Taking the Gaming Relationship to the Next Level

Before we begin what is apt to be our most controversial and contentious article to date, let me start by asking a question: When is the last time you considered the relation between you and your video games? If the answer is "Not lately" or (more likely) "Never", could it be because because you don't consider that there is a relationship between you and your games? But you love your video games right? So much so, in fact, that you may even be spending more quality time with them than with most of the humans in your life (possibly including your significant other).

Then could it be that the relationship between you and your games is shallow or one sided?  That can't be true since you both have spent innumerable hours together sharing experiences that you remember fondly - even decades later.

Ok, while you may have me convinced that a meaningful long-lasting relationship does in fact exist between you and your beloved games, it may not be completely unconditional and it certainly has not been monogamous. You've grown tired of many of your games (possibly after having played some of them only once) and you have undoubtedly had relationships with more than one game over the years. Oh, you may drop in and out of each other's lives from time to time, loading up and old game just for a brief encounter now and then, while others you have been keeping around for decades and refuse to part with even though you no longer have any meaningful interaction.  The good times you shared make them just too important for you to even consider the thought of not having them around - even if only to look at in your collection once in a while. And although I hate to be the one to break it to you - other people have been playing the games you love!

So, where exactly is this all leading? Today I am your relationship counsellor with a few thoughts to share on how to design games that will have the potential to form an even stronger bond with their players.  

The relationship players have with video games is, for the most part, one of convenience. We use them for our personal pleasure as long as they give us enjoyment. But as soon as we get bored, frustrated or annoyed with a particular game we are quick to cast it aside for one that is newer, different and potentially more exciting. But gamers are perfectly content with this arrangement - and why shouldn't they be? Their needs are being met without feeling compelled to show even the slightest amount of consideration or devotion to any one game. 

Yet the blame for this does not rest entirely with the players but rather should be placed squarely on the doorstep of the game designer. We have been creating games that, for the most part, expect nothing more from the player than to be used as a tool for entertainment. In fact, the majority of games typically make no effort to foster any devotion from the player whatsoever.

Making a connection

Do you remember the name of the last game you played? Even if you do, I'm willing to bet it doesn't remember yours (if it ever even knew it to begin with). Oh, it may have a passing memory of the initials you entered into the high score table and what type of joystick or keyboard configuration you prefer but that's likely about the extent of its interest in you. In fact, most games treat players in the same manner that a domineering boss would treat an employee. Every time you interact with a game it has a propensity to tell you exactly what you need to do in order to succeed and may even give you some guidance on how to go about doing it. You put in the time and effort while it rewards you with a pleasurable or at least temporarily distracting experience. That's it. Most games likely don't even care whether you complete them all the way through or not - let alone whether you play them more than once.  

Even the most enjoyable games are like a restaurant where the servers act indifferent and disinterested but the food is incredible so you keep going back. Conversely, we all have that favorite restaurant we like to go to more frequently than the others, not because the food is the best we've ever tasted, but because we just enjoy being there. The food is tasty enough and reasonably priced and the place has a comfortable homey atmosphere with friendly staff. The server probably even knows your name and how you like your steak prepared and possibly gives you a few extra french fries and serves your salad dressing on the side - just the way you like it. These are the personal touches that ingratiate themselves to us and keep us coming back time and again.

Why then are we content to be satisfied with games that treat us as cold, calculating and un-feeling as the hardware they are being executed on? While computers themselves are little more than collections of circuits, electronic impulses and physical hardware, the programs that run on them have no such limitations. Computer games (and all other programs) have the potential to display as much or as little personality as the game designers chooses to endow them with.

So how can we create better, more caring and thoughtful games with the ability to give the appearance of any type of actual feelings for the player?  

What's in a name?

When is the last time you met someone new, engaged in a lengthy (possibly even heated and intense) interaction with them lasting for hours without knowing each other's names until the end of the engagement? "That conversation was sufficiently satisfying - please let me know your name". Probably never. Whether you were introduced by a mutual friend or acquaintance or met on your own accord, exchanging names likely occurred within the first minute of meeting this person for the first time.

Retro games typically have no interest in knowing your name or who you are unless and until you meet with their approval by achieving a score worthy (in their eyes) of being entered into the high score table. Even then they may only allow you to enter your initials (unless your entire name happens to consist of only three characters). The game is perfectly content to accept any name you give it whether it be real, a nickname, a totally fake name or just your initials. After all, it doesn't know the difference. 

Why not have the game ask for your name at the beginning and then use it to interact with you throughout the course of your gameplay (just as a human would)? If you happen to obtain a high score, the computer already knows your name and can (and should) enter it into the high score table for you (along with giving you a well deserved congratulatory comment - but we'll get into that). For that matter, there is no reason the characters in the game cannot introduce themselves to you at appropriate times as well. "Hello Alysha, I am Xanbach, leader of the resistance army. Welcome to my squad!"

Long time no see

Does your best friend forget your name every time you get together? How about your Mom? Not likely. Maybe the weirdo at work who you bump into once in a blue moon in the lunchroom could be forgiven for not remembering your name but not so for a computer. Hard drives, memory cards and even floppy disks have no problem whatsoever remembering (and performing complex computations on) millions of bytes of information, so even the humble 8-bit micro should be able to recollect the few characters that make up your name (even if your name is Rumpelstiltskin).

Having no vision, the computer may not recognize you right off the bat but the opening menu can easily ask you to either enter your name if you have never played before or select your name from a list of known acquaintances. Right? If it can remember the initials entered into the high score table it has no excuse for not remembering at least a few of the previous humans it has encountered. 

Why then do most games seem to just not give a damn? It is likely an inborn trait passed down to them by their arcade console ancestry. The poor overworked ASTEROIDS or FROGGER cabinet at the local arcade was concerned with one thing and one thing only - making as much money for the arcade owner as quickly as possible. They had no time for pleasantries or idle chit-chat. "Next player! Gimme a quarter for a few minutes of enjoyment. Game over! Now play again or step aside!".  That was the essence of their entire existence. They had a job to do and although video games may seem to be all about fun by their very nature, the arcade game console was all about business.

All this has changed with the invention of the personal home computer - or at least it should have. With the gaming cabinet (ZX Spectrum Next in our case) effectively living with us and sharing our bedrooms every minute of every day, it is far removed from the arcade rat-race. This arrangement offers the perfect environment for games and gamers to take the time to really get to know each other on a personal level - but the game designers need to get on board first.

After entering your name (or selecting it from a list) the game has ample opportunities to foster and nurture the game-gamer relationship. "Welcome to Awesomgame Jimmy! Your quest to vanquish the evil overlord will be difficult but I have no doubt in your abilities. Remember to press "H" at any time if I can offer any help. Good luck and press any key when you are ready to begin your adventure!" Or... "Hey Samantha, welcome back to awesomegame!  I remember you made it to the Crystal tower last time you played. Please come and rescue me from the evil sorceress! Press any key when you are ready to begin."

These messages will differ depending on whether the user is playing for the first time or has played before and whether they are playing the game from the beginning or loading a saved game. 

I have a feeling

Whether at the startup screen, during gameplay or at the end of the game (win or lose), the game itself can make its feelings known to you.  This can be in the form of encouragement, sympathy, derision or any other emotion that fits the circumstance. "Wow Elizabeth, you made it to level 6 last time! I'm sure you can do even better. Let's see if you can reach the crystal garden." OR "Did you really expect to defeat me with such a feeble effort Jacob? You may want to go re-think your strategy before challenging me again." OR "So, Captain Crump. You may have defeated my giant mud monster 'Grubbo' but good luck getting through the next level. It contains a massive twisting maze that you are not likely to escape!"

Do you know what I know?

So far so good. We are now on a first name basis with the game and it has shown that it not only remembers us but has an opinion about our gameplay. But what else does it know about us? Well, it should know a lot - especially about games that are still in progress. A particularly cool technique is to have a meaningful exchange between game levels where the game character not only gives us their opinion, but demonstrates in minute detail that they not only give a damn, but have been paying attention.

"Well Marvellous Marvin, so far you have killed 37 of my troops and destroyed 5 of my structures... but I have a surprise in store for you in the next level!" OR "Jessica! I know you only have 6 life potions and two golden swords left but I'm sure you can reach the sacred chamber."

If your game contains levels or other points that would be appropriate for interjecting a messages from the in-game characters, these are ideal spots to inject some specific details to give the impression that the game character(s) have really taken an interest in you. These details can include elements from your game that change based on the gameplay, random elements or other factors. Some examples could be your character's attributes such as life force, armour, fuel, weapons, level reached, rank achieved, or special items collected, secret rooms found, number and type of monsters encountered (or defeated), etc. 

A little help?

If the characters in the game decide to show any sympathy for you they may offer you advice, hints or suggestions such as "Remember there is a golden key that will open any door" OR "The mighty missile can destroy fortified structures in one shot", etc.

Gameplay evaluation

So now we've gotten past the hand-holding stage in our game-gamer relationship and are looking to the future. You've gotten to know the game somewhat and the game knows more about you too. Remember, our design goal is to create a game that the player will not only be compelled to see through to the end but will hopefully play again and again. If the game shares in the desire for players to make it all the way through and see their end of game screen (or one of several end of game screens), how about if they offer a little advice?

To really put a finishing touch on our exploration of the game-gamer relationship, the game may be programmed to offer the player a gameplay evaluation and relevant advice on how to successfully complete the game.

"You are excellent at avoiding the evil creatures Norbert, but you usually die by falling. Try waiting for the elevator to reach the top of the platforms before jumping" OR "Sarah, you ran out of money to buy troops. Might I suggest building a marketplace sooner in order to generate more gold?"

If the game is able to isolate the key factor(s) that caused the player to fail, that information may be used to generate useful suggestions for the next time they play. Remember, they player can always be given the option to reject such advice. "Slippery Sam, I have some advice which I think might help you next time. You wanna hear it?"

Once the game has been successfully completed, the game may suggest an alternate strategy or enticement to play the game again. "Well done Grace! You defeated the horrible ogre. There are 6 types of monsters you didn't encounter and you missed four secret rooms. Why don't you try again?" OR "That was awesome Speedy Sam! You completed the race with the sportrider car. Why not try again with the dune buggy?"

The human touch

What would a relationship coaching session be without a little role-playing? 

Consider the typical interaction between game and gamer as it would look in real life:

     Player: "Good morning honey."

     Game partner: "Please select breakfast type: cereal, toast or waffles".

     Player: "I'll have waffles please."

     Game partner: "Prepare for meal number one..."   

     Player: "I'm heading off to work now."

     Game partner: "Start car and use steering wheel and control pedals to drive to work."

     Player: "I decided to come home for lunch."

     Game partner: "Prepare for meal number two..."

     Player: "Hi honey I'm back from work. Boy what a rough day."

     Game partner: "Prepare for meal number three..."

     Player: "I'm getting sleepy. I think I'll head off to bed now."

     Game partner: "Day over."

Does that look like the interaction between a couple that will be together for the rest of their lives? We might be surprised if the relationship lasts a week. Yet that is typical of the level of engagement between gamers and most games (retro or otherwise) that have ever been produced.

This little light o' mine

It's time for us to change the way we design video games and stop marginalizing them as a commodity to be consumed at our discretion and used for momentary enjoyment. Let's use the passion, dedication and devotion that drives us to create retro games and make an effort to infuse some of those emotions into our creations to give them the fundamental attributes to allow them to create lasting relationships with the players.

I'm gonna let it shine

While anthropomorphizing video games may be regarded as an exercise in futility that will be ignored or even derided by programmers who "Don't see the point" and gamers who just want to "Play the game already", I believe it is as always a worthwhile effort to inject more humanity into our society - and as game designers, what better way to do that than through our games? 

Let your passion shine through your designs and give your retro games a spark of humanity.

- Spriteworx Team.