Category Archives: Game Theory

Player Roles: Observers and Participants

Standard disclaimer, take everything I say with a grain of salt, etc etc… views can change and every theory evolves.  I am by no means whatsoever an expert on game design.  Form your own opinions.

Fighting yourself

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a post talking about what I viewed as a dichotomy between obsession and contextualization in ideal media consumption.  I ended up asking:

To summarize, my problem was an observation that some my best experiences with media happened when I obsessed over the content, whether that content be games, book, movies, or anything like that.  I was also observing that trends like escapism and long-term obsession were harmful to my overall health and overall media consumption.

This was really weird, and I didn’t like it.

Traditionally, when we talk about player motivation, we bring up classification systems like, for instance, the Bartle types of players.  These theories, for the most part, work well.  The problem isn’t that they’re wrong, but that they are riddled with problems when we rely on them for generalized design:

  • They’re limited in scope - Bartle types only describe player goals, not how they interact with those goals. They deal with player motivations on a somewhat surface level, but they don’t look at the root causes of those motivations, which causes us to run into bizarre edge cases that don’t fit neatly into categories.
  • They’re not as predictive or as useful as we would like – It’s difficult to design a game with Bartle types in mind. There’s not a lot of depth to implementation of Bartle types into games, and there’s not a lot of room for us to build theories on top of Bartle types.  We’d like a theory that allows us to expand in the future.
  • They’re trying to do different things than designers want - Bartle types (and similar classification systems) are designed to place players into categories – to explain in general terms what a player’s motivation is.  That’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t really help us describe how players play games or what it looks like when players play games.  Essentially, these classification systems are just more information on demographics.  Bartle might be completely correct, but we’re looking for different information than he’s providing.

Again, this isn’t to say that I think Bartle is wrong – just that I don’t think his theory alone is sufficient when talking about player motivations.  I’m looking for a descriptive theory; one that describes what the process of playing a game looks like for the average player, and one that I can use to shape how my game treats the player and what it shows the player at any given moment.  If at all possible, I would want my theory to avoid interfering with Bartle types and to avoid replacing them, but rather attack a different part of player motivation so that both theories could survive in harmony.

Ideally, I’d like to use something similar to a narrative arc, but applied to players.  And because it’s been bothering me a lot over the past year, I want it to address some of the concerns I had in the previous article about the relationship of contextualization and obsession/escapism in games.

Let me steal a name for this:

There’s a data-gathering technique in anthropology called Participant observation – it’s not really all that similar to this, at all.  But there are things that feel the same at first glance, so it’s perhaps not so bad that the names and terms I’m using are similar.  Basically, Participant observation works off the theory that we’re best suited to gather data on a culture if we’re in that culture; but not so far in that culture that we lose our objectivity.  So the people using this method try to maintain a balance between their roles inside a group and their role outside of a group.

In a generalized sense, I would like think of players as a type of Participant observer – a researcher that immerses him/herself in your game to gather information.  It’s a crude, inaccurate and incomplete analogy that will break down steadily as you read through this article, but there are some useful parallels to draw from it.

To be more specific and more accurate, I propose that we’re incorrect  to talk about a player’s experience from a singular perspective, and that it would be more accurate to break the player into multiple sub-characters, who will switch control with each other as needed throughout the entire experience.  The idea is to think of a “player” as someone who consists of two entirely separate yet simultaneously acting individuals who advise each other and trade off control of the individual.

I refer to participants and observers as literally being separate people, working together to form a singular “player unit” – almost as if the player had multiple personalities that manifested themselves as they played a game or watched a movie.  The reality is, of course, probably more complicated, but this distinction allows us as designers to remove a large number of contradictions in our understanding of how players interact with games, because we no longer need to view player’s engagement as a singular static process.

Each “part” of the player fulfills one of two separate roles: the observer and the participant.

I’ll go into these roles in more detail below, but to quickly summarize, observers act as gatekeepers to gauge a game’s quality, the creators intent and execution, and the effect of the game on the player.  To do this the observer takes a realistic, objective approach to the media.

Participants take an approach that a game, its mechanics, and worldview, are real, or at least reflect reality in a completely perfect sense.  This is a more difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, but would be closely related to what we would more commonly refer to as a suspension of disbelief, or immersion, or a sense of empathy for what is happening in a game.

Pay-to-Win is not the problem

I’ve been reading up on it, and apparently mobile games are the future, so it’s time for a discussion on Free-to-Play.

I want to clarify at the beginning: I don’t mind the Free-to-Play model, and I think there are a lot of developers doing clever things with it. So if you’re hoping that this post is going to decry the scourge on the industry, it’s not.  Sorry.  I also want to clarify that this post isn’t going to be about how to build Free-to-Play games properly, and it’s not going to be a really detailed overview of every problem or issue surrounding Free-to-Play. Other people know a lot more about the nuanced details than I do, so they can handle all of that. Continue reading

12 ways we can do magic differently in games.

About a month ago I finally sat down and thought through all the ways that magic annoys me as a mechanic, which can all basically be summed up as “it’s boring and doesn’t feel like magic.”  This was right about the time that this article came out, so I figured if other people were already talking about it, there was no point in cluttering up the space with my own opinions.

But now it’s started to die down so there’s less baggage on the topic, and I really do still take issue with magic, and I really don’t think that the previous article addressed why.  While Critical Intel has the right idea (current systems don’t feel right), I don’t feel like it goes anywhere with the idea.  And I don’t think that praising Skyrim’s “press A to do magic but first we’ll play an animation of you shouting” mechanic is pushing us in the right direction either.

I don’t like magic as a mechanic, and I don’t think changing the flavor text helps all that much when your mechanic counteracts what you’ve written.

I should clarify – dislike is a strong word.  I don’t have a problem with games using their current systems.  It doesn’t make my blood boil.  I’m just really bored with the whole genre and I want people to do some exciting things.  All the mechanics we have now are fine – they’re just light, fluffy, and kind of sub-par as far as magic goes.  And it’s fine for a game to skimp on it.  But I’d like some not to.

Because ideologically, magic is stinking messed up.  It’s magic.  It works differently on every level than everything else we see in the world.  And if you can’t, purely from mechanics alone, tell the difference between magic and superpowers and technology and your bio-attacks, as far as I’m concerned you haven’t made a magic system, you’ve just made a standard combat system and placed the word “magic” on top of it.

But there are plenty of people already saying stuff like that.  The point I want to make is not that magic is broken or that people should be ashamed of themselves or whatever.  I want you to realize that magic could be much more exciting.

So instead, I’m just going to rattle off the top of my head just about every way I can think of that we could do a magic system that I think would feel unique and interesting and actually magical in at least some way.

It’s not an exhaustive or incredibly researched list.  I’m sure there are a ton more you could think of, and I’m sure there are a ton of problems I’m overlooking. But the point still stands, we don’t have to stay where we are.  There are a ridiculous number of things you could try as a designer right now.  Go try them.


Magic as an Exchange
The Greeks used animal sacrifices to get the gods to answer their prayers.  We’re not talking about deities in this column, but the philosophy is the same.  Equivalent exchange – you give something to magic, magic gives you something back.  Mana… kind of works.  But it’s not really a sacrifice, it’s a resource, like electricity, or salts.  So forget that, let’s do magic that costs you.  Make me know that every spell is an exchange, an act of giving something up that’s precious to me.  Bending the universe should not be free.

  1. Here’s an easy start – drop the mana-bar and just use my health.  Make my spells drain my health bar.  It’s just one little change, and it would make me actually think really hard about using my special powers in the next survival game I played.  And it would streamline both mechanics and drops, decreasing barrier of entry to the game.
  2. Make magical costs less tangible.  I’m forgetting the book off the top of my head that talks about a cost of magic being literally the act of you short-circuiting the world: you lose the experience, joy, and lessons you’d have gained from doing something the “correct” way -So  how about on top of mana or health you also sacrifice battle rewards, or reduce the amount of XP you get from a battle?  People that relied on magic too much would have more difficulty progressing, so they’d need to balance between taking an easy solution out, or sticking to a more conventional and possibly more difficult approach.
  3. Sacrifice an item to cast a spell.  Take it a step farther; if I’m in an rpg with equipment, you could track my attachment to the item, just by keeping track of how long I’ve used it.  It would be really insanely easy, and then you could scale the power based on how useful I’ve found the item.  You’d need to do a lot of spell balancing here as a designer – your spells would need to be more powerful because you couldn’t spam them nearly as much.  But in a game with, say, perma-death, forcing the player to make a deep permanent sacrifice in the hope of saving their life is a fairly intriguing concept.
  4. Speaking of making hard choices, let’s talk about games like Fire Emblem.  How about we build magic to be more desperate – what if we made you sacrifice a unit to cast a spell?  Or at the very least, poison them or give them a negative status effect or drain a portion of their life.  What if your magicians were literally sucking the lives out of their comrades to cast their spells?

Magic as the Unknown
A lot of work goes into making magic concrete, which I sometimes find myself being very annoyed by.  An alternative view of magic is that it shouldn’t make sense.  Ever.  If it did, it wouldn’t be magic.  We can make that happen in games, or at least make an illusion of that happen.

  1. Make interesting things happen when you fail to cast a spell.  Instead of learning a spell, then giving you a 100 percent success rate, increase your mastery of the spell.  Make it less random the more you use it.
  2. Give it invisible effects.  Thaumcraft pulls this off really well with a system that spawns things and messes with the world the more an area gets “contaminated”  (Thaumcraft is a really good example of cool magic in general).  It’s not a great example of magic, but Binding of Isaac adds tons of random effects all the time, and it works great.  Make it react differently depending on what situation you’re in.  Make it randomize part of the world you haven’t seen yet.  Keep track of it and use it to mess with the player’s head later.  Lie to the player and pretend to randomize it, then bias it towards certain results instead.  People have tons of built in biases that they spend a lot of time trying to avoid.  Exploit them – literally make logic not work anymore for your game, or at least make it really stinking hard to use.

Magic from an Art that is Learned
If nothing else, magic is artistic, so let’s add a small level of personality and customization to what we’re doing.  Allow for a level of quality checking with each spell and give me a clear method of improving my spell effectiveness outside of standard leveling systems.  Allow me to quickly use spells in and out of combat without bringing up a menu.  Allow me to learn a ton of spells and tie that into something like, say, memorization, rather than how many xp I’ve sunk into the spell.  Give me a use for actually studying your game world and not just skipping through the text.

  1. Gesture based casting, preferably with  Leap Motion, although pretty much every console has ways to pull this off as well.  The Wii U even has that nifty touchscreen so you could build an interface around it.
  2.  Voice activated casting.  Plus about a billion points if you allow us to custom record our own commands for spells, and allow us to rattle them off mid-battle without a menu or anything while we’re duel wielding.  Forget number one, nobody uses hands to cast magic.
  3. Pre-building specific spells before battle using a crafting system.  Use runes.  Put the recipes for spells inside of books that we find around the world.  Make them complicated.  Make our level up mechanic literally be finding a book and writing down the recipe.  Then long before we need the spell, we’ll hunt for the runes, combine them (not at a crafting station or at a store or anything lame like that), and then pull them out and fire them off in the next battle.  Or just go play and copy Thaumcraft as mentioned above, because it already does this incredibly well.
  4. Magic that monitors my emotional state.  Ok fine, now I’m reaching, but we do actually have the tech: supposedly the PS4 will ship with some of it.  I’d like you to monitor my emotions and force me to invoke certain ones to power up my spells.  See how specific you can get with the current technology – monitor my face and make me laugh if I want to heal someone, or use anger to cast damaging spells.  I should need to learn how to trigger or suppress my own feelings on command – a valuable skill both in games and in the real world.
  5. It goes without saying that any huge complicated casting system that was actually learnable would go here.  There are a lot of games that do this already though, so it’s not necessarily worth getting into.  More should.  Especially roguelikes and games like Minecraft. 

Magic as Empowerment
Last but not least, what if we’re looking at magic as a power fantasy?  That’s the sort of default draw that most fantasies use for their evil Wizards, isn’t it?  So, if we’re putting a player into that role, let’s put the player into that role.  In this case, we’ll constantly think about magic as a way of asserting dominance over an enemy.

A fair number of brawlers have rage meters,  which I think are an excellent mechanic.  The way you get the reward is the way you ought to – you attack or kill lots of things very rapidly, and eventually you enter a raged state where you’re invincible and it’s even easier to kill things.  The mechanic matches the philosophy.  We’ll do some similar stuff, but we’ll switch it around to match the demented philosophy of magical dominance.

  1. Convert enemy health to mana.  This would work as a brawler game mechanic – instead of killing enemies, you’d tag them, and their health would slowly start to convert to a form that you could use in spells.  Leave your enemies alive and unscathed for long enough, and you could eventually release your magic, instantly killing a). all of the hosts that you had just drained of health to cast your spell, and b). any unfortunate enemy in the path of your spell.  As a mechanic, you force the player to balance between immediate, rage-filled violence, and calculated-cold violence.  Leave enemies alive so you can exploit them all at once, or kill them off to make it easier.  It encourages players to see enemies as resources to be exploited, not just as something to be overcome – which is exactly how a power-hungry magician would look at everyone around them.

And that’s the main point of all of this.  I don’t have anything against the current systems that most games use.  They just don’t even remotely feel like the magical systems I see in most books and movies.  There are a ridiculous number of philosophical ways of looking at the supernatural.  I don’t hold it against the games that ignore all of that, but I’d love for more games to explore that, even slightly.  I’d love my mechanics to match what games say I’m doing.

Obsession, Escapism, Wish Fulfillment – Proper Media Consumption pt. 1

Obsession is weird, but interesting.

This post might feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the blog, which I overwhelmingly use just for postmortems and the occasional coding rants – Please bear with me though.  I think what I plan on doing is writing several successive posts (sometime) that expand on the stuff here and organize it into more of a coherent theory.

There are two things going on with an initial post of this nature : firstly, I want you to have a good preview of the topic so if you think it’s intriguing you can go off and do your own research, and secondly, I want you to know where I’m coming from so in the future you’re better equipped to make intelligent decisions about whether or not you agree with me and can see exactly where I’ve gone right or wrong.

I’ve been thinking lately about the way I play games – specifically what makes me like or dislike a game outside of the content of a game itself.  It’s tough to deconstruct behaviors or do research in cases like this for several reasons -

a) There’s a huge variability in the games I play, and
b) It’s tough for me to reassess a game after I’ve already formed an opinion on it.

And of course, complicating the above,
c) There’s only so much objective research I can do on a game analysis without losing out on the really important bits.

I’m an introverted person, and I do the overwhelming majority of my game theory research by deconstructing my own feelings – it’s something that, in my humble opinion, I have gotten quite good at.  I don’t mean deconstruction in the literary sense but rather that I start with a finished observation and try and break it down into smaller ideas instead of starting with smaller ideas and using them to predict what I should be seeing.  I start with the forest and work my way down to the trees, not the other way around, ie. interpretation rather than correction.

Whether or not that’s acceptable methodology for analysis is a subject for another post, but the point is that because I think about games this way, when I objectively divorce myself from the experience or feelings I’m having during a game I find it much more difficult to draw useful conclusions.  Hence the difficulty resolving c) and b).  Sometimes I’m not sure how much my views on a game are influenced by the way that I play a game and how much they reflect the actual quality, which always makes me nervous whenever I research topics like this.

I don’t like escapism; I don’t think it’s healthy, and I don’t think it really satisfies you as a consumer.  I’ve talked about this a little bit in the past, but I usually take the view that when a game, movie, or book draws you into its world so much that you want to disregard the real world, you’re sort of missing the point of the whole experience.  Reality is satisfying.  I know that there are a number of people that fundamentally disagree with me on this point, and even among the people that do agree with me, a large number don’t take the reasoning quite as far as I do, but again, that’s a subject for another post.

Suffice to say that when I encounter media that makes me want to obsess over it, my first reaction is usually to ask myself, “what do I really want, and how do I get it?”  If I’m drawn to a game, it’s probably because there’s something that I could be doing or exploring in the real world that I’m not right now.

So having just said all of that, you would probably expect me to advocate for a balanced consumption of media with other activities – read a chapter of a book, play a half-hour of a game, etc… then go out and meet some friends and do real world stuff.  That should be healthy.  I would expect this to be my view as well.

I’m finding that it isn’t.  Overwhelmingly, when I consume media in small chunks, it doesn’t have the same impact on me as when I obsess over it.

For instance, I’ve played through somewhere between 4 and 6 hours of Aquaria, maybe the first quarter of the game, mostly because I felt obligated to (next post).  I am fairly certain it’s a good game.  I am pretty sure that it is a game I should like.  In fact, it should be one of my favorite games.  Almost every element of the narrative and mechanics excites me on a very deep level.

But I never actually, you know, finished it.  Because I played it responsibly, and balanced it with my classes and went out and did other stuff every other night.  So of course it couldn’t hold my interest because I never really gave it my interest beyond a very cursory glance.

I read through Fallout Equestria, a massive 625,000 word novel, in less than three days, then I spent another two or three thinking about pretty much nothing else except the universe : it was a vastly different experience to Aquaria.  Looking back, I have issues with the book, both in its execution and its content, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Aquaria, and I definitely remember the experience with a lot more fondness – I learned a lot about my own worldview during that period, and I can say that because of it, Fallout Equestria is honestly one of my favorite books.

Of course, the material had a great deal to do with that - Fallout Equestria had to actually be a good book.  And of course, I did move on and stop thinking about the universe, if that step never happened I’d be inclined to think there was something wrong.  I allowed myself to become obsessed, let it linger for a while, figured out what I was actually obsessed with, and then came up with a final analysis.  But that small period where I allowed the story to become reality was an integral part of the experience, and that’s still slightly confusing to me.

I know from personal experience that escapism makes my life worse and me unhappy, and that media application makes my life better and me happier, but whenever I try and throw obsession out of the window in totality and just focus on the application bit, I ruin the whole thing and get neither escapism or morals.

Games (and media in general) are good at communicating because they employ escapism and wish fulfillment.  That allows them to do some special things.  Of course all of this makes them very very dangerous, but not so dangerous that we don’t want to occasionally trust them with our time.  Media is special; unlike almost any other medium it lets us actually experience empathy for another person’s worldview.  But in order to take part in that, you need to be willing to temporarily lose your grip on your own worldview; to take the experience at face value and treat it like reality, and leave off all of your processing and analysis for later.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we spend a lot of time rejecting that to the point that we throw up a lot of blockades.  We go into art like connoisseurs rather than explorers – we treat media like some type of abridged essay – we skim it just long enough to get the general idea, very quickly form an opinion on whether or not we like it, and then jump right back out.

My question then is whether or not there exists an objective sweet spot somewhere between healthy consumption and pure escapism, and more importantly, can we use that line to correct some of the bad habits we have when we engage with games in the first place?

When people talk about the “good old day”‘ of gaming, what I suspect they really mean is, “back when I was able to actually devote my whole attention to a medium on its own terms without analyzing it and forming a bunch of half-baked opinions on every individual part of it.”  There was no good old day for games, you were just a better player.

Which I know isn’t exactly helpful, but I’ll go into more detail about that at some undisclosed distant time.  I do have a number of theories on the subject, but like anything else, it’s complicated, and I think I want to cement them more in my own mind before I talk about them.  Until then, maybe you have some ideas?  How do you play games?