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Player promises

- and how to use them in game production

In Zak McClendon’s (then working at Double Fine) 2018 talk “Welcome to the Yard Sale” he talks about the process of organizing ideas for games and design. He uses the concept of “creative promises” as a tool to guide design. I find the concept very intriguing and interpret it as an emotionally tied version of design pillars (see my article on that subject).

Zak defines a creative promise as “a concrete commitment from you to your audience about what they (hopefully) will experience with your game.” He breaks it further down into:

  • A promise is potential
  • It implies the audience
  • It creates expectations and obligations
  • It makes you feel personally responsible
  • It is concrete, clear and generative

Good promises make people want things; both developers and players. They also allow you to generate ideas quickly and keep yourself in check; is your game really about what you think it is about? As the focus is on what you are making for your audience, I like the term “player promises” better, taken from Alex Jaffe’s (then working at Riot) 2019 GDC talk “Cursed Problems in Game Design”.

A promise is potential

An example is the Bioshock 2 promise of “becoming a Big Daddy”. That in itself implies a lot of other promises that players can get really excited about. If players have played the first game they know about the Big Daddy and how badass they are. They want to embody that! They want to wield a big drill and carry around the Little Sisters. There is a lot of implied potential in that promise. A promise that the developers must live up to.

A promise implies the audience

In relation to marketing it’s all about building up the player’s expectations, and delivering on them. The journey for the player goes from getting expectations from consuming marketing material about the game to getting expectations fulfilled when playing the game itself and living through all the great promised content. It is important for the developers to be constantly aware of what they are creating and if that satisfies their promises, especially once the promise has been made public to the audience.

A promise creates expectations and obligations

This point ties into the one before as it implies that you know what your audience appreciates. If you are promising them to be a Big Daddy, you have to know if that is something people want. That is why marketing research is so important for bigger game studios, as they do not want to spend huge sums creating a flop. Once they create expectations with the players they are obligated to fulfill them. Otherwise they may end with a marketing failure.

The biggest examples of broken promises that come to mind are No Man’s Sky and Cyberpunk 2077. Both games that were very hyped up for a long time and with lots of pre-orders. No Man’s Sky talked a lot about all the features the game would contain, this was taken as promises by the players, who then complained when the game released without a lot of these features. They felt cheated!

Likewise Cyberpunk 2077 had made a lot of promises, and after multiple delays and almost a decade of hype CD Projekt Red failed to deliver a finished game that fulfilled all the promises that had been made.

A promise make you feel personally responsible

A good promise is not only for the sake of getting players excited, but for the developers as well. They create focus and a reason for you to create the game. You are responsible for delivering upon your promise, not only because of the players’ disappointment if you don’t, but also for the sake of your own professionalism.

A good promise is concrete, clear and generative

For development use it is great to establish the promises as soon as possible as they will inform your design decisions and help accelerate the development process. You will have a great tool for cutting away ideas that do not fit and focusing on what does fit within your game. This is where the concept ties heavily into design pillars.

If you’d like more tools and tips for pre-production for games, check out our Pre-production Cheat Sheet.

Summary

A player promise is what you as a developer promise your players they will experience in your game. It gives you a focus and the players something to look forward to. It is a great tool to use from early development to focus your team. It is also a great tool to use for marketing purposes, but as I have shown in the examples, be careful of over-promising and under-delivering.

I hope this article gave some food for thought for when you are making your next game.

Jannick Hynding Lund
Jannick Hynding Lund

Producer and game designer - Partner at Vizlab Studios

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