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  • Designing Non-Violent Games

    - Brian Fairbanks

  • Problem #2: How do we create an intrinsic reward system?

    When people play a shooter or combat RPG, the game world will give them progression options that make them more powerful. New guns, new abilities, vehicles, more passive bonuses like HP, this is all tried and true, classic progression stuff. This progression only reaffirms what you're already feeling: I am great at eliminating my problems and things are only getting better.

    When making a nonviolent game, it's like suddenly we don't have access to the breadth of feelings related to growing power or value. If a nonviolent game has puzzle elements, making the puzzle easier in any way is actually disenfranchising to puzzle fans that are here to be challenged, but that's the main source of power progression in combat games; more damage and more survivability means happier gamers. Designing a game to encourage those same levels of dopamine-fueled pleasure in our audience somehow seems an insurmountable task when compared to the design of an FPS, right?

    You have to be sneaky. They have to care about the task they're performing and feel the weight of loss if they fail. They have to long for good results, deep down in their marrow.

    You know all of that, so let's get more specific with it. The world is awful right now. Global warming is causing catastrophic fires in the US and Australia, the pandemic is horrific in itself and is now causing incredible economic hardships and recessions worldwide, and they're remaking the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into a dark drama.

    Things are horrible. Use it. Hope, explicit encouragement, emotional warmth, these are now the most powerful tools in your toolbox because they're what people need right now. 

    This is an up-and-coming genre of literature called Hopepunk. It often deals with moving the world towards a better future politically or climate change, but also can be utilised in much smaller avenues as well. Hopepunk is weaponised positivity.

    Here's how I do it, and as hinted before, here's the sneaky part: where can we get other sources of dopamine to give them when they succeed?

    I use music and voice acting to get there. The script for my game contains a LOT of encouragement and appreciation. People need to hear that they're valued right now, they need to hear that the world needs them. They need to feel like they belong and they're bringing more good into the world. (UX protip: you have to make it optional. Don't ever lock controls and *make* the audience listen to your lovely message of hope. Just offer positivity. The ones that need it will gladly take it, and those that don't connect with your game that way are free to move around and explore.)

    A great game that fails spectacularly at this notion is Skyrim. (Spoiler alert) You essentially spend your time saving the world not only from dragons that slaughter people mercilessly, but from a dragon trying to end the world itself and destroy everything. How many thank-yous do you get? How many explicit exclamations of "YOU SAVED MY LIFE" do you hear in game? If you save an NPCs life, they just run away. Very rarely, and by that I mean one single NPC actually, will thank you for saving them - the traveling bard you see from time to time - and he does it in a kind of offhanded way - "Things got hairy back there."

    Tell your players how much you love them. Take all the pain and suffering you've experienced on your dev journey and literally communicate to your audience, through the game of course, how much you appreciate them supporting you, because that's what they're doing. They're telling YOU that your time was worth their money, and they're putting food on your table for your efforts. TELL THEM HOW YOU FEEL.  This is so basic, but NOBODY DOES IT and it blows my mind.

    And a bit of a reality check: if you don't feel any of these feelings for your audience? Maybe gamedev isn't for you.

    That was heavy and I don't have a segue. Let's just move on like I said something witty and poignant okay?

    Dynamic music is another huge missed opportunity in almost all nonviolent games that I've played. In my game, the music begins thin but cheery and peppy, it speaks of adventure. The closer you get to your goal in each mission, though, the more the lower layers of the music fill in and get richer. It starts with a single mandolin melody, as heard below, and as you get one third of the way through the trail you're following, another mandolin joins in on upbeat chop chords (a bluegrass staple that really just means hard-struck yet very shortly sustained chords). Soon after that enters a cello. When you get two thirds down the trail, a guitar enters playing some rhythmic chords. When you get to the end, the main piece goes silent for a moment and a new and lively piece fades up beginning with a triumphant cymbal roll. You can see and hear the entire progression below. The music volume has been heightened considerably so you can hear my point.

    It's subtle, it's small, and it's everything. Music is the brain hack that achieves an instant dopamine rush. Use it as such, or miss out on a massive opportunity to mitigate the dip in satisfaction we resign ourselves to when we don't use violence.


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