(Non)Importance of Developer Intentions

How important do you think developer intentions are? Do you think stuff like poor control schemes, are acceptable, just because it’s part of the scheme the developers envisaged? Are horror games “supposed” to have bad controls?

A long time ago, I’d say, “Not at all.” I’ve reached a more mediated stance as of recently.

The role of developer intention is complicated. Primarily, it’s related to defining what the game is in the first place, but the actual game is what the player decides to play. Since games are contracts, developer intention is filtered down through the design of the game, and the textual feedback of the game to communicate to the player what the game is supposed to be, then the player interprets that and creates the contract of play for themselves. The developer intention creates the framework for how the software is to be interpreted as a game, and I think that’s just about it.

As for control schemes, I think it’s worth establishing that what might be considered a “bad” control scheme might serve a useful purpose gameplay-wise. The obvious example of this is God Hand, which I think has an amazing control scheme for everything that game does, even if many people find it irritating when they’re unfamiliar with it. Fighting games, with their up = jump, back = block and command input shenanigans are similar for most people. The big thing though is that these control schemes might be weird, even Dark Souls is weird to most people starting out, but they serve a definite purpose.

As for an out-right bad control scheme, I’d go with Starfox Zero on that (I haven’t played the game, but Mark Brown made a convincing case in his GMT video).

This game was very clearly and intentionally made to force the player to utilize the Wii U gamepad, by having an offset between the targeting reticule on the main screen and gamepad screen. Downside, this does nothing useful. There’s no gain in depth from designing the game this way.

The tank controls of the Resi games made a degree of sense only because of the fixed angle cameras. The weird hammer controls in Penumbra make a degree of sense for inhibiting your combat capabilities.

The short is, it doesn’t matter so much what the developer intends for the control scheme, it needs to serve a valid purpose in emphasizing what needs to be emphasized. Sometimes this can be aligned with or counter to making a game feel good, or control intuitively, which can create barriers to adoption, and must be weighed as a production risk.

A good developer doesn’t just see the game as how they intend it, they need to also see it in a more neutral light of how someone presented with the game without any prior context will see.

This is related to the broader concept of Death of the Author. The author cannot beam their intention for the game into your head, the game needs to be judged more on its own merits than what the author intends for it.

Developers getting too caught up in their intention for the game frequently cut off enjoyable alternate means of playing a game, like patching out fun glitches or clever uses for tools. There is a deeper principle of design beyond what we intend for things. Things that make for good gameplay can occur incidentally, and what we deliberately plan isn’t always the best path. Being a good designer means accepting and learning from serendipity when it is beneficial.

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