Game On The Rails
Designing Noninteractive Play Spaces
Brian Upton is a freelance game design consultant based in Los Angeles. At his company Game On The Rails he advises worldwide clients on pitching, prototyping, design, narrative, and production. He specializes in creative problem-solving, helping teams ship their games under tight time or budget pressure.
For 14 years he worked as a senior game designer at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio where he collaborated with external teams on titles such as Fat Princess, Warhawk, Sorcery, Everybody Has Gone to the Rapture, Bound and Here They Lie. Prior to joining Sony, he was the creative director at Red Storm Entertainment where he pioneered the tactical shooter genre as the lead designer of Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon. He has served on the advisory boards of the game design programs at UC Santa Cruz, NYU, and University of Limerick. He is also the author of The Aesthetic of Play (MIT Press 2015), a book about game design and meaning-making.
Most critical thinking about games focuses on their unique interactive nature. The result is a kind of interactive reductionism: You’re only playing when you’re interacting, and the more interactive a game is, the better. But this approach to design overlooks a large number of minimally interactive play experiences. Turn-based games, make-believe, horror games, puzzle games, stealth games, walking simulators—all these ways to play often contain long intervals between interactions, and yet manage to offer continuous play experiences.
My talk is about the design principles underlying noninteractive play. How do you structure a game so that players will continue playing even though there’s nothing for them to do? I’ll start out with a deep dive into the theory of noninteractive play: What are players actually doing when they don’t seem to be doing anything? Then I’ll lay out a set of design principles for specific types of noninteractive play: How do you design a game around anticipation? Around dread? Around planning? Around interpretation?