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The Player Will Get It Wrong

Reflections on Players and Your Game

by Stephen Granade

Table of Contents
• Part 1
• Part 2

Some day, if I am independently wealthy, I will have an artists' colony for game designers. It will be located on a beautiful island which will bear no resemblance to the one in Myst. In a particular building on this beautiful island will be a room where we will meet once a week to talk about our current projects. Over the door to that room will be an unadorned sign: THE PLAYER WILL GET IT WRONG.

I'm about to take a long rambly talk through the garden of game design and other related metaphors. Along the way I will be visiting some of my games, especially Common Ground. If you haven't played Common Ground, for goodness' sake, go play it. It takes, what, thirty minutes? If you have played it, or aren't afraid of spoilers, feel free to read on.

When you decide to design interactive fiction, no one hands you a manual. Few people have written about designing IF, and the subject is so complex that no one article or treatise can cover it all. Instead, you learn by osmosis, by watching what other people do. You learn to scribble down your thoughts, or push little glass beads around to help you keep track of what you're doing, or begin programming with no idea of how your game will end, or any of a million other actions which are unique to you.

And in the meantime no one tells you that you can write your game but you can't play it. Yes, I know it's a truism. But you don't believe it, not really. Who knows your game better than you? Surely players will notice all the nifty things you put in your game.

Trust me, they won't. Players can't tell where you sweated and toiled. They don't know that you spent three weeks coding a river that would sweep any object dropped in it downstream. They won't drop anything in the river, or if they do, they won't be that impressed. Instead, they'll focus on something else entirely.

It happened with Losing Your Grip, and it surprised the hell out of me. Here I was, all pleased with myself because I was putting in multiple paths. This will be interesting, I thought. People will discover that some sections of the game come in two flavors, and they'll talk about it.

Instead, what is Grip known for? Head kicking. An action which took all of five minutes to dream up, code, and re-write has come to symbolize my game.

(Aside #1: Admit it, how many of you kicked the head instead of trying to save it? You can do both. Last I checked the head kickers were beating out the head savers by nearly a ten-to-one margin. Clearly I have tapped into some primal human instinct. Perhaps our ancestors were hunted by heads buried in mud, and learned to kick those heads in order to survive.)

Or take Common Ground. It grew out of my interest in stories told from multiple viewpoints. Aha, I thought, there aren't that many games in which you see the same things through different eyes; I think I'll write one.

(Aside #2: This wasn't meant as a gimmick, by the way. Had I meant it as a gimmick, I'd have spent a lot less time on the game, that's for damn sure. I had this story, see, and it came to me that I could tell it by having players play several different roles.)

As I was programming the game, I had visions of players running around, taking sledgehammers to my game world. Once they figured out that their earlier actions were being replayed in later scenes, I just knew players would try to make this replay fail. Because of my expectations, I spent a lot of time trying to thwart or accomodate this behavior.

I suspect my view of players comes in part from my long association with Mike Kinyon. Mike's tools for making games break down range from jackhammers to ice picks. Now that I've worked with him for many years, I instictively expect all players to prod at the corners of my game world until something goes sproing.

My first inkling that players weren't going to do this came in an early beta report from Mike. He had noticed that his actions were being played back to him, but said that he felt obligated to keep the story going. He had a hard time making himself go against the flow of the story, the flow he'd already established.

Huh, I thought. That's interesting. And I went on my merry way, programming in more responses to actions that might break the replay.

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This article copyright © 2002, Stephen Granade

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