Creating Your Sandbox: The Draw of Player Choice

I play a fair amount of Minecraft. It just can't be helped, it's a great game and I enjoy what time I get to spend with it. But I've noticed a subtle disconnect with the enjoyment I experience playing Minecraft compared to the understanding of those who are watching me play Minecraft. If I'm playing a game like Magicka (and excellent ride), Portal 2, or Street Fighter, people are usually fairly quick to see why I'm enjoying my game. But when it comes to Minecraft, I have to sit down and explain the game to them before they get it at all, and many of them often don't until I make the inevitable comparison to Legos.

Its not because Minecraft's position as a game is a weak one. To the contrary, Minecraft is a great example of a straightforward gaming experience. What makes Minecraft's appeal so difficult for some people to grasp is not that it lacks any elements of a game, but rather that so much of Minecraft's game is dependent on the player using the tools of the game to create something that is wholly their own.

The ability of game to allow players to create and build in their own way is one of the things that truly sets games apart from any other medium of entertainment. Outside of a few exceptions such as Tabletop gaming, much of the entertainment media consumed today is a static experience. You go to see a newly released movie and nothing you do or say in the theater will have any affect towards what transpires on screen (aside from possibly getting you thrown out). Books, music, and other forms of entertainment are largely the same way: What you see is what you get. While nothing is wrong with this at all (such a style is needed in order to broaden worldviews and promote ideas) games have a rare gift in the ability to let the player make choices, ranging from simple to grand. While some games play out similar to movies with predetermined courses of action, some of the best loved and often most played games succeeding today are those that let you be the one to make a choice in some form or another.

Choice in games can come in many ways. Minecraft has taken choice to the logical extreme. There is no "ultimate objective" to the game other then whatever objective you give yourself. The game simply gives you a set of tools and lets you choose what to do with them. This is why so many people initially have trouble understanding what is so appealing about the game, but once sitting down and placing the first few blocks of their house/underground-base/floating-island act like a kid in a candy store. Minecraft lets you do whatever you want to do within its realm of scope. It's not the cubelike graphics or the gripping action that draw people in, its the sense that whatever they're working on, it's theirs. This creative process is what makes sitting for minutes on end mining rocks out of the ground something that's exciting rather then boring. It's not the act of the mining, but rather what the player is going to create with it that is the ultimate draw.

Choosing skills to compliment your style helped make Borderlands a more gripping experience
Other games offer players choice in different ways. Gear Box's Borderlands, for example, wasn't exactly a paragon of FPS design. The enemies were repetitive and the environments weren't exactly dripping with clever shootouts. But the game was a hit regardless because of the choice it offered to the player in creating themselves. The game started off basic enough, letting players pick from a cast of four characters classes and then letting them customize their colors. But right around the time that the player began to wonder what else was in store the game dropped stats and character proficiencies into the game, and suddenly the game wasn't as much about running around shooting things as it was about building your character the way you wanted. The combat became the reward for growing skillful at weapons you chose, allowing you to build your own style of play around skills that you picked, not ones that the game forced upon you. This was the real draw of Borderlands, not the story. It was playing with a character where a large level of the creative content was given over you you the player to build what you wanted to be. Selecting skills, finding weapons that meshed with your play style in the best way, building your proficiencies to be the ultimate mercenary, these were the draws that kept players coming back for hours upon hours.

Other games offer a different route. One of the most advertised and best loved features of Bioware's Mass Effect series is how the players choices, moral and otherwise, snowball through the games plots. A minor character slighted in some small way can come back to be a very big problem later on, or the same character treated well may choose to help you. Players are given the choices of how to respond to each and every request in the game, and what they choose builds not only their characters reputation, but also the world in which the game takes place, modifying the plot and even having major ramifications on characters in the story. These moments of creative freedom draw in the player because they begin to feel emotionally invested in the characters and events, not because they enjoy them, but because they are the ones responsible for them in the first place.

They are manly. They are mine.
Even games without any sort of RPG mechanisms or deep character creation can give players simple tools with which to develop their own concepts. Some games allow you to customize the look of your characters with new armor or different custom color schemes and logos. These customizable effects, while ultimately simple and adding nothing influential to the game, can still be great attractors and outlets of creativity.

Ultimately, giving players even a small amount of creative freedom extends the lifetime of a game many times over that of games without some form of customization. Whether its the freedom to build your own worlds or cities, customize your characters weapons and skills, or even just adding a new coat of paint, giving players the freedom to change a part of their gaming experience makes the game less the developers and makes it more something of the players. This in turn attaches the players more firmly to the game and extends the life of the game for both the players and the developers. While a game doesn't always need to have the element of creative choice (after all, many titles have enjoyed long and successful runs without giving one bit of choice to the player), creative choice can be a determining factor in the success of a game over a long period of time.

1 comment:

Beyond the Controller said...

A kicker for comments: Looking back can anyone else here think of a creative choice in a game that really endeared a specific game to you? Personally I can't help but think of Simcity 2000 and all the hours I sunk into it as a kid. There was nothing greater then building my own thriving metropolis and seeing it grow.