Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

9Jan/105

Why We Play

Why do we play games?

Okay, a stupid question, and a potentially inauspicious start for a new blog, I know.

But bear with me here, because I'm not asking why games in general are played. I think we can all agree that people play games to be entertained, and to pass time enjoyably. My question though, is what is it specifically about the games that you play, that makes them enjoyable to you.

This is a relevant question because different people have wildly different tastes in games, and they seek out the games they do because those games provide the specific stimuli that they want.

So I've been thinking about why I play, and I've come up with different reasons for different sorts of games. I've also realized that an equally or more interesting question is the opposite: "What is not a reason that you play games?" I'm going to start with the latter question, because I think it more clearly contrasts what different people want from games when you consider what they don't care about.

So, what are not reasons why I play games?

Challenge

With few exceptions, I don't play games to be challenged. I don't care if a game is easy, or even trivial, so long as it is a lot of fun to interact with. That's not to say that I can't enjoy a challenge, or that I don't enjoy overcoming obstacles. One of my favorite things in a game is a strong tactical component, where your decisions matter, and efficient use of the resources at your disposal is crucial to victory.

My point is simply that while some people dislike games when they are "too easy," I do not. I can enjoy a game even if it does not pose a challenge to me, though the opposite is not always true, and a game that is very difficult is not a game I am likely to play for very long unless it's truly exceptional, because I do not play games to be frustrated.

Competition

I don't like to play against other people. I don't like beating others, because I actually tend to feel bad for them, like I'm "ruining" their game; and I don't like being beaten by others, because I tend to get annoyed with myself. I do play against people sometimes, of course, in certain first person shooters and strategy games, but if I do, it's almost always in a team-based scenario. The cooperative aspect of working together with my teammates counteracts the fact that I'm playing against someone else, but it is still something I do rarely.

On the topic of competition, and to help illustrate how differently we view what's important in a game, a friend of mine recently became obsessed with Trials HD on the Xbox 360. The thing is, he doesn't actually like the gameplay all that much, but because the game compares his scores to the people on his friends list, and shows him how far ahead they are in any challenge, he's decided that he has to outdo all of them. And so, he replays the same levels over and over, until he has bested every single person on his friends list.

Now, I'm not saying that his approach is wrong, just that it would never occur to me to set a goal like that for myself, because competition is not something I look for in a game, while to him it's literally the only reason to play this game.

And what are some reasons I do play games?

Fun Gameplay

This one is a no-brainer. A game with fun mechanics is simply a joy to play, and gets to the core of why we play games, as I said at the start of this post.

Fun gameplay on its own is a huge draw for me, even if that play doesn't have much of a point or goal. At that point a game becomes a toy of sorts, and I think there is a lot of value in being able to just have fun using systems given you. A good example in my case is a game like the first Assassin's Creed. A game with too little content (see below) where the tasks given to you become stale very quickly, and after a point, never really give you very good incentive to keep doing them.

However, I found climbing around in that game exhilarating. The most fun I had in the whole game was just running across rooftops, scaling buildings with ease, and finding great views to enjoy. The game became a climbing toy for me, which makes sense because I have a bit of an obsession with open world games with full freedom of movement and exploration. In fact this very obsession made me ultimately disenchanted with GTA IV (which is a far better game overall than the first Assassin's Creed) simply because I couldn't easily explore the vertical heights of the city; and if I did somehow get on top of a building, I had no way to safely get down because the game didn't have parachutes, unlike its predecessor: San Andreas.

Content

One of the biggest reasons I play games, and the only reason why I would finish a game, is to see what content it has to offer. By content, I mean anything that is not immediately available to you at the start of the game. This can include a large open world to explore, new art to see, cool level designs or enemies, even fresh game mechanics, and above all story.

A good story has the greatest potential to keep me going after the gameplay of a game has become familiar or even stale, and the reason why is fairly obvious: because I want to see what happens. Maybe I have come to care about the characters or the world, and I want to see and influence their fate. If I feel like I have actual choices with consequences, and can actually influence what content it is I see, then that's even better.

In this way, story and other gradually revealed content (and this can include more advanced game mechanics that become available later in the game) serve as the carrot that pulls me along and makes me stay with the game. Without this carrot, I tend to lose interest even in good games after a while, partly because there are always more games to try, and I feel intensely curious (and almost dutibound) to play every game I can.

To Create

I love games that let me build things. The biggest strength of video games is that they let you do things you can't do in real life, and this includes the ability to create on a scale you never could otherwise.

Whether it's building an ideal city in the Sim City series, or a sprawling empire in the Civilization games, I am drawn to games that let me play architect to some physical or societal system that I can't affect in real life. There is a great sense of accomplishment to building up your creation, and it goes hand in hand with the next reason why I play games...

To See Numbers Go Up

It may sound silly, but I love to see numbers go up. Just like the feeling of accomplishment you feel when your city becomes a sprawling, self-sufficient metropolis, or your empire spans an entire continent, seeing a character you created advance and become more and more badass is a great feeling, and one I seek out all the time.

Playing an RPG, I love optimizing my characters to be as powerful as they can be. I love seeing their levels go up, their attributes increase, new skills get unlocked.

The RPG is probably my favorite broad genre of game, and if you consider the previous things I listed as being important to me in a game, it makes perfect sense why, and why seeing numbers go up is so pleasing to me:

  • When an RPG character's numbers go up, that character unlocks new potential and new abilities, in other words, fresh content.
  • New abilities and a stronger character helps create and maintain fun gameplay, as I can now use new strategies, and overcome new obstacles.
  • The character is growing, being built up and shaped by me into something unique and powerful
To Work Together Towards a Common Goal

The last thing on my list is a little different from the rest, because it has to do specifically with multiplayer games. As I said earlier, I have no desire to play multiplayer games competitively, but I absolutely love working together with a friend in an online game. It's something I've been trying for years, with mixed success, since robust cooperative experiences have only recently become common, with things like the excellent team play of Civilization 4, Left4Dead, or Horde mode in Gears of War 2.

I also used to play WoW. In fact, I used to play it a lot.

I was in a raiding guild for over a year, and I was the raid leader for most of that. At the time, working together with a group of people that I had come to know and regard as friends was an amazing feeling. A huge group of us would come together, and in between the witty banter and hilarious inside jokes, we would fight against incredibly powerful foes, and come out on top. There is a reason why WoW is such a hugely addictive game for some people, and it's because the chance to accomplish something epic with a tightly knit group of friends does not often present itself in real life.

In smaller scale games, cooperative play is still a great deal of fun, because there is a satisfaction in being able to help your friends, and have them help you, and it's also a great way to keep in touch with people you can no longer see regularly in real life.

Wow, this turned out long

Sorry about that, but I hope you found my reasons for playing games interesting, if only for the ways in which they differ from your own.

How about you, then?

What is it in a game that makes you play it, and what sort of things do you not care about at all?

Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Why: Freedom, and attaining ever-more-satisfying levels of control (mechanic-wise as well as on a macro level as you gain control of a world)
    Why don’t: Escapism, someone else’s story, non-local multiplayer

  2. I primarily play for competition and challenge, and will not play for storyline.

    I’d like to hear your ideas on that game you’ve had in your head for years.

  3. I start playing most games for the game mechanics or story and stick around for the competition, either against computers or other humans. I agree that multiplayer over the internet is lacking when compared to hotseat, LAN, or split screen multiplayer. Something about having everyone together in one room just makes the whole experience more enjoyable.

    I’m also a huge nerd when it comes to games with their own complex, internally consistent, world. Am I the only one that enjoyed reading the codex entries in Dragon Age and Mass Effect?

  4. Ah yes, the Codex that Bioware has been adding to their games is a great addition for us story and setting-philes. The Codex was a big part of what kept me playing Mass Effect, because their conception of the world was so solid and cohesive that it made me want to discover all there was to know, despite the fact that I didn’t like the combat in that game at all.

    Of course, Dragon Age didn’t have that problem (I love the tactical combat system there), but reading the Codex and getting a better appreciation for the lore was still something I really enjoyed.

  5. I play for the competition aspect in the multi-player games like MoW2. Although it always makes me angry when I have a bad match and some jackass on live decides to say over their mike how much I suck… I mean I do suck but you don’t have to be rude about it!!

    I mostly play games though for story and fun gameplay. A game can also have a strong story but weak gameplay and I’ll still play it as long as its not frustratingly weak.(Majority of the Silent Hill games) Same for games that have a weak story but strong gameplay element. (I guess I could say God of War series for this, but only because its not a particularly deep story. Just a story filled with a bloodthirst for revenge)

    I was going to say something else here but completely forgot…. : (


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