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Don't Be the Fun Police: Why Games Shouldn't Force Playstyles

When we play games for fun, we often need a goal system to shepherd us along. This is what makes it a “game” instead of a “toy” - the goals direct the player toward particular experiences. In most cases, the game designer tries to make the experience of achieving those goals enjoyable (though there are deliberate subversions of this as well). But since games are an interactive medium, the designer can only give the player a set of tools and suggest how to use them in ways that will be fun. It’s up to the player to decide what to actually do.

This presents a problem - the player may choose to use those tools in a different and less-fun way if it seems to be a more effective way to reach the game’s goals. As Greg McClanahan put it in his fantastic post Achievement Design 101, “What game designers in general often seem to ignore is that when players are presented a goal, their first inclination is to devise the most efficient (not necessarily the most fun) means of reaching that goal. . . . Show the player the end point, and that player will take the quickest and easiest route, regardless of whatever path the game intended for him to take.”

Awkward Zombie comic about Sora getting Winnie the Pooh out of Rabbit's house by destroying the house instead of playing Rabbit's minigame.

http://www.awkwardzombie.com/index.php?page=0&comic=120318

Andrew Yoder’s article The Door Problem of Combat Design examines this issue through the lens of level design in first-person shooters. You can build an awesome combat arena, but if you aren’t careful the gameplay incentives can cause the player to use the doorway into the arena as a choke point for a safer but less satisfying encounter. Yoder summarizes the problem this way:

”. . . I invite a friend to playtest. My friend walks along the hallway, enters the arena, and alerts the monsters, all according to plan. Then things go wrong. Instead of fighting in the arena, my friend steps back into the hall and fights from the doorway as the enemies funnel in. Instead of a dynamic gun ballet of dodged projectiles and swirling destruction, my friend has turned my level into a shooting gallery: dull, safe, and slow.”

The rest of the article suggests several clever ways to modify the level design to actually change the player’s incentives and draw them into the arena and toward the more interesting experience. As Yoder puts it, “If I want my friend to fight in the arena, I need to change the level geometry so the space is more positive and inviting than fighting from the door.”

A less sophisticated designer might be inclined to just block off the option they don’t want the player to take. For example, this forum comment in response to Yoder’s article: “Or just, y’know, force him to move forward a bit before you spring the monsters and make the door shut behind him so he can’t just back the hell up.” And yes, there’s a sense in which this is the easiest solution to the problem, but it’s also maybe the worst solution to the problem.

This sort of approach is what I think of as forcing a playstyle. It’s making design choices to prevent or discourage certain player behavior in order to require or encourage different behavior - regardless of what the rest of the design incentivizes. It can look like the simplest way to fix a design that encourages unfun behavior, but it doesn’t actually fix it. The design still encourages that behavior - the player is just prevented from or punished for doing what the design encourages them to do which is incoherent design and a recipe for frustration.

That’s the first point about forced playstyles I want to underline: blocking off play options without changing incentive structures is incoherent design and causes frustration. It steers players into a wall.

Wile E. Coyote about to run into a wall with a painted-on tunnel entrance.

If your first-person shooter punishes mistakes and makes close combat highly risky, the player is encouraged to act cautiously and make use of defensible choke points like hallways. If the player carefully approaches the doorway to a combat arena and is suddenly forced through it and it slams shut behind them, or they proceed into an empty room and then suddenly enemies teleport in, not only does that take away the player’s ability to choose their own experience, it is likely to reduce immersion and feel like the game is cheating. If the player then gets overwhelmed by enemies and fails, it won’t feel like their loss was entirely their own fault - they were trying to be careful and weren’t allowed to be.

Let’s take another look at the problem the designer is trying to solve. Recall Yoder’s summary: “Instead of a dynamic gun ballet of dodged projectiles and swirling destruction, my friend has turned my level into a shooting gallery: dull, safe, and slow.” This framing assumes that the shooting gallery isn’t fun (or at least is much less fun than the intended arena combat). But fun isn’t an objective quality of the game - it’s dependent on what the player enjoys, and different players prefer different playstyles. What about players who enjoy finding clever ways to minimize risk and maximize their control over outcomes? For example, in the Hacker News thread about Yoder’s article, one commenter said, “I remember playing the entirety of Doom, and IIRC, Doom II, in a careful, methodical manner, and I never found it ‘boring’.”

This complicates questions of fun and of incentive structures: different players have different internal incentives steering them to find fun in different ways. For large differences in taste, we can simply direct players to different games or different genres - there’s no change you could feasibly make to the level design of a first-person shooter to make it enjoyable to someone who only likes visual novels. For smaller differences, we can provide different game modes - Minecraft has both Creative and Survival modes because the underlying structure of the game can supply valuable experiences to similar-but-distinct audiences with relatively minor tweaks.

But when differences in taste get small enough, they can become invisible. If you love first-person shooters because they let you overcome odds through crazy high-risk action, it’s easy to forget that other players might love those same games for the experience of overcoming those same odds through preparation and caution. It’s easy to forget that the same exact content can be enjoyed through different but equally-valid playstyles. And if a game designer forgets that, they can be tempted to slap a roadblock in front of anyone trying to play their first-person shooter in a slow and cautious way, even though that’s what some players would actually prefer to do.

That’s the second point about forced playstyles I want to underline: blocking off play options reduces player agency and shuts out part of the audience’s preferred experience. It tells players they are only allowed to enjoy the game the way the designer prefers.

Penny Arcade comic about how Deus Ex: Revolution lets you build non-combat characters and then forces you into direct combat situations.

https://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/09/02

Forcing a playstyle blocks off approaches that the player could otherwise have chosen. Because the designer feared that a player might play in a way they wouldn’t enjoy, the player who wants to play that way is no longer allowed to. This can enhance the experience of the first player, but at the cost of damaging the experience of the second player.

Giving the player freedom to select their own experience means some of those players will choose not to play in the way the designer thinks is the most fun. That can be scary for a designer who’s trying to give players the best possible experience. But the player who genuinely wants a different experience than the one the designer has in mind? They can’t be forced into enjoying the designer’s intended path by blocking off the others. Blocking paths off instead of making the intended path more appealing just reduces a game’s audience by turning away the people who prefer those paths.

If you don’t like the way people are playing your game, you have a few options. You can do the quick and easy thing and wall off the behavior you don’t like, forcing your intended playstyle. But if you don’t otherwise change the design, now you’re just sending players into a wall which is guaranteed to cause frustration and cut off an enjoyable experience for the players who genuinely prefer playing the blocked-off way.

Instead, you could do what Yoder does: dig in, understand why players make the choices they do, and modify your design so that they’ll be encouraged to what they’ll find the most fun. This isn’t easy - Yoder has to dive deep into the question of what level design in a first-person shooter is for and look closely at how his level interacts with the game’s incentives on a granular level. But this enables him to find and fix the real problem, resulting in a level that looks a lot more fun to actually play - without taking any agency away from the player or doing anything that feels unfair.

As the designer, your job isn’t to make the player do something. It’s to make them want to.