The Heart of Gaming Is the Power Fantasy
Never forget what product you are selling.
(All articles this month are to get attention to our new Kickstarter. If you like weird, retro indie games or RPGs, it’s worth a look.)
Video games function best as power fantasies.
This is a statement that can generate controversy, though fifty years of video game history show that it is true.
We've seen debates about whether video games can be art. Whether the word "fun" has meaning. Whether a Walking Simulator is a game (though that genre has mostly vanished, unlamented).
Yet, relentlessly, through it all, the most popular and beloved games are almost universally about the exercise of power.
Understanding this can help you (and me) to write more popular and effective games.
What This Article Is Not. A Quick, Important Aside.
Video games are a very young art form. This often inspires ambitious young people to write their MANIFESTO about the TRUE MEANING OF VIDEO GAMES.
This is always a waste of time. Art is a slippery thing. It resists rules. As soon as you say art IS THIS, it goes “Whoopsie!” and proves you wrong, simple as.
So no. Not all games are power fantasies, and not all gamers want that.
But I’m a businessman and a practical person. I don’t care about art theory. I care about buying food. I don’t care what you thing games should be in your ideal world.
One of my mantras is, “Never forget what product you are selling.”
When most gamers come to your product, they are looking for a specific sort of experience, which makes them feel a certain way. Ignore this at your professional peril.
Video games that sell? They sell power, if only in our minds.
What Do We Mean By "Power Fantasy"?
"Power Fantasy" is usually used as a pejorative term. The phrase often has the word "adolescent" tacked on before it for a fun bit of ad hominem.
Yet. What makes video games different from other artistic media? It is activity. Video games aren't about consuming words or sounds or images. They are about action, doing things.
In almost every game, what are you doing? You are making changes in your environment. You are giving gifts in a dating sim. Designing roadways in Sim City. Shooting bad guys in, well, just about everything else.
When you change your environment, you are exercising Power.
You are doing this inside a game, a space that does not exist. Every video game takes place in a mental construct that is imagined. In other words, all video games take place in Fantasy. (In the dictionary sense, not the "casting fireball at an orc" sense.) Yet, in your brain, the Power FEELS real, and that is what counts.
Video games are about using power to make changes in a fantasy space, for pleasure. They are power fantasies.
There is nothing shameful about this. The only error is denying it. This will make you not understand video games.
The Main Takeaway, To Save You Reading
When players end a session with your game, aim for one of two things:
1. They feel better about themselves.
2. They feel that, with effort, they will feel even better about themselves. The delay of gratification should make the feeling stronger.
If your game isn't offering either sensation, beware. You are in the Danger Zone.
"I don't think this is what players actually want."
Players are very clear about what they want. Look at the list of the most popular games.
Most games are about two things. One is overcoming: Defeating puzzles, challenges, other people. The other is building: Creating and reshaping an environment.
This is what people want. It is what they expect. When you sell them a game, in their mind, that is the bargain: Customers give you time, attention, and money. In return, you give them a feeling of power, of success.
There is nothing shameful about Power Fantasies. If you think there is, consider instead that the problem is a world that systematically makes us feel small, meaningless, and helpless.
"Video games should aim for a higher goal."
Sure. Why not? It's a young art form, and there may be ways that it can develop and mature.
Yet, many developers have tried to make games with higher artistic goals. They have not met with much success, artistically or financially.
I'll grant Gone Home, The Beginner's Guide or What Remains of Edith Finch are decent games, had some sales, and aren't power fantasies. They are also a tiny portion of the market, part of the fading walking simulator genre, and pale in comparison to the best artistic achievements of other media. The Last of Us has an excellent story, but nobody would have bought it without the awesome zombie stabbing.
The Stanley Parable was really good and a big hit, but it got there using the sooper sekrit cheat code of being really funny. This is a rarely used out to make a popular games that breaks out of the usual templates, but it is hard to do. Not many people do funny well.
Sure, it's nice to dream. However, I'm a businessman. I'm a practical-minded person, and I have to see the World That Is. And in the world as it stands, most people want games that make them feel powerful and/or competent.
What Is Power? How Is It Expressed?
Power is a vague word, deliberately so. I claim video games are so popular because they let their users feel intermittently powerful. There are, however, many, many routes to this goal.
The purest expression of raw power in video games is a dating sim. Dating sims give you the ultimate power: The ability to choose who loves you. Not even the Genie in Aladdin could do that!
Sim City is a double fantasy. First, that we live in a world that works under rational rules that we can comprehend. Second, that we can affect that world.
Fishing in video games lets you have the power to make fishing interesting.
Horror games give you the power to survive, no matter how horrible your surroundings are.
All the most popular games are PVP. When you beat another player in a game, you have affected that human being's emotions in REAL LIFE. That's so good a Power Fantasy that it's hardly even fantasy anymore.
Idle and clicker games let you gain and use power without even the indignity of actually doing anything. They are the best example of how compelling and seductive video games are: They let you feel satisfaction and accomplishment even when you aren't doing anything at all.
Puzzle games create a very simple, abstract world in which you can be smart, competent, and have mastery. If you dispute the power fantasy element of this, I merely observe this: When you solve a difficult puzzle correctly, you feel powerful.
And of course, the ultimate expression of instant, overwhelming power: gunzzzzz ...
What Brings This To Mind, Part One
I wrote a blog post about indie hit, Vampire Survivors, a very good and much loved game.
Vampire Survivors refines video game power into its purest, crystalline form.
I've played this game a lot. I've watched streams of it. This game creates a feeling of relentless glee, all of it coming from the waves of raw, ludicrous power you unleash.
Nothing distracts you from this. When you are succeeding, you don't even move. You just watch as gigantic waves of pixel-monsters come at you, and your magic, automatic sparkle guns lay waste to them. The only break from this is when you gain a level and choose how to make your guns even more awesome.
When you are in the game, every other element is ruthlessly pared away. This purity is what makes the game great.
What Brings This To Mind, Part Two
We recently released a game called Queen's Wish 2: The Tormentor. Like most of our games, it is soaked in politics, factions, arguments, and tough choices to make.
I've written tons of games like that, where, once you pick a side, you can fight your way to a happy ending where the things you want to happen happen and there are few things to feel bad about.
The difference with Queen's Wish 2 is that there aren't happy solutions. You change the world in dramatic ways. However, there is no sparkly ending, where you're totally happy with the result. You have to make compromises. Bad things always happen somewhere.
I made it this way because it's honest. I've read enough history and lived enough life to know that there is almost never a clean answer. You fight and negotiate and take what you can get, and the best you can hope for is 55%. Honesty is not a power fantasy.
A lot of my fans hate this. And, honestly, they should. By doing this, I'm breaking the Video Game Contract. Video games are at their best when they deliver satisfying power fantasies. I used to do that. It doesn't feel honest to me anymore.
That is why my brain, at this point, is not able to make all-new games that will be satisfying and successful to my audience. I don't have more to say about that now, as I'm still working it out for myself.
Sell People What They Want
People who play video games want a chance of having a feeling of triumph and satisfaction. It’s a little depressing, but I didn’t make the world.
Steakhouses sell steak. Barbershops sell haircuts. We sell victory. It's not real, it's fantasy. But it feels real, and that's enough. There are other routes to profit making video games, but you have to work very hard to find them.
Now I'm going to go back to work on a remaster of one of our old successes. I wrote it back when I could make games that gave players the triumph they craved, and I will be sure to leave that part alone.
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“It doesn't feel honest to me anymore… That is why my brain, at this point, is not able to make all-new games that will be satisfying and successful to my audience.”
For all the hardcore realism you’ve always exuded, all the focus on the game’s industry as an industry, this as a job first and foremost… even the Grumpy Uncle of Game Development can’t escape the doldrums of disillusionment poisoning one’s art. Because yes, it IS still a job, yes it is still a matter of markets and product and income and hard questions of capital reality, but… it’s still, STILL an artform, still a creative endeavor, and still vulnerable to all the “flighty” problems that the business mind can’t address or solve.
There’s no logical argument to “solve” or “cure” this – you’ve all the logic and reality you need already if that could be done. But it can’t. And how logical is it to try and “logic” yourself into good vibes and happy endings? …
But I think it’s because you’ve taken to tackling issues that aren’t really meant for nice, “and everyone lived happily ever after.” Exile/Avernum was, in terms of the “issues” a fairly straightforward good vs. evil affair – triumph is simple, doable, obtainable. Slay the dragon, beat the bad guys, avenge the wronged, free the prisoners, and everyone good is there after happy.
But none of your other series have done that.
Geneforge – what is the relationship between creation and creator, and when power is dangerous, where does the line between safety and oppression get drawn? Avadon – how does one balance power and safety and the greater good of all? In the fog of politics and the threat of war, where does one divide authority from tyranny? Queen’s Wish – Nationalism, family, colonialism, culture and conscience get all get drunk at the Independence Day party in your soul – who do you arm with sparklers?
Aside from Avernum, the body of your creative work isn’t conducive to sparkly, happy “simple” endings. You’ve always worked from bigger, thinkier, more complex angles. I can’t fathom anyone playing a Spiderweb Software title expecting a Doom 2016 type experience. From the perspective of perfect narrative resolution “power fantasy” has never been what you do. Even in the original Geneforge, most of the factions were going to get screwed, however you felt about them.
All that said… could Queen’s Wish stand to lighten up? … yeah. Too much focus went into the unyielding, resolution-less misery of the world. There wasn’t just too much you couldn’t fix, and there wasn’t enough positivity to make you want to fix what you could. Fewer unsolveable problems, more enticing factors about the world and its people – perfection isn’t reasonable, but a little less Martin and a little more Tolkien would have made for a more palatable setting. There are problems and imperfections and drama, but there’s gotta be something there worth fighting for. As long as the player has something to love, they'll be motivated, even if it means they need to bulldoze everything else to preserve, protect, or enthrone that thing.
But… if you can’t bring yourself to do that anymore, then you simply can’t. Period. And no amount of random internet discourse is going to change that.
I actually really liked Queen's Wish 2 despite the added realism because if you struggled hard and were exceptionally careful, you could still make things -better- in some way you cared about.
You couldn't make anything roses and sunshine, but if you picked your battles and were very diplomatic, you could at least win whatever you felt most strongly about.
It's something I feel is lacking in a lot of modern games, there's the rawr evil person path and the yay good person path, but it's a rare game that makes you struggle to effect positive change in a system while still dangling the potential in front of you. I really enjoyed trying to drag my fantasy family to being slightly better people while still fighting for my fantasy family and its empire instead of against them. It was really interesting to play a literal role and try to do it well rather than just impose my entire will upon the world.
I don't think I can disagree with you about this being less popular and selling less, but I thought I'd at least thank you for making Queen's Wish more complicated and honest without just making it 'everything is awful always'.