You're Not the Boss of This Game
ORSON SCOTT CARD
Once, when I was three years old, my big brother (at the ripe old age of 7) joined in a game that my friends and I were playing. Within moments, our game had become his game. We were nothing but helpless pawns, playing out the roles he assigned to us. Maybe his game would have been more fun than ours, but that wasn't the point. We wanted to be in charge of our own game.
So we raised our passionate three-year-old voices in revolt. "You're not the boss of the game!" we complained, until he gave up and left.
A few years have passed, and I am no longer 3 (most of the time). Now and then, however, computer game designers make me want to raise my voice in that same plaintive cry, "You're not the boss of the game!"
Take a great puzzle game like Brøderbund's Lode Runner. As you move around the screen, you dodge bad guys. All the while you're digging holes, climbing ladders, and jumping off cliffs in pursuit of hard-to-reach treasures. The puzzles are diabolical, and I wouldn't change a thing about the rules of the game.
What's more, the game designers thoughtfully let you practice getting through troublesome screens. You can start at any level, and you can give yourself as many lives as you want until you learn how to solve a particular puzzle. But the program won't record your score on the vanity board unless you started from the beginning and never added extra lives.
Wait a minute, though. The game designer carelessly left out the feature that saves a game in progress, so I have to start at the beginning and play straight through to finish all the screens and record the score on the vanity board. That's 150 screens, and it takes me eight or nine hours.
That's annoying enough, but what's really frustrating is that kids play the game, too. Why can't young children put their names on the vanity board? Is it just because they can't get through a game without opting for extra lives? Why not design a vanity board that includes the number of extra lives used to achiever the score? Simple pride will motivate players to reduce that number until it reaches 0, but in the meantime they'll get the payoff of competing with the high scores of their parents and older siblings. In golf it's called handicapping.
Another example from another great game: Pipe Dream from Lucas-film. This is the old Water Works game brought to life. The game deals you a series of pipe pieces—vertical, horizontal, crossover, and four different angles. You must connect them onscreen. After a while, water flows through the pipe work you've built, and, when it reaches a break in the pipe or the edge of the screen, that round ends. If your pipe is long enough, you go on to the next screen; if it's too short, the game is over.
The game is as obsessive as Tetris because it's simple in its basic structure while it allows almost infinite possibilities. The game may throw the pieces at you, but you're the one who decides where they fall. In that way, you create the playing field, and no two games are ever alike.
However, it takes practice to learn how to see the relationships among pipe pieces so you can anticipate future structures. Often you have to lay down pieces for curves and crossovers that are 30 or 40 moves ahead, and most of us aren't born thinking that way. So, the game designers have kindly included a training mode that gives you plenty of time to practice at gentle speeds.
But you don't score any points in training mode. You can't get on the vanity board.
Why not? The vanity board is an important part of the reward structure of a game. And no one needs that reward more than children and beginners. Yet they are the very ones who are barred from that reward at the time they need it most. Why? Because bossy game designers have decided you don't get to use the vanity board until you're good enough.
Fine. I'm good enough—140,000 points on Pipe Dream and a complete passage through Lode Runner. I love these games. Furthermore, these games are exceptionally friendly by allowing more player options, more opportunities for death-free practice than practically any other games on the market. I chose them because they come closest to the ideal. But why couldn't they set up multiple vanity boards? Or allow players to determine vanity-board options just as they do playtime options? Alas, even the most freedom-loving game designers can succumb to arbitrary and unnecessary bossiness; and that's a shame especially when it makes children feel second-rate while playing what is otherwise a great children's game.
While you make these decisions, game designers, imagine a bunch of little kids standing around your computer desk, chanting: "You're not the boss of the game!" Maybe that will help you remember that you're not just designing games for the 14-year-old wizard with the reflexes of a hyperactive cricket. You're designing games that even klutzes and little children might enjoy—if you'll let us.