It’s not easy planning for player interaction when you don’t have a clue what sort of interaction the player’s going to want. Gamers come in so many flavors: some seek 100% completion, some speedrun, others hunt for glitches and Easter eggs, and, of course, some just want to play and see what happens. Game designers have to be prepared for each and every one of these players, even if they’re only catering to one or two of these play styles.
There are two broad directions game designers can choose to go in as they set up the rules for their game’s level design, gameplay, story structure, and characters. At one end of this scale is game design that limits the player, setting up boundaries within all these elements of design so that all players receive more or less the same, coherent experience of what the game’s like.
At the other end of the scale, game designers can choose instead to encourage the player. They can throw away all boundaries and tell the player to run wild, with only a few basic rules that give the game structure. Each approach comes with its own risks and rewards, and most games tend to fall somewhere in the middle on this scale. Games that slide too far towards either extreme are more likely to fail spectacularly … or perhaps make game design history.
Limiting the Player
The main challenge in limiting the player is doing so without breaking immersion. The easiest way of doing this is simply to use the game’s built-in environment to limit them. This technique is used by virtually any video game that requires the player-character to move and interact with the environment. Solid walls, locked doors, moats of lava or acid, mountains that are too tall to climb, bodies of water that are too wide to cross—all these count as environmental boundaries. Boundaries of this type are an accepted part of the language of video games, and go unquestioned in the same way that ammo drops, save points, and disappearing corpses do. This is not to say they are a perfect solution; when done badly, limiters of this sort are extremely frustrating to players. Some flawed elements of environmental limitation are so pervasive that they have become recognizable tropes, like invisible walls and gateless ghettos.
More intrusive, but simpler from the game designer’s perspective, are messages that flat-out tell the player they cannot do something. Try to wander off the map in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim in one of the few areas not blocked by high mountains and your character will simply stop short on the path while the game displays a message that “You cannot go that way.” (These messages feel especially intrusive in Skyrim as they only appear in a select few places; the rest of the map is surrounded by impossibly high mountains or endless oceans.)
Some games strive so hard to stay ‘in character’ with these messages that the results are unintentionally hilarious. Screw up a certain mission in Assassin’s Creed III and you might even be rewarded with “Desynchronized: You killed George Washington.”
Physical and verbal limitations are not the only ways to limit the player’s interactions with the game. Sometimes games adapt their environments to the player’s progress, with doors or pathways that don’t even become visible to the player until the game determines they’re ready (the logic being you can’t want something you don’t know exists). If designed poorly, however, even in-game limiters can sour the player’s enjoyment and break immersion. Chests that cannot be opened without a certain skill level, overpowered items that the player is banned from using in certain areas, and NPCs who act as blatant mouthpieces for the game’s warning messages are all familiar offenders in this category.
However, if done right, limitations of this sort can not only be made to fit seamlessly into a game, but can become one of the game’s most distinctive elements. The Legend of Zelda series is a perfect example. Not only have these games made an art out of handling the player, but they’ve turned it into an element that players actually embrace (perhaps out of nostalgia?) as a distinctive part of their design style.
Zelda games typically have two types of items that the protagonist, Link, can collect. The first type are “dumb” objects, such as keys or weighted blocks, which are used once to progress from one area to the next and then discarded. The second type are “smart” objects, pieces of equipment such as the bow or bombs, which will be permanently added to Link’s arsenal for the remainder of the game and used in both puzzles and boss fights. It’s a mark of these games’ good design that players feel rewarded when they unlock the hookshot, not just frustrated that it’s taken them so long just to be able to get up to that one tiny ledge with the heart piece.
Encouraging the Player
There is, of course, another approach games can take to handling the player, which is to encourage them to experiment with their environment and to push the boundaries of what the game will allow them to do. Douglas Adams, famed geek and author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its many sequels, was particularly fond of this approach to game design; no surprise, since this no-holds-barred approach to design immediately lends itself to the kind of zany humor that Adams was known for.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text-based adventure game (which you can play for free online, courtesy of the BBC) follows all the rules and conventions of other games of its type, but is especially funny and rewarding for players who get creative with their gameplay—a good thing, as the game is notoriously difficult to beat. (Make sure you feed a sandwich to that random dog in part one, or you’ll be doomed when you finally make it to part nine.)
Crazy humor is an approach embraced by many games, like the screwball Cold War comedy Jazzpunk, reward players with constant jokes and gags for interacting with the environment in creative ways. Other games offer more tangible in-game rewards, such as Beyond Good and Evil, in which the protagonist is paid with pearls (in-game currency) for taking photographs of unique animals found throughout the game, including one-off monsters like level bosses. Other games reward the player with equipment bonuses, powerups, new items, unlockable characters, and a plethora of other goodies simply for exploring and interacting with their environments to the fullest extent.
The growing fad of having official “Achievements” for a game has only fueled this craze for in-depth exploration. For some gamers, completion is no longer simply a status you achieve when the end credits start rolling; it’s a percentage, gauging how many mini-tasks the player has completed within the game. The idea of percentage is not exactly new; how many people spent hours desperately searching for those last dragon eggs in Spyro, or that one missing Gold Skulltula in Ocarina of Time, just to be able to boast of their 100% completion? These days, it’s becoming not only more common for games to keep careful track of a player’s completion percentage, but for them to broadcast these stats to the world. Online friends on the Steam community, for example, can see that percentage of achievements.
The types of achievements games give out have adapted to encourage in-depth interaction as well. While the standard achievements for things like “Complete Stage 5” or “Kill 300 enemies” are still the norm, achievements also exist to lead the player into finding secret rooms, mastering the more obscure functions of certain weapons, or just finding funny stuff the developers wrote into the game.
Portal 2 has an achievement for trying to open a bunch of unlockable doors, an achievement for finding an abandoned ship that has nothing to do with the main plot, and an achievement for throwing yourself to your death when the final boss asks you to. The entertaining stealth platformer Gunpoint not only awards the player for being absurd, but cheekily calls attention to it with achievements like “Might As Well Have An Achievement For That Too” and “Alright, Have One! Just Stop!” (the latter of which only shows up after the game repeatedly assures you that there’s no achievement for repeatedly punching a guard).
Providing the player with complete freedom is risky, however. Games like Scribblenauts invite the player to create absolutely any object they can imagine in order to solve puzzles, gambling their entire success or failure on the encouragement principle. No matter how far games lean towards encouragement, however, they must still retain some sort of structure or the game would be meaningless. Even games such as Minecraft, which features a creative mode in which players can build whatever they want from unlimited materials, still retain the overall game’s rules about material properties and game physics, even as they encourage players to build elevators to the stars.
Most games learn to strike a balance between limiting and encouraging. Too much limitation, and players will become frustrated with what they cannot do; too much freedom, and players will become frustrated by the lack of a challenge. The games that succeed are those which work in the way that players expect them to, and the games that become legendary are those which manage to go further and even surprise the player, all while maintaining a balance between player freedom and game structure.