Sunday, December 11, 2011

Game Design for Humans (part 1)

I was having lunch with Tom Wang the other day on the Microsoft campus and the topic got around to game design.  Having just completed teaching the senior seminar in Advanced Game Design at Digipen University, I had a lot of thoughts on the top at the forefront of my mind.  After the conversation, it occurred to me that many game developers do not have a good sense about what makes for a good game – particularly in the realm of the more casual games so popular on phones and Facebook.

So, in the hope that at least one other game developer will find this information useful, I thought I would share it more broadly. 

Game Players are Humans
The first thing to remember is that games are played by people.  And people have complex lives going on around them.  They have hopes, fears, desires.  They are worried about what other people think of them.  And they have limited time.

The most precious resource – the only truly scarce resource - is human attention.  There is no one who has extra attention just lying around.  If you want someone to spend some time playing your game, you are asking them to NOT spend time doing something they are doing now.  So ask yourself, what is your player going to STOP doing in order to play your game?  And then really try to be honest with yourself on whether that is a reasonable ask.

For example, many MMORPGs tried to take on World of Warcraft and failed.  I’ve met many of these developers, and they really focused on the wrong things.  Their game had better graphics, or a better world, or more fun questing and level, etc.  And it was true.  But they didn’t properly consider that many of their users were people who were playing Wow now, and most of them do not have time to play two MMORPGs.  So they are implicitly asking their players to stop playing Wow in order to play their game.  And they hadn’t considered if their game was really a better deal.

Consider that Wow players had invested tons of time and money into their Wow characters.  They have friends there.  They have guilds or teammates that are counting on them.   Asking someone to give all of that up is a big ask. 

In addition, Wow has done a very good job of making Wow mainstream.  In most workplaces, telling someone that you have a character in Wow does not cause people to look at you askew.  This may not be the case for your no-name new game.

Humans only care about certain things
While every human is different, there are some broad classes of activity that appeal to people.  Not ever person likes all of these activities.  The problem that many game designers have is that they do not figure out which of these activities they are providing for their users, and thus they do not make them a completely compelling experience.

Here is a simple list of human entertainment passions:

·               Collecting – getting things that are rare, and/or getting a complete collection.  These are the people who like to get every pokemon, every collectible plate, or that rare superman comic.
·               Gambling – taking a chance and getting a potentially big payback.  Think slot machine, where the more you bet the more you might win
·               Perfection – doing something over and over until you get it perfect
·             Exploration/Discovery – finding new things, new worlds, etc.
·               Sharing / Helping friends

There are others, of course, but these are the ones that are easiest for game developers to exploit.

So the first thing to do is to figure out which of these activities is your game exposing?  You don’t have to have just one.  It is perfectly fine to have two or three or even more.  In Wow, for example, you can explore the world, try to perfect your combat, help your friends, or collect achievements.  There is something for almost anyone.

The second thing is to make sure that your experience completely leverages those passions.  For instance – if your game has a gambling mechanic, but doesn’t let the player control how much they are willing to wager, you will not have a satisfying gambling experience.

I am continuously amazed by the number of otherwise quite solid games that fall down on this simple point.  For instance, many people play social games because they enjoying sharing or helping friends.  And even though most of those games support in-game purchase via microtransactions, most of them to do not have a mechanism for meaningful gifting – buying things for a friend.  The companies that understand this simple desire and were able to make products to exploit it – such as TenCent with QQ – really made a mint.

Let’s keep the discussion going.  In future posts I will talk more about other rules of human nature that are useful to gamers.

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