I can never feel the magic of playing a game again
“With magic, the impossible happens” — Randy Pitchford
Making video games is very like being a magician. Having said that the same applies to being an artist of any kind. But I think it applies very closely to games. You create a world from seemingly nothing. One with rules that need to suspend the disbelief of the player and pull them into a fantasy. Upon which you can take them on an adventure of emotion and experience unlike anything they could experience in their lives.
The moment a magician pulls off a trick a feeling of wonder flows through you. For a split second anything is possible. The rules you have become accustomed to in this world are wrong, and anything can happen. It’s incredible. It’s the same feeling I had as a child playing games for the first time. Seeing what they could be, what experiences could open up to me when anything is possible. It made me want to play games more and more.
But now I am a game developer. I work behind the scenes on games all the time. And I realized recently, much to my sadness, that I don’t feel wonder anymore. When I see a game my brain immediately starts ripping it apart and analyzing it from every angle to understand how it works and how it was created. With some experience and knowledge I quickly realize what the creator has done, and I respect them for their hard work.
But at no point do I feel like I’m looking at the impossible.
The crossover in skill set between games, TV and movies means the same has happened to films. I’m so used to analyzing things I’m incapable of letting myself enjoy them. I’m incapable of feeling the magic intended by the creator.
What can be done about this? And how does this effect my life as a creator?
I think many designers will agree that it’s easier for us to appreciate the detail and nuance in something with such an understanding of how it works. I feel great satisfaction at seeing a game pull off something I know is difficult. But this isn’t the experience the designer intended.
The best design is a design that stays out of the way of the user. When the game lets the player do what they will. When it holds the fiction of the game world perfectly, and the player is so engaged in the experience they don’t think about what’s going on behind the scenes. This is superb design.
I can’t remember what it feels like though.
This fact makes testing games much harder. I said this to a friend once, much to his confusion. I have no idea what it’s actually like to play a game I’ve created. And I never will. It strengthens the idea that testing a game with a player not working on it is extremely beneficial. It sounds so simple and logical that you may be thinking that my advice is common sense.
But when you work on a small independent game, it’s easy to get lost in the process, to forget about what the experience is like for others. I made this mistake as a young developer.
Not to mention that making a game can be a very personal experience. I’ve never had a child, but it’s the closest analogy I can think of. It’s an extension of you. Something that is you, but different. Something like this can be hard to let go of. It can be hard to understand that you’re child isn’t the greatest thing in the world. It has flaws, and you can’t see them.
I am thus equipped to improve my creations, knowing my limitations in experiencing my game. You can certainly develop a feel for when a game feels good. But it’s just not the same as what other people experience.
There is one notable advantage to being on this side of creation. The immense satisfaction of being successful in creating an experience you can’t feel. A few months ago I took a game I’m working on to a convention nearby. Kids playing it got so engaged. They came back at every opportunity and waited patiently to continue playing the game.
They couldn’t tell how much effort had gone into how the score is shown to them. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. The score display made them feel the tension of the game. It engaged them and put smiles on their faces as the experience I had crafted trickled into their minds, and became part of their lives.
I can never feel the magic of playing a game again. But it doesn’t matter.
This feeling makes it all worth it.