Give me a hug!

Design Sense – Perception

Rorschach Tests

Look at this picture.  What do you see?

Give me a hug!

The answer is obviously Goro

Hermann Rorschach devised the technique of using random ink blots to probe the subconscious mind, based on the idea that patients would be prone to seeing images that were more important or relevant to their mental state.  They would project their internal preoccupations onto the otherwise abstract shapes, revealing clues that could be deciphered by their psychiatrist.

The reason ink blot tests work is because humans are naturally adept at seeing images and patterns.  Our brains are composed of an enormous collection of highly specialized neural circuits, custom-built for finding, storing and matching patterns.  Parts of our brains are devoted to sensing contrasts, finding parallel lines, extrapolating three-dimensional depth, recognizing faces, anticipating motion — the list goes on and on.  In fact, so much of our cognitive potential is tied up in neural pathways that are optimized for matching specific patterns, it is actually very difficult to avoid seeing them everywhere.  In video game terms, you are almost all GPU with very little CPU.  It is difficult for us to simply perceive information without our specialized capabilities biasing our interpretation of it.

Why are you so morbid?

Completely abstract shapes

This is great for surviving in the jungle, not so great for designing games.  The problem is that we begin processing before we have all the information; we draw conclusions based on patterns that may not actually exist.  Did that element dominate an encounter because of a fluke, or does it represent a trend?  Is this feature a little out of tune, or does it hopelessly conflict with the rest of the game?  It’s impossible to tell from a single example, but that doesn’t prevent us from making judgements based on one experience.  And once we have a pattern in our head, Confirmation Bias kicks in and our brain optimizes further and starts rejecting data that doesn’t support our initial conclusion, making it even harder for us to be objective.

Confirmation Bias is especially potent for game designers, because we know what is supposed to happen.  We wrote the paper design, we know how a mechanic was intended to constrain the gameplay, so we play our games as if the mechanics work properly — even when they don’t!  We know the picture behind the ink blot, so we are incapable of seeing with unbiased eyes.  Which is why we are so often shocked during playtests; what is obvious to us proves unintuitive and confusing without the pattern already in mind.

Unfiltered Perception

So train yourself to see the ink, not the pattern.  Stubbornly stare until you don’t see an image, but only what is truly there.  Then, when you play your game, divest yourself of preconceived notions of what the game ought to be and strive to experience the game as it truly is.  This will allow you to see through the eyes of a new player.

Another method is to find Gestalt images, pictures that abruptly change meaning based on how you look at them, and practice switching between the competing interpretations.  This will allow you to hold multiple explanations of the same game experience in your mind at the same time, so you can evaluate them all fairly.

Old woman, young woman, old woman, young woman...

It may sound ridiculous to spend time deconstructing smudges and turning old women into young women, but it will help reclaim some of those specialized circuits and increase your ability to process unfiltered reality.  Which will make you a more effective game designer.

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GDC 2010: Design in Detail XI


So how do you recognize strength when you see it? How can you train yourself to appreciate strength?


The first way to develop a sense for strength is to change the balance constantly. People hate it because it resets their competence, but it will prevent them from optimizing their skills and their strategies. One theory about Beginner’s Luck is that when you first attempt a new skill your brain is very engaged and thinks the entire action through very carefully. On subsequent tries, your brian gets lazy and tries to take shortcuts, so you are more likely to be successful on your first try than on subsequent tries. Also, development is hard, and deadlines are approaching, so the temptation is to lock things down as soon as possible. Resist temptation and keep the balance changing until you find the true strength of the game elements.


As you strengthen an element, the other elements become relatively weaker. After a pass through the elements, you will find that the first one can no longer compete, and must be strengthened again. Keep doing this until all the elements feel powerful.


This guy is really good at Halo…


Pro-players often complain that “The guys making decisions suck at their own game” and it’s true! I’ll admit that I’m not very good at Halo. I’ll even claim that I’m not good on purpose! The problem is that the dopamine released for being a good player is the same as the chemical reward for being a good game designer. Since you can’t tell the difference, you may mistake the thrill of winning for the satisfaction of balancing the game. You should always feel like you are learning about your game, and if you start to feel like you have mastered it you need to change something so you aren’t good again.


You must acknowledge your own tendency to optimize and ignore problems once they have become familiar. Don’t work on the same element for too long, don’t become comfortable. If something feels so familiar you stop noticing it, change it.


At the same time, if something is right, if it is just perfect and you don’t want to lose it, you need to play it so much that it becomes part of you. I can still, after years and years, drive a new Warthog and tell you if it is tuned correctly or not. I’m known in the Animation Pit as “Three Frames” Griesemer, because if they added a single extra frame to a Halo melee attack I could tell immediately. You need to hone your sensitivity by playing with a finely tuned element over and over until it is ingrained in your muscle memory.

It’s a 7.5

Uncharted 2

I recently finished Uncharted 2.  I thought the acting and the pacing were excellent.  The story followed a well-worn arc, but had enough unexpected set pieces to keep it fresh.  The combat was dramatically improved over the first game, but still didn’t come together enough to justify the amount of fighting required.  The stealth segments swerved between fantastic and frustrating, often clashing with the combat and story elements.  (We can’t shoot the museum guards, but we can throw them off a roof onto paving stones five stories below?)  I loved the sections where I was working with another character to solve puzzles or fight through enemy territory, partially because I know how difficult it is to do useful AI allies.

Useful _and_ nice to look at?

Maybe "ally" is the wrong word

My main criticism of the game is that it is crushingly linear.  There is only one path, straying from it usually ends in a fail screen, and I could rarely anticipate what was going to happen.  I just followed the breadcrumbs and assumed the level designer knew what they were doing.  On several occasions the game goes beyond leading the player by the nose and starts dragging them by the hair.  If the story required a  pistol with infinite ammo, or a checkpoint to skip me through a tough section, or a hint that told me how to solve a puzzle I hadn’t even seen yet, then gameplay took a backseat.

All in all, a new high-bar for storytelling in games and a fantastic experience.  I give it a 7.5!  (Which according to IGN means “there are some issues, maybe it lacks ambition or it is repetitive or has too many technical glitches, but I had fun playing it nonetheless and think you will too.”)

Jumper

I also played a game based on the 2008 movie where Anikin Skywalker learns to teleport and Mace Windu tries to kill him… or something.  The control scheme is unique.  Instead of traditional brawler controls, each of the four face buttons represents a cardinal direction and tapping it will teleport you to that side of the targeted enemy and execute a melee attack.  By using alternating buttons, you can “jump” behind an enemy, kick him into the air, and then “jump” to where he will land and hit him again from the other side.  The animations are stellar, especially when you start chaining combos and beating the hair-dye out of the chumps trying to capture you.

Blondes have more fun

It's a Tasersword (tm)

They use the main character’s signature ability in lots of clever ways.  You can use it to travel through walls and find secret rooms or solve puzzles.  There’s a finishing move where you grab an enemy and teleport you both to some remote location like a mile above the Grand Canyon or the middle of Antarctica and leave them there to die.  (Of course, this makes it ridiculous when they use the tired trope of locking you in a room until all the enemies are dead.  Why can’t I just teleport through the door?)  There are even some enemies that are protected from certain directions, requiring you to time your attacks from different directions or risk being blocked.

A mercifully short campaign featuring unusual and well-realized combat mechanics.  I give it a 7.5!

The Game Designer Review Scale

Did I just say that some budget movie tie-in schlock is just as good as the highest rated game of 2009?  What kind of rating system would result in giving them both a 7.5?  What are you doing reviewing games anyway, isn’t this a game design blog?!  The answer is simple.  In the Game Designer Review Scale every game gets a 7.5.  From the latest AAA masterpiece to the quirky indie game to the bug-ridden RPG epic.  Because for the game designer the goal is not to compare or judge the games themselves, but to exercise and strengthen your conscious control of your own experience.

Or a 10.5 at press junkets

Your own games get a 6.5

At the beginning of a project, when you are prototyping a new game mechanic, you are not going to have a polished, tuned experience.  It’s going to be noisy and buggy and awkward.  You are going to need the ability to spot the glimpses of fun, no matter how obscured or faint, even if they only exist for a few seconds at a time.  You need to lower your flow barrier, learn to ignore distractions and technical errors, to focus in on fun gameplay instantly before it slips away.  You need to spontaneously create a polished form of the game through imagination and mental tricks like making your own sound effects and storylines.  All so you can snatch up those seeds and grow them until everyone on the team can see them.

You can practice this form of autoregulation by playing a deeply flawed game as if it were a 7.5.

On the other hand, at the end of the production cycle, when the game is smooth and playing it has become effortless and comfortable, you are going to need to look at it with fresh, critical eyes.  You need to raise your flow barrier and become oversensitive and harsh.  Every tiny flaw needs to become a glaring blight that must be fixed.  Every inconsistency or imbalance, no matter how trivial, needs to break you out of the experience.  You need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of a new player and find every confusing control mapping or unclear mission objective.

And you can practice by playing a truly exceptional game and fixating on the problems until it’s just a 7.5.  You aren’t flattening all games to the same level, you are changing yourself and controlling your experience to learn the most possible.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail VII


But how do I know which initial settings will lead to flow? How do I train myself to set things up the right way? Or an even better question, how to I make myself into a good designer?


Sniping flow is very fragile because it is so easy to break. Distractions, misses, and frustration abound. It can be difficult to focus, especially when you are first setting a game up. They key is to master your own flow so that you can control the amount of distraction it takes to break your rhythm.

First, make yourself easy to entertain, so you while you are setting it up you can put yourself in a mindset that allows you to maintain flow. Practice filling in details that don’t exist yet. I’m not kidding, get your mouth engaged! I make motor noises when balancing the Warthog and say “pew-pew” for guns.  Kids are easy to entertain because they make up the fun as they go along.

Another technique is to play B-Games with an open mind. Try to see the fun in spite of all the problems. If you can’t have fun with an imperfect game, you won’t be able to find the flow in your own imperfect game.


On the other hand, don’t be satisfied with “sorta fun”. Sniping flow is supposed to have a high ceiling. By this I mean that when you get into a flow state, it should be incredibly deep. So don’t sell it short by being too easy to entertain. A good way to learn to do this is to play good games harshly. Play Halo and then rip the hell out of it. (I do!)
Warning: This is going to wreck your ability to play games. That’s ok because you get to make games, which is a lot more fun


Control over Flow is the essential design skill. In my opinion, control over flow is what makes someone a good designer. Don’t expect other disciplines to have it. Most Programmers see bugs. Most Artists see in still frames. Most Producers see inexplicable delays. But as a designer you should cultivate this conscious control. I imagine a fun thermostat inside my head that I can set at will.


I hate to say it, but most Sniper Rifles aren’t fun. And sniper rifles are easy compared to some things. I believe it is because so many designers skip past this stage and assume that they will be able to make it fun at the end, but find the fun first at all costs! Remember, you aren’t doing Science, you don’t need a control group. Just change stuff and try different configurations. This is why you do this step in private; you don’t need everyone to know all the dead ends you ran down.


Imagine you were trying to teach yourself how to drive. If you just fiddled with one control at a time, you might never figure it out. Pressing the accelerator before you find the ignition doesn’t do anything. You might misinterpret the turn signal until you see how the car operates in motion. Again, this is not science, it is training. You are training your powerful emotional brain through dopamine, and if you leave things static your brain will stop trying to figure it out.


Daniel Tammet has Asperger’s disease and it has given him amazing skill with numbers. He can just intuitively spot prime numbers. Everyone has this power to more or less extent. For me, there is an audible click when something hits the sweet spot, like a record player falling into the groove, that lets me know when something is going to be fun for players.

So, go with your gut!  Trust your heart.  Reach out with your feelings?

To be continued…

Definition: Habituation

Habituation

The gradual reduction in sensitivity to a repeated stimulus

I got my teeth professionally cleaned this morning.  (One cavity, apparently I need to floss more.)  Now I cannot stop running my tongue back and forth over the newly polished enamel.  When I woke up today, my teeth were the farthest thing from my mind, unnoticeably insignificant.  But now I am obsessively, subconsciously, exhaustively exploring every crevice and gap.  This is a side-effect of a neural process called habituation.  As a stimulus (like “I have teeth”) is repeated, the electrical and chemical impact of the experience physically decreases to the point where it drops out of conscious thought, and then subconscious awareness, and eventually it is not felt at all.

You can get used to anything

As a human, this is a very good thing.  Imagine trying to have a conversation while consciously aware of the sound of your own heart pumping, the movement of your lungs breathing in and out, every blink interrupting your train of thought, unable to stop noticing the pressure of the chair into your back or ignore the ambient noise of other conversations.  It would be impossible to function.  Habituation allows you tune out the vast majority of unimportant details and focus on what is new and interesting, like how smooth your molars have become.  It’s a miraculously efficient process that allows our embarrassingly under-powered brains to filter enormous amounts of sensory information.

As a player, habituation is what allows us to learn to play a game and subsequently master it.  Our ability to predict future events based on current conditions is inseparably dependent on our habituation to past events.  A chess master learns to ignore the thousands of poor, but still possible, potential moves and consider only the strategically significant ones.  A skilled Halo player moves through a multiplayer map without thinking about it, using all of his attention to scan for his opponents.  When Mario reaches the edge of a ledge, pressing the “A” button always makes him jump.  If chess pieces could move randomly, or a Halo map suddenly had a dead-end instead of a corridor, or the “A” button threw a fireball, the player would be unable to play the game effectively.

Watch out for the Queen!

Alternative ways to make chess more interesting

But as a game designer, habituation is your mortal enemy.  A tireless, inexhaustible foe, mindlessly obviating the best efforts of your craft, which you can only hope to delay, but never defeat.  Fun gameplay is an interactive experience, and habituation inevitably reduces every experience to meaningless static.  To some extent, the purpose of every design trick and tactic is to disrupt habituation, to resensetize players to the fun experience and help them continue to enjoy the game.  We are hacking our own mental hardware, making it less-efficient.

The truly nefarious nature of this enemy lies in how sneaks into the design process itself.  Designers can learn to ignore glaring problems that would annoy or aggravate a new player.  Or they can overlook logical loopholes that will wreck the game balance because they are familiar with how the game is “supposed” to be played.  Or they might wrongly believe an element has been properly tuned because they are no longer sensitive to the effect it has on gameplay.  Understanding and controlling habituation, both their player’s and their own, is a crucial design skill.