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An educator's view on game design and psychology

Thoughts, ideas and commentary on the psychology of gamers and how this knowledge can be used to create better game designs, by a software engineering teacher/game developer.

Author: Scaroth

Game development as art, not engineering

Posted by Scaroth Friday June 19 2009 at 11:35PM
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What if a game is approached as a work of art, rather than as a work of engineering?

Maybe the view that software development is a form of engineering is flawed. For example, a classic software development analogy is building a house. You start with a clear idea of what you want the house to be, draw it up in a set of blueprints, then use these to construct the building. But the analogy is flawed because there's one critical difference between software and traditional forms of engineering: in the latter case, you know exactly what the end product will look like, how it will be structured, how it will work, etc..., be it a building, a bridge, an engine, a motor vehicle, a power tool, a wristwatch, a vending machine, etc...

However, this can't be done with software! Asking software developers to determine the exact look and functionality of a program up-front is similar to asking a painter, sculptor, writer, or sketch artist how the work will turn out. No artist ever knows exactly how the work will turn out. It wouldn't be art if they did. Art is an exploratory, creative process, where the work evolves over time in a non-deterministic way.

The history of software development shows that, even when detailed pre-planning and proven engineering principles are applied, the software almost always changes and evolves during the development process, and usually turns out somewhat different to what was originally planned. Even if the end result is very close to the plan, the process of getting there is littered with pot-holes, brick walls, and various obstacles that make the process anything but straightforward. Often, a sense of smooth flow is absent, replaced by a sense that things are not quite as elegant as they ought to be.

I propose that games, or indeed any software, should be approached as a work of art. An artist starts with an idea, a concept, develop and evolve it to a certain point in their mind, then they start translating that to a creative medium, be it words, music, paint, pencils, clay, etc... From then on, the work evolves, not only in the medium, but also in the mind of the artist. The two feed and change each other in a continuous feedback loop, from which the finished product eventually emerges.

What would happen if a game was approached the same way? Start with a basic idea, realise the most fundamental/interesting/easiest part of it, then evolve the game from that.

Can we solve Bartle's "Explorer" problem?

Posted by Scaroth Thursday June 11 2009 at 7:05AM
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Richard Bartle, co-creator of MUD, the original multi-user dungeon, posits that there are, broadly speaking, 4 types of MMORPG player:

 

  • Achievers - want to "conquer" the game by gaining XP, levelling, increasing their craft skills, getting better equipment, downing bosses, etc... Their focus is on acting on/against the environment.
  • Explorers - want to discover new places and things, learn the lore and backstory, gain knowledge of the world and it's mechanics, find clever exploits, solve puzzles, etc... Their focus is on interacting with the environment.
  • Socializers - want to interact with other people through conversation, helping, giving advice, trading, group raids, etc... Their focus is on interacting with other players.
  • Killers - want to dominate and/or compete against other players, usually violently. Also tend to enjoy doing whatever they can to generally harass and annoy other players (griefers)

 

Bartle also discovered that the most successful MMORPG games had a good balance of all types, rather than a dominance of any particular one.

He also found a problem referred to as the "explorer problem" - namely, that "explorers are a rare occurence in virtual worlds". Mike Rozak discusses this very situation in a detailed blog entry, wherein he posits several models for understanding the problem and how a game designer might deal with it.

I would like to suggest yet another view - what if we redefined the 4 types in terms of the content available in the vast majority of MMORPG that exist today? After a careful reading of Bartle's original paper and Mike's detailed essay, I came up with this:

 

  • Achievers - like "hardcore" PvE content - instances, raids, downing powerful "elite" creatures and bosses. Want to get the best gear/weapons/spells in the game, get their character to the level cap ASAP, and max out all their professions and skills.
  • Socializers - like "casual" PvE content - group quests, slowly levelling their character, skills and professions, special social events like fairs, etc... Like content that makes their character look good, even if it serves no practical purpose (eg. elegant clothing, glow enchantments on weapons, etc...), or enhances social interaction (mini-games, balls to throw to other players, spells that change other players appearance, etc...)
  • Killers - like PvP content - duels, battlegrounds, arenas, NPCs of opposing factions, etc...

 

Conspicuously absent is the Explorer type. I honestly couldn't think of any content in the archetypical MMORPG that caters to explorers. The three content types I've suggested collectively account for ALL of the content in the vast majority of MMORPG games, and the Explorer simply isn't interested in most of it.

Bartle also raises another issue regarding the interdependence of the types. He points out that, if the balance of content is wrong, then this imbalances the game dynamic, which usually leads to a chain reaction of players leaving, resulting in the eventual death of the game. What he found was that Killers, Achievers and Socializers, in the correct balance, yields the most stable game dynamic. Explorers are simply not required by any of the other groups, neither do they require any other group

Explorer types typically enjoy adventure games, or single-player CRPG. Why? Because of the rich depth of story, complex characters, and places and things to explore, discover and learn about, without having Killers or Achievers running around spoiling their sense of immersion. In theory, one could develop an MMO that only has Explorer type content. The trouble is, Explorers constitute the smallest minority of game players - about 10% or less. Since Explorers demand rich content (which, as Rozak points out, is very expensive to produce), such a game would not be financially viable. Another problem is that the non-Explorers would find such content tedious and boring, and may even resort to walk-throughs or other forms of "cheating" just to get past the content.

Given all of the above, it seems clear that Explorers have drawn the short straw. So what can they do about it? Well, not much. This may be controversial, but perhaps the MMORPG genre is not suitable for Explorer types, in the same way that Quake is not suitable for people who like strategy games. It is not necessarily impossible to cater to Explorers in an MMORPG, but it is difficult, expensive, and if botched, can easily destroy the gameplay balance. It is a high-risk design path, and as such, most developers have avoided the problem by simply ignoring it, and will continue to do so for the forseeable future.

p.s. In case you didn't guess, yes, I'm an Explorer myself ;-)