It may seem like a foregone conclusion, but why is firing a gun fun?

Do you really know? How about these:

Why is driving a car at high speeds around a track exciting?

What’s exhilarating about the charge of horses or the roar of cannon fire?

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These are the questions that designers ask themselves when they begin to work on a game. Unfortunately, when creating experiences for players, we designers frequently spring to ivory tower answers to these questions. We say things like “guns fulfill a power fantasy” or “the feeling of speed plays on ancient predator/prey instincts,” but I’m not sure that’s good enough. Yes, human psychology is a vital part of game design – I’d even go so far as to say that it’s impossible to design a good game without considering the psychology of the player – but designing experiences without partaking in those experiences (where possible) seems like taking the easy way out.

Ever hear the old adage “write what you know”? It’s a pretty good rule of thumb for any medium, but doubly so for one that is all about creating experiences. Of course, many game designers work on projects that involve subjects way outside their realms of experience. This is where Method Design comes in.

Method Design is the practice of living the experiences you design to help you better convey that experience to players. But merely living an experience is not nearly enough to make it useful for designing a game; it requires careful introspection and a very specific way of observing your experiences. This is the heart of the Method.

The Method

You want to be a game designer? You want to learn the Method? It’s easier said than done – observing an experience while you are living it is a difficult thing. The first thing you have to do is identify why you are engaging in this type of real time observation. In our case, it is to create better games, so:

1. Don’t look for realism. Instead, discover where reality and expectations don’t jibe.

When making games, we are not looking to mimic reality – even at its most exciting, reality is rarely fun enough to make a good game. Instead, we are looking to craft the apotheosis of a fantasy. In order to do this, we have to train ourselves to be keenly aware of the low points of an experience.

Low points can be roughly sorted into two categories: the genuinely un-fun and the unsatisfying. Genuinely un-fun experiences are the purview of reality and have no place in games. For example, talk to any World War II veteran that served in the infantry, and they’ll tell you all about the marching. They spent 90 percent of their time walking to places and 10 percent fighting, and yet, for all the World War II games I’ve played, none of them includes a single march.

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Unsatisfying experiences, on the other hand, derive from expectations that aren’t met. Identifying these moments is vital to game designers. They pinpoint a core piece of the fantasy: where you must depart from reality. These unsatisfying experiences should be enhanced within your game until you fulfill the fantasy behind them that is not being met in reality. This is where we get the over-the-top explosions of Hollywood blockbusters and improbable “love at first sight” moments in romantic comedies.

Learning what you want to happen is the first step towards making it happen in your game. Which leads us to part two:

2. Discover where reality exceeds fantasy.

Fulfilling players’ expectations isn’t enough to create a truly memorable and fun game. To do that, you need to offer them the unexpected. Here, you can use the Method to help you hone in on the parts of an experience you otherwise might have missed. Surprise is one of the key indicators here: Take careful note of anything that surprises you in an experience, because that unexpected joy is something you want to pass on. These surprises are often – though not exclusively – found in the minutia, the small details that you only pick up on by trying an experience for yourself.

Let me give an example: I was once working on a shooter. I had never fired a gun. I decided that I had to in order to do my job. The first time I fired a bolt action rifle, I was shocked by how satisfying simply cocking the bolt was. Part of that experience was tactile and difficult to replicate with a gamepad, but I never would have been able to capture the essence of that moment without having the real-world experience reveal it to me.

Training Introspection
Knowing what to look for is one part of the puzzle. The other part is knowing what to do when you find it.

Most of the time during our daily lives, we don’t really observe the experiences we are living. We may reflect on them later, but real-time observation is not usually an automatic process. This won’t do for method game design. Waiting until after an experience is over before you assess it inevitably means that you won’t register the surprises and disappointments that, cumulatively, can make a big impact on your design.

The secret to changing this is simple: practice. Try to consciously register the unsatisfying moments and surprises in your daily life as they happen. At first it may seem tricky, but once you begin doing so, many other pieces will fall into place. You’ll get a better understanding of the expectations you set up going into an experience, and get a clearer, more granular picture of the fantasies you create. You’ll also start seeing that surprise and dissatisfaction are not binary but rather very diffuse. That’s particularly important, because the absence of minor disappointments and the abundance of subtle surprises both translate into the polish that makes good games great.

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I’ll give you a simple example from my experimentation with these ideas. When I wanted to train myself to become more aware of my experiences, I started by trying to consciously observe my experiences when I went to parties. Why? Because parties for me usually involve an active fantasy life and an unreasonable set of expectations. After all, if the extraordinary isn’t going to happen (meeting the love of your life, getting into a brawl, being entranced by a mysterious stranger), why go?

At first I was only really cognizant of the broad strokes, the places where my heart skipped a beat. Over time I started being able to analyze subtler moments – like when the music synched up with the rhythm of the conversation and everything began to flow – and I came to understand how those moments fit together to determine if the overall experience was one I enjoyed or one from which I walked away disappointed.

For those of you looking to practice, I’ve found parties, concerts and amusement parks are all excellent places to start.

For Experiences You Can’t Experience

“Hold on,” I hear you say. “I want to make a werewolf zombie space shooter. How the heck do I experience that?”

In this case, really experiencing the concepts behind the game may be tougher, but not impossible. Why? Because any experience we can deliver is an amalgam of experiences we can have.

Here you have to work backwards. Determine what is at the core of the experience you want to deliver to the player and deconstruct it. Let’s use a hyperbolic example: Say I’m making a zombie game. First I have to put myself in the player’s shoes and try and discover what the core of the zombie fantasy is. Is it sudden, gruesome shocks or simply an ever tightening sense of futility and doom?

Whichever I decide, I can’t be chased by zombies, but I can subject myself to my own terrors. Depending on how far you are willing to go, you can experience horror and revulsion or an oppressive sense of inescapable calamity. You have to know yourself and your fears, and then you have to be willing to expose yourself to those fears under circumstances where you’re not totally in control. (Horror, by the way, is probably the hardest experience to safely expose yourself to.) Understanding the thrill of these sensations, their high points and their low points as well as the underlying fantasy behind being able to have these experiences without actually risking life and limb will help you craft your game.

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A Final Word of Warning

But now that I’ve filled your head with these thoughts, my aspiring designer, let me give you a word of warning: the Method may help take you from “good” to “great,” but in order to avoid its pitfalls you must first learn the design skills that will take you to “good.”

One of the dangers of the Method is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming a slave to realism rather than a creator of fantasy. Don’t go adding Desert Bus to your game just because you lived it.

The other, and perhaps subtler danger, is becoming overly concerned with the aesthetics of an experience instead of the mechanics. The core of a game is its mechanics. The goal of the Method is to allow you to inject the essence of your experiences into the mechanics of your game to the greatest degree possible; only then should you focus on working them into the more surface elements.

The Method isn’t holistic. Don’t think that simply because you are willing to experience something or able to truly observe an experience as it’s occurring, you’ll be able to make a good game. No matter how well you master the method, you still need to understand how to translate an experience into mechanics. The Method simply gives you a perspective you otherwise would not have had – it is no substitute for a traditional education in game design.

One last disclaimer: How much you’ll get out of this technique depends on how far you are willing to go in pursuit of your craft. I believe in pushing the limits, and people have told me I’ve done things that are stupid and dangerous in order to better understand the experiences I’m trying to replicate – I once lived as a vagrant for three days for a project that got canned – but there are things even I won’t do. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t hurt other living beings. Don’t endanger yourself. Have an expert present whenever possible, and make sure people know where you are at all times.

Now go out and do some stupid shit.

James Portnow is a freelance contributor to The Escapist. If you have any questions, he can be reached at jportnow[at]gmail[dot]com or jamesportnow on Twitter.

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