Thursday, December 10, 2015

Game Design and Player Behaviour

There's a really great theorycrafting discussion going on in the WoW Twittersphere that was kicked off by a post that challenges how guide writers present information as "the only choice". Basically, given two choices that are fairly similar mathematically, by changing how you present said information, the general community opinion can swing significantly.

To anybody who studies communications and/or marketing, this fact should come as no surprise. But the more interesting aspect of the discussion was what Celestalon--a technical game designer on WoW--posed to the community at large:
Many of the responses that came out of that boiled down to, "You can't, it's the community's problem." Which is a frustratingly unhelpful answer, and possibly flat out incorrect.

Game design, you see, absolutely influences player behaviour, in-game and out. There seems to be two schools of thought on the matter: design the game and let players interact with it and each other as they will; or design the game specifically to encourage players to behave in certain manners. When said like that, it sounds pretty clinical, but it's really not in practice.

Real-Life Examples

In World of Warcraft, and many other MMOs, to do group content you used to have to find and build a group yourself. You spent time (often a lot of time), gathered people, and hopefully managed to get through the content okay. Good players built up a reputation with other players on a server, and jerk players generally got shunned.

Enter LFD in the Wrath of the Lich King era, which took players from any server and threw them together in a random group to play the same group content. Less control over your group in exchange for a high level of convenience. This absolutely changed how players behaved. More people did group content because of convenience, but things like personal reputation mattered less because the pool of people to group with was orders of magnitude larger.

This was a case where the system was designed, but the influence on player behaviour was either not thought totally through, or deemed okay in balance with what the game gained from having such a tool available.

FFXIV evolved the concept keeping player behaviour in mind with further systems like handing out extra currency and experience to parties with a newbie in them, and commendations to hand out to others for whatever you wanted--good behaviour, great guide, awesome player, the rare dragoon that didn't die in the fire--and as such has helped FFXIV's community be nicer players (even if they aren't generally better players, but that's a different discussion).

In Eon Altar, we design around a very specific player experience--the couch co-op slightly competitive but mostly cooperative experience. Players play together as a group, but the game story and mechanics all subtly (or not-so-subtly) nudge players into competitive play styles. Friendly fire for AoE, real-time looting system where trading with each other is important, character agendas and secret quests/missions that may conflict with each other. Playing Eon Altar with friends is a very different experience than say, playing Goldeneye or Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles with friends, despite all of them having heavy focus on local multiplayer.

The Eon Altar example I use very specifically because it shows that game mechanics and meta player behaviour are absolutely intrinsically linked. You can't just design something and say, "players will be players, yo." Can you imagine if we released Eon Altar in its current state online? Without having players be local and therefore with local social norms to enforce acceptable behaviour, the game would be troll city. That's not to say we don't have ideas, but it's clear because of that player behaviour component, the game would not translate well as-is to pure online play.

Simultaneous Insufficient Info and Info Overload

For Celestalon's issue of cookie cutter builds and people just wanting/requiring/taking a given choice suggested from the community, there isn't an easy answer. Some people like choices, others just want to be told, "this is the best option," because they don't want to choose or can't fathom the choices available.

But just because it's not easy doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile exercise. MMOs like WoW are complex beasts, and so much information isn't in the base game itself that gets built by the community at large. Other times some of the information is in the base game, but without any context from the designers and so the players are expected to come up with ideas themselves, to which a large subset turn to the community to make those decisions for them.

Some of the problems are that they're imminently calculable. When someone can say, "this talent or ability does 20% more DPS than that one," it's a no brainer, and a robust theorycrafting community will discover these quite quickly. Some of the problems are that the theorycrafting community gets something wrong, or right but heavily caveated and the caveat gets lost, and then you have this strange state where the community as a whole has a gospel that's factually incorrect.

But at the end of the day, you're in a group, and that group requires a specific minimum level of performance, therefore between peer pressure and mathematics, there's a heavy push towards conformity and the "correct" choice. If the designers won't--or can't--provide the information towards the players or even make some of their choices for them if the player opts into it, then the player will seek that information elsewhere. To be fair, even if the designers provided that information, the player might seek that information elsewhere, but is there anything the designers can do to reduce that need or requirement?

What to do?

If we're spit-balling, perhaps remove talents entirely, or making talents generally utility-only perhaps so there isn't a correct answer? Maybe provide default options--all passives because a player who doesn't want to think about the game will probably not play at a level sufficiently to use active talents to their maximum effectiveness.

If the designers can help solve or ameliorate this issue, it's a huge win for them because it means they're a step closer to interesting choices (or they've basically cut them from the game and no longer need to spend design time on them). But leaving it to the community to solve by itself probably won't solve anything.

Rather, they should use game design to help address the issue, and Celestalon's question probably stems from recognizing that. Heck, if they can "solve" it, you bet many other games would take note and follow suit. 

Rohan at Blessing of Kings has an interesting take on whether it's an issue to be "solved" at all.
#WorldOfWarcraft, #GameDesign


  1. I haven't played WoW for many years, and quit shortly after the dungeon finder was added. so my knowledge is outdated. One thing I noticed about making "interesting choices" for my character was that there were so many different places to do it! Talents, glyphs, armor set bonuses, profession buffs (which I think have been removed), and trinket procs could all significantly change the way I play my character. Now it sounds like there will be even more choices with artifact weapons.

    This is just too spread out for most players. I think most players would benefit from a single decision-making hub for each area of the game. For example, one place to manage choices that impact combat, another hub for things that affect your appearance, and maybe even one to track story choices.

    Each hub could have a few preset templates for new or unadventurous players. Some of them could even be contributed by the community. These templates could even be ranked as beginner, advanced, and expert to reflect how much a player would have to think and react when using that template. Solo and group combat situations could be tested with these templates to ensure they're sufficient at their most basic difficulty.

    Theorycrafters could continue to experiment with optimal builds. But players who don't chase down that information could at least be confident that they've made a single choice that's "good enough."

    1. The customization route is a bit simpler today, 7 talents choices, 3 glyphs, 4 enchants and occasionally a gem socket (which will generally be the same stat). Trinkets and armor set bonuses exist, but armor set bonuses are generally powerful enough that you should get them.

      The decision making hub is an interesting idea. I think GW2 has that iirc. But doesn't have presets. I like the idea of preset templates though!

  2. All player behaviour rises or falls with game design; this is a point I make every time we're having the 'social' discussion for MMOs too. Game design (and also: lack thereof) drives how players treat one another, what they allow or shun in any given context. Lack of such direction or boundaries can be as big an issue as very strict requirements which is interesting. I think way too often devs don't realize the potential of game design towards cooperative factors, or then they cannot accurately predict its different outcomes (obviously because it's very hard to do). But when they do, there's some powerful social engineering available.

    Sorry, this was probably off tangent. More on topic: are cookie cutters even an issue for any groups outside the 'top 5%' or so that play competitively in WoW?

    1. Totally on tangent, actually :) I agree entirely.

      Cookie cutters are actually more of an issue in the mid-range. The top 5% are generally off-reading and doing their own theorycrafting to a small extent. The low end doesn't care, they're just having fun. He mid-range is where things get muddy.

    2. I want to say a ton about this, but have so little time this time of year, but yes, it seems like design for games with a social component is still in its infancy (or at least I hope it's that and not relearning the wheel) and deep and open communication across games is vital for designers to figure this out.

  3. Hey, I'm Zoopercat (the article author) and came across this when researching part 3 of the series. I'm gathering up different opinions & insights from posts like this. I love your insight, and the example of pre-WOTLK and post-LFR changed pug dynamics.

    Here's part 2 of the article that looked at the responses to my 'why' question in the survey.

    1. Sorry your comment got caught by moderation, pretty sure it didn't like the link. All fixed!

      Thanks! Much appreciated :) I did see your Part 2 on BW and thought it was quite insightful.

      It's an interesting conclusion that suggests that raw data would help players come to more accurate conclusions, but that assumes 1) Accurate data, and 2) Data formatted in a way that is easily digestible to the players.

      Your example is relatively trivial from that perspective (as the comparison between those two talents is easily quantified), but if the data is complex or worse--inconclusive--I'd be interested to see how it affects responses.

      That being said, presenting just the data without opinion might be an interesting guide experiment, given your findings here. Your experiment is certainly compelling! Thanks again for doing the study and writing those posts, lots of great food for thought.

  4. Thanks for your comment, you bring up an interesting point about the data being right (or wrong), or even inconclusive. I will add that to part 3 :)