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Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 4


Know-How: Game design and player manipulation
It’s been some time since i promised to post the final part, and it’s time to fulfill the promise! Here it comes: the part 4 of my story about behavioral game design and player manipulation, at last. If you are new, first read previous parts here: part 1, part 2 and part 3. The previous parts are covering all the very basics of behavioral game design – what it is and how it works. And why you should know about it – because it’s a “stealth technology” that makes people play, actually (well, not only it, but it’s a part of the whole thing). This time I’m talking about the practical “formulas” used by developers in online games to make us play hard or even forever.

It would be too long to repeat all the basic stuff I’ve wrote about already, so just a few terms I’m using:
* “reinforcers” – rewards given for results or actions
* “contingency” – a set of rules for getting a reinforcer
* “responses” – action taken to fulfill the contingency.
Real-world meaning of these: 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.

Now, let us proceed further.

Know-How: Game Design and Player ManipulationHow do they make us play hard?
I.e. how to make players keep up a high, consistent rate of activity? I’ve told you about four basic schedules, and looking at them the right answer would be to use a variable ratio schedule – the one where each response has a chance to produce some reward for the player. ”Activity level” is a function of how soon the player expects something good to happen – and the more this player is certain that some good or interesting thing is going to happen soon, the harder he or she will play. When we know that the reward is far-far away (like when you need soooo much XP points for the next level), there’s not much motivation and so the player ceases his or her activities.

The best example of utilizing a high activity level can be seen in social games on Facebook or other such networks – like FrontierVille, for example. A player can get nearly addicted to a constant playing, because there are immediate results seen for what he is doing – like, getting crops every 5 minus in an online farm game, or baking a cupcake every 30 seconds in an online restaurant game, especially, when the game has just began. Games tend to lose audience when people progress further into the game and need to wait longer periods to see something happening.

How to make us quit playing?
I.e. what makes someone to stop playing and quit the game, and how to avoid these reasons (or how to ruin a good game by not avoiding them). There are two main basic reasons for us to stop playing a game. First one, is when there is a pause between in-game rewards, when a player knows nothing interesting is going to happen any time soon. All the time when we play games, we measure this time spent playing with other things we could be doing at the same time, and if there’s no reason to keep playing, we may decide it’s not worth our time.

Know-How: Game design and player manipulationTo avoid this, game developers are making sure to provide several different activities in which we can participate at any given time – like, if killing monsters is not rewarding enough, there are other things we can do, like crafting or improving equipment or even simply exploring the world. Also, when main activity (for example, questing) isn’t rewarding anymore and the player’s motivation to do that thing is dropping – at the same time it leads to the lesser activities (like the ones I’ve named above) getting more motivation. But if they fail to satisfy a player, he or she will quit.

The other situation, is when a reward rate is dropping very sharply. This happens when a player is being rewarded with something good, then with something marvelous, and then back to something good again. Of course, when you start getting something marvelous you would be angry when not getting it again, and even if the old reward was absolutely fine before it won’t be enough after you’ve seen something even better. So, the value of the reward is relative, it’s always compared to the previous rewards and if a player isn’t getting what he expected, he’ll think it’s not fair and blame the developers.

Lord of the Rings Online - i was playing it for a very long time, but quit due to a failure its developers made. As an example, i was playing Lord of the Rings Online for a long time, and have done a lot of quests in Epic quest line (it’s the game’s storyline quests). But then i came to a point when i couldn’t progress any further, because no one was doing the same quest i needed to finish – of course, other players were doing it, but not when i was online. I spent over a month hoping to stumble upon a group doing this quest, but had no luck. I had another character who would need the same quest too… There were other things to do, I’ve done other quests, gathered some equipment, won a horse race, etc., etc., but it but it was impossible to finish that Epic quest and finally i quit playing LOTRO. When they did an overhaul to the Epic quest line, making some quests available for soloing, i came back to see if i can beat this quest, but i still couldn’t. Had to level my character first, which would take a lot of time to accomplish, so i quit it again.

How to make us play forever?
Answer is short and easy to guess: make sure that there is always something to do, always a reason to play – at all times, no matter what. The ideal game that would keep players busy and attracted to it will have to offer a constant flow of rewards. Good games do that most of the time. These “variable ratio schedules” i discussed in previous parts are the easies way of offering player a constant chance of getting a reward, thus giving this player a reason to resume playing.

World of Warcraft is the most popular game on a modern marketGood game designers can even trigger a “behavioral momentum” – it’s when a player keeps doing whatever he (or she) was doing even during those times when there’s no immediate reward for this activity. Avoidance schedule (when a player has to do something to prevent things from happening) is the one that produces  lot of “behavioral momentum” – even when there’s nothing to do, we still have to work to avoid some negative consequences from happening (like losing a player’s house or horse, etc.).

World of Warcraft is the most popular game on a modern market. Before Blizzard presented this game to the world, no one even imagined an online game could be so popular and therefore – some profitable. We can say anything we want about WoW’s downside (and there ARE downsides, every game has some no matter what), but the fact is that World of Warcraft is an ideal game from a specific point of view. Nothing on a Western market can compete with it, because Blizzard had done everything to make its players play forever, and is keeping the work by releasing different expansions (World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is the latest as i am writing this).

Wrapping things up
Time to write a conclusion here.  I wrote about a very basic patterns of consequences and responses – but they provide a base for everything else to work. Like an X-Ray showing your bones but leaving muscles and skin out of your sight, these articles are showing how the basic structure works. By understanding the fundamental, you can see and understand more things concerning games and how they work – and how they make us play. This particular article chain is finished for now, but there are so many other things to talk about, I’m sure there will be another chain started sometime in the future :)

Previous parts of this article chain:

Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 1
Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 2
Know-How: Game Design and Player Manipulation – Part 3

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