Principles of Player Experience

By @ 05/22/12 in articles

Since knowing I was actually going to be creating my own game, I’ve been paying extra special attention to that fine tension between what a developer wants me to experience and what I want to experience. There have been some great games which have led me to want to do the things the dev has planned, and yet others where I feel my desire to do certain things has been belied by a developer’s restrictions, furthering that gap.

In honour of this mode of thinking, I’ve listed a few principles of player experience I wish to adhere to in games where the genre in question calls for it…


If you’ve spent time crafting a gorgeous game world, you’ve given a player reason to explore. Find a way to reward a player who indulges in a little fanciful roaming. After all, you’ve told them it was ok by making the world in the first place. Acknowledge that you took the same journey as they did when designing the game and recognise their desire to check things out. Acknowledge it by making sure there’s something out there to find, even things with no effect on gameplay. They’re worth their weight in gold.

Long-term temporal rewards

Longevity in a game is just as much about replayability as it is about thinking there’s something more to find. After completing every objective and knocking off an amazing high score in Tiny Wings, I still played the game with a fervour and regularity which one could call an obsession. Why? I was wondering if there would be a tenth island (there is).

Feeding newness into a game even dozens of hours in lets people know there’s still more to find, see and enjoy. Finding a new style of gameplay, type of item or little flourish is just like being rewarded for exploration – it reminds you that your relationship with the developers is still progressing in some way. If the game stops changing, the developers have stopped talking and you feel lonely. Keep on interacting with your players. Always.


So now I’ve surveyed, I’ve wandered, I’ve taken in everything I feel I need to about the game world and I’m ready to plant my first seed. I’m building my first line in Railroad Tycoon, my first city in Civilization, my latest weapon in Home Alone, and I want to be rewarded. I need to see growth, I need to understand where that growth came from and how I affected it, I need to maintain that sense of ownership as the thing I’ve created becomes massive and not lose that attachment (I’m looking at you, Spore). Some people knock stuff up in ten seconds for practical reasons, others evenly space out the braziers in Stronghold for aesthetic reasons – either way, that ability to own is important.


When Railroad Tycoon first fires up, you can scroll anywhere you like in the game world, often taking up to 15 minutes before you make your first action which has any impact. You scour the map, looking for that perfect terrain, that subtle gradient and the best-placed sets of industry surrounded by prosperous towns. When you try out that first line, if it fails, you know damn well whose fault it was.

Failure in videogames isn’t something developers should fear – failure, as any halfwit can tell you, is part of learning and growing. If you let a player have a stab at something, muck it up and have to try again before they get it right, they’ll feel ten times better about their accomplishment than if they’d have been guided to the correct answer (or even led to believe that was the case).

Met incentives

Know how to wield your weapons as a developer. A truly great game designer will understand what incentivised a player to action, and will reward the player for following that incentive. It needn’t be in a positive way (consider the incentive to jump and grab a rope in Limbo leading to you being eaten by a bear trap), but a reaction is necessary. If you tell someone they’re chasing a person and that person is escaping in a plane, don’t punish them for running after said person for not having completed an unclear objective with no plot bearing whatsoever (not that I’m citing a specific game, am I Max Payne 3?). If you give people an object which appears markedly different than other objects of a similar nature, don’t be surprised when the player goes out of their way to click on that object to explore its purpose. Recognise the use of such basic incentives as running right in a platformer, exploring in an open world, interacting with one object because your world establishes a rule where objects can be interacted with. Incentives are aesthetic, narrative, intrinsic, functional and much more besides. Aim to acknowledge to any player that they’ve recognised a rule. Otherwise, you’re letting the player know that you don’t understand the rules of your own game, and the relationship between player and developer begins to break down.


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