This post is a little more personal and less pointed than many previous. But it's an observation that's been vaguely bouncing around my head for a while and my wife (and talented editor!) helped crystallize it last night, so I figure now is as good a time as any.
It feels like my perspective on games changed after I started making them professionally. It's not for the better or for the worse, merely different. I've seen how the sausage is made. The process is a little unnerving, but damn, it's still delicious.
What I gained was an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. Even the simplest of games has a tremendous amount of interlocking pieces, nearly all of them inter-dependent. At times I'm amazed games get made at all.
I am able to better recognize the components now. I see how the components can be built into systems that challenge, engage and emote ... or at least attempt to. It's a little disheartening at times, like touring the set of a favourite movie or TV show and seeing there is no ceiling and only two walls. The vast, vibrant world you imagine really looks something like this.
It's not a negative perception though. In some ways, it's even more fascinating, both on the part of the creator and the player. The creators provide just enough substance for the player's imagination to take over. The player doesn't need to try to sneak a peek past that unclimbable wall, because they believe the city continues outward.
I am now more aware of what's beyond the wall though (nothing). It's very similar to when I read The Design of Everyday Things and started noticing how nearly every door in the world is poorly designed. But it also helped me recognize and appreciate instances of really good design. Games are not much different.
I will notice clever tricks with lighting to guide the player's eye. Seeing an NPC behave strangely, I start guessing at the logic bugs in his state management that might have caused this. I'll note the way certain abilities drive particular behaviour. The different ways enemy AI behaves has become especially noticeable.
But when a game is so engrossing that the developer lenses come off for a while, I cannot help but admire it. All the various gears and levers recede and it's just about the experience. Rather than appreciation of various components, it's the whole artifact that's engaging. Weirdly, it makes me take notice because of all the things I'm not noticing. Eventually, I'll probably start trying to peer under the hood again. Although this time, it's likely to try and understand how all the bits fit together so well and how I can replicate the same.
One interesting side effect of this is I feel more empathy for other developers. I have a lot of difficulty completely lambasting a game, because I realize there were dozens of people not too unlike me who worked quite hard to bring this thing into existence. Mistakes are not absolved, but I find myself asking, "How can I avoid doing this?" rather than frothing about the developers' intelligence and parentage, as the howling hordes of the internet so often do.
I've always been pretty dogmatic about finishing the games I start. But now, I finish games because I want people to finish mine. By finishing games, I feel as if I'm fully appreciating the efforts that went into them. I've probably sunk some unnecessary hours into games that peaked early and I understand why others would bail early. If there's just some smaller interesting facet I want to examine, I'll grab a demo. But as soon as I've laid down cash, I feel compelled to finish.
There likely aren't any stunning revelations here. It's just interesting for me to reflect on how the way I see things has changed over the past couple of years. I'm curious to hear if your perspective on playing games has shifted as you started making games, playing different kinds of games or even just playing more/less.
More than anything else, I have found it very valuable to recognize that I don't see all the exact same things others do. This makes their perspective invaluable. Find these people, be they team mates, playtesters or just other games, and let them help you see things with a different set of lenses.