Friday, April 25, 2003

Alexander Jhin has had some second thoughts about his article on the coolness of using behavioral psych in game design. He used to think it was cool, now he thinks it denies the possibility of art in games. I'm not so sure, and I posted this in response. If there's anybody out there who actually reads all my posts, you'll see a lot of repetition here:

Behavioral psychology has the luddites imagining *Clockwork Orange* and pigeons pecking at levers but it was my favorite subject back when I got my psych degree. As I was graduating in 1991 there was a semi-new movement afoot to stop thinking of behavioral psych in terms of manipulation but in terms of communication. The pigeon isn't pecking at the lever because it knows it will get food; the pigeon is pecking at the lever to communicate with the researcher that it would like some food now, please. Or, the researcher is communicating with the pigeon - "Let me know when you want food by pecking this lever, ok?"

Games may be one of the only media that can use this avenue of communication. Will Wright could have written a book where he might say, "Debt is poisonous to a municipal government because of such-and-such." Instead we have this game where he shows us what debt does by punishing us for using it. (I've learned a bunch of other lessons from Will, such as "Nuclear energy is safe and efficient" and "Always hire a maid". I'm not saying what he's communicating is right, I'm just saying it's a unique, engaging way to get communication across. If he had written that hypothetical book...I never would have read it.)

Another way in which we communicate is to guide the player into having the experience we want them to have. Zelda's pieces-of-heart rewards exploring and puzzle-solving, for example. Tony Hawk rewards busting mad tricks and getting huge air. We must be extremely careful with this technique, as what we consider a reinforcer may actually not be, like in the famous experiment where kids were rewarded for drawing and the next day ceased their creative activities. I did not explore much in the latest Zelda.

Which brings me to a final point; behavioral psych, at its origin, is simply this: watch behavior; change stimuli; watch behavior again. Which is what all game designers should be doing: watching people play the game, changing the game, and repeating the process. (Until you run out of time and have to ship.)

So, while I agree that using these techniques to make a game addictive may be bad game design--my wife has finally overcome her Animal Crossing habit, thank God, I thought I was going to need to arrange an intervention--let's not throw them out altogether. You wrote a good, useful article.

Monday, April 21, 2003

Skills vs. Classes

I was doing some more reading over at the IGDA Forums and I ran across someone speaking about MMOGs (my personal favorite type of game). Not surprisingly, the idea of skills vs. classes came up pretty quickly and it got me to thinking about my recent experiences with MMOGs and p&p RPGs lately... I am against Skill based games and prefer Class based games.

The main idea that proponents of skill-based games promote is that it allows for more unique characters around the world. I've found, just the opposite occurs. Skill based games are just DYING for players to min/max their player; in the end everyone has the same 1 point in gunnery, 3 points in healing, etc. that makes your character the best possible character there is. Sure, there is the 1-3% of people who don't do that, but they are just minimizing their player power for "role-playing" opportunities... bah.

Basically, the problem is that a skill-based game requires that the designers balance all of the skills against one another; whereas in a class-based game, it is sufficient to make sure that the classes are balanced against each other.

Sure, sure in an ideal world the perfect group of game designers gets together and makes sure that all skills are equally balanced with each other and then I'll be in the camp that likes skill-based games. Until that point (NEVER), I'll stay in the class-based set.

With a class-based system, you can build in the give and take of a given class. Warrior: good with weapons, bad with science/magic/whatever. Which is not something that you can do, at all easily, with a skill-based game.

Min/Maxing is bad enough in class-based systems, but in a skill-based system it gets ridiculous. I've yet to play a skill-based game where I felt any penalty what-so-ever about selecting the "optimum" set of skills for a character I was playing (yes, yes role-playing).

Additionally, I think that skill-based games give the player an automatic framework for what they are supposed to do. "I'm a tencho-monk", thinks the player to himself, "I need to make sure I get my hands on the Powered Gloves of Doom!" Instant direction, goals, etc. On the other hand, you have skill-based games... "I wonder what I want this character to be? He's sort of a Jack-of-all-trades guy. I need to think of what his background is (since no game forces this in character generation (computers)), I dunno, he's a Han Solo kind of a lonely wanderer smuggler type..." spiral off into clicheville. It’s great and all to want to people to role-play, but in a computer game? with 300-3000 polys, nothing close to facial expressions, and everything typed through the keyboard? meh. Not yet, maybe in another 10 years.

Ok... so I sorta spiraled off in that last paragraph. In summary, skill-based systems: no; class-based systems: yes.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Warren Spector's speech, what Greg Costikyan calls the "Don't worry be happy" speech, is available at Gamasutra. I, myself, liked it, but hey - I'm working on a sequel *and* a license. We're taking some fairly big risks this time around (last time around just trying to port an engine to three consoles and make some original content in eighteen months seemed like risk enough) and I'm scared as hell but Warren says that's a good thing. Maybe tomorrow I'll worry less and happy more.

Do gamers want to be challenged?

So I'm reading through Rouse right now, and one of the early things he says is that gamers want to be challenged (one of the reasons they play games). Reading this I found myself nodding like a roadie told to have any of the leftovers at an Aerosmith concert; but then I realized I was so eager to accept this because I want to believe this. I'm not sure though, anymore. DO gamers want to be challenged?

Just recently I completed Zelda (read through the blog), and during the first Tower of the Gods Boss Fight, I actually died. I had to make sure I had a healing potion before starting that fight the next time, so that I could defeat the boss. It was challenging, and I had a blast. It was also the most memorable fight I had of the game; because the next day I was sharing notes with Jamie and he says, oh you can auto target with the bow and arrow. Needless to say the remainder of the game was fun and interesting, but not really challenging. It took a tad bit of the shine off an otherwise amazing game, for me. I certainly include myself in the hard-core gamer set, though.

My wife has been playing Pikmin a lot lately. I played through one game (and crashed with 24 pieces). I haven't been back because I know if I played again it would be a crushing victory. My wife however, has played through once, after many restarts, and is replaying a new month now that she has been through it. Watching her, she is still certainly challenged (to the point I have to leave the room or I find myself "giving helpful advice", read "irritating the fire out of her"). But, my wife is equally stubborn as myself though, and finds challenges to be like a white glove to the face; something that must be overcome or hang one's head in shame.

Then there is the growing debate in the industry that people don't want games that are "too hard". I still recall a story from when Mark Nau (another contributor to the blog) used to work at Atari (Warner Interactive, Midway, whatever it was at the time) and the suits said that they could never make 720 again because the controller was "too confusing" for people. Maybe the suits at Atari fell into the trap that Joel Spolsky mentions in his book User Interface Design for Programmers where testing can lead to one to conclusions that one's interface is too "hard" when in fact it isn't, it just is not instantly intuitive, but can be learned (possibly even simply).

Maybe a similar phenomenon has been leading several focus test to draw the same wrong conclusions about the games we make. Maybe the problem is something else that Rouse mentions and that is that you can't challenge people too quickly or they will give up. Maybe the key is that people DO want to be challenged as Rouse says (and I and my wife enjoy), it’s just that they don't want to be challenged too much, too quickly.

It seems the trick part comes in finding out what too much and what too quickly are. I'll ponder that and post about it later...