Game Designers in Detail: Chris Bell

In preparation for the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference, we are publishing long-form interviews with some of the amazing designers that will be speaking at the event.

The PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference runs this weekend, November 9-11 2012. http://gamecenter.nyu.edu/practice/

In this interview, MFA student Shervin Ghazazani interviews Chris Bell, an experimental Game Designer in San Francisco, California whose games have received awards and nominations at festivals including the IGF, IndieCade, and Games for Change, and in January of 2012, earned him a spot in Forbes Magazine’s list of top 30 innovators in Entertainment under the age of 30.

Shervin Ghazazani: At the “Designing for Friendship” talk you gave at GDC, you discussed the different ways that designers create experiences that help shape player relationships. Do you find that the process of designing for friendship differs from the traditional process of designing for “fun”?

Chris Bell: So I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to my talk. If your readers are interested, there’s a video of it is hosted on the GDC Vault. I also provide a transcript on my website, but I encourage watching the video if possible.

To answer your question, I try not to separate the two when designing. I still follow many of the traditional rules of achieving “fun”. That said, to develop the sort of spaces I describe, spaces like WAY and Journey, it’s important to allow pain. And we have a tendency—often for the worse I think—to limit the experience of pain in games in our quest for “fun”.

Think of your closest friends, these are the people you trust. You tell them secrets, you lean on them when you’re hurting, you reach out to them. In doing so there’s this huge amount of emotional risk: there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there for you, that they won’t let you down.  And so when designing for friendship, I try and build spaces where the actions of others are free for them to make, and where that choice may end up hurting us. Spaces where heartbreak can occur.

In both WAY and Journey, that potential for heartbreak comes from the ability to be abandoned. Heartbreak isn’t something we consider “fun”, and yet it’s the potential for heartbreak that makes the acts of friendship, choices like choosing to wait when your partner is having trouble progressing, that much more rewarding.

SG: Can you describe the playtesting process for Journey? What unique challenges did the team face when playtesting the game’s ability to shape deeper relationships between players?

CB: Playtests were generally divided between smaller, more frequent tests conducted by either myself or Producer Robin Hunicke at our studio, and larger tests overseen by the entire thatgamecompany team at Sony Santa Monica.

One reoccurring problem was our inability to recreate the experience of playing at home with a far-off stranger. When Journey wasn’t available to the public, it was totally reasonable for testers to assume that journeyers traveling with them must be playing from within the studio—perhaps on the other side of the wall.  In order to develop those deep connections, the last thing we wanted was for players to question the integrity of their experience. And so I’d often make a game of it. If we felt the tester could suspect who was on the other side we would sub their partner out for someone else and have the former walk by the glass, invite them to grab a drink in the kitchen or use the bathroom. Once the tester’s suspicions were shaken it was more likely they would play as they would from home.

Throughout development, we also needed a way to effectively gauge how well the game suited different kinds of players. Was it only enjoyable by players who cooperated and
stuck together, or was our audience larger than that? To answer that, Robin had the brilliant idea to secretly assign each member of the team one of four roles for whenever we’d play together: “Lover”, “Loner”, “Griefer”, and “Explorer”. “Lovers” would try and stay close to their partners, “Loners” would run away, “Griefers” would do their best to hurt the experience of others, and “Explorers” would prioritize exploring the world. By mixing and matching these pairings we were able to eliminate unknowns and grow to trust in the game’s ability to work with many different kinds of players.

But it was really just that. Trust. Despite all the testing, we still weren’t sure how people would react come launch day. This was partly because we never had enough players to simulate what the released game would be like. Even when we hosted our “larger” playtests at Sony Santa Monica, it was only about 6 players at a time. If players got separated that was it. There wasn’t a large enough player pool to ensure there would be someone else to connect with up ahead. Players would go great stretches of the game without ever seeing another player.

Above all, it was most important that we listen to our players and how they spoke about each other. Who did they think they were playing with? What did they think about them? How would they address them? Players would often call the other players “my buddy”. That was reassuring.

SG: Do you think that the idea of limiting a player’s ability in any way pushes a game towards minimalistic system design? If so, was that the goal with games such as Way and Journey?

CB: Well we certainly strive for elegance. There is an ineffable beauty that springs from expressing more with less. It can take a lot of work to get there, but when you find it it feels a lot like magic.  I often try and encourage designers to find the “toy”; that thing that makes the game inherently playful before you go and start adding all the other stuff. The portals in “Portal”, time-rewind in “Braid”, building in “Minecraft”, et cetera.

One of the earliest prototypes of “WAY” consisted entirely of two networked stick-figures that could walk, jump, and move their arms. There was literally nothing else. Yet when we sat two of our friends down to play they immediately started smiling and laughing. They waved to each other, punched each other, covered their eyes, rubbed their bellies, held each other’s hands, hugged—all without us ever explaining what was possible. And so, limited as it was, it afforded a high level of play.

Games emerge from their rules. It’s these limitations that give power and purpose to how we choose to play.

SG:  You mentioned that with Journey limiting the forms of communication prevented players from breaking each other’s experience while fostering deeper relationships with one another. Can you describe the process that was used when deciding what forms of communication to allow or prevent? And how did the team go about defining what types communication were meaningful and what wasn’t?

I was still finishing WAY during the early stages of Journey‘s development—the very time its communication gameplay was being developed—so I’m not the best person to answer that. Still, it’s no coincidence that both WAY and Journey arrived at similar designs. We had similar goals.  With each game, we sought to create a space that would enable people around the world to communicate and cooperate together, undivided by the oral languages we speak. And so, first step: Ditch voice and text chat.

It may seem like a simple change, and it kind of is, but it serves multiple functions. For one, it secures the integrity of the game world. You’re far less likely to take a narrative game seriously when it has a ruptured fourth wall, enabling players to communicate from an out-of-world perspective either by referencing outside subject matter or by describing the game as an object versus the world that simply is.

Likewise, it eliminates the presence of stereotype. Instead of judging each other based on race, sex, or age, players have only each other’s in-game actions to consider. Spoiler for those who haven’t played both WAY and Journey in full: Because players can discover who their partners are after witnessing how they act, it’s possible that a stereotype a player may have going into the game will be challenged when they’re free to speak with their partner at either game’s finale. And that mystery of identity is part of it too. In turning the other character into a mystery, they become someone to pay attention to; a puzzle to learn about and understand.

As for deciding how players should communicate, we sought systems that were emotive yet accessible. At one point, thatgamecompany experimented with allowing the player to create their own sounds by moving the joysticks, bending notes for greater expression. Oddly enough, we considered a similar feature in WAY which controlled by sliding the mouse in different directions and at different speeds. I should ask the rest of the team, but I assume the reasons it was left out of Journey are the same reasons we tossed it in WAY. Beyond being odd to control, many of the generated sounds just didn’t seem to mean much within the game world. Without meaning, players would learn to ignore them.

And so in Journey, we concentrated the communication down into the one-button Call. While it’s only one-button, it affords a range of expression based on how long you hold it. This is actually quite important, as it gives players space to express themselves, to develop an identity, to react to one event different than the next. It ensures players can exhibit various emotions and opinions versus coming across more like robots.  As I say in my GDC talk, while we can take speech and text away, we must be mindful not to strip away the player’s voice; their ability to express thoughts and opinions.

SG: Do you feel that the idea of limiting the player’s communication is similar to the “Supply and Demand” problem where the more we let players communicate, the less valuable that communication becomes?

CB: So, when we have a healthy abundance of something, or when it’s working well, it’s easier to take it for granted. It’s more common that when we are met by the limitations of the thing, be it a limitation of availability or efficiency, that we take notice.  And so, looking at the majority of multiplayer games, I think designers tend to overlook communication as a gameplay component—something to modify, to apply rules to, to affect how players make choices and problem-solve. Instead, features like voice and text chat are commonly assumed as givens.

When you consider that communication is so central to our relationship with others, it’s worth considering how we can modify or restrict it to create new dynamics between people.

SG: The games that you have worked on seem to focus on establishing connections between players and then giving them authorship over their own experience. Do you feel that we as designers don’t trust our players enough?

CB: Short answer. No, we don’t. Though I’d argue this is far more common in AAA and casual games than what we see from the independent community. Really, I think this lack of trust stems from a larger and more detrimental problem: the commercial fear that players will have a negative experience.

I hesitate to use the word “negative” because many of the experiences I mean to address are the very experiences I often find most worthwhile. Experiences like the feeling of loss that comes from being abandoned by a partner in Journey or WAY—the potential for which gives greater meaning to the choice to stick together—or how a well-designed puzzle, perhaps painfully unsolvable at first, will continue to linger and blossom in your mind.

Unfortunately, what we continue to see is a commercial push toward crank-turning—so often ensuring the player succeeds. Giant arrows point the way, “secrets” are clearly marked, and an overabundance of med-kits undermines whatever fear a zombie apocalypse would actually instill. These sorts of choices have a tendency to belittle and pander our players. And while meant to keep players “happy”, they prevent us from providing the grand elation and learning that are possible in the presence of serious consequences, or problems that challenge us to rise to them, versus lowering to us.

Look at DayZ. Isn’t it strange that despite how much money Zombies generate that DayZ is the first to feature them in such a dire playspace? Permadeath, limited resources, competitive or cooperative. If we trusted that our players were mature enough to cope with such potential loss and hardship, then shouldn’t DayZ have been a much more common approach to a zombie game?  And so I’m not misunderstood, I do not mean to make light of DayZ. It features many complex design decisions and is well-deserving of its success. I’m specifically questioning why we’ve been so slow to emulate its broader strokes of survival, uncertainty, severe limitation, and ever- present threat, when the passion, camaraderie, and kinship that emerge can be so powerful.

Chris Bell is a speaker at PRACTICE this year. Join us on the weekend of November 9th – 11th for a deep dive into game design theory and practice with Chris and a collection of the best game designers in the field.