On her blog Creating Passionate Users, game developer and author Kathy Sierra has often written about the need for products to create an “I rule!” experience for their users. And at their best, the web’s most popular apps do just that: Facebook makes us feel more connected, Twitter more popular, Basecamp more productive.
Those products are designed primarily for utility. For products that are meant to entertain, however, the intended reaction is less “I rule!” than “That rules!” We might get lost in the action of a movie or empathize with the protagonist of a novel, but the experience doesn’t need to leave us feeling more powerful for it to be compelling.
Part of what makes game development so challenging, I’ve recently realized, is that games can provoke both types of reactions. Intuitive and responsive controls, a steady increase in difficulty, a satisfying conclusion: these elements add up to an “I rule!” experience for players. Story and aesthetics, on the other hand, are key to provoking a “That rules!” reaction. The difficulty isn’t just that we need to worry about both goals when creating games; the goals themselves are sometimes at odds. Games that spend too much time in cutscenes, for example, risk making the player feel like a passive observer no matter how well written and rendered they are. And satisfying the player’s desire to rule often places constraints on the stories that we can tell or how we tell them: an unexpected death can be a powerful moment, but not if it causes the player to quit the game in frustration.
Considering the need for games to strike a balance between “That rules!” and “I rule!”, it’s not too surprising that some have trouble seeing games as art. Done well, a game is both art and application, art and not-art — and that’s one of the things that makes creating a good one so rewarding.