Some basic game design theory

My last blog post reminded me of my childhood and probably the main reason why I was so fascinated by video games and this was that in video games you could do anything you want, full freedom of choice. Well in reality you probably have more freedom of choice then you can ever have in a video game, but that is because of technical limitations, the real problem with reality however is, that reality has harsh consequences, that you might not want to deal with. So the reason why video games were so cool was, that you had freedom of choice to do the things you could not do in real life.

This is probably also the reason, that videos games are often very violent or about being crazy and or criminal. I mean think about it, if you can do it in real life, why would you need a video game about it? This is probably the main reason video games exist. There may be other reasons like convenience, but I see it more as a threshold as to if you can or want to do it in real life or not. For example you might want to play soccer, but the weather is bad, so you chose the convenient option and play soccer in a video game. Of course there are also things you never can do in real life that you can do in video games, like exploring fantasy worlds.

While writing about all the bad game design choices I started to realize a common problem in many of them, but this can only be understood if you know some of the basics behind why video games exist. For example lets look at the postulation that video games exist to do things that you cannot do in real life. Therefore good game design is, if you make a game that is good at doing things you cannot do in real life and bad game design is, when you make a game that gives you artificial limitations just like they exist in real life. Sure some limitations need to exist in video games as well, otherwise it would be boring and not realistic, but the player does not really want to deal with those limitations, he wants to overcome them and not deal with the negative consequences or deal with them in a limited amount.

For example in real life there are lots of things you want, but cannot afford to buy, but in a video game you can get them for free or some games let you steal them. for which of course you will be punished in the video game, but you don't have to sit in prison for real or for long, in a video game you can just skip it. We can already see here how different games appeal to different experiences the user wants to have in that game, some people just want to have a race car instantly and drive it in races and some games appeal to the experience that you can steal those cars. Even in an example of a real life simulator where you have to work for everything, it is still a game, since maybe the time you have to do it is greatly reduced, so you can simulate a game of life in a few hours,days,weeks or months. So some people like to have the experience of having things instantly, others like the experience of getting things in a criminal way and some people like the experience of working for the things they want, but don't want to deal with real life time spans, they just want a short simulation.

I just came up with probably an even better explanation why games exist and it is about desire fulfillment. Every human has desires and some or a lot of them, cannot be fulfilled in real life, because of limitations of the person or the world or by time, this is where video games come in, to at least give people a good simulation of their desires being fulfilled.

And now I came up with probably an even better explanation about what bad game design is in general: Look at it from the desire perspective, the customer resorts to a video game, because he has desires he wants to have fulfilled and a well designed game will fulfill the desire the customer wants. Now let's look at all the bad game design choices, what do they all or many of them have in common? They make the experience worse for the customer and often this is even by design. So many video games today are intentionally designed to give the customer the worst experience the developers can get away with. Why the hell would anyone do that? The reason is simple: Money. And how the hell would that even work? Are people total idiots to tolerate that? Well maybe, but maybe they are being tricked into it. Let me tell you how it works. Look at some of the worst and most common things I listed in my blog posts about "Bad game design choices" like: Pay2Win, Loot Boxes, Cosmetics, Gambling, Unlocking system and some more I did not list yet. What do they all have in common? Well they make the game experience worse for the customer and what is needed to make it good again? The customer has to pay additional money.

This is how game design in a profit oriented capitalistic system works, products are only made just good enough so the customer will still buy them and does not complain too much and the lack of quality is made up with manipulating the customers through marketing into still buying the inferior quality products. A typical method in Pay To Win or Free To Play games is to make the initial experience really good and only make it worse over time, so the customer is already addicted, but to get the good experience in the long run he has to pay to make his experience good again.

Some of the things I wrote about as being bad game design have a different purpose and this is to make the customers experience of the game "better". I put it in quotes, because it is not really better, it is just made to make the customer feel better, while not actually improving the game. This is done by making the game so easy that the customer feels he is a good player at anytime. From the bad game design choices I listed the following fall into this category: Minimap, Pay to Win, Quest Markers, Achievements, Unlocking system, Pseudo RPG, all those things make the game easier and prevent the customer from failing. This is bad, because not the actual game is improved, but only the ego of the customer is boosted. This method is kind of clever since it circumvents all the hard work that is needed to make an actually good product that in turn makes the customer feel good, by directly making the customer feel good without improving the actual product.

So on one hand you have methods to make the customer feel worse, to motivate him to spend money and on the other hand you have methods to make the customer feel better, so he stays in the game. If you know this formula you can figure out by yourself all the bad game design choices I already wrote about and probably all that exist I did not wrote about or all that will exist in the future. I probably discovered the ultimate bad game design formula here. This is all you need to know as a developer to make an as badly designed game as you can get away with.

One could also argue from the capitalism criticism standpoint and postulate that all this is because of capitalism alone, since capitalism needs to maximize profit, which is not possible, when you actually spend resources into making a good product that makes the customer feel too good, since the better the product is and the better the customer feels, the less other products the customer will buy. The other extreme also does not work, if the product is obviously bad, the customer will not buy it either, so in capitalism it is always about making it as bad as you can get away with. Capitalism intentionally makes people feel worse, so they buy products to make them feel well again, this can also be seen in the video game industry very well. A Pay to Win game initially makes the customer feel good, then later it makes him feel bad and when he pays money it makes him feel good again and then the cycle repeats.

Further one could argue that in capitalism all products are inferior, because of the previously listed problems about how it is all about making profit. I wanted to say here that the solution would be open source games, but considering what the alternative actually is in real life, it is actually much worse than what the supposedly so bad capitalism produces. In the open source scene what you will primarily see is stagnation, since there is no motivation to produce good software or good games in this example, because there is no profit to be made and not even honor to be gained as I experienced myself that all the work I put into developing a free open source game was not only not thanked for by the open source community, but I was even bullied and banned in a lot of places, which is of course also not motivating.

So my conclusion is not that anti capitalistic as I planned to put it, since good work needs to be paid well or at least honored well otherwise nobody has the motivation to make good products or good games in this case, but really I don't know what the root problem is, most is probably just human defects as most or all of the problems I talk about could easily be solved, but people willingly refuse to do so through their ignorance.

For me personally games become more and more pointless in our "modern" age, since the initial spirit where you could do in video games what you could not do in real life gets reduced more and more, by putting in artificial limitations that cost real life money. Most people somehow do not seem to understand that in the virtual world there is no need for all the limitations and restrictions that you already have in real life, yes of course most people will now argue that you pay for the development and maintenance costs like servers, traffic etc, but they all probably have no clue how little money those things actually cost and how little actual work the developers put in.

If games become serious like real life, there is no point anymore to have them, since then playing real life again may give you a better experience. As an artist I see game development as a visualization tool, I can create anything that I want in the virtual world, there are no limitations and I cannot understand why so many people today put in artificial limitations into the virtual world and/or bring the problems of the real world into the virtual world as well, so you cannot even use video games as escapism anymore and therefore the main reason why we invented video games is destroyed.

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