Since I quietly reopened this blog, I've been kicking a thought around in my head. It keeps coming back to me, even when I think I've given up on it, so there must be something there. I think I've had trouble figuring out how to write about it, because it seems to touch a lot of things. But I'm going to try.

There's an ongoing question of what drives us. It's been a part of writing this blog over the years; it's part of any deep examination of ourselves and what we do; our behaviors. Games are behavior. Making them is behavior. What's begun to interest me is not so much what games "are," or what they "should be," or why we're compelled to play them or make them, but, being so compelled, what values we uphold when going about these behaviors. What I keep coming back to is the value of respect.

Respect, I think, is at the crux of every interaction we have in life. Respect toward others determines whether a child is bullied or not; whether someone is robbed or not; whether a discussion becomes an argument, or an argument an altercation, or an altercation a murder. Respecting others is seeing yourself in them. Mutual respect between peers is the foundation of a healthy and long-lasting relationship, which leads to everything else. The golden rule. So on and so forth.

These observations are nothing new, but they seem to be at the center of everything in our lives. They determine how we interact with the world, and therefore who we are. And so conducting oneself in a way that shows respect to others would seem to be the utmost value one should uphold in all things. It's worth considering what this means, not just in big, overt interactions like those mentioned above, but in small, indirect ones, too-- how we impact people through what we do, even people we might never meet.

Games are made up of interactions. And the game itself, the artifact, is an interaction between the designer and the player. What is respectfulness in this sphere?

One aspect concerns the rules of the game itself, and how they regard the player. If there is any resource in our lives that has value above all others, it must be time. Time is something we never get back. We live, then we die; how we spend the time in between is the only thing with real, irreplaceable value. All other resources-- money, energy-- are means to the end of spending that time in a way that we find rewarding.

And so any game mechanic that willfully wastes the player's time inherently disrespects the players themselves, by stealing away something they can never get back. This exploitation takes many forms: "grinding," wherein the next gameplay milestone is delayed only by repetitive, meaningless action (a "timesink," as opposed to a meaningful decision or display of skill.) Or unskippable story sequences, requiring the player to watch for minutes just to get to more play, whether they want to or not (this lack of the ability to opt-out serving the storyteller's ego, not the player.) Or the "energy" mechanics in "freemium" games, whereby you can only perform so many actions per hour before you must wait to play more... or spend money to be able to play more right now. In other words, trading your money in exchange for your time. Clearly one of those resources is more inherently valuable to the player than the other; these freemium games exploit this dichotomy willfully, to their own ends, not the player's.

That is what it comes down to: making design decisions in the interest of the player, not the developer. A fair exchange of value is respectful; creating a play experience which is inherently valuable to the player, and requesting a fair price in return is respectful. Taking someone's money with the promise of a valuable experience, then wasting their time or trying to extract more money once they've already paid is just the opposite. Everyone wants to be respected: you, and your players. Uphold your end of the bargain.

It's kind of absurd to have to come all the way back around to this conclusion. All I'm describing is commerce as it's existed for thousands of years. A valuable product for a fair price; any less is a swindle, or robbery. But in this day and age the form that a "product" can take, and the methods by which value can be compromised, are constantly expanding and morphing. It's worth remembering that any decision made expressly in the interest of the developer's personal gain-- "this is so the player will pay more in microtransactions; this is so the player will keep playing longer instead of trading in their game"-- compromises the core value proposition, the thing they've paid for, and breeds a rightly suspicious player. Respect, on the other hand, breeds respect-- customer loyalty, through trust not coercion.

We can show respect to others through many aspects of our lives. In our personal relationships with friends and family, clearly; in our interactions with strangers in public; in supporting equal rights for all people, whether they're exactly like ourselves or not; and, if we're going to develop games, in the experiences we craft for players, and what we ask in return. The respect you give your players will come back to you; it will make having made the thing worthwhile.


Han said...

"Respect, I think, is at the crux of every interaction we have in life."

Couldn't agree more. Excellent piece, ty for writing it.

ronnoc said...

You are a cool dude.

Johnnemann said...

Yes, absolutely, 100%. I think we've already had a Twitter conversation about this, but:

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."

Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. I think it's a very very important way to look at the people and the world around you.

Matt Rix said...

I definitely agree that players should be respected, but I think in some ways the issue is a bit more complex than that. A few months ago I made the argument that a lot of players actually play games because they *want* their time to be wasted: http://struct.ca/2011/in-defence-of-freemium

Hamish said...

Conciseness is a form of respect :) I like this post a lot, but the first paragraph is a bit pointless.

Also isn't DLC a little disrespectful? How do you square your work on Minerva's Den with this:
"Taking someone's money with the promise of a valuable experience, then wasting their time or trying to extract more money once they've already paid is just the opposite"

The single payment model incentivizes conciseness, while the DLC model incentivizes flab and loose ends (thinking about prince of persia 2008).

DLC is less manipulative that freemium. But the logical conclusion of DLC is another nasty payment model: subscription.

Think about World of Warcraft. There the money from the player's subscription is not paying for interesting new content. It's paying for the same content to be stretched out as long as possible, which is why the core game is so dull.

The subscription is the logical extension of the DLC model. DLC in itself isn't as bad as subscription, and subscription isn't as bad as freemium. It has a lot to answer for though.

Nels Anderson said...

Good ol' Adam Saltsman said something similar not long ago, and I agree heartily (on both the Saltsman and Gaynor fronts).

Greg Sanders said...

Hamish: I'd argue that a self-contained additional story DLC package is no more disrespectful than offering a dessert at the end of a meal at an additional price.

It allows those that are hungry for more or particularly intrigued by what the menu is offering to have an extra dish. However, if you did not want a dessert, than having one bundled with your meal would hardly be considered a feature.

I have loved Minerva's Den and Half Life Episodes and I think it's because they offer a self-contained addition to a self-contained traditional length game.

By comparison I was a bit more annoyed with Mass Effect's "Bring Down the Sky" because I bought it after finishing the game and had to go back to a mid-game save point to play it. I'm finally getting to ME2 and have to decide whether I want to recomplete the end-game to have my Bring Down the Sky experience count in ME2. It was a fun mod, I don't regret buying it, but that feels a bit disrespectful in a way that Minerva's Den does not.

Casey Goodrow said...

I was recently having a similar discussion about respect. But the respect we spoke of was not only for the player's time, but for their intelligence. That is to say, let's make sure we don't treat the player like a dum-dum, let's give them the opportunity to think and act and learn. Let's design a set of tools and obstacles that encourage actual play, and from that, modified player behavior.

Play, as in, on the playground. What am I capable of? On the playground and in videogames this requires clear indications of logical cause and effect. Player failure and success should always be an opportunity for a satisfying learning experience, encouraging growth and progress. That's what failure is for, right? It teaches us something. I think generally the simpler the game concept the easier this is to carry out, and so as we construct our games with multiple gameplay systems that (hopefully) effect one another we need to make sure failure provides that opportunity for growth. We don't punish the player because they failed, we punish them because we want them to learn from their failure.

The way the game responds to player failure directly impacts the player's response to that failure. When you die in Bioshock you respawn close to your corpse, the failure is not traumatic because it is not immediately evident that you have lost much due to your mistake. The ammo loss is real, but does it register with the player? In Everquest, when the player died, not only did they leave a corpse with everything on it potentially on the other side of the world, but they also lost experience, experience which could potentially take a very long time to get back. This was very traumatic. The player learns very quickly in Everquest that they must be careful not to die, whereas Bioshock encourages continued carelessness by not providing a traumatic enough punishment for the player to react to. I'm not saying Bioshock should make the player start the level over, or take away their plasmids or something, but the punishment isn't severe enough to make the player stop and think about what they did wrong. They may succeed the next time they push forward, but this may not be due to any growth the player has made through failure. Imagine if the vita-chamber brought you back naked, requiring you to sneak back to your corpse in order to recover your gear and money? Not only would it be awesome to see your own dead body in the game (making the vita-chamber all the more real), but you would also have to evade patrolling splicers along the way, or dispatching of them intelligently with the few plasmids you may have equipped. This would slow things down, give the player a limited number of tools, and force them to use them correctly. Okay, I'm adding another system to the game.... Sorry, I think I've rambled enough.

Respect is good!

Steve gaynor said...

I actually pitched the "corpse run" idea for Bio2 at some point. I think it'd be cool.