What are Personalized Video Games?

Herman Tulleken

Written by Herman Tulleken

 On 10/28/20 11:28 AM

MemoriesThankYou (1)


A personalized video game is a game made for a specific person or small group of people, usually as a luxury gift, similar to a personalized book.

Art – literature, film, music – has been used to express love and affection – and indeed hurt and hate – as long as we have recorded history. The oldest love poem we know about (A Love Song of Shu-Suen) is about 4000 years old. Shakespeare's love sonnets are studied all over the world. The movie Immortal Beloved speculates about the love life of Beethoven – including who his famous piece Für Elize may have been for. A big percentage of songs are love songs, and even though the line between universal themes and personal inspiration is blurry, it is clear art is a powerful vehicle for expressing emotions.

We’ve talked about the emotional power of games a lot on this site. One example (with a romantic theme) is the game Florence, where we follow a young woman on her journey of love and self-discovery. The games plot is one we have seen hundreds of times in all kinds of media: girl meets boy, there is love, there is an obstacle, and then either they overcome it or something more interesting happens.



Despite the familiarity of the theme, the game is moving, and while it uses all the same mechanisms as a film to pull on our emotions (color, music, pace), it uses something different too: game mechanics. For example, arguments are presented as puzzles where the players have to reconstruct the couple's speech bubbles. The difficulty of the puzzles mimics the progression of the argument so that their emotions are also reflected in what we have to do. A difficult conversation becomes a difficult puzzle. This makes the content feel fresh, and intensifies its impact. We know it's difficult for them because it is difficult for us.

While the expressive power of art is clear, it has not always been available to everyone. While ordinary people could construct their own love poems and songs for some time, you either needed to be an artist, or rich enough to hire an artist, to make something more elaborate like a painting or movie. But the digital age saw the birth of tools that could also be used by non-experts, and today we have enormous amounts of "user-created content" – images, photos, animations, videos, music.

One friend – whose family was spread across the globe during the pandemic – made a video where each family member produced a note of Happy Birthday on a different type of instrument or voice, cut together in an elaborate ensemble. It could never work as a commercial project; yet the investment yielded a gift more valuable than you could buy off-the-shelf for the same "amount". The value is almost created out of thin air not from the process itself, but rather who takes part in it. It's not the production value; it's the personal touch.

The personal touch can have a huge impact in games too.

MemoriesThankYou (2)

During our "100 Days of Games for Growth" campaign, we created a bunch of word games for our clients to say thank you for doing business with us. Each game used the name of the person it was for, combined with words we thought describe them. The gameplay in those games will certainly not win any game design awards, but the reaction we got surprised us; people were touched that we took the time to create something unique for each one.

But non-developers cannot really take advantage of this yet. One option is to commission games as gifts, and these can range widely: simple modifications to an existing game (see for example Heart2Game), games made for a few hundred dollars (for example Bday Game), and elaborate games built from scratch for 50,000 USD or more. One famous example is a game made by Kevin Smith for Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck called Jen Saves Ben (2002), a platformer where Ben is trapped and Jen has to save him.

(Jen Saves Ben)

Why do games lag behind other media when it comes to tools for the masses? The biggest reason is interaction. Rules of how the computer should react to player actions have to be specified in some way (usually as a computer program); the game creator cannot simply press "record" and out comes a game. ‘When you die’ is still a rule that can be arbitrarily complex, whether you code it or drag in a few components to represent the logic.

Notice that the interaction is also what give games their expressive power.

In Florence, it is the interaction that helps build the emotion, and indeed interaction is a main contributor to tension and release even in abstract games like Tetris. Movies put their characters under time pressure – but games put their audience under time pressure. And the awe inspired by flying between skyscrapers in Spiderman or swimming among wales in Abzu does not come from the visuals or the music, as awesome as they are – it comes from the experience created by pressing the button and moving through the world, it comes from the player's agency. (See also Why we play games that explore similar themes.)



So the interaction is what distinguishes games from other art, but also what makes them more difficult to build. Not to say that non-programmers cannot make games – they most surely can! But even with the tools of today, it can still be challenging.

With this in mind, we decided to take our "Thank you" games one step further – to combine personalization and interaction in a simple game that could be used in more intimate relationships. This is how we came up with Memories, a trivia-anagram game that uses your photos, music, and questions to make a personal game that you can give to your partner, family, or friends. The game is loosely structured like a story, with questions divided into three chapters that you can map out to your story as you see fit. Users upload their content, and shortly after receive their game. So far a handful of games have been made, and they had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the receivers.


One thing that surprised us was that the gift-givers found the experience of making the game very enjoyable: revisiting good memories, making creative choices, and anticipating the reaction of the receiver all contribute to this feeling.

If you want to be one of the first to try it out – and make a game for someone you care about – please sign up for early access.

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