As with most creative endeavours, the process of game design and production is often a struggle with limited resources. Obviously any game project is going to test its mettle against the challenges of time, money and personnel resources, common to many other forms of business. But as games are a complex and multilateral form of entertainment, they are afflicted with a multitude of other challenges as well: audience expectation, platform limitations and overall play experience all set hoops for the intrepid production team to jump through.

The obvious answer to any challenge from the above list is to face it head on and do the best you can with the resources at your disposal. Come hell or high water, at the end you can at least say you played your hand out as well as you could, whatever the end result may be. But due to the holistic nature of games as a post-modern cultural product, there are at least a couple more subtle directions you can take in your problem solving. For example, the pervasiveness of social media and other methods of instant, global communication make it possible for game creators to communicate with their fanbase, which in turn can act to facilitate meeting audience expectations with optimal features in the finished product. A major league example of this is Wizards of the Coast pointedly asking for fan input for the 5th Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, which is in turn obviously a reaction to the mixed reception of the notorious 4th Edition rules.

Obviously directly catering to fans is not always a possibility due to other pressing constraints on a project, but usually listening to the audience can't hurt, whether you implement any of their suggestions or not. Another aspect of these kind of aikido moves available for game designers is viewing platform limitations as opportunities rather than challenges. The obvious route to take here is publishing product exclusively on a particular platform, to create hype in that particular audience segment and possibly gain favour with that particular platforms publisher(s), although this choice is debatable with the current prevalence of multiplatform publication.

Another similar trick involving platform limitations (and, incidentally, one that got me thinking about this topic) is to use the actual hardware limitations of a particular platform to help set the pace of your game. If we look at digital games as a system of reward and punishment designed to keep the player hooked and interested, we need to keep our eye on the whole experience of play offered to the audience. Clearly, rewarding the players takes many forms: level advancement, additional content, plot advancement, various graphical and sound cues, and so on. But no game can get away with just positive re-inforcement. In fact, the rewards lose some of their meaning, if the flipside of the coin is not also present: sometimes, the player has to be punished for their failure.

Herein lies the challenge: aside for a fairly limited group of hardcore games (glaring at you Super Meat Boy!), actually punishing the player is a bit of a no-no. In fact, in today's over-saturated market, making your game actually difficult can cut a fair number of potential (casual) customers from your target audience. However, this is where the holistic nature of the gaming experience can come to your aid. Despite what we sometimes think, the player experiences not only the actual gameplay content of any given game, but also everything else in the program. This includes all start-up screens, intro videos, menus and most important of all for this particular discussion, loading windows.

In any given game, various loading windows set the pace for advancement and action, even though they (at least usually) are just a side effect of limitations set by programming constraints or the processing power of a particular platform. Most of the time they tend to irritate the player, even when they signify advancement from one location to the next or from one level to another. But when they are brought on by use of a save/load function, or occur due to player death, they signify some sort of failure on the player's part: he or she wasn't quite good enough to accomplish a desired result, and thus the game forces them to stare at a boring load screen before play can continue. (As an example of this you can use any number of platform games with a waypoint system for tracking advancement, or any game that relies on a free save/load function to offset difficulty or unpredictability in the game world.) Thus, the load screen acts as a punishment for failure, even if it seemingly is just a manifestation of a limitation of the software itself. The brilliance of this is that whilst players experience the slap on the wrist represented by the load screen, they rarely realise to blame the game or its makers for the wrinkle in their fun. Thus the punishment creates little to no animosity towards the product, whilst fulfilling an important psychological function by making the player's failure concretely mean something. Due to this a savvy designer can make the system limitations work for them, instead of against them, and use load screens as a crafty form of punishment in an experience system mostly built on reward.

Now what I'd really like to know is, how many games are already doing this to us players? Getting spanked without knowing it seems rather insidious.