Sunday, December 9, 2007

Girl in the Computer Game Store

This is the second post for my series, Gender and Games.

What can be done to help women feel more comfortable buying computer games at a bricks-and-mortar store? I suspect that if game stores themselves could appeal to women better, then women would buy more computer games.

Computer Game Stores
Computer game stores are fine most of the time. Games are clearly displayed in a gender-neutral setting, and lighting is good. There are demo consoles in the store, so you can see what you're getting into. And, unless it's the holiday crush, clerks are generally available to discuss game titles. All-in-all, computer game stores are friendlier to women than traditional game stores. However, there is still work to be done.

Take a snapshot of a typical computer game store at Christmas time, and you'll see that over half the people in the store are in line, blocking other customers from reaching the rest of the store, and completely obscuring product displays near the registers. This is not a woman-friendly shopping environment. As at any store, women like to shop with enough space around them to avoid colliding with, or having to squeeze by, other customers.*

Real Information, not Pink
So far, it seems that publishers are convinced that all it takes to sell a computer game to women is to color it pink. Just look at the packaging for the animal care simulation games, and games based on popular toys. You need only glance down the aisle at a computer game store to know which games and consoles are being marketed to girls.

But that doesn't really help girls and women shop for the right game. Game packaging and placement need to provide clear, detailed information, such as if and how a game can be shared with friends, and what gameplay is really like.

PC game boxes rarely explicitly state numbers of players on the box. For example, the WoW box has one tiny paragraph that mentions, "Play solo or enlist fellow heroes..." and then its ESRB rating reads, "Game Experience May Change During Online Play".

That's not useful, and doesn't even make clear if 'fellow heroes' are NPCs, PCs, or both. Is it a team game where numbers of players are limited by specific map sizes? Is it an MMO where hundreds of people, or more, can share a game space? Do those other people need to buy a copy of the game or not to play together? How many slots or profiles does it save? Is play cooperative, competitive, or both? These are important details that should be shown on every package, but aren't.

Fortunately, computer game stores could help overcome the problem. Games could be sorted by number of players. For example, stores could add 'party games' sections for the Wii and other consoles. PC games could be sorted into multiplayer and single player sections. Clerks could add stickers to the shrink wrap: Massively Multiplayer, Up to 4 Players, 2-player Co-op, etc., and define those terms on a colorful poster or kiosk. All of those steps would help women actually shop for games instead of leaving them squinting at miniaturized screenshots on the box, trying to guess at gameplay features.

Other Ideas
Computer game culture uses a ton of acronyms, and these can be unfamiliar to the uninitiated. Basic ones, like MMO, RPG, and FPS, should be posted clearly with their definitions. Likewise, ESRB ratings should be posted and explained. 'Mature' rated games should be boldly labeled and kept on the top shelves, lest mom accidentally pick out a nice-sounding game like Rainbow Six for her grade schooler. Conversely, games for little kids should be placed at little-kid height, not high in the shelves (where I seem to keep finding them).

Computer game store employees need to be careful not to condescend to women, or treat them like they couldn't possibly be gamers. Having female clerks is great - it's easier for a woman to trust a fellow woman's recommendations. Clerks who know all the games out there and can describe them well are an awesome resource, vital to any shopper. Fortunately, I've never had any real problems with computer game store employees, aside from their tendency to ignore other customers when they're socializing.

So, overall, computer game stores don't have too much further to go before they become places where women can feel really comfortable shopping for games. Game stores should keep hiring great staff, explain gamer jargon, make sure detailed information about gameplay is included on every box, sort games by ESRB rating and number of players, and speed up the checkout process.

*Reference: Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Girl in the Gaming Store

I'm starting a 'Gender and Games' blog series, which I'm writing to help demystify the connections between women, men, and games. As a disclaimer, please understand that I'll be using generalities in this series.

I'll start with the most obvious point of purchase for games: the bricks-and-mortar game store.

So... why don't we see more women in game stores? How can we get more women to shop for games, and better yet, buy them and play them?

Well, there's at least two kinds of stores to talk about, each of which have their own problems.

The first is traditional gaming stores - the ones that sell card and board games as well as RPGs and tabletop miniatures games. The second is computer game stores, which sell console and PC games. The former has more problems than the latter, so I'll tackle it first.

Traditional Gaming Stores
The typical traditional gaming store is a mess. Dusty merchandise lines narrow, poorly-lit aisles, while impenetrable groups of men stand and chat loudly with the clerk. The bathroom isn't well-kept, and the gaming room in the back of the store - The Back Room - is worn and cluttered.

The book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill has a lot to say about why these are problems. Here is some of the book's knowledge that I've distilled for gaming stores:

When a woman walks into a store, she typically prefers clean, undamaged, neatly ordered goods. A dusty, dented or scratched item just announces that it has sat on the shelf forever, and isn't a good buy. The majority of women also like to read packaging. Who wants to pick up a dusty old game to read how it plays? Not most women.

Another issue with game store merchandise is that there isn't much available for beginners. For example, the best sizes of hobby paintbrushes are almost never present. There are plenty of miniatures and paints, but good luck finding the glue! Not only that, but the 'starter kits' for the more popular games are either missing or buried and dusty. You're not going to hook a woman on a hobby she can't find the basics for.

The aisles at gaming stores are usually too narrow for a shopper to easily pass a crouching shopper. Walkways need to be wider, since women won't generally stay to shop if they are in danger of being bumped. As well, I don't think I've seen gaming store aisles wide enough to accommodate a stroller; so much for helping new moms find a game.

Traditional game store lighting is often poor. It needs to be bright enough to read game books and packaging comfortably, even in the back corner. Plus, games often have great art - why not show it off with some well-aimed spotlights?

Most women prefer to interact with other human beings to discuss their potential purchases. However, if the game store clerk is busy chatting it up with the guys, a woman may feel too intimidated to approach. If she's shy, and she'll have to walk through those guys to get to the counter, she might not even make a planned purchase. Hiring female clerks can really help with this, as women usually feel more comfortable approaching other women.

Traditional game stores usually do have a lavatory, though its state is never predictable. I've seen perfectly clean bathrooms with everything a woman needs, and I've seen what could best be described as a questionable toilet in a janitorial closet. My advice to game stores is to install both men's and women's restrooms, and keep them clean and well stocked. When women see that a game store has a bathroom suited to them, they'll feel more welcome there.

The Back Room can be unnerving. It has disorganized shelves of ratty and broken pieces of terrain for use in battle simulation games, uncomfortable metal chairs, ugly and worn tables and floor, racks of ancient books shredded with use, poorly lit display shelves with dusty (but beautifully painted) miniatures, and faded game posters covering the windows. Sometimes these posters have illustrations of women in various states of undress.

The Back Room is a home for the gamer elite; the kings of the geeks. It is a thoroughly intimidating place for women. I do, however, have a couple of ideas on how to avoid scaring women off.

There's an interesting concept I learned about from The Tipping Point - the Broken Windows theory. For our purposes, it states that if you relentlessly keep a place clean, people will treat the place (and the people in the place) better. I've seen such actions work at Backspace, a computer/tabletop gaming hangout in Portland, OR. Unfortunately, after talking with employees of traditional game stores, I've realized that relentless cleaning would be difficult to practice at those locales. At the core of the issue is lack of manpower, and the juggernaut of gamer culture itself.

It's a delicate issue. Gamers show slovenly characteristics often enough that the cultural stereotype persists. While game stores do have the right to refuse service to anyone, their profit margins are too low for them to afford confronting their least hygienic patrons. And because women are more sensitive to odors than men are, the maleness of The Back Room perpetuates itself.

So, since game stores may never be able to make The Back Room welcoming to women, they can at least strive for keeping them from being frightening. I'd start by installing a good ventilation system, and by making sure that the worst messes and most worn paraphernalia were taken care of. That way, when a girl shows up with mom or dad to buy collectible cards, she's not as turned off by what she encounters in The Back Room.

In my ideal world, it would be as easy for a woman to break into gamer culture by visiting a game store as it is for a woman to break into do-it-yourselfer culture by visiting a Home Depot. Traditional game stores might be able to accomplish this if they had bright and well-placed lighting; clean merchandise and displays; beginner kits, instructions and materials present and in obvious locations; non-intimidating staff; superb bathrooms; wide aisles; and a well-kept gaming room.

Next up: the computer game store.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill

Monday, November 19, 2007

Uncomfortable Design

This is less a thought about game design, and more a thought about designers themselves.

Looking at my own and others' experiences, game designers seem to learn the most about their trade when they step outside of their zones of comfort.

For example, if designers work on nothing but a single system for years, their design skills - even in regards to their most familiar system - improve if they work on another system in the game. On a broader scale, I'd even say that console design can inform PC game design, and vice versa.

When designers leave their most familiar contexts, while it may be uncomfortable, I think it grants them more opportunities for lateral thought, and greater game-making potential.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Who are you, and why did you start blogging?

I should have answered this question sooner. You, my readers, deserve context!

The idea for this blog started at AGDC. I was speaking with Brent, Cuppycake, Andrew Krausnick and Steve Williams, all of whom have blogs. It occurred to me that I do have a lot to say about game design, so why not join in?

I'm always reading up on one aspect or another of game design, and I try out new games as often as I have time for them. So, when I run across something I think is interesting, I write about it. I hope it will be as interesting to you as it was to me, whether you agree or not. Comments are always welcome!

Now, as to me personally -
I have just over 2 years of computer game design experience, all of it (so far) on Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. While some may point out that Vanguard isn't doing so well, I doubt I would have learned as much about design if Vanguard had been more successful.

I didn't just pop into the gaming industry fully formed, like Athena from Zeus' head. In the past, I've worked as a computer consultant and information architect - both jobs that taught me the importance of user-centered design. And, of course, I'm an avid gamer. I've played and GMed tabletop games since 1994, and played MMOs since 2003.

So, in a nutshell, I'm a D&D DM with her foot in the door in the computer gaming industry.

To concur with Jeff Freeman... yes, I may have taken leave of my senses. :)

Paper Prototypes

Designers love to design, and they are full of design ideas.

For most game designers, the early stages of a project are candy - brainstorming, throwing piles of ideas out on the table, and discussing them with other designers. It's genuine fun to work on something new; to get to decide the rules from the beginning.

An issue with developing prototypes for most computer games is that they require an engine, and a comprehensive set of tools for implementing assets and content. If these are not already developed, designers (if they are not also coders) can end up with a lot of time on their hands while they wait for the coders to get the fundamentals in place.

Here's the danger. Because game designers love to design games, it's easy for them to use this time to design additional, and potentially overambitious, aspects of the game. In a worst case scenario, you end up with a game far too enterprising for the scope of the project.

Considering the <20/>80 rule of thumb that I discuss in a previous post, designers ought to be spending this extra time playtesting their prototype. But how can they do that if their prototype only exists as a design document?

The problem can be solved by testing the game system on paper while it is being coded. I've seen it work. Applying iterative design to a paper UI can help solve many design problems ahead of time, and help make the system more fun than it would have been.

If you time it right, when the code is ready for the final design and content steps to be taken, it's possible to have many gameplay kinks worked out (instead of a thicker design document).

Paper prototypes for the win.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Many gamers routinely lose track of time while playing a computer game. For me, it has been years since it happened last.

When I finally sat down to play Portal, I finished the game thinking it was around 8 or 9PM, 10 at the latest. It was 2:30AM.

Some have complained that Portal was too short a game. Truth is, if it had been longer, I wouldn't have gotten any sleep that night!

Steve Williams has said most of what I would say about the game (all of it glowing praise). To his comments, I add the following:

If you are a game designer, or anyone curious about how designers make games, complete the Portal maps to unlock their Developer Commentary.

Listen to the Portal devs, and you'll see how they applied playtesting - and the principles of usability - to the game. In Portal and in Team Fortress 2 interviews, the developers have commented on how iterative design helped them make their games more usable.

Also, I think we'll be seeing a lot more songs written for/with computer games after the success of "Still Alive," the closing song to Portal, sung by voice actress Ellen McLain and composed by Jonathan Coulton.

Happy Portaling!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Rule of Thumb from Rules of Play

Within Rules of Play, the authors advocate something so phenomenal, I am compelled to quote it:

"We have a straightforward rule of thumb regarding prototyping and playtesting games: a game prototype should be created and playtested, at the absolute latest, 20 percent of the way into a project schedule."

My heart grew three sizes when I read those words. Look at the rule another way: At least 80% of a game's development cycle should be testing, redoing, and polishing. at least.

Imagine what awesome games could be made if design teams were expected to take 80% or more of their development time refining and perfecting their prototypes.

There exists at least one such game - Puzzle Quest. Infinite Interactive had a playable prototype for Puzzle Quest up and running after only 2 months. Then they spent an additional 25 months tinkering with, adding content to, and polishing the game. Having a working prototype just 7.4% of the way into their project schedule allowed them to develop a fun, successful game.*

While I couldn't find precise numbers for World of Warcraft, we can infer that a large part of Blizzard's development cycle is spent on iterative design, given the high level of value they place on game polish.**

In my experience, games like these are the exception.

I'll be keeping my eye out for other examples of games that followed the <20/>80 rule of thumb during development. It would be an interesting chart to look at game success vs. how much time dev teams spent in the prototyping and iterative design phases.

* The September 2007 issue of Game Developer has a comprehensive story on the development of Puzzle Quest.
** Rob Pardo's keynote speech for AGDC 2006 gives some hints on the amount of time Blizzard spends polishing.
I encourage all game designers to read Rules of Play, a game design textbook by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Usability is Usability Everywhere

On Next Generation, Blake Snow wrote an article called Videogame Usability 101: Ten Features Every Videogame Designer Should Embrace.

Having worked as an information architect, I noticed some similarities between Blake's 'features' and Jakob Nielsen's ten general principles for user interface design.

And why not? A lot of what makes a game is its UI. I'll quote both authors here in tandem to tease out the similarities between their two lists, and add some of my own commentary.

Nielsen's heuristics are listed in order, with Snow's analogous features beneath each. My own words are in italics.

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
5. Never let a camera get too close to a player or bump into a wall.

Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
This usually isn't much of a problem in games, since the player audience - and thus the language they understand best - is identified early in production.
User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
4. Always let players skip cut scenes no matter how important they are to the story.
10. Always let gamers get in and out of gameplay as they desire (otherwise they'll just turn the console off).
Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
MMOs are so new, conventions are still being debated on. The industry could stand to nail these down. For example, I never know which slash command logs me out of an MMO. Is it /camp, /quit, or /exit? Why not support all three?

Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
1. Never ask a player if they want to save their game.
8. Never use insipid, indefensible enemy attacks.

Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
2. Always say "press any button" to start a game.

Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators -- unseen by the novice user -- may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
3. Always let players remap controller buttons to suit their preferences.
7. Always give players full control of accessiblity options.
Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
6. Never make use of every controller button just because you can.
Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
Games do this with gestures more often than words. For example, when you enter a room, the camera glances up at the object you need to interact with to solve the puzzle. Or, key features of the game environment will move in a particular way, or change their appearance on mouseover. Features like these suggest solutions before problems arise, leading to less player frustration.
Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user's task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.
9. Always present in-game tutorials, FAQs, and help menus for newbie gamers.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Peggle vs. God of War

In my quest to learn more about game design, I decided to play God of War this past weekend.

I enjoyed the character, Kratos, and had a great time spinning his Blades of Chaos with Apollo's Ascension to hack enemies to bits. Then I came to the Rooftops of Athens, where I promptly got stuck. The room is like this: archers shoot at you while you jump from one vine-covered pillar to the next, then onto a platform.

Easy enough, right? I jumped over and killed the archers, then hopped nimbly back onto the vine-covered pillars. I could jump between the pillars easily, but the jump to the platform was simply impossible. I tried it dozens of times, and even recruited a gamer friend to help out. He just kept falling, too. Neither of us could figure out the catch.

I looked up three different online walkthroughs, and none of them spoke of that jump as being difficult at all. I went back and tried the jump another several times, then gave up in frustration.

Eager to feel some sense of success, I decided to give in and download the Peggle trial that Cuppycake suggested. The juxtaposition of genres nearly broke my soul.

After I won a few games, and got over the rainbows, woodland animals, and flashing colors, I found myself playing with the main menu. That's right. The main menu. I discovered that each of the buttons plays a different note on mouseover. There are eight buttons, one for each note of the scale.

Of course, the first song I played on my new Peggle xylophone was Ode to Joy, the music that plays when you win a game of Peggle. And I couldn't stop laughing, because that's exactly what the designers of Peggle must have been thinking when they assigned mouseover sounds.

On that note, it reminded me how important it is to include little things in your game that allow players to not only play in the game, but play with the game.

The other design lesson of the day is to not make jump puzzles so hard that the average player can't make it after several tries.

As for me, I'd love to see a Peggle interface mod with God of War graphics and sound. Can you imagine Kratos shedding a tear as you mouseover the Quit button?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Writing for Quests

Attending Jess Lebow's panel at AGDC, I was reminded of just how difficult it is to write quests for MMOs.

Jess spoke of the differences in approach that designers and writers take to quest writing.

Typical designers often just want to get the instructions across to the player, like so:
"Take Spike's club to the Ulbroth foothills. Ask an attendant of the Great Gates where Ulbroth Graveyard is. Go to the Graveyard and search for Spike's gravestone, then right-click Spike's club to activate it at his gravestone."

Typical writers often just want to tell the player a story, like so:
"The great ogre, Spike, once wielded this very club. He smashed more giants than any other ogre at the battle of Ulbroth, where the ogres fought the giants for control over the Ulbroth foothills. This battle meant everything to both factions, for Ulbroth is a land rich in both iron ore and peasants waiting to be turned into slaves..." (writer hits text character limit)

My experience indicates that a third kind of quest writer exists - the 'hardcore' quest writer.

These 'hardcore' quest writers intentionally omit key details from their quests because they want players to figure out the quest for themselves, like so:
"All that is left of the great ogre, Spike, is this club. Some legends speak of him fighting giants."

And, I must admit, depending on the complexity of the game you're writing for, sometimes a puzzling quest is a welcome diversion.

So what's the ultimate goal? Ideally, quest writers must balance all three of these needs (instructions, story, and puzzle) within the context of the game they're working on. They have to give the player enough of a clue to figure out how to resolve the quest, tell enough of a story to keep up the player's emotional interest, and generate enough of a puzzle to keep the player's mind engaged... and do it all within the text character limit constraints of the game.

It's not easy.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Accessibility Matters


So, I cracked open BioShock the other day. I installed it without any problems, and started up a new game. The intro played smoothly, and already I was wrapped up in my character, destined to do great things.

Then, it dumped me into the game. Blackness filled the screen as large white squares spun before my eyes. Orange blurs smeared across the screen every now and again as I panned the mouse around. I tried moving - WASD - and heard some sloshing and gurgling noises. I couldn't tell where I was, or what I was doing. Just blackness, white squares, and orange blurs.

What's wrong here?

Well, obviously, my Radeon 9800 Pro wasn't up to the job - but that's not really the problem. The issue is that I made it that far into the game without knowing that I didn't meet the system requirements.

One of my pet peeves is the lack of courtesy that some games have towards their players. It would have been courteous if BioShock had warned me I couldn't play before it let me get sucked into the story. Back in the day, video games wouldn't let you install them if you didn't meet the system requirements. They'd often even let you know what you were missing. This is a feature that every game needs - and it needs to be up front.

You might ask, "Aren't the system requirements written right on the box?" Well, after reading the box, two of my game developer friends and I thought my machine would run the game just fine. The truth is, system requirements paragraphs have gotten to be about as mumbo-jumbo as EULAs.

You might say that that's why we have readme files. Well, after the game didn't work, trust me, the readme file was straight where I went. Here is what it says I need - "Video Card: Pixel Shader 3.0 compliant video card with 128 Meg Ram and floating point frame buffer blending." Like the average player knows whether or not their video card has those things!

It was only after some googling that I found a raging community of would-be BioShock players, all of them with video cards lacking in Pixel Shader 3.0 compliance, and all of them just as upset as me.

This brings me to my second point, which is, when you are making a game that won't work with a large percentage of potential players' graphics cards, consider making your game compliant with those graphics cards. BioShock is a great example - it only takes a few user-made files to get the game to run (albeit only passably) with a pixel shader 2.0 card. It wouldn't have taken too much more effort on the developers' part to make BioShock to run well with those cards.

As Gordon Walton said, "This is not about getting some more customers -- this the opportunity to get lots more. Like 4-10x more. There is maybe one game a year that drives hardware sales... they get a lot of hype, but look at their numbers. How much do they sell?"


Monday, September 17, 2007

New Toy!

I was going to write a nice serious post tonight, but I've been thoroughly side-tracked by Game Maker.

It's a fun little game-building tool that I was introduced to at AGDC. If you haven't played with it yet, give it a shot!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Transportation vs. Travel

In my last two posts, I've been careful to use the word 'transportation' instead of 'travel,' and with good reason: My goal is to highlight the gameplay differences between the two.

Transportation lets players move among places they've already been. In some cases, transportation lets players move among places that their characters would have had easy access to - even if the player is new to the place.

Players travel when they go somewhere new. When players successfully travel through a new area, they often earn new modes of transportation.

However, the line gets blurred fairly easily. For example, when players choose to take 'the long way' or 'fight their way' through an area they've already been, I would say that the players are traveling.

Another blurry line appears when players use their own mounts or vehicles. If players can whiz by content that would put them in danger if they weren't on their mount/vehicle, then I'd say that's transportation. However, if the use of the mount/vehicle only causes players to encounter danger more frequently, then I'd call that travel.

Links to my other posts on the subject:
Meaningful Transportation
Beautiful Transportation

Beautiful Transportation

So, let's run with the idea that transportation in MMOs doesn't need to generate fiero. This still leaves designers with a variety of emotional options.

My two favorites are delight and wonder - the twin joys of beauty and discovery. No matter what the medium (running, teleportation, vehicle-on-rails, etc.), transportation gives designers the perfect opportunity to bring about these emotions in players. It fits because players can be shown things they don't often see, and because the experience doesn't last long. Wonder is a brief emotion, just like transportation in MMOs must be a brief experience. On top of all that, there's a real-world connection: wonder and delight are emotions of fun that you experience while traveling in the real world.

Taking players to places they don't often go is a great way to generate wonder. In WoW, for example, the griffon flies over places that are inaccessible to players, and each different griffon route shows players another piece of Azeroth they would never have otherwise seen. Taking players over these areas encourages them to piece together the world and discover its connectivity. This is a refreshing mental exercise in WoW, since the main play experience has players spending their time in walled-off zones.

Viewing enjoyable artwork generates delight, and moving through an artistic landscape heightens that delight. Artists who know their trade can work with designers to put together amazing transportation paths that elicit delight at every hill, lake, or turn. Vehicles and mounts should be artistically engaging, if not detailed; players are likely to watch their mount or vehicle more than their own avatars during travel. Even in a teleportation situation, the means of teleportation can be made delightful with the skillful use of particle effects, animations, or cut scenes.

Possibly the most important fun emotion related to travel is the visceral pleasure of movement, which can be represented in games by animations.

If 'run' animations for avatars, pets, vehicles, and mounts are crisp, clean, smooth, and exaggerated correctly, it can give players an enjoyable sense of movement. If those animations include some sort of whimsy (like the cat ears that swivel in WoW), all the better. As someone who has studied birds, I'm something of a connoisseur of flight animations. It's more enjoyable to watch strong, flexible wings that pull you through the air with each downstroke than it is to watch stiff wings with plain up-and-down movement. Well-made animations can make earning a mount (or any form of travel) worth the hassle.

So, looking at these emotions (delight, wonder, and pleasure of movement) as the requirements for fun travel, we can evaluate the types of travel found in games.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Meaningful Transportation

Players often expect 'meaningful travel' from MMOs, and they become frustrated when travel becomes trivial. I think some player frustration could be alleviated if there was a clearer separation of transportation from travel in MMO gameplay.

From both a social and gameplay standpoint, transportation in an MMO can't take more than a few minutes. An emotionally invested (hardcore) player will have a higher tolerance for longer travel times, however, ultimately, it's an MMO's job to get players playing with each other, and if it takes too long for players to meet up, transportation becomes a huge deterrent to group play.

Games use a variety of strategies to create the illusion of distance. There's teleportation via interactable objects or player-cast spells; rail transportation, which includes vehicles and mounts that go along fixed paths in the world; player-owned vehicles and mounts that increase player run speed; and any combination of the above.

If fun can only come from fiero, the joy you feel at overcoming adversity, then options for transportation are limited. For example, if players start out in different areas of the world, and each player must fight through tough mobs to earn a griffon ride to the dungeon, they'll experience fiero, but they'll also lose time that could have been spent with each other.

I think it will help hardcore players to think of the situation this way: What is a dungeon if not a place where groups run a long distance while fighting mobs? If you think of the dungeon as the place where 'meaningful travel' occurs, suddenly, the act of getting your friends together in front of the dungeon - transportation rather than travel - doesn't have to cause fiero - you can trust that the fiero will be there for you inside the dungeon, and it will be accompanied by and magnified by the social fun you will have.

I've been tagged!

Well, after all of that esoteric pondering about the nature of emotional cycles in games, Cuppycake has tagged me with my first chain blog.

Here we go:

~ The Rules ~

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. List eight (8) random facts about yourself.
3. Tag eight people at the end of your post and list their names (linking to them).
4. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving them a comment on their blogs.

Ok, random facts:

1. My favorite living animal is the Northwestern Crow.

2. My favorite extinct animal is the Magnificent Teratorn.

3. I like making chainmail. I suppose that says something about my tolerance for tedium.

4. Raw salmon is my favorite food.

5. I broke my right arm just before a birthday where I received colored markers and art supplies. I had to wait three weeks before I could use them. (I'm right handed.)

6. One of my favorite non-computer games is Carcassonne.

7. I am native to Oregon.

8. I have a Warhammer Fantasy lizardmen army. Someday maybe I'll paint them.

I'll have to skip the tagging part this time. I like making chainmail, not chain mail :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Timing Emotions of Relief, part 2

I'll muse on X for a bit.

If X is too large - such as when designers make puzzles comparatively easy to solve yet difficult to execute - then it can lead to player frustration.

I remember the infuriated screams of one of my friends as he played Tomb Raider. He had figured out which jumps to make, and he knew when and where to make them, but because the timing was so delicate, he ended up failing too many times. When he finally made it to the next area, he was still quite angry about having wasted so much time. I saw his fiero change from a potentially cheerful "Hurray, I did it!" to an angry "Finally!" Not only that, but the negative emotions of his frustration likely overran the "Cool" emotion he would have felt at discovering and exploring the next level.

That brings up an interesting aside. One player behavior I've noticed frequently in myself is that I prefer to save games in the middle of levels. After completing a level, I find that my curiosity about the next level is so high, I seek relief (Cool!) by going and exploring it. Once that need has been met, I feel more comfortable ending the game session.

Back on topic, an example of highly variable X can be found in Shadow of the Colossus, where players fight nothing but bosses called colossi. Each fight is a puzzle, and depending on the boss, the battle requires more or less dexterity of the player. For a few of the colossi, once I figured out how to defeat them, I killed them on my very next attempt. For most of the colossi, it took me a few tries once I solved the puzzle. And, for a few of the colossi, it took me a frustratingly large number of attempts to take them down even after I knew exactly what to do.

So, how do we keep X from becoming frustratingly large? I think that after players have solved a puzzle, they should be able to execute the successful strategy in just one or two tries. X can (and probably should) be greater for boss fights, since players have emotionally invested more in the game by the time they reach a boss, and will be more tolerant of failure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if X is too small, it may be possible for designers to prevent players from savoring their "Aha!" moments by overwriting them with potentially more powerful "I did it!" moments. Then again, if players are allowed "I did it!" right after "Aha!," the effect of both forms of relief might be magnified. It warrants observation.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Timing Emotions of Relief

Players experience relief when they achieve goals, but in games where they must reach multiple smaller goals to accomplish a larger one, when should they experience different types of relief?

In many games, especially first person shooters and platformers, players run into a new area, suffer setbacks, figure out why they were set back, then use that knowledge to avoid the setbacks. Usually, the player iterates through this process a few times, solves the area, and proceeds to the next one.

Players experience emotional relief* in at least three ways during this process. First, there is the relief to their curiosity, which happens when they learn what's in the game area and how to manipulate it (Cool!). Next, there is the relief they feel when they figure out what they need to do to solve the game area (Aha!). Lastly, players experience fiero (I did it!), and the relief that follows it, when they actually solve the puzzle.

So, should players experience these emotions at once, a few at a time, or widely separated from one another? I've heard Damion Schubert** suggest that the cycles of tension and release be based on the level of emotional investment a player has in the game. It makes sense that a casual player should experience relief (or reward) more frequently. As the player moves up the continuum from casual to hardcore, the cycles of emotion should take longer, and the relief achieved should be greater. This pattern can be seen in most MMOs, where getting from level 1 to 2 takes minutes, yet getting from level 49 to 50 takes days.

If we accept that players' emotions (and game designs) follow the 'short time, small emotion leads to long time, big emotion' pattern, I'd like to focus further on when players should experience the different _types_ of emotional relief.

I'll use a hypothetical game experience as an example: In an FPS, you reach a big room that has several ledges high on the walls, a few boxes scattered on the floor, and a rope hanging from the ceiling. After playing through the room several times, you discover that a monster appears on one of the ledges after you have been in the room for a short while, that there is a horde of ankle-biting creatures that appear on the floor, that the boxes are movable and stackable, and that you can swing on the rope to get to a few of the ledges (Cool!). The price you've paid for this information is, let's say, six deaths: four from the monster's guns, and two from falling.

You get excited (Aha!) when you solve the puzzle: You've found the place where the boxes must be stacked so you can jump up to the rope. You've also figured out which is the best ledge to swing to; it gives you a few extra seconds before the monster can climb up to you. You've discovered that you need those extra seconds to use a combination of weapons and available artillery against the monster, but once the monster joins you on the ledge, only one of your other weapons can kill it. You've solved the puzzle, but you haven't completed it yet.

Now, you prepare for your moment of triumph. Stacking the boxes is dangerous; the creatures on the floor bite at you mercilessly, and you can't afford to spend time killing them. The jump from the box to the rope is a tricky one. If you don't make it on your first try, you're too exposed and the monster gets in enough shots to kill you. After X number of additional tries, you finally manage to kill the monster (I did it!).

Let's look at X for a moment. X is the number of times players must attempt to execute the correct strategy before they succeed at their game's objective. We can also look at X as a variable span of time: How long after a moment of puzzle-solving relief (Aha!) do players experience fiero relief (I did it!)?

Each different span of time between moments of player relief could be given its own variable. For example, we could also look at V, which we could define as the gap in time between when a player experiences curiosity relief (Cool!) and puzzle-solving relief (Aha!).

Watching when X and V (or any other gap) become too large or too small may be valuable in game design.


* My parenthetical emotions borrow from Nicole Lazzaro's 'fun keys'.

** Damion Schubert's blog is Zen of Design. The concept of players existing on a continuum of casual to hardcore is just one of the ideas I learned from his panel at AGDC.
These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.