Thousands of aspiring game developers recently funneled into the main auditorium of San Francisco’s Moscone Center for the centerpiece keynote of this year’s five-day Game Developers Conference. The audience, which had an unusually high occurrence of dark trench coats and long unkempt hair, listened to a presentation on the psychology of game design from one of the industry’s founding fathers, Sid Meier. Meier has been developing hit games like Civilization since 1982, when he cofounded MicroProse, an early game development shop. In 1999, he became the second person to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame.
Meier focused on the tricks his teams use to keep kids glued to the screen. The strategies he revealed have been partly responsible for the explosion of an industry and the decision of a generation of young Americans—young men in particular—to battle fictional foes instead of doing homework.
A 2007 Harris poll found that teenage boys in the U.S. spend an average of 18 hours per week playing video games (teen girls clock in at 8 hours per week), and a study published this month in Psychology Science confirmed what parents have long intuited—that having a video game system in the house significantly impairs academic achievement among boys.
So how do games keep boys glued to the screen and craving more? Meier said the key is feeding the ego.
Like many developers, he once thought that the most important factor was realism—flood the game with details that make the settings truer to the historical and thematic context—make pirate games more pirate-y, war games more graphic. But Meier soon realized that approach was wrong; it did not always lead to greater player satisfaction. When he started focusing on what happens in the head of the player, he changed a lot. And the key, he discovered, is increasing the players’ sense of pride.
“If you play Civilization, you are an egomaniac,” Meier said. “The game asks players to ‘build a civilization that will stand the test of time.’ If you look at that and say, ‘oh yeah, I can do that.’ You are an egomaniac.”
Treating gamers as egomaniacs has many implications, it turns out. From skewing the odds in players’ favor, reinforcing fallacious math, minimizing punishment, and making sure companions and foes never appear quite as clever as the player himself, developers can boost the gamer’s craving for play time.
Below are my notes on Sid’s talk.
The winner paradox: Keep winning percentage abnormally high. In real life, not everyone wins. Only one of the 25 teams in the NBA can win the championship, but not so in games. The player is looking for a satisfactory conclusion. Developers should make sure players win big and win often. Skew the “winning percentage.”
Reward vs Punishment: Players like to find gold coins. Players are very inclined to accept anything you give them and think that’s the result of their own merit. If you punish bad behavior, the game is wrong, it’s cheating, players think. When there’s a negative consequence, it’s important that the player understand why that’s happening and how to avoid it next time. If you can emphasize that “next time” aspect, you increase replayability. Anytime you can plant the seed of replayability, do it.
Also, the first 50 minutes have to be really cool. Let them know they’re on the right track. Cool stuff is happening and even cooler stuff will happen later on. In the first 50 minutes, you almost cannot reward them enough.
Difficulty Level: I used to think we needed four difficulty levels. Apparently, I was wrong; we need nine. The reason we have these levels is to create a sense of progress. There always need to be more challenges. Desiring to make it to the next level enhances replayability.
You always want your player to feel they are above average. They are doing well, and they will probably do better.
The Unholy Alliance: This defines the relationship between the player and the designer. I’m going to pretend certain things; you’re going to pretend certain things, and together we’ll have fun. The terms of the alliance are as follows:
- I’m good! (the player). Designers went off track with more and more realistic plane simulations: realistic crashes created the impression “I’m not good, my plane is on fire and I’m falling out of the sky.” Keeping them feeling good about themselves is an important part of the designer’s role.
- Suspension of Disbelief. The player needs to inhabit that character. That’s his part of the bargain. When my wife comes out of a movie and I ask what she thought of it, she says things like “I came out of that movie twice” or “I never got into it,” or “never came out of it.” Players need to stay “in it” and designers need to help them.
- Moral clarity. Imagine you are conquering cities. You have one town left to occupy, you outnumber them and can squash them in a second… but they’re defiant! It would be more realistic if they wanted to surrender and asked for pity. But that would put the player in a moral dilemma—you always want the player to feel he is making the right decision by continuing to play.
- MAD: mutually assured destruction. The Cold War balance of powers is paralleled in the player-designer relationship. Players can play in all kinds of ways that destroys the experience. Designers can do the same. You need to keep the balance to maintain the suspension of disbelief.
- Humor/ Style/ Music/ Atmosphere. If you start with lighthearted music and cartoony graphics, then all of a sudden heads start exploding, you’re not living up to the alliance. You don’t want to fool the player. To help the player maintain his suspension of disbelief, you need to consistently keep the player in your world.
Often games give odds for the player’s chances of defeating a foe. For example, the Attacker Player has a 1.5 score and the opposing Barbarians have a 0.5. There’s a 3-to-1 chance that the Attacker will win. When polled, however, players thought they should always win when they have a 3-to-1 advantage, but weren’t surprised when they would lose if they were at a 1-to-3 disadvantage. Around 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 advantage, players expected to win every time. So we adjusted the computer to appease the player.
Players felt they could lose a 2-to-1 battle every now and then. But they had a problem if they lost a 20-to-10 battle. (!) So we adjusted, and asked, “Now are you happy?” “Well kind of, but there’s one more thing: I had a 2-to-1 battle and lost, which was fine (we went over that). But right after that, I had another 2-to-1 battle and lost again—how can that be!? The computer’s out to get me, obviously!” So we made sure that occurrence wouldn’t happen, and the player was happy.
When something happens that feels wrong (even if it isn’t), we start to lose the player’s suspension of disbelief.
My Bad (errors Meier made)
Real-time Civilization. When we introduced real-time play with others, the player became an observer of other players. The game’s mantra was “It’s good to be king.” We needed to put the player at the center, so we took away real-time action.
Rise and Fall. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if you are crumbling and just at the last minute before all is lost, you come in and save the situation and then rise again to an even greater status than before?” No. Players would reload at the cusp as things start to go badly. They would never experience the comeback, so Civilization is a game of progress only.
Don’t Randomize. Players want to be in control. Whenever anything random happens to the player, paranoia sets in. They feel the computer rolls that random number to make their life more difficult. Random events at a large level have to be treated very carefully. Low level randomization can help things seem more realistic, but if they are large events, players come up with worst possible explanation for it.
Civilization Network. This network is built on the Facebook platform, and is social. We played with idea of being able to give gold to other players. They could trade or beg or give out of pity if they wanted. What we found was that nobody ever gave gold to anybody else.
“I don’t know what it says about the human condition or the future of mankind,” Meier said, “but it’s kind of sad.”
Matt Bowman is a freelance reporter on technology news who formerly served in the Teach For America Corp. He writes from Menlo Park, California.
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