Big Chiefs

I was working on a series of blog posts last week, but I got distracted by Game Chef. Here’s the result — Big Chiefs, a game where you play the magical white guy who joins up with a “primitive” native tribe, learns their ways, and leads them to victory against the other, less magical white guys. There are a lot of movies with this basic plot, and the sad part is, a lot of them appear to be written out of a genuine interest in the subject matter; the problem is, they can’t seem to write about people of color without introducing a white guy to be the protagonist so that “the audience has someone to identify with.” So this is the game I wrote about that, where the people of color in your tribe are at best foils to provide you adversity, and at worst gambling chips. If anybody knows Kevin Costner and thinks he would want to give me a pull quote for this game, let me know.

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.

Designing People

I’ve been putting this post off for almost a month, partly because I’ve been so busy, and partly because it’s kind of a big deal to me. Near the beginning of June, in the course of two days, I closed the book on my first self-published game, Dog Eat Dog, and helped launch the first social game I worked on at Loot Drop, Pettington Park. From zero games to two games in a week is a hell of a thing, and I’m very proud and grateful to everybody who has given me the opportunity to do what I love. You can buy Dog Eat Dog right here. Now I just have to keep going.

My friend Elizabeth Sampat made an interesting post a while back that goes to the heart of something I’ve been trying to put into words here — Everything is Game Design. A game is really just a system of rules with a presumed internal logic, after all. By that definition, games are everywhere. For example, I don’t apply economic analysis because I think games are economics; I do it because economics is really just a subset of game design. But, then, what is game design?

When the Nintendo first came out, it was marketed towards — and was a great success among — a specific demographic: kids, that tiny span of life between 6 and 12 years old. It’s funny, in some respects, that this is the case, because some of those early games are absurdly difficult, especially if you try to pick them up now, when you’ve (probably) gotten past 12 years old. Given the things that people were doing on the system, why would they aim it at kids — and why did kids love it so intensely?

Well, it’s really tradition, at some level — kids have always been perceived as the primary players of games. But it’s also a larger point: at those ages, people are developing their strategies for surviving, and achieving, in the real world, and the process they use to do this is the exact process you use to learn about and succeed at a game: putting in input, observing the results, forming mental models, chunking and categorizing, looking for feedback loops, and everything else game designers have to think about all the time.

Let’s say you have a game with two levers, one labeled “Act Out” and one labeled “Be Good.” When you pull the Act Out lever, ominous music plays and monsters come out. When you pull the Be Good lever, nothing happens. What are you going to do when you play this game? You’re going to pull the Act Out lever all the time. Monsters might be unpleasant and even dangerous…but they’re better than NOTHING HAPPENING. If the only feedback you can get is negative feedback, you’re still going to go for that feedback in preference to no feedback at all.

Sound familiar?

Game design — and by implication, most forms of design — isn’t primarily mathematics or aesthetics. Primarily, game design is cognitive psychology. It’s just that instead of applying it to people, you apply it to the world people live in — and by doing so, design the people themselves.