Have you ever asked yourself why you like a game? I don’t just mean whether you like a game (everyone knows it if they like a game; they can’t help it). I mean have you ever sat down and stripped a game down to its bare bones, setting aside the graphics, the music, the sound effects, and asked yourself, ”Why do I enjoy the acts of aiming at targets and pulling the trigger? If there were no animations that simulated an explosion or blood splatter, could I possibly take pleasure in the gameplay acts alone? Is there something intrinsically satisfying about putting my cursor on a target and clicking?”

I’ve been criticized in the past for saying there’s nothing more to an FPS than aiming and shooting, and you’re welcome to take issue with that generalization yourself. But is there any truth to it? When it comes down to the individual actions we perform in FPS games, do we do anything besides aim and shoot? No doubt, a gamer would contest that assertion by saying, ”Of course not! There’s a lot more to FPS games than shooting a gun. You also have grenades… and melee attacks!” But aren’t grenades and melee attacks utilized by aiming at a target and pulling the trigger? ”Of course!” you might say, ”But there’s more to it than that! With a grenade, you have to aim slightly above your target because grenades fall in an arc, and when you melee an enemy, you have to get really close to them.”

True enough. But when I hear gamers talk about their most anticipated upcoming games, rarely do they mention these tried-and-true mechanics as things they look forward to utilizing again. Instead, gamers will point to aesthetics, such as the look of your character in Destiny, or the realism of an environment in Battlefield, or perhaps the gore in Doom as reasons for hype. No one ever has any doubt that they’ll be participating in the same old drag of aiming their 3D model of a gun at a target and pulling the trigger to make the bad guy become deaded. Rather, it’s the lure of making it look a little different each time. Gamers have also fallen in love with the idea of leveling up after playing their games for several millennia, and collecting money to buy gear, which is used to collect more loot, and so on. Why, gamers love in-game currency so much that if you were to combine the amount of money and loot they’ve stockpiled from all the games they’ve played over the years, they’d be idiots.

What I’m getting at is that gamers wouldn’t really enjoy the gameplay mechanics of their games if certain trivial dopamine feeders – like the reward of shiny loot, currency, cosmetic tailoring, and improved graphics – weren’t inserted into the mix. In fact, I think gamers would learn to hate their games (I mean really hate them, with a rabid, delirious rage similar to my own) if they were forced to perform these menial tasks for their whole lives – like aiming at targets and choosing between shooting, grenading, or meleeing – without ever being given some variety in mental stimuli.

Gamers have come to accept that their games haven’t changed in quite a while, and they don’t seem to be bothered about it. And even though a guy like me will admit that the entertainment value of a worthless gameplay mechanic like aiming and shooting is significantly enhanced by throwing some fancy animations and textures over it, I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I’m dying inside and I only have a few more years before I either become a lifeless corpse or a creature of nightmarish proportions hell-bent on vengeance.

I want you to answer me a question honestly: If you were forced to pick out any existing video game and never play anything except it in your free-time for the rest of your life, how long would it take you to hate that game and lose all interest in gaming altogether? Here’s another question: If the graphics in that game automatically improved every year, or you were able to earn currency which you could spend on buying new hats, would that game’s entertainment value increase? I already know my answer to these questions.

My answer is that the most fundamental part of a game is the player’s involvement in achieving the objective, and if you as the player are only tasked with performing steps that lead to certain set outcomes designed by the developer, then the game’s fun is as limited in its entertainment value as the number of those quaint animations. We’re reduced to an observer who merely designates preconceived strategies as our preferred method of playing and beating the game. Player agency becomes an illusion; we’re just moving through the steps prescribed to us.

I don’t just want to pick an option that always wins (or one that succeeds and fails arbitrarily on the basis of random variables, for that matter). I want to create my own complex methods for achieving success – I want to strategize. I want to not only be challenged by the game, but express my own creativity through it, and I can only do this if I’m supplied with a plethora of varied, accessible gameplay mechanics to arrange for myself. This, I believe, is the only way to prevent games from becoming repetitive and shallow. It’s why we see the player being given more resources to play with as games continue to innovate, because the more assets you have at your disposal, the more outcomes the game has, and the less predictable it becomes. We want infinite replay value and depth in the gameplay mechanics, not just a limited selection of hollow animations to trigger.

The future of video games isn’t flashier graphics or more character customization. While I heartily welcome those things, they aren’t what make up a game’s true substance; they’re just the icing on the cake. Right now we have games that are all icing and no cake, and that’s why this industry has become so stale. No, the future of video games is the eradication of predictable outcomes, and the establishment of gameplay mechanics that embrace and rely upon the player’s creativity to achieve their goals. This can only be accomplished if physical prowess and memorization of specific end-game positions stop dominating competition in games, because those elements aren’t based on creativity but rather superficial actions that aren’t inherently fun to perform.

Developers, stop prescribing repetitive tactics and giving us “right” and “wrong” ways to play. Let players invent their very own imaginative methods for accomplishing objectives, and your games will never lose their appeal. Ultimately you can only accomplish this if you stop simulating reality all the time and start giving yourself the freedom to just focus on making fun, balanced experiences.

~ Ponstory Games