Making ‘Please Be Nice,’ a Game Designed by Its Players

April 3, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Aran Koning about Please Be Nice 🙁, a game that demonstrates exactly why we can’t have nice things.

The creator of Please Be Nice 🙁 says the game’s title is also its only rule. He just wants players to be nice. The sad face emoticon indicates that he doesn’t think they will be. After all, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And with Please Be Nice 🙁, Aran Koning has given all the power to the players.

It started out simple. In version 1 players used their arrow keys to move a square to the goal on a totally blank 2D plane. But the first person who beat it got to suggest a new feature. So version 2 had a character select screen. This process has continued for weeks, and dozens of new features and mechanics have been added, all at the behest of the first player to beat each new version. “Everyone always has ideas for games, but they don’t get to actually make them, because they don’t know how to make game,” Koning tells ANIMAL. “We sort of offer that service to them for free. Especially if you had one of the suggestions right at the start—then you have a huge influence on the game, and I think that’s what people like.”

The latest feature to be added to the game was “two Planet of the Apes references.” Some players have come back over and over again, requesting absurdities like corn-on-the-cob enemies that explode into “evil popcorn” and a Doge-themed menu system. The game has become an absolute mess, but it’s a mess that these players made, and they seem happy to roll around in it. “There are some other games that are already made that take some suggestions from the community, but not in the literal sense like we do,” says Koning. “Because this is really taking it to an extreme. I don’t really see it as a viable model.”

Koning created Please Be Nice 🙁 along with his classmates Herman Groenenboom and Sander Vanheste. The trio study computer science and video game technology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Koning says they’re “learning to suck less at making games.”

“Well since we’re all computer science bachelors, we pretty much all just do the programming. That’s why the art is so bad. We don’t really know how to make art, which is unfortunate. Maybe it has an appeal because it’s so weird.”

Koning and co. dreamed up Please Be Nice 🙁 after becoming engrossed in another recent collaborative gaming project: “Twitch Plays Pokémon.” TPP saw thousands of players and spectators congregating on the video game streaming site Twitch.TV to collectively play the 1997 Nintendo Game Boy game Pokémon Red.

Viewers entered commands into a chat window, and special software sent those commands to the game. Progress was slow with so many people attempting to control the game at once, but the experience spawned dozens of memes and even a Pastafarian-style religion with multiple opposing factions. “I thought that was really cool,” says Konig, “and I really liked the trolling aspect of that…I think the same could happen in Please Be Nice :(.

Though no one has truly ruined it yet, Please Be Nice 🙁 has become a mishmash. In the most recent iteration, version 114, a giant cat pops up every time you complete a level. There’s a boss with “googly eyed pants,” and a weapon called the “gungun” that “shoots guns that shoot.” A flock of blue birds follows you around calling you “senpai” and imploring you to love them. The final scene is, nonsensically, a low-resolution animation of an exploding bridge that was added after one winner requested, simply, “exploding bridge.”

Players have also requested some legally questionable features. When you die the game plays the “You blew it!” sound clip from Billy Madison. Playable characters include Nicolas Cage’s head and a Pokémon called Mudkip. But Koning isn’t worried.

“We added some stuff that’s taken from movies or from Pokémon, and I looked it up to see if it’s illegal, but I couldn’t find anything,” he says. “If we get sued, that’s good publicity, right? And then we can always say, ‘No! We didn’t want to add it to the game; they wanted it!'”

It all goes to show that players can’t be trusted to know what they want. Or — as Koning determined after a chat with one of his game design lecturers — players can be given control over content, but not mechanics. Either way, Please Be Nice 🙁 is an experiment in game design gone horribly, hilariously wrong. But where will it end?

“[The game will end] when we either get sick of making stuff, or the people get sick of us making stuff,” Koning says. “It could go on forever.”

Please Be Nice 🙁 is available for free on pleasebenice.aran-koning.com.