Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
The Philosophy of Game Design (part 1)

Robert Yang | 28 Sep 2010 13:00
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Indeed, relatively very few people will ever beat the "Veni, Vidi, Vici" sequence in VVVVVV, despite its relatively forgiving nature - but those who do progress past it will have reached a transcendent state of platforming prowess. In this respect, these types of games are "player-centric" because the engaging nature of the game originates from the player's will and skill to win.

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And so, the Aristotelian tradition: Good players make good games.

But there are several philosophical problems with this type of design, which is part of the reason why there are relatively few games designed strictly in this tradition today.

Specifically, Plato would've called bullshit on it.

Imagine your hopelessly incompetent co-worker Ted tried to play Mega Man, with his sweaty hands permanently staining your precious vintage NES controller. (He can't even beat Top Man! What a disgrace.) You scream bloody murder when he tosses the now-greasy controller across the room in frustration. Would Ted agree that Mega Man is a good game?

Maybe not. But is Mega Man still good? Well, yeah, of course it is! Ted just sucks at it!

Now, imagine the entire world was populated solely by Teds. None of them agree that Mega Man is good - yet it's still the same game, it's still good! The personal (unskilled) experience of these Teds has corrupted the purity of Mega Man; that is, Mega Man remains eternally good, independent of the crappy players who can't even beat the Top Man stage. They're just too simple-minded and poorly endowed to see its greatness.

Thus, Plato argued for an account of absolute truth. People lie, misinterpret and get tricked all the time - do you really think that personal experience is reliable? Ted might be awful at Mega Man, but you happen to be terrible at first person shooters and can't "get into" them despite Ted's constant prodding. Your inability to play Halo without foolishly running into walls and spinning around in circles does not diminish its innovation and impact on the entire game industry.

And so, the "goodness" of a game must exist outside of the player.

Plato argues that the execution of justice is up to a select few of philosopher kings acting independently of the citizens, for they are the only ones who can use reason and logic to transcend the personal experience of players and to show us what a good game is. Who are these philosopher kings, pray tell?

The answer: game developers.

Plato would argue that Mega Man is good because Capcom made it, or because of the specific influence of certain "philosopher-developers" at Capcom. Mega Man's "goodness" has nothing to do with players - because, as we just established, players all have different tastes, skill levels and experiences. It is impossible to formulate any reliable amount of knowledge upon such shaky ground.

Thus, as a sort of counterpoint to the Aristotelian tradition, a Platonic design philosophy is developer-centric and argues that: Good developers make good games.

This core dichotomy of player-centrism vs. developer-centrism is, I argue, the basis of all subsequent game design philosophies - or, at least, a convenient way of grouping and organizing these philosophies.

Today, most developers and players (including me) are moderates and believe in the importance of both player-centrism and developer-centrism. It may seem incredibly obvious that a good game design should follow some sort of "golden mean" or "middle way" that balances developer insight with player feedback, as well as difficulty with accessibility and commercial potential with artistic merit. How can anyone possibly think differently?

Games should be good. Duh.

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