Spot On: Reading gamers' minds

Game developers play psychologist to get players moving in the right direction.

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You think you're playing the game, but maybe it's playing you.

It may sound a little harsh, but good game designers know how to con the player. They have a bag of tricks they use to push and pull the player in particular directions. And, if they're good at it, you won't even know you've been had.

Game designers, it seems, have to have a bit of psychologist in them, guessing how players will react and pushing and pulling them in the right direction. "All great designers should have a clear idea of what players are like and what they might be thinking," said Gordon Walton, former Sony Online and Maxis producer (he executive-produced The Sims Online). Walton, now a consultant, said it's really all about making the player feel smart.

"What players really enjoy is outthinking the game or outthinking the designer," XEODesign president Nicole Lazzaro said.

Lazzaro, whose company does game research, said designers rarely have formal training in psychology but come to understand their audience through experience. "The psychology of play is where the pleasure is coming from--and there's not many courses in that," Lazzaro said. "The people who do it well are really doing it on intuition."

Designers use a variety of tricks to shepherd players in the right direction. One of the most widely used is simply putting items of interest in the player's field of vision. This draws players toward the areas that move the story forward and away from the invisible walls that can shatter the game's illusion. It's sort of like a bit of cheese that draws a rat through a maze.

And the laboratory analogy can go further. Like scientists do with test animals, designers can reinforce certain behaviors. If trying something unusual has amusing results, you can count on players to try it again.

Rewards such as amusing animations can also be added to fulfill player expectations, as in the case of Zoo Tycoon. Originally, the game had no animation to depict what happened when a predator and prey were put in the same cage. It was supposed to be a nonviolent game, after all.

But the designers got a quick psychology lesson when testers repeatedly placed tasty four-legged morsels in the lion's cage. They finally relented and added a dust cloud to represent the scuffle, Lazzaro said.

"If they left that out, it was too unsatisfying," Lazzaro said.

With thousands of players angling for an advantage in online games, designers sometimes use clever mind games to fix problems that have arisen. Bill Roper, a former VP at Blizzard and now head of Flagship Studios, recalls that when unscrupulous players duped the stones of Jordan in Diablo II, it threatened to unbalance the game. After fixing the problem, Roper and his team still didn't know which stones were legitimate and which were duped. So they devised a way to rid the world of most of the existing stones without wiping accounts.

The group created an ubernasty that was summoned after a certain number of stones were traded to merchants, and an onscreen counter kept track of the progress. After the epic battle to dispatch the beast, it dropped a powerful rune.

Naturally, players scrambled to summon the creature so they could be the one to claim the rune, and what started as a potentially destructive set of events became a fun and satisfying encounter for players.

Roper, whose wife coincidentally has a master's degree in psychology, has found that players' preconceptions can play a role in how they navigate a gameworld. When he debuted an early build of the upcoming Hellgate: London at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, Roper discovered that the first-person nature of the game came with certain assumptions. After dispatching opponents, players paid no heed to items that dropped on the ground.

"The psychology of people playing in first-person is that they're in 'shooter mode,'" Roper said.

While in the run-and-gun mentality, players would at most run over items, assuming they'd be added to the inventory. To combat that thought process, and not wanting to have to resort to boring tutorials, Roper said the game may include a special fanfare the first time an item drops to call players' attention to it.

The E3 experience was the first time people outside the company had gotten their hands on the game, and Roper and his staff studied player reactions. Like with mice in a maze, they have to decide how much cheese to offer to keep the player poking around the next corner.

Designers may resort to trickery, but the object is always the same: to create a satisfying experience for the player and forever pursue that elusive quality known as "fun."

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The BioWare team is known for creating compelling role-playing games that give players a tight narrative without leaving them feeling like they've been led through the story by their nose. GameSpot interviewed Kevin Martens, the lead designer for Jade Empire, to learn how psychological factors impact game design.

GameSpot: In general, how predictable are players?

Kevin Martens: There are two answers to this: Players are only as predictable as you encourage them to be, and players are only predictable in their unpredictability.

By the first statement, I mean there is a definite trend for gamers, especially power gamers (of which I am one), to take the path of least resistance or maximum reward. They will find and gleefully exploit any bugs or imbalances you have left in the game. If an RPG is very combat heavy, a power gamer will always choose a skill or feat that allows him to do more damage per second in battle. Anything else (like role-playing skills) would be inefficient. This is why a fan community for any particular game can easily explain to a newcomer the golden path through the game or the best way to play his or her class. They are incredibly quick studies and can see right through a rule system after a week or two with any given game.

The challenge of a game designer is to make sure that the game doesn't have a single golden path that is so much better than other paths that it either ruins replayability or makes every character virtually identical at the end of the game experience. For single-player RPGs, you might counteract this by having multiple classes so that the power gamer can learn the golden path for each. For multiplayer RPGs, where players are much more likely to compare their characters and call shenanigans on any imbalance or nerfing, you would likely rather spend an enormous amount of time and testing on balancing all the options and trying to straddle the line between keeping every choice equally powerful but different enough to provide a real option.

By the latter statement, I mean that you can never say with certainty what a player will think of or do with your game when it ships. With all of our experience, focus testing, careful consideration, and highest hopes, the parts of our games that we had considered strong have fallen flat with players, and areas that we weren't entirely happy with have been some of the best reviewed aspects of our games. My point is that the best-laid plans are still something of a gamble in the gaming world, but that's what keeps it exciting and keeps all developers from always shipping the same game with updated graphics.

GS: What sort of tricks do you use to shepherd players in the right direction? Which are you proudest of and which are most effective?

KM: Keeping people going in the right direction is always something that we try to do better. We're never totally happy with our system, and this is a subject that gets a lot of attention whether we're working on a sequel or a brand-new game. The balance that we're looking for is clarity in the player's goals versus a sense of exploration and discovering things on one's own.

In Jade Empire, for example, we had a new minimap system that showed you where the exits to an area were, where the plot givers were, where stores, were, etc. We consciously chose to sacrifice some exploration in order to cut down on the player's irritation at not being able to find these things quickly when he needed to. Naturally, we have had mixed feedback depending on which side of the fence a player falls on, but the majority considers the change positive. They tell us that what they liked about exploration is finding areas and exploring the nooks and crannies as opposed to going door-to-door trying to find out which house Foozle the Plot Guy is in. So we consider this innovation to be a success.

GS: Are there any tricks that give a player a greater illusion of freedom than they actually have?

KM: Freedom means different things in different genres. In single-player RPGs, a player might say that he wants to have the freedom to go anywhere and explore the world, just like in real life. If we take that statement at face value and create a huge continent-sized world with hundreds of towns and villages and a million characters, there's no possible way we can write all of those characters, add enough plots, or spend time on every encounter to make it compelling, and even if we could, it wouldn't be able to run any machine out there with our level of complexity. So we'd resort to generic systems to fill the world with generic things to do. The player tells us this is boring and that it's not what he wanted at all.

So what we've done at BioWare is the area system within our greater world. Baldur's Gate II and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic both have huge epic adventures that, in one case, spans a continent, and in another, several solar systems. We pick the most compelling adventure areas within these regions and stuff them with hand-crafted content to offer players the most focused and most fun-per-hour gameplay that we can.

Exploring the entire wookiee world in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic would have to be, by necessity, much more generic than the fewer, much more fun areas that we did put in. Likewise, in Baldur's Gate II, the City of Athkatla had many large areas filled with subplots, encounters, treasure, unique characters, and other fun things while still remaining much smaller than a real city of a million people. A real city would take a day to walk across; in the game, you can use the map and get across in a few minutes, seeing only the most interesting parts.

To still give the player freedom, they have a lot of different areas to explore with a lot of different themes and can do them in any order. This is the freedom that the players are actually telling us they want and giving us positive feedback on.

Frankly, real life and life-sized areas are filled with a large amount of drudgery and boredom. Games shouldn't be.

GS: How well does it work to resort to the obvious, such as giving players a flaming arrow and setting them down in front of a barrel of gasoline?

KM: The obvious or inherently apparent "puzzles" like the exploding barrel and the fire arrow are very useful, as long as they have a strong visual payoff. Virtually anything that results in a major change in the environment, from an explosion to a building falling across a chasm and creating a bridge, can often be its own reward. That doesn't mean you should necessarily make all of your big-ticket interactives as straightforward like the example, but you typically won't be judged harshly for doing so. Both Half-Life games are excellent examples of doing both blatantly straightforward and cunningly devious puzzles with very cool payoffs.

GS: Have any of the designers studied or read about psychology? What sort of dialogue do designers have with each other about player psychology?

KM: We do at least a moderate study of psychology as we design new systems for our games. Personally, I read psychology for two reasons that apply to game development: one, to learn more about how people's thinking evolves with increasing challenges, and two, to learn what motivates people to keep going. Our intent is to apply this knowledge to reward systems in order to keep them compelling, as well as to improve the pacing of the story's critical path versus the wide variety of optional plots and actions people can typically participate in with BioWare games.

For example, a recent book I've been reading is Change: Principles of Problem Formations and Problem Resolution by Paul Watzlawick, John Wekland, and Richard Fisch. It's not directly applicable to gameplay, but many of the elements they touch on do have application in how we design our systems.

But, really, psychology takes a distinct backseat to experience and fan feedback. Conducting fan polls, focus tests, and learning from our mistakes are the primary tools we have to improve these systems, while likewise trying to make them simple. It's a difficult balance, and naturally the two goals are sometimes mutually exclusive.

GS: What's more effective, the carrot or the stick? Which makes a better game?

KM: In my definition of carrot vs. stick, the carrot is always better. It is always more compelling to, for example, do a bunch of combat racking in order to save money for a new weapon than it is to have to do a bunch of combat racking in order to have a chance of beating the boss in the next room.

This is the core goal of any design that we work on: How can we make the player want to do something instead of just telling them that they have to do it? At its root, that's the definition of fun.

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