Cash to burn

The Diablo is in the Details

Since I was part of Bungie when they sold-out at the beginning of the halcyon Halo era, a large slice of my retirement portfolio is in Microsoft, makers of the Xbox game console. A scant few weeks after I joined them, my new employer Sucker Punch sold-out to Sony, creators of the PlayStation game console. Now, in-so-far as my contributions to Sony games makes their video game system a more effective competitor against Microsoft’s product, and to-the-degree that this competition hurts MS’s stock value, I have a conflict of interests.

Can't we all just get along?

Either way, I lose!

In my situation, the conflict is minor and insignificant. The rewards for doing a good job far outweigh the potential negative side-effects. For a game designer working on a free-to-play game, the conflict is large and debilitating.

The traditional objective of game design is to craft a game that is so much fun people will exchange money for the opportunity to play it. In order to make more money, the game must be more fun for more people. The creative and financial goals of a game designer are in perfect alignment. But no matter how fun a free-to-play game might be, nobody will give you money to play it, because they can’t. It’s free. So while it is still the creative goal to build a game that is fun, it is financially a waste of time. This is not a happy situation for a game designer.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Most free-to-play games make money by being not fun in clever ways. People will pay to skip the boring, repetitive or difficult parts. They will pay to get new floors in Tiny Tower, or earn money faster in World of Tanks, or play their favorite hero in League of Legends… In most games, “this part of the game is so boring, I would pay money to skip it” is something you would find in a bug report, not a business plan. It’s the kind of issue a good game designer would fix, no extra charge. Most micro-transaction games put the creative and financial goals at odds with each other.

Cash to burn

Guess which I would choose?

Which brings me to Diablo III. (At this point I should mention that while I know many designers at Blizzard, this post is entirely speculative.) One might assume that since WoW mints money faster than the Fed in an election year, it doesn’t really matter if any other Blizzard games make revenue. But as a consequence of their success, every minute any employee spends doing anything other than building new WoW content carries an enormous opportunity cost. After such a long development cycle, if Diablo III doesn’t make as much in revenue as two or three WoW expansions, it was a poor business decision… unless it tests out an experimental business model like a real-money auction house, that is.

That’s why I am frustrated by commentators accusing the Diablo team of selling out and cashing in on the popularity of the franchise. They must test a new business model to generates revenue beyond initial sales, or they don’t get to make their game. (Just like Starcraft II needed to be an e-sport experiment.) They could have tried free-to-play, but thankfully they didn’t. I hope they never do! It would mean they had compromised themselves as designers and would doom a lot of other companies to following the same path. The real-money auction house is a long-term revenue source, but it doesn’t force designers to choose between making the game more fun and making more money. And nobody else is in a position to take a risk and show the industry another way.

So, as a designer, I am excited by the direction Blizzard has taken with Diablo III because it can save us from the conflict of interest caused by the glut of free-to-play games. And as a gamer, you ought to be happy about the auction house because it means the Blizzard designers haven’t sold-out and still prize gameplay above all. At the very least, everyone should understand that without the real-money auction house, or something like it, Diablo III probably wouldn’t exist.

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Achievements Considered II

Achievements (and other platform reward structures like Trophies) satisfy a very important human need for validation.  We want social approval and an “official” recognition of our accomplishments is valuable to us, it endorses our decisions and allows us to believe that we make a worthwhile contribution to our community.  Achievement points may not have material value, but they are not meaningless.  Denigrating them as “epeen” mischaracterizes the near universal human aspiration they fulfill.

A Great Achievement

Xbox Achievements are particularly well designed as reinforcing rewards.  They can be Expected.  Even before a game is on the shelves, the list of Achievements is available on the internet.  If a player meets the requirements, the Achievement is given and the points are awarded.  There is no random chance, no potential for missing out.  That is why the current trend is to award all the Achievement points over the course of a campaign, where every player can get them, instead of in multiplayer or for defeating exceptional challenges.  Any uncertainty in earning Achievements might drive players to another game that hands them out more reliably.

Achievements are Efficient.  Especially with a new game when the easy ones are available.  The more time spent with a game, however, the harder the remaining achievements become.  At some point, it is going to be more efficient to abandon the current game and buy another one for the easy points.  Even a game that is worth playing to completion must eventually run out of its allotted 1000 points and stop meeting the need served by Achievements.

Achievements are Essential, are even required as part of the certification process.  It would be unthinkable to ship an Xbox game without them.  And they have become such a fundamental aspect of gaming that a momentous event in a game doesn’t seem that important without Achievements attached.

Achievements are Exclusive.  The platform holder is the only source; they cannot be found anywhere else.  They can’t even be liquidated and taken to another platform.  They are unlimited, new points can be added at no cost to the platform holder, but maintain value because there are unbreakable rules about how they are handed out.

Exploit, Embrace or Eclipse

In so many ways, Achievements are the ultimate reward for investment… and that is the problem.  The reason so many developers are uncomfortable with Achievements is because they know that nothing confined to a single game can compete with a permanent, global, visible Achievement system.  The need for public validation has replaced whatever aspirations their game was meeting, and now their game and the rewards it offers are the extrinsic, separable part.  In light of this understanding, there are three possible responses for game developers.

Achievements are a powerful motive force, and they are available to every game on the platform.  It is tempting to exploit their power, to offer players 1000 effortless points and make a quick sale.  How many games have sold more copies than they deserved because reviews cited “easy Achievements”?  A cynical path, but so is putting out a stream of cheap sequels to a poorly made licensed game.

The most common choice is to embrace Achievements and try to use them to help players enjoy the game.  Doling them out at a reasonable rate, so the player reaches 1000 points at about the same time they have seen all the game’s content.  Avoiding situations where the drive to earn Achievements would clash with the game’s other objectives.  Designers learned quickly not to award points for betraying your teammates or leaving your Xbox in matchmaking for 24 hours straight.  Approached in this way, Achievements can bring players in and drive them through the game’s content, but they will inevitably be swept on by that same powerful tide.

The final, most difficult option is to accept that players enter your game looking for Achievements, and then offer them something better.  Meet a different need than validation.  Or form a community around your game that is so tightly bound up together that the connections it provides are more significant and personal than the vague validation of a high Gamer Score.  Eclipsing Achievements is difficult and time-consuming, but the result is a loyal and evangelical community.

Achievements Considered

In his excellent, exhaustive (though ultimately inconclusive) GDC 2010 lecture “Achievements Considered Harmful?” Chris Hecker raises the issue of extrinsic rewards, specifically platform achievements/trophies, and asks whether they might be having a negative effect on the industry as a whole.  (Chris is sort of the unofficial conference gadfly and often uses his talks to generate further debate.)  After an overview of the current backlash against behavioral psychology, he explains that while the literature is extensive and often contradictory, most researchers agree that “for interesting tasks, tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation.”

Since “fun” seems like an intrinsic motivation, he warns of a “nightmare scenario” where Achievements and other extrinsic rewards are added to a game that is already fun, destroying the intrinsic motivation of the player while simultaneously pushing designers to add even more extrinsic rewards like digital drug dealers until every game becomes a Skinner Box.

Actually, "Operant Conditioning Chamber" sounds even more nefarious

Of course, Chris acknowledges that more research must be done to determine the likelihood of this “worse case” outcome, and ends his lecture with a call for more psychological investigation into gaming and gamers.  I propose that the situation is less dire, but that Achievements are potentially threatening for a completely different reason than the ones Chris suggests.

Need Replacement

First, let’s take a look at one of the classic psychology experiments performed by Edward Deci as far back as 1969 that demonstrated how extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic ones.  Two groups of test subjects participants were asked solve puzzles (called Soma Cubes) on three consecutive days.  The first day, each group was asked to solve three puzzles in an attempt to instill an intrinsic motivation by showing that the puzzles were fun because they fulfilled the need to demonstrate competence, especially in front of a judgmental audience of scientists.

Objective judgment is the worst!

Did you see him solve that puzzle?

On the second day, one of the groups was paid a few dollars for each puzzle they completed, adding an extrinsic motivation for them, but not for the unpaid group.  At this point, the need to look smart and competent was replaced for the paid group by a much more powerful need for financial gain.

On the final day, neither group was paid to solve puzzles.  The participants that had never been paid worked just as hard as previous days, their need for competence was still being met, but the group that had been paid was now unmotivated and quickly abandoned the puzzles.  Their need for financial gain was no longer being met, and their natural tendency to avoid losses made the puzzles seem pointless.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Rewards

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the results of this experiment lies in understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic.  Especially since extrinsic seems to carry negative connotations. Extrinsic does not mean “external to the player,” all needs are met by an external good.  Extrinsic doesn’t mean “materially beneficial or useful,” almost every need is directed at accomplishing some goal.  Extrinsic certainly does not mean “bribery” or “added with an immoral ulterior motive,” all rewards are intended to meet needs more effectively, and there is nothing selfish about achieving an aspiration.

An extrinsic reward is simply one that is “separable” or “nor part of the essential nature” of the activity used to obtain it.  Since making money isn’t an inseparable aspect of solving a puzzle, it can be removed and suddenly puzzle-solving fails to meet the money-making need.  At some point, parents will stop buying their children pizza for reading books, because pizza is not part of the essential nature of reading.  This lack of reliability is the true source of the demotivating effect.  And it is made worse when a reward appears to be intrinsic because it is “tangible, expected, and contingent” but is ultimately extrinsic and unreliable.

Cheevos

Every single Xbox 360 game is required to have Achievements.  They are inseparable from the activity of playing Xbox games.  Achievements are no longer an extrinsic reward, they are part of the essential nature of console gaming.  (And increasingly part of PC and mobile gaming, as well.)  This means that even Chris’ nightmare scenario avoids the demotivating effects described in the psychological research.  If a player’s needs are met by demonstrating competence, gaming will continue to be appealing.  And if their needs are met by collecting and investing in Achievements, gaming will continue to be appealing because we have an unlimited number of Achievement points to distribute.

Well… actually, Microsoft, Sony and the other platform holders have an infinite number of Achievements to dispense, and that is the real nightmare scenario for game developers…

Rewarding Play III

Now that we have seen how games meet a player’s needs through gratification and rewards, how can a game be improved to do a better job of meeting those aspirations and therefore appeal to more players? There are four aspects of how a need is met that make it more likely.

Expected

Would you rather have $50 dollars or a 50-50 chance at winning $100? Study after study confirms that humans are pre-disposed toward the “safe bet.” In fact, the most famous studies show that people will choose a more certain payout over a chance at a much a larger payout, which is why this tendency is called the Certainty Bias. Players, being mostly humans, will prefer games where they have an expectation of meeting a need, rather than just the possibility of it. So, a singleplayer campaign is a better place to meet the need to demonstrate competence because the AI enemies are guaranteed to eventually take a dive and let the player win. (At least in a well-designed game, they will.) However, success in multiplayer is always uncertain, and so it is less appealing to players looking to demonstrate competence. If a designer knows which need their game is intended to satisfy, it is often possible to make those rewards more certain without cheapening them.

Efficient

The human brain is a fantastically efficient decision-making instrument, capable of analyzing complex models of the world and making subtle strategic decisions, all while using less energy than an average low-watt light source. (Which is why you should take “dim bulb” as a compliment to your biological optimization.) We will always prefer activities that fulfill the most needs for the least effort, known in psychology as “laziness.” The processed sugar in a few M&Ms provides as many calories as a double-handful of broccoli, and we all know which one our taste buds tell us is better for us. Broccoli's mortal enemy Players evaluate games in the same way. If two games both satisfy the need to defeat a human opponent, but I am already good at one of them, I’m probably not going to sacrifice efficiency by trying out the new game. Which leads to a small number of franchises dominating the multiplayer community, with new games getting little or no traction. If a designer understands which aspiration they are fulfilling, they can make their game more efficient at it than their competition.

Essential

The current vogue in behavioral psychology is to rail against the dangers of extrinsic motivation. The primary argument is that if an activity is interesting on its own, encouraging the activity by adding an extrinsic reward actually decreases the activity’s intrinsic value, so maybe designers should stop reflexively dumping achievements and trophies and levels and loot into every game. Since games cater to aspirations, not physical needs, and since they are exotelic activities without a concrete result, it is nearly impossible to determine the difference between an intrinsic reward and an extrinsic one. The issue is often over-simplified as “external rewards are bad,” meaning external to the player themselves, but since all needs involve an external good paired with an internal lack, every reward is cast in a suspicious light.

Urine Trouble Now!

Ill just hold it...

For the purposes of this discussion, however, we can sidestep the issue entirely by appealing to practical concerns about schedule. If a game is fun early in production, it is meeting some need through its essential gameplay, the core of the experience. Rather than add non-essential systems and rewards (incurring non-essential costs and delays) it is a better production decision to focus on improving those essential activates. Any motivation caused by an essential activity can be assumed to be intrinsic to the game and therefore safe from demotivating side-effects.

Exclusive

The absolute best way to meet the player’s needs better than the competition is to not have any competition! Find a need that is going completely ignored by the market, and then craft a game specifically targeted at that aspiration. Admittedly, this a risky and difficult proposition, but nearly every major gaming franchise has been successful because they created a new audience by fulfilling an unmet need. If you are fortunate enough to be working on a game like this, it is even more important to understand the unspoken desire you are fulfilling and hone your game to be even more effective, or some other developer will.

Rewarding Play II

The primary difference between gratification and reward is the timing of the need fulfillment.  If the need is satisfied during the activity, then the player experiences gratification.  If the need is satisfied as a result of the activity, the player feels rewarded.  A well-designed game will satisfy the player’s needs through both methods at the same time, but many needs are more sensitive to one or the other.

Gratification

The need to demonstrate competence, especially competence under low-pressure circumstances, is an aspiration best met through gratification.  Because competence is theoretically achievable by every player, it feels hollow to follow a demonstration of competence with praise, loot, or some other form of reward.  Successfully following instructions and getting through a tutorial hardly seems like much of an Achievement.  In fact, by the time the reward is awarded, the player’s need to display competence has already been met, so the reward feels like an afterthought, the over-enthusiastic encouragement of a parent at a soccer game.

Don't ask to see the "A"

Thanks for the support, Dad

Gratification, on the other hand, happens at the moment of execution and amplifies the player’s experience of meeting their need for competence.  The audible pop as an enemy’s head explodes from a headshot, the giant red number floating up after a critical strike, or even the silence of a battlefield after the final attacker is defeated, all of these enhance the moment of success.  They make it more gratifying.  Even activities that take virtually no skill at all, but only require the player to do an obvious, trivial task, can be made gratifying by the right sounds and visuals.  In some games, the  “Press Start” screen is empowering and need-fulfilling.

Rewards

Some needs are better met by rewards.  These can either be something the player expects and has been building toward, or an unexpected acknowledgement of something the player has achieved, but are always awarded after the activity is finished so the player can fully appreciate them.  Usually it is a good idea to slow the pacing and provide a lull for them to bask in their accomplishment.  Rewards generally ought to be something useful, but since they are highlighting the fact that a need has been met, they can simply be a trophy signifying that event.

The shortest distance between three heads

Worth an achievement

Although it is very similar to demonstration of competence, the need to demonstrate excellence is better suited toward rewards than gratification.  Perhaps the method that a player used to get the final kill in a multiplayer game wasn’t that special, and there is no need to add spectacle to enhance the death itself, because the real reward is a slight delay followed by the announcer saying “Team Eliminated” and the winner’s rank going up.  Picking up the loot from a downed boss doesn’t need much in the way of effects and sounds because the items themselves are the rewards for an excellent display of skill.  Xbox Achievements and Playstation Trophies are better used for rewards for excellence precisely because they aren’t that gratifying and feel awkward when awarded for more mundane accomplishments.

[To be continued]

Rewarding Play

Previously, we’ve defined games as “interactive experiences constrained by mechanics designed to reliably satisfy common exotelic aspirations“.  In other words, humans have needs.  Some of those needs are aspirational, meaning they aren’t necessary, but produce a positive emotion when met.  And some of those aspirations are exotelic, meaning they are not fulfilled by getting something, but by being used for some other good.  Games are the ideal source for meeting these needs because they are entertaining (required for aspirations) and interactive (required for exotelic experiences.)  But how do games meet this sort of need?  What is the process by which a game is fun?  And by understanding this process, can we make them more fun?

Lacks and Goods

Every need consists of two complimentary halves, an internal lack and an external good.  If someone has absolutely no desires or requirements, or those desires and requirements can be met completely internally, than they never suffer from a lack and therefore never have any needs.  Those people do not play games… because they do not exist!  The human condition is rooted in our imperfections and our inability to make ourselves whole.  This means that needs can only be met by some external source.

On the other hand, most external objects do not meet any sort of need; a specific external good is necessary to fill a given internal lack.  That is why games are particularly suited to a certain type of need, and totally useless when it comes to others.  If a pet rock could really meet the need for affection and companionship, all of our needs would be instantly met by a pile of gravel.

You guys rock

Actually, I do feel a little better...

When an internal lack is paired with the right external good, the need is met. When the need is a requirement, we refer to the feeling as “satisfaction” or “contentment” because it eliminates a source of negative emotion and leaves us feeling neutral. But when the need is an aspiration we commonly describe the experience as “gratifying” or “rewarding” because it is generally more positive and leaves us uplifted. Gratification and reward are the two most important tools in a game designer’s repertoire for meeting a player’s aspirations.

[To be continued…]

Definition: Game

Game

An interactive experience constrained by mechanics designed to reliably satisfy a common teleological aspiration.

Merriam-Webster says a game is “an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” which is hopelessly broad.  Try pitching “Punching My Younger Brother: The Game” the next time you meet with a publisher.

Raph Koster claims that “fun is just another word for learning” and that therefore “all games are edutainment.”  This is insightful because it attempts to define games by describing the needs they meet, but is obviously too narrow.  Someone that is leveling their fifth World of Warcraft alt is not learning anything, but I dare you to try to tell them they aren’t having fun.  And shouldn’t the tutorial be the most enjoyable part of a game?  This definition commits a logical error called the fallacy of the undistributed middle.  Even if learning is fun, that doesn’t mean that everything fun must be learning.

In Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define games as “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome.”  Now, it would be unfair to quibble with specific word choices or come up with obscure examples of games that don’t fit this definition.  No definition is perfect.  The real difficulty of this definition, as well as many other similar efforts, is that in dissecting games into pieces they have lost the whole.  It is as if, when asked to define the word weapon, you started listing types of wounds and metallurgy techniques and sources of propulsion and got bogged down trying to figure out if a baseball bat was a weapon or not.  The best way to define weapons is to describe their purpose, committing or threatening violence against someone, and the same is true for games.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared that there is no adequate definition for the word game and we don’t even need one!  But he was not known for being a particularly fun guy, so maybe we can do better.

We’ll start with our previous definition of fun: “the positive emotion associated with fulfilling a teleological aspiration.”  The first definition of game that suggests itself is “something that is fun,” or more specifically, “an experience that fulfills a teleological aspiration.”  However, there are so many ways to satisfy our needs; what makes games special?  Unlike many enjoyable activities, the only purpose of a game is to have fun, and since they have a singular focus, they are able to satisfy these aspirations very reliably.

Additionally, teleological needs like learning or achieving or performing cannot be satisfied passively or by proxy.  They require participation, so they must be interactive and respond to the player’s actions.  This interactivity is not random; it reliably leads to fun experiences because it is limited to specific set of possibilities and actions.  Some games are indeed guided by explicit rules, but many games are constrained by their simulation, or by the objectives given to the player, or even by the story setting in which the game takes place.  In many games the experience is actually constrained by the unpredictable actions of other players.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what form these game mechanics take, as long as they constrain the experience in such a way as to more reliably fulfill the player’s needs.

Finally, our definition should acknowledge the fact that in order to ensure that a game’s mechanics lead to an experience that satisfies the player’s needs, they must be carefully designed to do so by a game designer.  Games do not appear naturally in nature.

So, now we not only have a useful definition for the term game, we have also determined the role of the game designer and have a reasonable criteria for evaluating design skill.  A game designer is someone that creates and tunes game mechanics to constrain an interactive experience such that it reliably fulfills common teleological aspirations, and the more reliably these needs are met, the more skillful the game designer.