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Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 2


Know-How: Game design and player manipulationWe’re back on track with the “Know-How” business – last time i was talking about why people play online games so much. In the previous part i spoke of a Skinner Box, the basics of behavioral psychology and how the hell all of this has in common with the game design. This time I’m going to tell you about some more sophisticated tricks in game design that make you want to play a game so bad, that you often find yourself sitting at your PC in the morning, after a sleepless week-end night.

Let me remind you some basics, to make sure we are on the same page (you can skip this paragraph if you remember the previous part).We learnt about “reinforcers” (rewards given for results or actions), “contingency” (a set of rules for getting a reinforcer) and “responses” (action taken to fulfill the contingency). In real world all this means you have to kill mobs (response) to gain xp (contingency) to raise your level (reinforcer).

There are also “ratio schedules” that make sure you get your reward after you have done a certain number of actions. They called like that because of ratios and intervals – interval is the pause between actions taken by a player, and ratio means how often a player does something. A fixed ratio schedule is one of the most common contingencies that you can see in every game out there – you see it endlessly and everywhere – “kill 20 boars and get the sword”. It triggers a distinctive pattern in a player: first you pause to think it over, and then you try to earn the reward as fast as possible. But the more actions you are required to take to get the reward, the longer the pause is (or the player can simply leave) – this is the downside of the fixed ratio schedules.

But there are other kinds of schedules to make sure you are hooked up with the game: “variable ratio schedules”. These one is different. A player is still required to take a specific number of actions to get some reward, but he doesn’t knows exactly how many actions he needs to take, because the number changes every time. This is what stands behind “drop rate” that we all know in every game out there.

Variable ratio schedules doesn’t trigger the same burst of actions like the fixed ratio schedule does, but it also lacks the pausing that can cause trouble (like making a player quit the quest or stop leveling) and generally variable ratio schedules produce the highest overall rates of activity. It doesn’t means they make the base for the best gameplay, it means that players tend to do things that are based on them. If developers want high and constant rate of play, they usually implement variable ratio schedules in their game.

Why players tend to use it more than anything else? Let’s say, you know that a certain item drops from a certain mob, and you want that item. But you don’t know how many mobs you need to kill to get the right drop – 1? 5? 20? It may be 20 mobs to kill or just 1. Well, it’s quite a low chance to get what you want from the very first kill, but you never know – it still may happen! And when it doesn’t happen, could be you may need to kill 20 more mobs – or it can be the next mob. You never know, and that is the reason to go for a hunting.

Some games are really exploiting this kind of schedules, like a Chinese MMO ZT Online – it has one of the most horrifying implementations ever. This game is full of treasure chests that may – or may not – contain a random item, and to open it – guess, what you have to do? Buy a key for cash! Just like coins for a slot machine in Las Vegas, yes, the one your wife told you not to get close to. But this is not all: ZT Online implemented also a strategy that none of the real casinos ever dreamed of – they give a daily reward to the player who open the biggest number of chests. And people spent tremendous amounts of money on these chests not only to get a certain item they wanted, but also to compete with others and get the reward. I

We spoke of variable rate and of fixed rate schedules, but these are not all of them, so there will be at least another part of this article to come. I’ll also write sometime soon about ZT Online, because it’s a great example on how a game company can practically dive into your wallet and you won’t even notice you let them do that. I’m not sure if it’s available in English, but i know for sure that it has been released in Russian under a “Hero’s Path” title (probably to fool those who heard of it as of ZT Online). Don’t let them fool you!

Read other parts here:
Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 1
Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 3
Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 4

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