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This essay was written as a means of articulating why I felt certain games–as mechanically well designed as they might be–ultimately failed in their implementation. It was written specifically with video games in mind, though, I believe, it holds true for board and role-playing games as well.

Don’t Tell Me What to Do: Modern Game Design and the Pitfalls of User Expectation

Game Development requires two unique entities: a developer (singular, or a group) and an end user (the consumer and player). The dynamic –how the end user navigates the rules as established by the developer- is what we will refer to as the game space.

The purpose of this essay will be to examine how the pre-existing biases of the player (or user expectations) work towards or counter to the rules of a game space, and how economic factors necessitate an understanding of those biases. It is an attempt to add a metric to a seemingly intangible variable of interaction between a player and developer.

What is user expectation? We each carry the sum of our experiences with us in life. When we are presented with an object or an idea, how we interact with it is based on an enormous list of pre-conceived conscious and sub-conscious variables. When an end user picks up a game, they do so with certain expectations. Those expectations range from strong to weak in a fluid continuum based on certain common factors: Name Recognition, Sequel [Franchise] Recognition, Game IP Recognition, Non Game IP recognition, Genre Recognition, Primal Reaction and Emotional Response to Marketing. Expectations based upon these factor shape how that user will interact with any given game, with or against its core mechanics.

The Gravitational Model of User Expectation

To understand how user expectation shapes a given player’s interaction with a game, we will borrow a theory from physics: gravity.

All objects exert a force upon everything around them. This force called gravity. It is primarily dictated by mass: the more massive (dense) an object, the stronger its pull will be on other objects (with its range of effect modulated by the distance between them).

User expectation functions similarly: the more massive the expectation, the more it will draw the player towards a particular path, even if it runs counter to the rules of the game space as established by the developer. (N.B. We could extend the metaphor and argue that the more distance (time) that exists between a user and the examples of mass below the less they will affect expectation. It seems to me to be a less measurable phenomenon, and the topic for a different–expanded–essay.)

Part One: Sources of Expectant Mass, Ranging from Least Massive to Most Massive:

Primal Reaction: The Primal Reaction is a fleeting impression based upon presented materials, in ignorance of other data. This can be an impression based solely upon the title (“Diablo” makes me think of monsters!), the color (this box’s color somehow reminds me of “Myst”) or the physical medium (I don’t like games that come in a cartridge.) Since most of us are unlikely to purchase a game based solely upon fleeting impression (for economic reasons, presumably) these user expectations tend to be weak, and easily countered.

Emotional Response to Marketing: Our culture is saturated with marketing, much of it operating at the periphery of our consciousness. When one witnesses the marketing of a particular product (in this case, a game), past experience with similar marketing (for any product) will encourage the end user to expect certain narrative themes. Since this expectation is the result of transference from other products, its mass tends to be fairly small. (n.b. I use the term “emotional,” not as any sort of pejorative, but–for lack of a better synonym–to describe an empathetic, rather than observational analysis of data.)

Genre Recognition: This occurs when the end user is familiar enough with the terminology of gameplay genres (FPS, RTS, Sim, Brawler, Side-Scroller, 3rd Person Action) to expect a certain style of play. The definitions are usually fairly flexible, and allow a variety of game experiences within them (which accounts for “genre-bending”). For example, a first-person shooter (a genre defined the how the user sees the world in which he/she is interacting) can vary from straight action (the Unreal Tournament titles) to sophisticated narrative tales (like Half-Life or BioShock).

[Mistaken] Visual Recognition: (A subset of Genre Recognition) If a player is familiar enough with the genres that they mentally link the visual representation of a game to a specific genre (even if they are mechanically dissimilar), that player’s user expectation will color their experience. For example, turn-based and real-time strategy games often appear similar visually. An aficionado of one might mistake the visuals of the other and unfairly expect certain modes of play from the title.

Non-Game IP Recognition: The end user recognizes a particular IP attached to the game and understands (both consciously and sub-consciously) the values of that IP. How they will navigate the developer’s gamespace is colored by that understanding. For example, an end user purchases a game featuring the superhero Batman. Without any knowledge of the gameplay, the user can expect a certain style of gameplay (action and combat) based upon their understanding of the character.

Name Recognition: The end user recognizes the developer (or studio)’s name and is familiar enough with their oeuvre to expect a certain style of play associated with that name. There is some flexibility, as an individual or studio powerful enough to have their name used as a marketing draw usually has enough goodwill accrued to allow for experimentation. Since the end user is rewarding the creativity of the developer, they are mentally prepared for some degree of variation within the expected experience. For example: An end user purchases Sid Meier’s Pirates. Having played the various Civilization games, the end user has a certain expectation for how Pirates should play. Though the game deviates from the experience of Civilization, there is enough mechanical commonality between the products to satisfy expectation.

Game IP Recognition: The end user recognizes a familiar brand of game. This game isn’t a direct sequel to an existing franchise, but a spin-off or sister product. The end user has a high degree of expectation based upon prior experience with the IP, but not to the same level as a sequel. For Example, an end user purchases a copy of EA Sports NHL 2010. They are familiar with the play experience of EA Sports Madden 2010 and can expect a similar, though not identical experience.

Sequel –or Franchise– Recognition: The most massive of these user experience variables. The end user is familiar with the previous releases in a franchise. Their expectations are based upon the mechanics of those previous games to the point where they see no real discernible difference between one game and the next. The mass of this particular variable is becoming compounded by the economic nature of games development. Where once we might have expected several years to pass between a title and its sequel, now there is only a matter of months. The mass of this variable cannot be underestimated.

Gravitational Sum

We shouldn’t expect the mass of user expectation to act as an all or nothing sum. The above variables act like planetary bodies: their position and strength relative to the user’s path overlap, creating an intricate web of influence. When thinking of how these variable affect the player, one must imagine the various sources of mass as points on a Cartesian plane.

The different variables each act upon the player drawing them towards the greatest source of mass at a vector relative to their positions in the developer defined gamespace. It is entirely possible that opposite expectations could –intentionally or otherwise– be used to steer the end user towards the established rules of the game!

How do these varying degrees of user expectation affect the dynamic between the developer and the end user in a game space?

Fundamentally, in an economic fashion.

The development of every game begins with two variables: X, time and Y, money (some would argue that they are the same thing, but since they don’t correspond in a 1 to 1 ratio in game development–particularly when it comes to those contentious issues of overtime labor–we shall regard them as two unique, though closely intertwined values).

In the absence of infinite X and infinite Y (a condition which would result in true simulation), concessions must be made to direct interaction down certain paths. In game development the design decisions that shepherd the end user down those certain paths and towards the narrative goal are called the core mechanics.

The job of the developer is to identify the core mechanics, and to funnel x and y towards making them as fulfilling as possible for the end user. Other, non-essential areas of the game space, as defined by the core mechanics, are given enough detail to ensure the veneer of verisimilitude.

To keep people to your core mechanic, developers need to create a compelling argument. Keeping to the gravitational metaphor, the argument is an object of mass that exerts pull on the player in a direction designed by the developers. It either works in concert with user expectation, or as an opposing force. It is a reward, or series of rewards, granted to the end user for engaging with the core mechanic. These rewards can be narrative, visual, statistical, audio, financial or any combination thereof. For example, you –the end user– are playing a fighting game. When you kick your opponent, you are rewarded with an expected visual reward (seeing your opponent struck by a well placed foot), an audio reward (the sound effects associated with that kick) and a financial reward (points). Those rewards represent the developer’s argument for interacting within the framework of their core mechanics. Though other actions outside the core mechanic exist, they aren’t rewarded and thus fall outside the developer’s argument.

If user expectation runs counter to the developer’s argument, it is the job of the developer to make that argument compelling enough (or, keeping to our gravity metaphor, massive enough) to overcome the size and mass of that contradictory expectation.

Examples of the Dynamics Between User Expectation and Core Mechanics:

The mass of user expectation runs counter to the core mechanics of the game. User expectation outweighs the argument of the developer: Expect the player to veer from the path established by the core mechanic, to the boundaries of the game space. The player will either try to engage with the game space in a manner consistent with their expectations, or will try to modify the content to suit their needs. If neither option is viable, expect the player to rapidly lose interest.

The mass of user expectation runs sympathetically to the core mechanics of the game. User expectation outweighs the argument of the developer: Expect the player to follow the path established by the core mechanic, not for any reason as described by the plot or design of the game, but because “that’s how you do it in these type of games.” You see this behavior typically in casual games, where the mechanics are almost entirely intuitive. You can expect the player to engage when the mood strikes them.

The mass of user expectation runs counter to the core mechanics of the game. The argument of the developer outweighs the user expectation: The player is drawn into a particular path in the game space by the virtue of the design. Depending upon the weight of the developer’s argument, there might be some level of exploration in the boundaries of the game space. This type of situation is common in “genre-bending” games. The player may or may not finish the game, depending upon the weight of the developer’s argument and level of personal engagement.

The mass of user expectation runs sympathetically to the core mechanics of the game. The argument of the developer outweighs user expectation: The player sticks closely to the path established by the core mechanics. The strength of the argument pulls the player through slower moments in game play. The player is likely to see the game to completion.

From the above, are we to conclude that the ideal situation is a user expectation that runs sympathetically to the core mechanics, with a strong developer argument?

Not necessarily. The frisson between user expectation and argument is ripe with narrative possibility. Those games that history will remember aren’t those that fulfilled the every expectation of the player, but those that challenged their assumptions and won them over. Looking through the history of art (an honorific that games eagerly seek), the works that we hold up as examples of the finest sort took an established literary, aural or visual aesthetic and injected it with something new. Over time, that something new became part of the artistic landscape and a tool for further innovation.

Key to this progress is an understanding how an audience engages with the medium and shaping the experience towards a particular goal.

How is This at All Helpful?

A full map of user expectation would be impossible to calculate; our brains, biases and thought processes are far too complex to assign a simple metric to them. However, it should be possible to create a rough estimate of where user expectation might pull against the developer’s argument.

Identify the key elements of your design (the core mechanics, and the elements you believe distinguish your game from the crowd). Using the list of expectant masses above, analyze competing games and note where they diverge from your design. Weigh those divergences from strongest to weakest. This analysis should provide you a list of questions to address about the strength of your design during the testing phase. I doubt it would be possible to create a map of user expectation and an argument to counter (or run concurrent with) to that expectation without iterative testing. What I believe this essay can offer, is a system for analysis that would allow the developer to identify and address potential weaknesses in design: how to recognize the baggage a player will bring into your game space, and how to adjust your argument to shepherd the player through.

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