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Goodbye, Play Pile (Hello, Civ Rev)

October 8, 2009

For years – years! – I have had what is known in game developer parlance as a “play pile” – an often monumental pile of games I have decided that I must play for one reason or another. At present, that pile contains everything from Prototype to Wolfenstein 3D to the latest WoW expansion to post it notes referencing games I have yet to get or which are online in one form or another.

This pile stares at me, judging me for my failure to address it. At some point, it makes me feel like I am not keeping up and slipping behind my peers. Eventually, it drives me somewhat mad, and I blow through it in a week to collect mechanics, menus, UI structures and so on. I am like someone who goes to Disney in order to take pics of everything and get the hell out as fast as possible.

Mind you, not a day passes that I don’t play or at least watch a trailer of 8-10 new games. Every day. It is the gift of being a game designer for a living – I get to play stuff, screw off, have fun and actually claim that it furthers my career (somewhere, somehow, it will). Tonight, I still have two games to go, one that I heard about on Facebook and ye olde favorite, Civ Rev. The play pile, though, it makes me anxious. It makes me feel like I should be playing something else instead of a game I have clearly already grokked to death.

A close friend of mine says, “I don’t have a play pile.” He’s a crazy successful game designer, and frankly, this surprised me. “I just play what I feel I want to play and need to play at the moment,” and we talked about the games that he’d recently played. There was a very clear connection between all of them, and knowing about the product that he’s working on as well as his general play preferences, it was obvious to me why he had played every last one of those games.

I thought some about this while we talked and after, and then I came to a freeing conclusion: I ditched my play pile. Why?

  • Distilled quantities of like info: Moving from game to game organically is often what the designer does when he or she is looking for a solution to a problem or following their curiosity. That persistence builds collections of orthogonal knowledge from which answers or new patterns may be built. Playing a collection of like games in search of something is likely to bring me more than playing a random collection of potentially discrete experiences for no reason other than to play them.
  • I’m not done yet: If I am still playing Civ Rev after a year, it is clearly because there’s still something I am getting out of it. On the surface, this might seem absurd, particularly if you know how much I’ve played Civ Rev, but I am sure that somewhere in my cave mind there’s a reason for this persistent play, even if it is to appreciate how important the state of immersion is and how magical it feels to be within it.
  • There’s always a mental playpile, anyway: I am currently doing some work for a client, and I need to do research into a specific style of play. In my play window tomorrow morning, I will likely use that time to sample a collection of games in that style. The notion that what’s sitting in my pile will, somehow, answer all my questions is an illusion.

Of course, I will still probably play Prototype, Wolfenstein 3D and the new WoW expansion when my play experience naturally leads me that way. Ultimately, like my friend, I trust that I will play what I need to play as long as I keep playing. There is great and wonderful freedom in that. Tonight, I will play that Facebook game and Civ Rev without thinking that I am wasting my time playing what I have already played. In giving up that pressure, I will actually enjoy my pure play so much more, like a player would, going game to game, enjoying the trip, the similarities, and the differences.

If I miss something critical, I will trust that it will show up in another game, or my excellent collection of game designer friends will start tweeting about it as if it were Christmas morning. Then, I will look, I will buy, I will pay attention.

Goodbye, play pile. Hello, Civ Rev.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2009 11:56 pm

    Thank you very much for this piece. Like many gamers, I too have a “play pile” that haunts me whenever I am deciding what I should be playing next. Your solution of sorts is very welcoming, and I would be wise to try to adopt it.

    After all, if it comes to the point where we’re playing solely for sheer obligation, then what’s the point?

  2. October 9, 2009 7:59 am

    Yes!! Thank you for writing this!! Today I’m going to feel a bit better with myself.

    My own “play pile” were also haunting me (actually, he teamed up with my “watch pile” and my (even more frightening) “read pile”).

    However, when I start thinking of playing a new game I have a problem that never arises when looking for my next book to read or film to watch: How long should I spend playing to this game in order to get from it as much as possible? (books have pages and font size, films have duration).

    I think it is easy and fast to get the aesthetics of a game. Even screenshots or videos can be enough. Sometimes it may change as the player progresses and then you should have experience it by yourself (I’d say Braid; even Shadow of the Colossus) but this is so rare it is not a major issue.

    Mechanics, in my opinion, are also easy to notice. Gameplay videos, reviews, the game rules or playing the tutorial and the first levels can give you enough information, specially if the game belongs to a well known genre.

    But dynamics? How long should I play to be sure to understand the dynamics behind the mechanics? I feel horrible when I meet some friends and we play a new board game only once, or when I star a new videogame, play it a bit and feel that “I’ve already seen this, done that” and I stop playing.

    I always feel I should continue playing a bit more because dynamics sometimes are shown only to the more experienced players and, then, maybe just round the corner, they may be waiting for me.

  3. October 9, 2009 9:42 am

    Congrats! I’m a bit more like your friend in that I don’t really keep a play pile. But I do sort of keep a list mentally, which makes it a lot easier to reshuffle things, forget games (accidentally or on purpose), and add new ones. If I keep hearing good stuff about a game then I’ll immediately try it out. If I really just don’t care enough about a game to remember it then I take that as a sign. 🙂

    In between peaks, this also frees me up to play somewhat oddball games that just make me happy – Katamari Forever or the Williams Pinball Collection. And somehow that’s almost a more valuable experience anyway. Games should be about fun.

  4. October 31, 2009 9:04 am

    I watched Psycho today. It’s not a movie I would’ve watched in a million years of my own volition, nor would it have been on my play.. er… watch pile. I actually don’t have a pile, more just a list of items I really ought to play. Sometimes these are because they’ve done something new with the medium, or because so much art references so much other art, and it’s good to know the source. Pulp Fiction and Psycho are good examples of movies that are referenced very often in popular culture. Sometimes, curiosity will drive you to these films (or games), but often they’ll sink below your radar, because there’s no good reason to watch or play them. Having a pile or list is a good thing because if you’re ever in a place where you’re not playing a game, you can go straight for your pile and maybe get a great experience.

    I think you guys should start treating your piles differently: Not as something to make smaller, but as something to make larger — i.e. knowing why a game ought to be good to play. That is, “this game is widely recognised as having done X really well”. With so many games out there, the pile (or list, or whatever) is a good way of knowing what not to play. It also feels good when you dredge through your pile one day and start checking off a whole bunch of games you have played but forgotten they were in your pile!

  5. golergka permalink
    November 5, 2009 8:30 am

    It’s even worse with the games that need sufficient time to understand some important things about them – like playing guitar hero on expert, or racing simulators. MMO designers in particular suffer from it, because you’re always interested in the end-game gameplay, and you won’t get there until you play for hundreds of hours – and even there, you still want to get into the most hardcore part of community, which requires great commitment to the game.
    So, after trying to play “seriously” 3 different MMOs over 3 months, I came to the same conclusion that you did: the optimal strategy most time is playing what you actually want. On one hand, you’ll always discover something you in a game that is good enough to keep you interested that long, and on the other – you won’t learn much if you’re forcing yourself to play something. Of course, there are sometimes situtation where you really need to explore the new genre, for example, or find examples of some mechanic, but it doesn’t happen so often.

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