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What really worries game designers: Game design driven by psychological theory and behavioral quantification.
by Travis Ross on 04/13/11 02:46:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This and other posts can be found at the blog Motivate. Play.

As I walked around GDC last month I was hard not to feel the power of the FTP/Microtransaction business model. Yes, companies like Intel, Sony, Crytek, and Ubisoft dominated the expo floor, but companies like Zynga and Playdom pushing behavioral metrics like ARPU, DAU, engagement, and retention seemed to dominate the discussion. Theories from behavioral economics and psychology along with multivariate testing are being applied and flouted as means to improve metrics, and design –  to some extent – seems to be driven by metrics.

From these metrics and methods a dichotomy of industry professionals seems to have emerged. On one side are individuals who embrace the model of micro-transactions and metrics as a way to increase revenue and be successful. On the other are those who are concerned that these methods will lead them to making slightly more complicated slot machines. These are the professionals  concerned with ethics and the suppression of creativity. For my last talk of GDC I attended a round-table discussion on monetization in games based around microtransactions. Two of the points discussed “What are you most paranoid about with this business model.” and “Where is the social games industry headed?” lead to animated and impassioned discussion about the ethics and creativity of game design.

As I explored this question more in my own mind I decided that the problem boils down to two questions. If the answer to question 1 is affirmative, then question 2 doesn't matter. However, if the answer to question 1 is “no” and the answer to question 2 is affirmative then the game industry may have a looming problem on its hands.

Question 1: Will players eventually vote with their feet (or mice) and leave games that are simply treating them as a unit of monetization?

What motivates and engages players to buy and play? In the past Ted Castronova and Byron Reeves have talked about the market for attention. Attention is a scarce resource and media companies that can command and monetize attention will be the most successful. To what degree can following theory of behavioral economics and psychology enlightened by behavioral statistics lead to games that players desire? Is there an optimal player experience, and is it similar to that of a casino? Or as the audience of social games grows up, will they demand games that are more fun, and engage them in ways that are creative, and thoughtful? If players vote with their feet for creative and thoughtful games then those ethical game designers need not worry. However, if the outcome is that some or all players don't then game designers must address the next question.

Question 2: Is the social game industry suffering form a modified tragedy of the commons?

In the tragedy of the commons there exists a rivalrous (limited) good and exclusion from the use of this good is difficult. Player attention fits both of these criteria. The tragedy of the commons occurs because it is in the best interest of those using the good to maximize their use of it. A classic example of this is a forestry or pasture, but let me draw from a slightly more interesting and pertinent example that was actually developed by Ted Castronova about fourteen years ago. It is the tragedy of the commons applied to doping in sports.

The problem is fairly straightforward. If I am a player and my desire is to win in sport (on a fairly level playing field) then it is in my best interest to dope or cheat – as this maximizes my chance of winning.

However, if everyone dopes then my chances of winning are actually no better than before and I still suffer the long term problems associated with doping. The optimal solution for the group then is to enforce regulations and sanctions that are stronger than the incentive to dope. This way there is still a level playing field (we can all coordinate on not-doping) because doping is too costly, and no one suffers the problems of the suboptimal outcome.

So ask this question: Is the game industry in the same position as the athletes who are doping? If question 1 is true and the majority of developers believe that industry is in a suboptimal outcome with metric driven games then, yes the game industry is in a tragedy of the commons situation. In this case it would be better for developers to not use behavioral economic and psychological games supplemented by metrics to get more attention. However, the suboptimal outcome is actually the Nash Equilibrium. Game developers are profit seeking entities and therefore they will use the most successful means to generate profit.

So, if question 1 turns out to be true and game developers also believe that metric driven games are a  suboptimal outcome they need to come up with some mechanisms for regulation of the industry. If they don't and players don't vote with their feet then they will end up in a tragedy of the commons making metric driven games to succeed. One of the things they are paranoid about will come true.

For now lets just hope that the truly creative games can compete for player attention. So that a tragedy of the commons is not a problem that the game industry must address

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Carlo Delallana
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Metrics are just tools. The same goes for research materials on behavioral psychology. These are part of an arsenal of knowledge and information we can use to create and tune experiences for the player. In the hands of a creative genius these can help inform design so that the creator can create emotionally engaging experiences for the player. As a designer I look to these for insight in ways to enhance content.

I worry about something completely different. I worry that game designers are not the ones who actually get to use these tools. We assume that the designer is the one who would have the a great deal of influence in the creation of content or the design of an experience.

Kamruz Moslemi
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Dont the best designers just ignore the noise and design for themselves anyway?

You know, giving gamers what they need, not what they want.

Michael Joseph
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If you're a gamer isn't it a huge turn off to hear these sorts of things.

I'd be nice if we had this kind of insight into TV series production. Maybe it wouldn't have any negative impact whatsoever on ratings for an audience to discover how Actor X was selected because some study determined he'd appeal to Demographic Y but it would destroy a lot of the innocence.

We need more cynical individuals in the world because capitalism is a cynical system.

Lars Doucet
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Here's a good example of metrics making things worse:

The employee performance review.

This is a wonderful tool that tells you in quantitative terms how awesome your employees are. You send in a manager who "measures" their performance and gives them a bunch of scientific-sounding numbers on a chart. Then you tell that employee on a scale of 1 to 10 how much they suck or not.

If the employee gets anything less than a 10, they are likely to become depressed and unmotivated and their production will decrease. Furthermore, the very act of measuring them stresses them out.

Metrics are ONLY good for quantifying things that can be easily quantified. As the above example illustrates, some things, like "employee quality" cannot be reduced that simply and any firm that does so does so at its peril.

Some things, however, CAN be measured easily by metrics. Unfortunately, those things (ARPU, etc) are only a small part of the things that grant success.

The 90% of what we do that doesn't reduce to design-by-metrics, which we call "intuitive" or "subjective" or "qualitative" is valuable knowledge and wisdom. It's not unscientific, untrue, or useless, just because it can't be reduced to a simple number.

That is all :)

Joe McGinn
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Very good point Lars. Another way of looking at it: metrics can adjust and tune, but it can't create.

Luis Blondet
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Other games also try to exploit the player in order to get them to buy, this is nothing new. Pretty graphics, gore, taboo, sex, etc. Also, many console games use the same techniques such as collecting useless stuff to have the player feel like the game has depth, so your proposal to legally regulate social games is completely unreasonable and it reveals a personal bias you have against it.

Keep the government out of it.

Joe McGinn
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" Keep the government out of it. "

I agree, but there's only one way to do that -regulate ourselves before they do it for us. The FTC has already been invited in by Capcom's Smurf Village.

David Serrano
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"Is the game industry in the same position as the athletes who are doping?"

The answer is yes, it absolutely is. I think companies like Zynga are using and abusing degenerate strategies. They've found a glitch in the system which they're manipulating and exploiting for profits. But if you succeed by exploiting a glitch over and over again, you haven't mastered "the game". Eventually most consumers will realize, as you said they are being treated as a unit of monetization. At which point the glitch will drastically change or completely disappear. Zynga won't have anything else to offer because they never mastered the full range of gaming dynamics, they only mastered one dynamic and built all of their game play around it.

To have the success of an entire sector of gaming riding on exploiting a glitch seems like a death wish to me.

Joe McGinn
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"Eventually most consumers will realize, as you said they are being treated as a unit of monetization."

Will they? Vegas seems to do OK. With a critical element that is the same as Zynga: rapid customer rotation.

Nick Green
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“What are you most paranoid about with this business model.”

That was one of the questions for a round-table discussion? That's pretty loaded. These were led by the pro-microtransaction crowd?

Ronildson Palermo
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What I find the game industry to be at fault today is the fact that we are approaching people as dogs which can be manipulated and tamed. And people are approaching games as things that pamper and spoil them. We focus more on creating a game format, content and approach which is capable of appealling to everyone. When honestly, that's impossible...

Instead we should TRY building a game which has the down-side of focusing on a smaller target audience, but it would have the advantage of being able to be completely coherent and solid on all other side of things: story, gameplay, aesthetic.

Not to mention I find it to be pretty pointless to be discussing immersion efficiency when half the people playing said game did not buy it because they liked the theme, they bought believing that the game will convince them to like it.They're looking for some fun, but they're not really attached to the game's story, sometimes not even taking it seriously. They believe that's the game's job.

Mark Harris
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Designing for a small subset is okay, and you're welcome to it, but there are plenty of people that don't want to intentionally limit their game audience.

Designing for mass appeal is different then designing for a Pavlovian response.

Joe McGinn
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I welcome discussion of the ethics of micro transaction game design, as such long-overdue sessions seemed entirely absent and unwelcome at GDC, where the focus seemed to be on Rodney Dangerfield style "I can't get no respect I tells ya" whining.

In fact I've never met a designer dismissive of metric-driven technique or the use of psychological theory. The difference seems to be that some designers accept that there is such a thing as MISuse of psychological theory too. I think the loss-aversion intentionally addiction-driven design of Farmville falls into that category, as does Capcom's iPhone game Smurf Village, based on the same techniques. The FTC is now investigating social games thanks to Capcom and the case of a child getting a $1,400 bill for smurfberries.

I do not respect the use of such exploitative, and even harmful, game design. In an online micro-transaction world, I would like to see the industry self-regulate, starting with discussions of what constitutes ethical, responsible game design, and what does not. This would be to our great benefit, instead of leaving profit the only motivator (as you say Travis) in which case we will have regulation imposed upon us from without (e.g., the FTC investigation).

Mark Harris
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These are different design philosophies and they can co-exist.

These are completely different audiences as well. I don't see any of my friends who have been consistent console or PC gamers abandoning that market for Facebook or smartphone games. Those that do would have migrated away from console/PC anyway. Right now these game sources are supplemental, not supplanting.

I think anyone designing by metrics to increase addictive response in their games needs to be careful. As mentioned before it reeks of ethical failure and draws undue negative attention to the entire industry. Many of the games that push this concept border on fraud, criminal manipulation, and criminal negligence for lack of safeguards. This is what the FTC will be looking for. Have you been intentionally negligent in protecting customers from easily anticipated problems with your model? They won't be looking to ban content, but to limit the means of defrauding customers.

In the end I don't think design by metric "social" games are a threat to the traditional console/PC market, but I do think those who push into exploitative games are a threat to the reputation of traditional console/PC developers.