? WORD COLLECTION] does not necessarily apply to you. Have fun with that – and, honestly, profoundly, from the bottom of my blackened heart, keep making your stuff. I’ll probably play your game, and I will probably enjoy it if it’s got a spark in it. Folks making games in this way are doing hard, important, exploratory work, and everyone making and playing games benefits from having people experimenting fearlessly at our frontier. I salute you.

You are, of course, welcome to play in here with the rest of us, and I hope you find it useful. But, I am not writing this [WORD COLLECTION] necessarily for folks like that.

I am writing this for those who want to stand on the big stage, feel the air of the curtain going up behind them, and hear the gasp of their audience as they experience the surprise and wonder of what you have built for them. I am writing for for those who seek a life of working in entertainment, for entertainment’s sake. I am writing for those who seek to enter into the Entertainer’s Covenant. (More on that later.)


This is not a “how-to” [word collection]. I am not writing you an instruction manual about how to make better games.

This is a “how-NOT-to” [word collection]. This is an attempt to eradicate certain virulent ideas that seem to re-emerge without prompting from each new generation of game developers. This is an attempt to convince you to change your mind on a few very specific topics, in order to turn you (the Game Designer) into someone who will naturally make better games.

Designers Cannot Fool Themselves About People

Now that we have that business out of the way, we can return to the topic at hand.

Recall: game designers do not have the right to live shallow or dishonest lives. I’m going to try to build a little proof of that for you now.

Players Are Game Design

Games are, at their core, interfaces that generate specific experiences. We’ll talk in more detail about this definition later (and about how crafting and arguing over clever definitions of ‘what games are’ is a huge fucking waste of time), but for now just take it on faith. Games are interfaces designed to generate specific experiences in players. BECAUSE I SAID SO.

This is the shape of our art form. The essential elements are the player, the game itself, and the interface between them – all are required for the experience of play (again, don’t worry if you have reservations about this definition – we’ll come back to it). Without a player, a game is just a set of potential experiences locked inside a static loop. Insert the player into the equation, and the game activates.

This is distinct from a movie, or a novel, or other linear forms of entertainment. A movie playing to an empty room is still a *movie*. The story is still there, even if no one sees it. It may have been wasted without an audience there to see it, but the thing that is wasted is the story. With games, the game simply cannot happen without someone to play it.

Perhaps that seems obvious. Let’s dig into this a little, see if I have managed to reach you with the key of this thought.

What does it mean to you, that the player is needed for the game to exist? It means that your players are actually part of your game design.

Let’s imagine you are making a Mario game. Mario, himself, is a part of your game’s design. The way he moves, all his abilities, his character design, his voice, the way he evolves… all of these things would obviously be considered “part of the game design”. And, if you were to write a game design document describing your Mario game, leaving out any aspect of Mario’s character would clearly be a problem.

The same could be said for the interface! What will be seen on-screen for your Mario game, the controls the player will use, the results of all the inputs, etcetera, all of that would clearly be an important part of your game design document.

Now let’s imagine you have built all of that. Mario, the world he is in, the interface. Does your game work? Does it “play”, in the same way that a movie screening to an empty room “works”?

Sitting alone, no. It will sit on the menu screen, awaiting input.

Until the Player arrives and starts absorbing information and pressing buttons to request changes, your game is just an inert set of potentials. Your players are the game, in some deep, essential way, and thus, they are a key part of the game design. Failing to describe your players, their hopes for the game, their reasons for engaging with it, the struggles they will have, would be as much a problem as failing to describe Mario’s powers.

Perhaps you are still not convinced. Perhaps you are! But perhaps not. Certainly, I have found that this line of thinking is frustrating for a large number of game designers. It’s worth taking another run at it.

What would your game look like if your players were supposed to be dogs?

Would your game design change?

Of course it would. It would change profoundly. Dog Game Designers would first need to engage in a bunch of research to figure out what it takes to get a dog to play a video game in the first place. Tough challenge! And the nature of the dog’s biology, physiology, and (above all) psychology would be foremost in the mind of the designers.

So it is with people. Humans have a particular set of senses, expressive abilities, and a whole slew of wild and confusing psychological expectations and constraints that will utterly define what is and is not possible in your game design. Your game design must, therefore, adapt itself to your player.

Actually, we can say it even stronger.

The various ‘features’ of your players are the #1 constraint on your game design. If you fail to consider some key aspect of your players’ feature set, your game will be a miserable failure (having been designed for another species, perhaps).

Your players are your game. And thus, they must be a huge part of your game design.*

…But We Know Very Little About Them

Even though these incredible creatures (“players”) are essential to the success of our various projects (and careers, and families, etc), game developers as a group are often surprisingly disinterested in how players think. This is, in my opinion, a bit of a shame: players are fascinating, and never cease to provide surprising and delightful results when they animate our games, but we all understand that it is not essential for every person on a team to understand every part of the game in order for it to work.

But, someone has to understand as much as humanly possible about our players, yes? I mean, triggering player action is sort of the entire function of games, yes? To address this imbalance between our natural interest in our players (low) and our need to understand them (high), we have developed a job family for that: the game designer.

(And, often to a lesser extent or from a different direction, producers, but let’s not pick nits on that just yet. Plenty of time for that later.)

So. If one of the main responsibilities of our game designers is to understand and represent our players and their interests as we build the game, where do they generally get their information about their players’ hopes, dreams, motivations, goals, needs, and all the rest of the rich tapestry of internal pressures that drive them?

Oral tradition, generally. We’ll talk about why that is a huge problem in the next section (which is what that link is for. CLICK IT. CLICK IT!).

Wishful Thinking Cannot Save You From This Labor

Everything I am presenting you here about the player being part of your game and your game design is, alas, true, whether you acknowledge it or not. And I have known many developers who would much prefer to not have to deal with the inside of players’ minds, preferring instead to focus exclusively on the game-and-interface part, without spending too much time on the shape of the people who will sit in the chair and interact with the system.

And, that’s fine, actually… as long as you are not interested in designing games that will predictably and consistently satisfy a “mass market audience”. (Also, as  long as you are not on my team. I have Opinions on this shit. So. Pity them, my devs.)

If hitting a large-audience target with consistent success is your goal, however, then I am afraid that you are going to have to do the work of setting aside any misconceptions you may be carrying about your audience’s desires, motivations, tastes, and abilities, and replace them with the Truth. Game designers do not have the luxury of misunderstanding the human species. They are, in fact, obligated to learn everything they can about how people are truly motivated.

And that is what this [word collection] is about.

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