The Problem of Chocolate

If you’re interested in roleplaying games and their design, you’ve probably already read Vincent Baker’s post about the clouds and boxes:

If the minute details of your game’s fiction don’t contribute meaningfully to your play, then even if you’re a stickler, over time you’re going to let those minute details fall away. Where your character’s standing, what he’s doing with his hands, how his eyes move when she comes around the stone fence, whether clouds pass in front of the sun or it glares down unmitigated – these things come to be like the character sheet that you leave in a binder in the drawer.

Vincent’s talking here about an easy mistake to make in game design — the finite state machine approach. You decide what you want the narrative to look like, but instead of providing incentive and economy, you mandate the appropriate series of events directly. The mechanics can run without narration at all — so, eventually, they do. And when the players complain that the game feels “thin,” that it’s “all about combat,” that it’s just “rollplaying,” the designer, or the loyal fans, respond that if you want a deep narrative, all you have to do is choose to provide one! But with no mechanical reason to describe their actions carefully or lovingly consider the environment, people won’t bother, even though failing to do so is exactly what makes the game less interesting for them.

In this sense, Vincent’s observation is an example of a larger principle of design. When a player encounters a game, they put input in along the lines that occur to them (or, for a newer player, more or less at random) and take action according to the output they receive — but they interpret that output economically, according to their dopamine responses, not according to the interaction that takes place. They’ll seek to refine skill, they’ll be fascinated by randomness, and most of all, they’ll value rewards — in whatever form the game uses — over process. They’ll have a lot of trouble valuing intangibles, which, unfortunately, includes fun.

Anybody who’s ever played an MMO has already seen this in action. If you provide players with two routes to a goal — a “scenic” route that’s more fun and interesting but longer and a “shortcut” that’s tedious and unpleasant but quick — you might expect that most players will end up taking the scenic route, while a few unusually intense players will take the shortcut. In reality, what happens is that most players will take the shortcut. They’ll tell other players to take the shortcut, and make fun of — even exclude — players who try to take the scenic route. They’ll keep doing their utmost to refine your shortcut until it’s as fast, and as unpleasant, as conceivably possible. And while they’re doing this they’ll complain that your game isn’t fun because you’re “forcing” them to do stuff they hate!

Here’s William Poundstone, from Priceless:

You have your choice of two equally fine chocolates. One is small and shaped like a heart. The other is big and shaped like a cockroach. Which do you choose? [Christopher] Hsee has posed this dilemma to students and friends, finding that most choose the cockroach chocolate. The kicker is that when Hsee asks people which chocolate they would enjoy more, most admit it’s the smaller one, shaped like a heart. (p. 288)

You cannot trust people to maximize their own happiness.

Happiness isn’t quantifiable, you see. It can’t be weighed, it doesn’t increase your stats, it won’t unlock any achievements. You can’t measure happiness.

But you can measure chocolate.

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