Don't March, Dance!
Emotions were all the rage in game design circles a few years back, before casual gaming came along to distract us with big pots of money. It was the buzzword du jour; many people thought that if video games exhibited, or elicited -- they're closely related -- more emotions, they would attract bigger audiences. Sony even named the PlayStation 2's CPU the Emotion Engine, which was excessive; but marketing people are shameless.
The simplest games aren't emotionally subtle. Abstract games normally produce only two: the "Yahoo!" of triumph and the "Damn!" of frustration or failure. There are sometimes others: suspense, boredom, relief. More representational, less abstract games evoke additional emotions through the games' characters, situations, and stories -- aesthetic pleasure from great artwork, pathos from sad endings.
Multiplayer games arouse still more because they involve interactions with real people: jealousy, anger, protectiveness. Even though nobody sees emotions as the best way to make bigger sales any longer, games are becoming richer all the time. But it seems to me as if there's one that's missing. I'll illustrate it with an example from another medium.
Back in 1963, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band underwent a revolution. The students took it over from the university. They got rid of the traditional Sousa music and quasi-military uniforms (marching bands are the last remaining vestige of the Napoleonic wars) and replaced them with a huge rock 'n roll repertoire and a decidedly non-uniform getup, one element of which is "the ugliest tie you can get your hands on." New instruments arrived: the drum section now includes a stop sign, a beer keg, and a kitchen sink.
What the LSJUMB lacks in precision it makes up for in exuberance. Aboard airplanes, they're fond of imitating flight attendants' safety instructions en masse. They run everywhere, and turn up without warning to play in unexpected places. Their self-chosen signature tune is Free's "All Right Now" (with a little of Beethoven's Ode to Joy thrown in), which has to be the least aggressive "fight" song in college football. The band's mascot is a dancing pine tree taken from the university's logo, which again contrasts sharply with the usual bears, bulldogs and Trojan soldiers. They are irreverent and incredibly loud, and above all, they don't march, they dance.
The Stanford band is about music and joy. There's plenty of music in video games, but there doesn't seem to be much joy. I can't remember the last time I experienced unalloyed joy when playing a video game. Too much marching and not enough dancing.
But isn't joy just fun by another name? Not quite. Joy is unmixed pleasure. Fun is more complicated. It can include the dark and dangerous. People think it's fun to go to horror movies, but horror movies don't elicit joy. Entertainment is richer still; it doesn't have to be fun at all. Serious movies such as Schindler's List and serious books such as Lolita aren't fun, much less joyful, but they are entertaining. Video games seem to be stuck in the middle.
What kills joy? Almost anything, really; it's fragile. In games, any Twinkie Denial Condition will kill joy (and speaking of Twinkie Denial Conditions, December's column is the annual No Twinkie roundup, so send 'em if you got 'em). Marching kills joy: Grinding. Frustration. Repetition. So does negativity: Ugliness. Cruelty. Fear. Death. These are qualities we associate with hardcore games and with games made for teenage boys, to whom joy is a distinctly uncool emotion.
You might be asking, isn't fun enough? Why go the extra mile to create joy if it's difficult? The first answer is that we should precisely because it's difficult -- one of my favorite quotations for game designers comes from Masaya Matsuura, creator of PaRappa the Rapper and Vib-Ribbon: "Do weird and difficult things." Matsuura-san has made quite a lot of money out of doing exactly that. But apart from the fact that it's a challenge, to realize the full potential of the medium we have to explore the seldom-seen areas.
A few years back I wrote a little piece for GameSetWatch in its My Perfect Game series, in which I described what a joyous game might feel like. One of the comments afterwards suggested it sounded like a mixture of heroin and some sort of hallucinogen. I take that as a compliment, especially as my inspiration for the piece was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But I think video games can create joy without dangerous chemicals.
Borrowing from the Stanford band's approach, here's how we create joyous games:
1. Keep on dancing. The LSJUMB plays with just as much energy when the Stanford team loses as when it wins. Why? Because the point is the playing, not the winning. If the player fails at a challenge in the game, don't allow that to destroy the pleasure of playing. Move on. Keep the game going, keep up the pace and rhythm.
2. Have lots of great, upbeat content. Many marching bands only know a few tunes that they play over and over. Another of the Stanford band's peculiarities is that it carries a folder of 69 songs at all times (out of a library of over 1000), and prides itself on never playing the same song twice in one day, except for "All Right Now." Too many games offer the same gameplay over and over. If you want to make a joyous game, fill it chock-full of wondrous things to see and do -- this was something I tried to show in the GameSetWatch piece. Many development projects spend dozens of man-years creating various forms of ugliness. What might we get if we put the same effort into creating pleasure instead?
3. Give big emotional rewards. The Stanford band is loud -- the only rock band that doesn't use amplification. A lot of games are stingy with their rewards, especially the emotional rewards, which is kind of stupid because they don't cost anything. If you give too big a treasure at the end of a quest, you'll have to rebalance the rest of the game, but there's no harm in giving big emotional rewards. When the player does well, celebrate!
4. Encourage novices. Most bands require that members be skilled musicians before they can join. The LSJUMB's web site says that if you don't know how to play an instrument, that's okay - - turn up at practice and they'll teach you. How awesome is that? The result is necessarily ragged, but the inclusive atmosphere just enlivens the music. Too many games are threatening to novices and intended only for experts. Adopt the same attitude: Don't know how to play? That's okay -- buy the game and we'll teach you! Implement an easy mode, and make sure that it's truly easy. Don't make newbies feel inferior; make them feel welcome.
5. Allow customization -- the more, the better. When the Stanford band is playing at sporting events, it wears a minimal uniform, but the musicians customize this considerably and nobody gets sent home for having something missing. When they're out and about, just about anything goes. It feels good to play with an avatar you've chosen and customized for yourself, particularly if you're allowed to get crazy with it.
6. Reward playfulness. The Stanford band's unofficial motto is, "music is meant to be played, not heard." In other words, the musicians' pleasure of performing outranks the listeners' pleasure of hearing, and the LSJUMB does all kinds of things to please itself. The merits of that approach are debatable -- what works for a college band playing for free doesn't work for professional band playing for money -- but it is absolutely true of video games. They're meant to be played for the player's own enjoyment. If you want to create joy, reward playful experimentation and zany behavior. If the player gets weird, don't punish it, encourage it and get weird right back.
7. You can't sell joy. Joy is not something you can monetize and persuade people to pay for in microtransactions. To make a joyful game you must do it freely from the heart, from a generosity of spirit. Sell the software, sell subscriptions, or however you earn money from your game -- but don't think about money when you're thinking about joy; you'll only get some horrible saccharine caricature of the real thing. The Stanford band brings joy with it whether its members being paid or not.
Music is an essential feature of joyful games, I think, because few things touch our souls so easily and so directly. Personally, I find Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution put a little too much stress on achievement and not enough on sheer exuberance, and to be honest, playing DDR feels more like marching than like dancing to me. But maybe that's because I'm too uncoordinated to play them well. Both, along with PaRappa the Rapper, were revolutionary in the way they integrated music and play.
I don't mean to say that the game has to be about music, though, only that music adds the vibrancy and color that joyfulness needs. Nor does a game have to be joyous all the way through -- like the movie Shrek, which was deeply joyous at the end, there can be a lot of other excitement before it gets there. But when the time comes, let loose! If you don't care for the Stanford band's approach, listen to Three Dog Night singing "Joy to the World" (no, not the Christmas carol), or Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" overture.
This isn't meant to be a put-down of other kinds of games. I would just like to see more games that leave me with a smile on my face. Don't march, dance!