I find myself asking a question that should be at the core of game design: what do gamers want?
I don’t want the answer given by market demographics and sales figures. Sure, games make money, and the companies that publish them have profit as their end goal, but why should that also be the end goal for the audience? People don’t buy movie tickets because they like MGM or New Line Cinema; they buy them because they enjoy the adventures of James Bond or Bilbo Baggins. Likewise, most gamers are not going to putting down cash to save Bungie or Ubisoft or EA; they’ll pay their money to slip into the role of Master Chief or Ezio Auditore or Commander Shepard. But outside of established franchises, what is it that gamers want out of their games? Simply to feel empowered? To live out some fantasy? To save the world?
All you have to do is look at charities like Child’s Play and Extra Life to see that gamers do, in fact, want to save the world. Or at least part of it. They back Kickstarters for new titles that break away from the iterative sequels of the industry. Looking at some of the top games of the past year – Dishonored, FarCry 3, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead, Journey – I see a trend that has nothing to do with marketing or sales emerging. Gamers don’t want to just save the world, they want to change it.
Specifically, they want their choices within a game to matter. As much as I’ve enjoyed playing Skyrim in the past (and still need to check out its DLC), it was difficult at times to feel my character was having much of an impact on the world. Sure, you can take down dragons and rescue people, but there’s little sense of those actions having significance. No matter how many battles you win or spells you learn, there will be some guard you encounter who will tell you about a certain leg injury. Likewise, Ezio can rebuild Rome or Constantinople in the later Assassin’s Creed games of his time, but the townsfolk or guards never treat him more favorably for his hard work and service. Maybe that’s part of being an anonymous assassin?
By contrast, look at Alpha Protocol. While not the best shooter/RPG ever made, it is way up on my list of favorites, mostly because the choices you make have consequences. Your conversations and attitudes are remembered. You make an impact in the cities you visit. You, in short, change the world. I am of the opinion that more games should aim to allow for this.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re playing a game based in a city. During the course of the game, an action is undertaken that results in a building catching fire. In my mind, the game would be doing its job right if, after the mission or whatever is concluded, that building stays burnt. Every time the character walks by it, he or she sees the blackened walls, the shattered windows, the marred signage. The building is a husk of its former self, and passers by on the street may even comment on it. And if the player caused the blaze, their character should at least get some dirty looks.
I don’t think we see enough of that in gaming. We don’t see real consequences for the choices a player makes. We don’t give players enough opportunities to break away from some of gaming’s more blatant linearity. Gaming is a medium in which the audience of the story being told is also a participant in that story. Few games truly embrace this, and instead lean towards exposition dumps and flavor text to fill in any story gaps a curious player may feel are missing. I hope we see more games in the future that make the effort to involve the player in their story, rather than treat said player as a source for cash to fuel microtransactions. Because as much as persistent environmental alterations within the game world may not suit every game, bringing the experience to a halt to remind us that our hero’s special hat is available for a mere 520 Microsoft Points doesn’t either.