Fairly Unfair

Have been working hard on You Say Jump I Say How High (thinking of dropping the comma! Big news!) and seem to be at least a bit more on track. At the very least it no longer feels like the world is going to end and I am going to be fired from my unpaid, unsolicited, unreal job as a game maker. One of the oddities of getting (most of) the pseudo physics of the game working is that I’ve had to turn my attention a little more toward the “outward facing” aspect of the physics of the game – that is, how will the player deal with what I’ve done. As someone who once boldly proclaimed “fuck the player!” at GameJam last year, I’m surprised by how much I’ve been thinking about this issue.

It all revolves around this issue of “fairness” in games, which is something of particular interest to me at my current point in making them. The idea being that was passes for fairness is often actually games bending over backward for players and constantly worrying about whether they’re having a good time. “Do you feel powerful enough?” “Do you need a new glowing helmet?” And so on. It’s worth reacting against this trend (or any trend, really). And I did so with games like ZORBA, which you can’t win, and Safety Instructions, which is very difficult unless you’re a touch typist, and so on. Most of the games I made, actually, were kind of the antithesis of power fantasies. See: being tied to a rock and having an eagle peck out your liver for the most reason example.

But this year I’ve grown interested in looking at other elements, and something I’m particularly intrigued by is the whole thing of games as systems set up by a developer and then interacted with by the player. I wanted to make a game that kind of shifted the burden of setup a bit, with the idea that this would be “interesting” for the player to have to deal with, and would also serve as a kind of revelation about part of what games are made of. A hidden bastard of this approach was that I still had to make the entire system and understand it really well to make the game – something I have no real experience in, so it’s taken forever.

But the other oddity of making a game in which the player is enlisted in the process of game design itself (in this case through tweaking physics parameters) is the question of fairness. Is it fair to just say “well, here are the variables you can set, now set them and see what happens!”? More specifically, how much of a point of reference does the player deserve prior to setting the values? Should they know that a mass of 1 is very light and a mass of 1000 is very high? Or should it be indicated to them? Should they know at what level of force a tile will break underneath them, or should they just have to fiddle until it works?

I’ve oscillated between a version of “fuck the player!” in which I explain absolutely nothing and perhaps even randomise the initial conditions, and a version where I’m more considerate and try to make the system more predictable and “true to life”. For instance by trying to give units to the different qualities and relatively reasonable values at which different things happen. It’s a tough call, basically, because I don’t like the idea of people weeping with frustration and not playing at all, but also don’t like the idea of doing the work to make the game all that accessible – it was meant to be a quick project and has taken a lot longer than it should have.

In short: uh oh, player – it’s not looking good for you.

3 February 2012
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