Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Play the Players: Part II of Big Carrots and Long Sticks

As mentioned, the important part in Pattern Recognition Challenges is to always consider what the pattern is IN THE PLAYER'S HEAD. What the pattern ACTUALLY is doesn't matter and never did. Every movie ends in exactly the way we think it will, and often develops exactly like we suspect, yet we continue to watch and enjoy them. Games are the same way. It's a given that the player will get through the level or solve the puzzle. There's no mystery there.

What everyone needs to understand is that the player is doing something most designers don't really understand. They're mastering the pattern. Essentially, they're "getting good at" the game. (I'll cover this CRITICAL element whenever I get around to it.)

Most designers seem to think the player is playing the game to 'enjoy' it, or 'win' it. Neither of those is entirely true. It's enjoyable to interact with a familiar but unique pattern, and there's a definite feeling of accomplishment when you 'master' a pattern... but the key is that I don't talk about it in terms of emotions, I talk about it in terms of patterns.

I can hear people clicking on the next blog as I speak. I'm not saying emotions aren't important, and I've got nothing at ALL against narratives. I'm saying that you shouldn't think of them strictly as emotions. You should think of them as pieces of the pattern that players will be cruising through. The pattern IN THEIR HEAD, not the pattern OF THE GAME.

When you think about the pattern of a game, chances are that the first thing that pops into your head is play loops. "Kill bad guys, get money, buy equipment, kill bad guys." Sure, that's part of the pattern.

But the pattern is really the set of ALL the emotional attachments in any part of the game. The gameplay pattern might be as above, but the pattern the player perceives is more likely to be 'make my favorite character more powerful' or 'get the bikini costume' or 'find out what happens at the end of the chapter'.

The problem with MOVIES is that emotional attachments vary from person to person. Many guys love action flicks. The combat and explosions and car chases are a slick manifestation of the kinds of power guys tend to think about. Geeks may have a more notable preference for science fiction and 'smart' films: they lie in our particular perception of power. Every genre of movie is really just a term to define WHAT TYPE OF POWER PREFERENCE it appeals to.

All that stuff can (and should) be used in games. Methods of making characters appealing, plots interesting, symbology, etc, etc. But that's FILM stuff, and I'm here to talk about, for the moment, GAME stuff. And games have an ADDED CAPABILITY.

You see, most of our emotional attachments come from our perception of what we WANT and NEED, which is almost always related to POWER WE CAN USE. Whether that's power in combat, power in love, power in thought, power economically - it's power. It appeals to us because it is power.

Games give us a pattern which we have some power over. They give us an arena for making POWER JUDGEMENTS. In a movie about guns, many more noncombatant sorts tend to get bored. It's not the type of power that applies to them. In a game, ALL THE POWER APPLIES. In a game, the power you give out is literally POWER, and the player's emotional preferences know it.

And therefore, the players will rate the various things you give out as to how USEFUL they are in the pattern you've presented. Sure, there'll be lots of aesthetic ratings based on characters and plot and stuff, but there will ALWAYS be a CORE POWER RATING. And that rating WON'T VARY MUCH from player to player.

Of course, there's a point of diminishing returns for most players. Getting a bigger and badder weapon than the one you had before only matters if it actually changes the pattern. If you're already hosing down enemies easily, a power upgrade isn't going to mean much. Remember: you can't have a pattern recognition challenge without challenge.

So, when you're designing your game, keep in mind that players will forge emotional attachments to your various power-ups, whether they are glowing balls, new weapons, or a team member. USE these emotional bonds to DRIVE the character. PROMISE him power, THREATEN his power. He WILL REACT.

And as for ENEMIES, they have emotional ratings in the EXACT SAME WAY, FOR THE SAME REASONS. This can be used, too. If the enemy is THREATENING something the player values, the enemy will be HATED. This is VERY POWERFUL, and NOBODY EVER USES IT.

Just make sure you don't overdo it. There's nothing worse than treading water.

Now, depending on the person, a cute girl or a fuzzy animal may be rated the same as a powerful new weapon or somesuch. Aesthetics DO matter. A lot. But for every male player who rates Boob Lady very highly due to her aerial bust maneuvers, there's a girl or guy gamer who reacts negatively to that. Aesthetics will give you highly varied ratings from player to player. Play modifications are more reliable.

Think of an aesthetic appeal - such as the miraculous Silicon Wench - as a blaster. Then think of play modification - such as a power-up - as a light saber.

There's a place for both, but one is clumsy and random.

Of course, it's dangerously easy to cut yourself in half with your own lightsaber... and I'll discuss how to avoid THAT in the future as well. :)

No comments: