Thursday, June 30, 2005

Player-Centred Game Design

Ages ago, I went to GDCE. And I attended a really interesting talk about user-centred design in game mechanics.

User centred design has been adopted by the web industry for a while, so it was a strange experience hearing someone evangelising it to an assembled room full of 'puter game designers. To me, it all seemed obvious, but the tone of the questions at the end indicated that some folk had a Damascene Conversion during the talk.

Anyway - why am I posting my notes now? Well, they've been sitting on an internal wiki at work for ages, unread. I've been having all sorts of discussions about the model for playing styles, with all sorts of folk recently; it's been spurred on by sticking my toes in the water of the MMORPG world, and some chats I've been listening to about humour in games, and how that differs when you have real life people interacting within a game space.

I'll sign off by saying the interesting thing about the social aspects of MMORPGs is that they leak into RL. I greeted someone I've been playing WoW with in the street by doing a little Tauren lady-dance; exactly as I'd greet them in the game. And now, without further ado, I give you:

Player Centric Game Design

Talk given by International Hobo: Ernest Adams and Chris Bateman
EA teaches game design at university and has written a book - Andrew Rawling and Ernest Adam on game design

Types of game

Design Driven

Tend to be the work of an Auteur - in the cinematic sense; someone with a vision who wants to create a whole.
Quality is entireldependentnt on the talent of the Auteur. Good auteur, good game. Bad auteur… well.
Analogous to film director, running a different crew each time - the game designer oversees the crew. The vision to make a game and the talent to oversee the management of the crew is a rare coupling in one person.
This is a good model for art house games, but a poor one for commercial propositions.

Technically Driven Games

Very expensive. ItÂ’s a way of making a game to highlight a cool new piece of tech development.
These games tend not to be big sellers - they make their money by selling on the technology created in the making of the game - e.g. the Quake engine.

Artwork Driven

Rare - the result of the visual design driving the game - an example is myst.
Rarely succeed as artists generally have little game design experience. They tend not to be fun’ to play – the gameplay takes second position.
Myst was at an advantage due to its tech timing -– it took advantage of CD rom tech.
Many Hollywood tie ins tend towards this type. A non interactive medium comes to game designers saying '‘here,– we've got cool stuff -– lets make a game'. They have problems when they'’re asked what the player should _do_.


This is hit duplication - this is a good game that is selling, lets make one the same.
This works very well with short development cycles. E.g. is Halo -– a clone of FPS, but tweaked to make it very good.
These tend to be bad when they're licensed products - just attach a licence to a game model with no thought as to whether that ties in with the licence *world*’.
Publishers are often a force in making games like this - they're risk averse.
It's not necessarily bad - borrow what works where you find it!
Kamasutra ( online magazine talks about this - it'’s acceptable to reuse code, but not 'game abstractions'’ such as key assignment screens.

Currently each game reinvents the wheel -– it'’s a pre-Cambrian explosion of design solutions. E.g. each new game has a different controller configuration, a different way of organising your inventory, a different way of saving...
This is because medium is young - no accepted tropes in place, yet.

A better way of designing games could be...
Player centred design
Which puts the needs of the player at the centre of the design process

Problem is, you don'’t know what their needs are. And there'’s a huge variety in the audience so it'’s hard to get a representative sample. This could be considered anti commercial - but ultimately youÂ’re making something that people will want to be playing -– so should sell well.

How do you define players needs?


However, be aware that players assumptions are often wrong. Example is Resident Evil - where players asked to be able to drop items anywhere - which was done in a sequel, and really messed up gameplay. It went back to how it was.
You can'’t accurately predict player needs
Madden NFL -– 3 people complaining on a message board was taken as everyone hating it. Complainers often make disproportionate amounts of noise, and you'’re not hearing from those who are happy. Also audience often not aware of issues and decisions behind game design. Everyone wanted to be able to design their own plays in nfl madden -– but it was too easy to design an unstoppable play, hence breaking the game.


Look at theory - Flow, personality models, anthropology, game theory, game studies,
Game theory - is mathematical theorem. Bit heavy lifting;
Flow - concept that people are happiest at the level of their challenge -– too easy and they get bored, too hard they get anxious. In the middle is the flow state of complete absorption. Too much challenge is bad -– you'’re making people stressed when they'’re participating in a leisure activity. Some people actively enjoy such hard challenges...…
Using tools to look for behavioural trends can be very useful in game design - but using the models as gospel can be bad.
These models do give you new ways of looking at problems though. Use the models to test your designs after you'’ve created them -– not to design from the ground up.
These give you sets of tools for understanding the results of play testing and– analysing problems. They'’re a guide through the process.

Blind Testing

Videoing people playing games, and talking about what they'’re doing.
Their responses frequently don'’t correspond to their verbal reports afterwards, as people create their own narratives around their experience in the game. Games with steep learning curves particularly prone to this -… player is very frustrated at difficulty at start -– but huge sense of achievement when they master and do well blots out the anger and frustration at the start. (Catalysis model)

Its expensive. 3-5 blind tests at a late stage (when problems are still solvable) is a good idea. You need to harness a wide type of playing styles, and take testers from outside the group of people involved.
Focus groups - tend to be run (and hijacked) by marketing concerns. Frequently the people involved with focus groups tend to be hardcore gamers. And they skew the results accordingly.


'I represent the audience'’. The odds that you do match the audience are extremely thin, Too many people are in game development for the love of games. You are atypical of your audience. Many people also work on the 'I wont make anything I wouldn'’t play' But someone has to make Barbie games...
Don't be in a commercial environment if you want to approach this way -– you have to sell your product, or you.ll put yourself out of a job. If you want to make games this way, join the mod community -– but this isn.’t a business model. Some mods may have taken off, but...

How do you grow yourself into unreached markets?
You have to think like people who don't play.

Balancing player needs with business needs

Choice of genre

Market stability - if I like platform games, I'’ll buy more of them. It'’s a formula that works,.
A genre game that'’s Rubbish? It'’s a mark against people making the game not the genre itself
Defined functionality. Player know the tropes and genre conventions -– they understand what they'’re getting
Craft vs. Market
Genre - defined by a particular set of challenges -– e.g. driving, rpg -– some users donÂ't enjoy some types of challenge.

Designing with Licensed IP

Bad software is bad software,– even if it has IP licence.
Player advantage -– familiar setting, a world they know, an experience they'’ll want to extend.
Licence implies thereÂ’s a group of people who already understand and enjoy that license setting
Must connect the game model with the license IP setting -– for appropriateness. E.g. the Barbie big tanks game wont sell heaps.
Licence IP - risks limitations for business
Manufacturing mentality among publishers. Must remember this is media, not a factory
Appreciate the IP
Original IP is often just a tweaked version of licensed IP anyway - Lara Croft = Indiana Jones with tits.

Mass Market vs. Niche market

Large cost of development = large audience to reap large profit
Nice markets - smaller costs -– smaller audience
Playing to a niche market on a small budget is ok. But playing to a niche market on a big budget is commercial suicide - you'’re putting your company at risk.
However - likely to be explosive growth in niche games -– over the next 15 years -– as move into under served markets.

Bear In mind all of these models and their limitations

Models used in the industry

EA Games Model

|- Hardcore gamer -|

(reads press, plays demos, buys 25+ games / year)

|------- Cool Gamer -------|

(gets info from hardcore mate, buys maybe top 10 games each year)

|------------ Mass Market ------------|

(Picks up on games when they'’re being talked about widely - maybe buys only top 3 games each year)

|-- [size of market] --|

This is a simplification, but is primarily a marketing model - it doesn'’t tell you anything about the types of games that make it to mass market. You have to be making your game accessible or it will never reach the mass market

Audience Model -– DGD1

Demographic Game Design Model 1 - the 1 reminds you that it will be replaced by something better! Based on Myers Briggs Typology. I've posted a diagram over at flickr.

Type 1 Conqueror

Strategic/logistical play
Finds winning pattern and repeats indefinitely
Appeal is Challenge and Fiero (triumph over adversity)
(Fail, repeat, fail, repeat, fail, repeat model)

Type 2 Manager

Strategic Tactical
Likes strategic puzzles and mastery
Enjoys a bit more stress, and feeling of resistance rising to meet them
Likes sim games, strategy games
(Small numbers -– no longer a mass market audience)

Type 3 Wanderer

Diplomatic tactical
Enjoys contact with other characters
Needs an emotional context to their goal
Not a high degree of challenge
Experience and finesse are drivers
Want to do it well, satisfyingly correctly
Involvement and role - will play multiplayer, but not to win

Type 4 Participant
Diplomatic Logistical
Likes creating -– e.g. design of character. Spends a lot of time here
Sims - Photo albums, and stories
Creative aspect is not about gameplay - it'’s about using the game as a creative tool outside its internal mechanics -– is expression in game
Likes customisation
Star wars galaxies - play with character creator for hours and hours

Audience model in MMORPGS

Casual players versus hardcore.
Only high degree of game literacy to be playing them, but allows all playing styles
Conquerors -– finishing quests
Managers -– resources
Wander -– joins conqueror parties, is led
Participant -– is the glue in the internal community

It'’s a limited but lucrative market. If you loose a key player to another game, their entire social network tends to move with them.

(Wikinote: See also the Bartle types - - lots about this in 'Designing Virtual Worlds' IMcD).

Meeting Player Needs

Player's Role

What do they want out of a game? How do they interact with it?
Picking up box in shop, and able to understand the tasks involved in the game -– Who am I going to be?
If the player doesn'’t get it, marketing certainly wont get it.
You're Selling experiences.


Allows suspension of disbelief
Allows game world abstractions
Doesn'’t break the 4th wall (pulls the player out of the game world)
Simplifies reality to make modelling it manageable-– and learning it's rules manageable
Abstraction of world (Gta vs. The Getaway)
Realism isn'’t a goal in itself -– you'’ll always have abstraction
Internal consistency - not jolted out of world (e.g. encountering walking battle tanks in a WWII game that had been historically consistent until the last level)

Gameplay vs. Toyplay

Toyplay - the kind of game that is low stress, where the player sets their own goals e.g. the Sims, animal crossing. High emotional investment - toyplay is its own reward. Creating your own narrative about your experience
Gameplay - Has performance measures and standards to reach. Is goal oriented, with goals being external to the player


Part of game -– e.g. a strategy game where you understand that there are values attached to your character, you build up their stats
Or invisible -– e.g. halo -– just enough to support a fully immersive world
RPGs are schizophrenic,
AD&D -– lots of pencil and paper players who enjoy the manipulation of stats and want that maintained in computerised version
Computer allowed these people to play AD&D without a group of players -– it removed the logistical problems and allowed them to revel in mechanics.
Enjoyment of mechanics is dependant on playstyle
Do you enjoy running rules in your head?
Or do you enjoy story and plot more?


Does it need a story? Cut scenes just get in the way of some games - their only purpose is to give you a breather e.g. Bishi Bashi
RPG with no story would be pointless, though
Again -– depends on player type -– do they need a framework for their activities,
Tetris - no story
Super monkey ball -– shouldn'’t have a story
Could just be abstract weirdness

Aesthetics and style

Form and Function and beauty
Can it be functional, but not beautiful?
Better looking sells better - it piques the interest of the casual viewer more.
Look at things outside the world of games -– e.g., making a game looked at artefacts and craft traditions of tribal cultures from around the world
Learn about real world style and borrow it -– e.g. Grim Fandango
A challenge makes an artist happy
Provide them a framework then let them do something excellent within that framework
Need a strong director
Same visual style in setup screens as in gameplay


HCI design

Similar problems
Overcoming energy barriers in learning the use -– e.g. a paperclip in an email programme means attach something to your post.
These are also culturally based -– may not translate well.

Field studies -– are very expensive to do, with a reasonable sample size
Game design is one aspect of HCI
Differences -– prototyping -– can't get feedback as early on in the system as you'’d like -– particularly in immersive games, as so much more needs to be finished


Need stories more in games
Probably not
What happens if you get their motivation wrong?

Pick your primary market. If it happens to export elsewhere, that'’s great
US and UK market - share broadly the same set of cultural assumptions
As they share the same media base.
Is possible to make horrible mistakes -– e.g. the reversed Arabic chants in a Microsoft game
Needs to be sanity checked - are we making inappropriate assumptions

How does a game designer influence the IP owner

Arguments about your specialisation are a risk of working within IP Licence area
Just '‘merchandising' top them
Befriend them. Explain
Detailed communication, early

Mobile devices – does their constrained nature make them more appealing to certain types of gamer?

For the games literate -– don'’t want to play on a mobile as is a step down from usual experience
Majority market - impulse buys when bored on the bus.
Supermarket buying style -– sweets at the checkout
Is predominantly casual. Hardcore gamers need hardcore hardware

Not game literate - tend to be wanderers and participants
Conqueror -– is a console fiend
Manager -– PC based

Growths in niche market

1965 -– 3 networks in US TV
direct Competition
All programming was pitched at the lowest common denominator

Cable arrives -– increased bandwidth -– can super serve that niche audience through narrowcasting

Retail shop shelves are the bandwidth limiter of the games world - just have a few big distributors
Once you have piracy proof high speed distribution you'll be able to do cheap distribution and serve niche audiences better
Also -– put games in front of the casual market in alternate forms -– e.g. as a bundled package with your new TV...

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