Several opinions about game design are offered by various people in a recent piece in The New Yorker profiling famous video game guy Sid Meier. The article is worth the read even if you have never played one of Meier's games, but many of the opinions in it are things I believe the exact opposite of. The perspective it offers is cohesive and consistent, which is not always the case with games writing and having all of these ideas in one place makes them easier to dissect. Also, I love Civilization, so I am appreciative of the fact that a guy of Meier's age and with his interest in niche strategy games, a genre that often attracts some of the most annoying people ever, is not offering up much worse thoughts here.
The article's many opinions, largely from Sid, arrive at the same whole entertainment in general is stuck in right now: Give the people what they want. With respect to games, they should be fun, first and foremost, with emphasis on what the player will enjoy before what the creator wants to make.
Meanwhile, Meier had started working with Shelley, the board- game designer, who gently nit-picked Meier's sprawling world-building. In early versions of Railroad Tycoon, for instance, bridges would randomly wash out in floods, just like in real life. The hazard turned out to be more punishing than interesting. "Bruce reminded me of one of my own axioms of game design," Meier recalls. "Make sure the player is the one having fun."
An assertion just ahead takes this to its logical endpoint: Creators should essentially be invisible, so that players can live inside systems and worlds without having to think about who made the game and why. Games are for consuming the same way McNuggets are best enjoyed without thinking too much about where they came from.
Game designers want to impress the players, Meier knew, but players want to impress themselves. "The game isn't supposed to be about us," Meier - of Sid Meier's Civilization - writes, without irony. "The player must be the star, and the designer as close to invisible as possible.
The topic of modding games comes up: Is it bad because it sullies the aesthetic and intent of the game or good because it gives the player a framework from which to make something even more like what they want?
These video-game enthusiasts were about to leap into the car and drive. By 1996, the public Internet was in full swing, and Meier had handed over Civilization, and his name, to other coders. Brian Reynolds, one of the lead designers on Civilization II, followed the example of the first-person shooter Doom, and built a back door that allowed fans to pack new sounds, art, and even mechanics into the game. Meier fretted. “They would probably be terrible at it, I thought, and blame us for their uninspired creations,” he writes. “And if by chance they did happen to be good at it, then all we were doing was putting ourselves out of a job.” The older game designer was now the uneasy parent, looking on as his children ran amok. But Meier ended up seeing that he was “wrong on all counts,” he writes. “The strength of the modding community is, instead, the very reason the series survived.” And, it’s why the label “Sid Meier” lives on, too.
Players shouldn't just be the stars, they should be able to insert themselves and their ideas into games. (It feels like a cheap shot to point out that they are almost then creators themselves, capable of making changes for their own use but also sharing those mods online, and implicitly encouraged to have more autonomy than the people who originally made the game.)
Another observation is that games -- well, AAA games -- have become so large and complicated that the solo developer model is now a thing of the past. Games must be incoherent, with mechanics that don't complement each other and nonsensical stories1, and forever unfinished because...
These player communities transformed the rhythm of game design. The task of making today’s blockbuster games—the zombie-apocalypse saga The Last of Us, for example—doesn’t square with the one-man-band approach that Meier and his Atari peers used half a century ago. The journalist Jason Schreier recently catalogued this turn in his book “Blood, Sweat, and Pixels.” Again and again, Schreier watches platoons of illustrators, coders, sound designers, and producers struggle in the trenches for years before a game’s launch, and then scramble for years afterward to meet player demands with a fog of patches and updates.
Finally, a game can only reach its peak when players are able to do what they will with it.
When Sid Meier began tinkering with a new game, thirty years ago, his hope was that players would see themselves in his version of our planet. It was when the audience could watch one another tinker, too, that the planet became a world.
I suppose it's one thing if this is a person's individual approach to development, but seeing the ways it has crept into music, movies, TV, literature, etc., it's clearly an approach The Market rewards and prioritizes. Publishers minimize the risks they take when existing "IPs" only recycle what's already known to work, creators protect their egos when they listen to fans, and fans get to feel the power that comes from demanding (and then receiving) what they say they want. And look, it would be absurd to pretend this is completely new or that the system worked any better in the past -- but this is where we are now, so it's what I'm complaining about. Criticism of this trend isn't unique, either, and you can go find it being made by any number of grumpy music and TV/film critics about their respective interests. Video games criticism is a bit different, at least for most of its history. Writing about games has basically always happened either in industry-influenced/run publications or scattered across message boards and blog posts. No "fanzines for games" on the level of, like, the entirety of music subculture2. This lack of subculture makes coverage of the medium full of glad-handing stooges and comic book guys uninterested in anything besides collecting and comparing. There's a lot of trash that can be talked about Heads in music and film, but you will find substantially more people in those places asking meta and aesthetic questions about what's happening in, say, hardcore, and those questions going on to influence hardcore, than you will in video games. Maybe this isn't a better way of doing things, but it's different! I feel so much whiplash going from relatively sophisticated games writing on a site like Rock Paper Shotgun to even a casual, throwaway discussion of hardcore on the podcast Axe to Grind3.
So, what's the alternative to the AAA developer afraid of its fans and/or the superfamous solo dev like Sid who could do anything he wants, except that what he wants is to give the people what they want?
There are a few alternatives out there, but let's look at two: Dark Souls (and developer FromSoftware) and Stardew Valley (and developer ConcernedApe).
FromSoftware's Dark Souls, Sekiro, and Bloodborne sit on the edge of many conversations like this about video games.4 The presence of the developer is evident throughout the games. This is first noticed in their infamous, but discussed to death, difficulty. "Who would make this? Why are they doing this to me?" Progressing through these games leaves an engaged player wondering, "Where did this come from?" Sid wants players to avoid even thinking about a Higher Power, but From is always reminding you in every way possible that the intricately designed world you are in was, of course, Designed. They don't do this just through bruteforce difficulty, or intricately woven fragments of lore in the environment5, but little jokes on the player. When you are halfway between bonfires and moving across a narrow ledge you're not really sure is necessary to explore and then attacked by rats behind two sets of boxes, it's very funny to get to the third set of boxes and there to be no rats but a useless item. It's Old Testament stuff in its cruelty and comedy. Playing these games, you can really see how a human being several thousand years ago had some real bullshit happen to them and decided it must be because of a god. What kind of random universe would allow this comical suffering to happen over and over again? To, perhaps, even be all life is?
While Bloodborne and Sekiro exist independent of the Dark Souls lore, they are part of the series on a meta level. As time goes on, each game seems to be trying to solve the fundamental combat problem in Souls games: What happens if the player just runs away from the boss and hits the boss when the boss leaves an opening? Bloodborne tries to fix this by making the combat faster, requiring a gun to parry rather than a (much more protective) shield and using the eldritch nature of its bosses to justify unpredictable movements and disorienting magic. Sekiro takes this a step further and says, "No, avoiding the boss isn't even an option anymore. You must use our deflection mechanic, which means the boss must be allowed to make contact with you, repeatedly, but not too much (or you will die)." This progression again reminds the player that FromSoftware is there, watching them, seeing how the games are played, and then making choices they think are best to continue to improve the games as they think the games should be improved. Consciously, the player is just like, "Oh, another difficult FromSoft game," but unconsciously they must know the difficulty is only possible through deliberate changes made without consulting them.
One might then think of this in terms of "special snowflake millennials just want everything on ezmode for them, only the truly worthy are capable of beating these games" but that would be a mistake. The intentional difficulty of FromSoftware's games, and the obsessive attention to detail in their art and storytelling, is a gift to players. It's a surprise, saying, "Here, you wanted this, but if we asked you specifically what you wanted ahead of time and then gave that to you, it would be less fun." That's not an approach for everyone, and no gift is for everyone, but to the people who want it (whether they go into it knowing they want it or not), it is fantastic. The kindness of this gift is wasted when someone who likes these games puts down someone else for not enjoying them or not "being good" at them, because the power of the gift is that it is, by its nature, not for everyone. When I see Midir and think, "Cool dragon" only later to read exactly how cool it is, I am so appreciative of it and the person who made it. That experience doesn't need to get anyone else out of bed in the morning, but that kind of thing defines these games and is not possible through "listening to players" because I can't possibly know ahead of time that I want a dragon made by such a psycho!
A common recent argument over FromSoftware games is some version of a difficulty slider. Should there be an "easy mode"? On a rational level, it makes no difference to me whether there is or is not an easy mode. I could choose to use it or not. But, on whatever imperfect emotional level we engage with art, I would be a little disappointed to see an easier difficulty added to their games (at least if one were patched into the old ones, as they shipped largely how they were meant to be played). Of course, another way to look at it is that the games are flexible enough that you can make them much harder than the baseline difficulty, if you so choose, so playing the "default" game is essentially the easy mode. This is especially true in Sekiro, where the game has builtin at least a couple optional interactions that will make Sekiro much more difficult if the player desires. Once again, From makes a sadistic joke at the expense of player ego: The series culminates with Sekiro, where you have only ever played the easy mode unless you are first even aware you can make it harder and then also choose to do that.
If Sid's approach was applied to From's games, they would be any other action RPG outside of something like Zelda6. It's possible that they could go the Diablo 3 route, an initially disastrous title that has, through constant iteration and player feedback, become something like the Steve Vai of loot-based ARPGs -- impossibly smooth, fluid, and luxurious. More likely, they would make another forgettable entry in a genre full of uninspired, paint-by-numbers hackjobs.
The other developer to consider here is ConcernedApe, the notorious loner who spent years of his life taking tickets at a movie theater while he worked on his passion project, Stardew Valley. He made the art, sound, mechanics, coding, and story for a wonderful game inspired by classics like Harvest Moon. There are a few things to consider with Stardew.
Because Stardew is the work of one person, there is no confusion in the end product resulting from internal disputes, multiple teams, and so on. It's just a guy doing his thing. No guy is going to be the best at everything, so there are weaker aspects to the game (mostly the writing) that a bigger developer could have given to people whose job it is just to write. But, if Stardew was too perfect, or was trying to be, it wouldn't be Stardew: a sentimental love-letter to farming and adventuring games of old.
While ConcernedApe has added so-called quality of life features over time as players (and he himself) have found certain parts of the game repetitive or clumsy, he's also flatly told players he will not be adding some requests to the game. One exchange that stands out to me is when a player wanted more automation added to the game -- ways to streamline their farm and reduce the amount of time they would spend on busywork. CA's response was basically: That's a different genre of game and not what I want Stardew to be. A totally fair and direct response, but also counter to the idea that the player knows best. The QOL changes he's made to Stardew over the years do not change the fundamental intent of the game, nor do they alter its spirit. It would be tempting to acquiesce more than he has, given how much the fanbase already loves him and the game. The game would be less loved if it was not so his vision, sure, but it would also be easy for him to relinquish some of his authority in exchange for likely temporary positive feedback.
Stardew doesn't incorporate every player idea, but ConcernedApe does listen to a lot of what older games in the genre have to say. He's still made his own game, absolutely, but his game is a survey of many classics and genre favorites. In this sense, he's still listening to what other people have to say, but his sources are other artistic endeavors rather than what some guy on the street claims to want. This, again, makes for a better game.
Finally, Stardew actually allows mods! ConcernedApe allows players to add or subtract whatever they'd like from the game, just like Sid says is good to do. I have used some of these mods and they're really cool player-made projects, but I find they ultimately take away from what I like best about Stardew: It's just one guy's thing.
Both Stardew and Souls games can be thought of as a Bible that is the literal Word of God. He may be speaking through others at times, but these games are ultimately self-contained entities made whole of a single vision: The Lord in Heaven Above. Contrast that with the Sid Meier approach, which is full of reviews and revisions from various councils and editors and writers over time. These works aren't the literal Word of God, and their followers would never pretend otherwise; they are made by the soft-minded undogmatic half-believers reviled by fundamentalists the world over. This latter category of game has basically given up the way liberal interpretations of the actual Bible have: Yeah, sure, none of this text really makes any sense, hundreds of guys have gotten their paws all over it and made it contradictory and weird, and any meaning it might actually have has been left to, God forbid, the individual himself to interpret. FromSoftware says, "This Garden of Eden business actually fucking happened exactly like the Bible says. Don't like it? Go tell it to a Unitarian who cares." It's totally true that it is there is no sane way to read Genesis literally in the modern world and that of course the Bible is full of nonsensical contradictions. Really, the soft-minded undogmatic half-believers are closer to being right!
But... they're just so unromantic and so empty.
This is a topic too outside the scope of this post, but consider how games originated as a form of entertainment for kids whose families could afford them and how that kind of person is fundamentally different from, say, the kind of person who could survive as a musician in the UK due to their welfare programs. What kind of things do relatively well-off but not ridiculously wealthy people tend to go for? Is their taste good or bad? How do they expect to be treated by people they are giving money to? What is The Fall (the band, but maybe also the book given Camus's origin) of video games? ↩︎
This is another longer discussion, but I think a lot of the problems faced by games writing come from the fact that if you want to write about big games, you're essentially talking about superhero movies. There just isn't much to say! You could use every review to ask why such and such AAA game is forcing a ham-fisted, CIA-backed, and fascistic worldview on us, but is that any better than every review saying, "Well, the menus could be a bit clearer"? ↩︎
It shouldn't be shocking that From Software is often treated synonymously with a single person, Hidetaka Miyazki. This isn't fair to the other people at the company who are I am sure just as meticulous, but the fact that it's even believable at all that this one guy made these games is only an endorsement of everyone else's work on them -- it's really hard to get something dozens of people worked on to seem coherent and intentional! ↩︎
Nintendo is also known for not listening to players and basically doing whatever they want in their games, for better or worse. Zelda is a huge influence on the Souls series in many ways, including the deliberate distance between players and creators. ↩︎