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Brenda Romero: A great game is about how it makes you feel

Designer and educator on why graphics are only part of the formula

Brenda Romero, game designer and program director at UC Santa Cruz Games & Playable Media MS, asked DICE Summit attendees to see beyond the way games look on the screen and to remember games need to be judged by how they make you feel.

"A great game is all about how it makes you feel. We're going to talk about sex for a minute," she said, grabbing the audience's attention.

"So what does sex look like? Do not answer me. And then the second question is what does sex feel like? One is passive and one is active and is there really any question which one is the most desirable? Of course there's not. And games are the same way."

She explained our memory and imagination of a game, and how it made us feel, could alter the way that we see things. She remembered hunting for a screenshot of Alone In The Dark, only to find that the graphics were far more basic than the world she had remembered.

"We are what great games look like"

"So what does a great game look like? For me it's not on the screen, it's in the faces of the players and being able to see that." she said.

She added that you could also see this on the faces of game creators who were passionate and enjoying what they were creating.

"And games are also about education, or they gives us the opportunity to understand. And sometimes they give us an opportunity to confront things. The player shows up basically, and all these things that we want to express to them, none of which may be visual, but the things that we want to express to them they take those things and then those things are there experiences.

"They are a mirror of us and we are a mirror of them, and the computer to me is sort of this weird border in between."

Romero started in the industry in the early 80s just as the "graphics arms race" was beginning and now as well as her academic work at the University of California at Santa Cruz she's the co-founder and COO of Loot Drop.

She also addressed the issue of awards and acclaim versus profit, saying she once failed a job interview for choosing awards.

"I understand this is the games industry and not the games art movement where we make games just because we love them," she said.

"I don't know anyone who makes games just for money. And maybe those people exist and maybe I naturally repel them or something but I don't anybody who makes games just for money. And nor do I know any game players who play games just so they can give us money. It's all about this sense of passion, this love that we genuinely have for games.

"We are what great games look like."

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Latest comments (10)

Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 2 years ago
Brenda Romero was one of my biggest inspirations for taking the plunge and finally joining the games industry proper. The other, of course, being Rhianna Pratchett, who trail-blazed the concept of freelance narrative design and narrative triage.

What they both have strongly in common is this understanding of the takeaway of feelings as the high point of a game. Reach inside your player, find a way to touch their heart, spark their imagination so they walk away from the game still thinking about it. Find the pain they don't know they're feeling and ease it a little.

People used to (sometimes still do) dismiss video games as trivial, wastes of time, unimportant. But we live in a world dominated by work - doing work, thinking about work, needing to do work and preparing to do work. Very little time is left, unless you happen to have an especially satisfying job, for actually feeling happy. Anything that can help us do that, therefore, is very important. And games really can.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios2 years ago
Yeah, but everytime I try and play a recent video game, it makes me do work.

For example, off the top of my head, Batman Arkham City, incredible looking city, but my first objective is to restart 3 power generators. I search, find 1, turn it on, search, find the 2nd one, turn it on, search, find the 3rd one and turn it on. But the environment I'm doing it in, looks gorgeous.

So, I quit and sell it on Ebay. Too much of a chore. not fun.

Yes games should make you feel happy, not stressed.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios2 years ago
There's room for games that are stressful, if there's a good reason for the stress. Alien Isolation, for example :)

And I wouldn't want all games to make me feel happy. Games that make you cry are also good, I'd like to see more of those. But yeah, Brenda's point is that the experience happens inside the player's head, and the visuals, audio, and mechanics should serve that end. A timely reminder with everyone racing to establish the definitive next-gen experience...
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Helen Merete Simm Senior UI Artist, Ubisoft Reflections2 years ago
My favourite example of a game that makes you FEEL is Mass Effect. Because while I'm playing I feel like I actually AM Commander Shephard, a badass mofo who is saving the universe...

Stressful games... well theres Dead Space. The (first) game perfectly instills a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia, even the UI is designed to keep you on edge, never safe.
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I would just love a game world with zero quests or tasks to do, just pure content tourism or the freedom to manipulate. Explore, distort or co create...or maybe that's like too much of physical reality disguised as a hologram within a holographic universe
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief2 years ago
Chee, have you tried Minecraft. It's quite popular.
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Mark Neri Property Management System Specialist, Courtesy Point Technologies, Inc.2 years ago
I believe what Brenda Romero has pointed out was something that really needs to be said.
Helen, the Mass Effect series were the games that came to my mind as well. For me, it really felt you were Commander Shepard.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Mark Neri on 6th February 2015 3:57am

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 2 years ago
I actually find that the right horror or other stressful game makes me happy as well, just in a different way. It's nice to face virtual problems I can actually do something about, even if that something is just running away.

These days we mostly have three sources of stress: unpleasant work, and/or lack of money being the chief two. If we don't suffer one, we have the other, or both (unless we have the job and colleagues of our dreams, which is actually mind-blowingly wonderful - the days when you wake up and can't wait to get the office feel like being back at school and wanting to get there asap to talk to your bestie).

Whereas our bodies are designed for short bursts of stress: "Oh my god, there's a lion!" *run away from the lion* *euphoric relief* (or possibly *contented lion*).

Games can give us that. They can give us problems, and we can overcome them just by thinking about them or trying really hard or failing all else, going to the wiki. Whereas in life, we not only have to do that, but be the first person who thought of the idea, or our idea has to the best one, or we have to relate to the interviewer in the best way AND our interview has to be timed so they've not forgotten us by the end and... .so much that's not actually in our hands to control.

And games can pop a relief valve for that third source of stress: social. We can yell at the screen, we can cry about Red XIII's dad - no-one's watching.

But it has to be the right game to do that - so many fall back on grind without amping the motivation to match it. Shep faces a MASSIVE effort but the constant emotional feedback from the game keeps us feeling right there - we feel what Shephard is feeling and we get that huge heroic motivation.

I always come back to what Agatha Christie said about mystery stories, though she was only talking about clues, it can be broadened to feelings. "The note in the pocket is cheating."

Your reader has to have all the information your character has. Too often, all we get in essence is a little message that tells us our character is angry and wants revenge, or they're sad, or whatever, but we don't have the information that makes US feel that. "This guy died in the opening credits; why am I supposed to feel like a part of me died with him? He seemed like a bit of a twonk."

For a classic example of what I'm talking about, the novel "One of Us" by Michael Marshall Smith uses absolutely everything at it's disposal, right down to the choice of words for the way their letters sound and induce feeling, to keep you feeling along with the character in a very surreal world and ends on a feeling of utter celestial elation. But when you go back and look at the end, it should be sad. But when we read it, the character is filled with hope and because he has communicated (like a disease is communicated) that to us, we read it in the same context he feels it. It's a masterpiece of narrative design.

Gah, sorry, I get way too excited about this subject :)
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For me a great game must make me feel.. welcomed,while being familiar but not overly familiar. A great game must almost immediate immerse me through graphic/sound/UI/environment design. It must all make sense rather quickly to me, it must make feel a part of it within the first 10 to 20 minutes.

It's one of those rare things that you know once you start to encounter it. The great game will make you think of it and even yearn for it while your doing other daily activities such as commuting/working etc. It will become a focus in your life if even if for just a short period of time. It will become like a comfort food, and in the end it will create and leave very real and pleasant memories. Ones you will recall and enjoy for a life time.

Its one of the reasons I truly love gaming, because once in a while I come across a game that will truly bring joy and memories to my life. True these great games are rare but they are out there.
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Fazi Zsolt Game & Level Designer @Atypical Games 2 years ago
She is right on the mark, a good game is all about the feeling it creates and gives to the player (thus enable emotional growth even though the player may not perceive it on a conscious level).

So, defining a game only by its looks, is just like defining a book by its cover.
This is where most people get it wrong. They separate each part of the game, and think of it as a different entity, instead of thinking of them as an integral part of the game itself.
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