If you find this article contains errors or problems rendering it unreadable (missing images or files, mangled code, improper text formatting, etc) please contact the editor so corrections can be made. Thank you for helping us improve this resource
Table of ContentsIntroductionBoard Games and Novel WritingGiants and CastlesThe Evolutionary ProcessThe Death of the EgoFocus on a fundamental activityPlay the GameObserve the GameIdentify Problems with the GameCommon Economic IssuesCommon Psychological IssuesCreate new rulesThe Life Cycle of an Evolutionary DesignExpanding the Evolution MetaphorUsing Evolutionary Design for computer gamesA Proven TechniqueThe Benefit of a ProcessReferences Behavioral Game Design on reward schedules that should be mandatory reading for all game designers. While rewards cause players to feel enjoyment, reward schedules keep the player motivated and excited about continuing to play the game in order to reach the next reward.
I find that staggered reward schedules tied to the player's investment work best. Imagine a set of rewards given approximately every thirty seconds, every minute, every 5 minutes, every ten minutes, and every 20 minutes. The result is that the player is constantly bombarded by positive reinforcement. However, the 20-minute reward is inherently more valuable than the 30 second award because the player must invest playing time in order to achieve it. Many players will become numb to the pleasures associated with 30-second rewards, but will still play for several minutes longer to reach the 'larger' reward. Sid Meier used this technique to great effect in Civilization. How many players were bored with killing a single unit, but kept playing to finish construction of the Wonder they started 20 minutes ago?
In Giants and Castles, I used several overlapping reward schedules. Approximately every 5 minutes, someone discovered a new treasure room. Every turn they got a shiny new spell to cast. Every 10 minutes they got a powerful card that allowed them to change the balance of power. There's the overarching goal of winning that is timed to occur approximately 30 minutes from the start of the game.
There is certainly room for improvement. I'm missing 1 minute and 30 second rewards so initial game play feels a bit slow. Only in the last half of the game when all reward schedules are fully active do players really light up and begin playing the game passionately.
Are interesting decisions being made?
This is an old standby of game designers everywhere, but it is also important to emphasize. Imagine a player can choose between two option A and B. There are several possible outcomes
Decision-making costs player time. By presenting the first two options to the player, you force them to waste energy making a trivial decision. There is only so much player time you can expect your game to receive. If you aren't spending that valuable resource on improving the value of your reward schedules, then the reward schedules suffer and once again, the game is boring.
- A results in a beneficial effect in the emergent game system that is always obviously superior to the result caused by B.
- A or B cause the same result in the emergent system.
- Choosing A changes the complex emergent system in a different way than B. The results of either A or B are useful to the player given a particular in game situation.
I had an ingenious idea with Giants and Castles. Instead of dice, I would use movement cards. Players draw movement cards that tell them how often they can move in a turn. Each turn, they manage their remaining cards and play one that fits the situation best. Every single time, players ended up playing the movement card with the highest allowable movement points. It was the obvious right choice.
I tinkered with the movement system for a while until I realized that movement was a dumb thing to force the player to think about. So I removed movement cards and gave everyone a fixed number of moves. Voila, the game play improved as players focused on more important activities.
What are the social connotations of player actions?
Players are fundamentally social and emotional decision makers. Notice how, in the discussion on rewards, economics only matters in that it helps determine the value of ultimately psychological benefits. Though simple reward based models of human behavior are exceedingly useful in game design, people are also heavily influenced by their social perception of a situation.
In Giants and Castles, removing a room from the top of another Giant's stack was seen as stealing. Some players felt this was an immoral activity. Others delighted in the fact they could do a socially unacceptable act without punishment. This social conflict caused meta-game discussion that truly enlivened most gaming sessions.
Does the game use setting correctly?
There are stages to a player's interaction with a gaming system
The game's setting heavily influences the first two stages. Setting consists of the contextual clues that tell the player what sort of world they should expect to operate within. By setting up the right contextual cues, the designer can quickly activate pre-existing schema in a player so that they 'instinctively' know how to play the game.
- Players mechanically perform game rules with no knowledge of how their actions alter the game.
- Player attempt to fit the results they witness into existing schema (mental patterns for dealing with known situations). They then react in a pre-programmed manner as dictated by their schema.
- Player create new schema and optimized responses to unique game situations.
In Giants and Castles, there were many examples of setting.
Board games have extremely minimalist settings compared to computer games. Most of the time and effort that goes into computer game goes into making beautiful art resources, improving AI, and creating a plot that influences player perceptions. This is all setting.
- The background story tells players they are giants and defines the other tokens as castles. This instantly sets up expectation of the crude behavior and rough and tumble game play.
- The board game artwork of a green field with castles sets the expectation that they are in a concrete world with predictable physical rules. Players instantly realize they can walk about the game board, interact with castles and each other.
- The size of the pieces set up expectations of the scale of those actions. The player might easily expect giant might easily pick up the top of a castle.
Toss setting out the door completely and you have a game that is just as enjoyable to play, but takes more effort to appreciate. Instead of easing the player into the game system using their predictable expectations, players must build an extensive foundation of experience in order to derive the workings of the game system.
Many abstract war games exhibit this issue. Long time players swear they are the most enjoyable games they've ever played. Yet a casual gamer doesn't have the time to invest a thousand hours building the schema necessary to enjoy the game's subtleties. In today's high paced mass-market environment, requiring a high initial level of player dedication is suicidal. The result is an understandable emphasis on setting.
The most common mistake of modern games is that they mistake setting for game design. A great plot does not make a great game. Nor does a great player model or animation engine. These merely provide contextual support for the game's reward system. If the rest of the game design is broken, a multi-million dollar investment in setting will still fail produce an enjoyable game.
In Giants and Castles, I was fascinated by the game's plot. I wrote a huge background tale full of romance, dramatic characters, and ancient prophecies. I envisioned my name in lights, "Author and Story Teller Extraordinaire."
Players became confused. All the setting information led them to expect a world that dealt with romance, characters and ancient prophecies. With the wrong or extraneous schema activated, they tried to do things that the game rules didn't support and became frustrated with learning the game. In the end, I simplified the plot so that it existed merely to support game play. The game improved.
Some intellectuals struggle with the dichotomy between narrative and interactivity. Game designers are first and foremost creators of enjoyable game environments. They are storytellers only when this secondary activity facilitates the player's intuitive interaction with the game's rules.
Is the end game exciting?
In a competitive situation, the gaining of resources will increase a player's ability to win. In chess, for example, minor advantages turn at the beginning of the game turn into major advantages at the end of the game. A player who is ahead by a pawn or two can often declare the game won far before checkmate occurs. Unfortunately, this means the end of the game is often boring. I call this form of game play 'divergent' because players end up at radically different competitive levels as time progresses.
In Giants and Castles, I explicitly aimed for a competitive end game, so I created spells that helped ensure 'convergent' game play. The further ahead a player gets, the more rules and social forces pull the other trailing players up or push the leader down. The result is an exciting end game with everyone in the running for victory.
I provided spells that players could use to knock down the leader. The key element: Players choose to balance the game. Mario Kart uses a similar technique with the shells that slow down the leader. Because this is a player-controlled balancing mechanism, it does not feel arbitrary.
© 2002 Daniel Cook. All rights are reserved.
Note: Please offer only positive
comments - we are looking to promote a positive atmosphere where collaboration is valued above all else.