More spaces are showing games for many different reasons. It might be demos for games that are available to purchase, games that are in development or perhaps the game itself was specifically designed to be shown in an exhibition. Whatever the reason there are a few questions that I think we should start asking ourselves about showing games in these spaces. This is not a definitive list but a work in progress, the beginning of a wider conversation we as designers, exhibitors and curators should be having. Games are certainly worthy of a platform and space to be shown, and we can learn a lot from other mediums, art, design, performance and theatre, but there are somethings that games do differently. Therefore we must consider what is special about how people view and experience games and how we can make exhibitions and spaces for games better, for those that attend and those that are showing.
Here are ten questions to start that conversation:
It might be that your game is going to be set-up or looked after by someone else, or you be looking after many different games. Make it as easy as possible to go from a crashed or broken state to ready to play. In the case of games on PCs and Macs put a little extra effort in so the game automatically loads up when you either turn on or reset the system. This will make your life and the life of others a whole lot easier.
I’ve seen it happen in a number of places. People play a game for a while and then leave it part way through. If a new player with no experience of the game comes to play at this point they may have missed the ‘tutorial’ or learning experience crucial to the overcoming the next obstacle. In fact people often put down the game when they get stuck, so someone picking up the game at this difficulty spike can stop them getting into the game completely. Your game may well have a menu and a restart option but this may not be clear on its own. Is there a way to have a big reset button so a new player can walk to the system and hit it knowing they’ll go back to the beginning? Something like a MakeyMakey could be used for doing this.
When exhibiting a game, a player will not necessarily have a long time to play your game. There will hopefully be people waiting behind them to have a go, which will add pressure to them. Is the player going to get a suitable understanding of the games rules or controls and a reasonable impression of the game in the time given? If you are showing part of a larger game choose carefully which part it is you show. If you are creating a game specifically for exhibition take this consideration into account at the design phase.
Again you are probably hoping that lots of people will want to play your game, but games generally are not designed with systems for allowing new players to enter and old players to leave. Consider changing your game to allow for this. At certain points in the game, controlled by time or achievement add an on screen prompt (or non-digital equivalent) that says, ‘You’ve been playing for a while, can you see someone else who would like to play.’ If there isn’t anyone they can keep playing but if there is someone else can have a go without having to ask.
In a similar way, multiplayer games should encourage you to share. After a round, match or turn, specifically consider having the winning player give up their spot. Again this can be an onscreen prompt. I have always disliked the often used ‘winner stays on’ rule for game all this does is give the best player more opportunity to get better rather than allowing less skilled players the opportunity to improve.
Depending on the type of game and the subject matter there should be some consideration to who can see the game being played. Should it just be the people playing, perhaps they are being asked personal questions or they need a safe space to fail and get better. Possibly showing someone the game before they play will spoil it for them. On the other hand is the game improved with a audience of spectators encouraging and reacting to the players playing. Either way the space and the way the game is set up should really consider that. You can put a curtain around a game, or hide it in a booth. You can put large screens high so others can see them. You can have secondary screens which show the action to the audience specifically.
The worst thing that can happen when learning to play a game is that there are not any clear instructions for the controls. This leads to bashing buttons and hoping things will happen. This is worse with keyboards as there are so many additional potential buttons to try. A simple way to reduce this complexity is by removing the buttons, or highlighting the buttons that are used with stickers or some other markings. A potentially better way is to make a bespoke controller, which through its design communicates intuitively how to use it.
A lot of the time we play games in our own homes or with friends, this is somewhere we likely feel safe to fail and get things wrong, and can slowly learn how to play. Picking up a game in a public space and not being able to play can be embarrassing and frustrating. I am not sure what the best way is to solve this in general as it will very much depend on the exact nature of the game and the player, but it is certainly something to take into consideration. If your game is specifically hard maybe having multiple systems, some with an amount of privacy may eliminate the problem.
It is a big challenge but sometimes it is just a little dull seeing rows of computers lined up showing games. I know it makes life and set-up easier but it lacks a little of the potential magic of games. There is potential, given enough budget, time and effort to make bespoke cabinets and tables to hide the hardware in. Instead of mounting screens on walls, they could be behind cutout windows in false walls, giving a flush neat appearance. Instead of keyboards and standard control pads their could be mounted and bespoke controllers. This I admit is a luxury but I think it would help people focus on the games and design rather than the technology used.
Whether the game you are exhibiting is a short demo of a larger game, a full demo for something you wish to sell or something designed specifically for that exhibition the above notions should be considered and potentially embedded into the game. You can design these elements into the fabric of the game itself or you can add a coat of exhibition veneer to an existing game. To make the games exhibition friendly will definitely require more work but it will give the player an experience greater than something they could achieve at home just downloading a demo.