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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow
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Catching Up With Jonathan Blow

December 6, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Don't you think that there's a sense where FarmVille has sort of perfected some of those systems that a lot of mainstream games are going for? Like even say, Modern Warfare 2 or something -- the multiplayer aspect of that where you are constantly being pulled back in by these rewards and peer esteem?

JB: Yeah, and I think that that's a negative trend in games, actually. I gave a talk a few weeks ago about that. There's a lot of psychological research that actually shows that this kind of thing, if we use it a lot in game design and we are, that in long term may de-motivate people and make people feel like games are less fun.

There's a book by Alfie Kohn about this called Punished By Rewards, and he talks about this idea of reward scheduling. Basically, setting up any kind of situation where you tell somebody, "If you do a certain thing that I want you to do, then I'll give you this as a prize".

And that happens a lot in Western society, right? Whether it's grades in school, or bonuses in the workplace, or whatever. Certainly in American society, and probably in British society as well, there's just a fundamental belief that this is how you -- in a lot of ways -- this is how you get people to do better work or be motivated; you give them bonuses for performing well.

But actually, research shows that that kind of reward system only works for very boring tasks; it makes boring tasks more variable and more interesting.

But if there are interesting tasks, what it actually does is convince people that they're not interesting. There's a lot of reasons for it, but one of them that's kind of intuitive is like -- especially if you're a kid in school or something -- "Oh, they have to bribe me in order to do this. That means it must not be worth doing on its own." Right?

So there's this idea of intrinsic motivators versus extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic is when you really want to do something, extrinsic is "I'm getting paid to do it, whatever the payment is, if it's achievements or level ups or whatever." The more you get paid in this kind of string-you-along way to do something, is found in general by decades of very consistent psychological research, the less motivated people tend to be for interesting tasks.

That could have two effects. One could be people enjoy games less and end up only doing them for these rewards, which is kind of what's happening in game design, actually. And the other thing that could happen is that... because games are made through this cycle of focus testing and refining things and when these rewards become a major part of the game, that's a big part of the focus test and so now people are looking at, "How do we make the rewards work the best?"

And if they work the best in situations where the gameplay is dull, then you gravitate towards games where the gameplay is dull and it's all about the rewards, right? Because that's the system that works the best when you're reward heavy. So that may be happening as well.

And I don't want to give the impression that I'm putting out a doomsday scenario and like that this is for certain going to happen, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that we should be very careful when we're going about designing these kind of systems, and we're not being very careful right now. We're just pumping them out as fast as we can and that is not necessarily a good thing.

But also, at the most recent talk that I gave was more from a design ethics standpoint. You know, game design used to be about "Hey, I like video games and I think they're cool and I have this experience that I think would be cool to make it and I'm gonna give it to my players because I want them to have a good time.", right?

And it's becoming less about that and more about this explicit manipulation where, you know, I've got a carrot attached to a stick and I'm just pulling you along. And I don't feel that that respects players, and I don't feel that it treats them as human beings, really.

You know, again I wouldn't go tell designers stop using this kind of reward structure because it's useful sometimes. And part of this talk I gave last month was that it's actually very hard to design a game without any kind of reward structure; it's always there to some degree.

But what I would like designers to do more broadly is think more carefully about what they're doing, and just understand the consequences. And if they choose that kind of reward structure, great. But what I find is right now it's not being thought about enough, and that's what bothers me.

How do you feel about putting your game out on Xbox Live Arcade, where you're forced by the requirements to add achievements? How do you approach achievement design when it's a forced part of certification of your game?

JB: Yeah, I don't like that at all. For Braid, I would've much rather not had achievements. What I ended up doing was just putting in achievements for the default things that you might end up doing. Like, getting through chapters and then completing all the puzzles in a chapter and finishing the game and then doing the speedrun.

But yeah, unfortunately it's a requirement of the platform. I have a problem with that not just for all the reasons that I've explained, but also from more of a pure game design standpoint. The kind of game design that I'm finding myself doing is very much about subtlety and focus. It's about like, "Here's a very specific kind of experience that I want players to have".

And there's a lot of communication, especially in The Witness -- a lot of it is about communicating subtle things to the player. And having, as a designer, kind of intent about what I want the player's intention to be, or what they should be aware of at any time is a very important tool.

And suddenly when you start dropping achievements in the game, it's like, "Oh yeah, you could be doing this main game, but you could be killing 300 orcs in a row or you could be doing this or that". And it all of a sudden defocuses player intention.

Which could be totally great for some kinds of games. Like if you want to make a kind of game that's a grab bag of "Here's an open world and there's all kinds of crazy stuff and you pick what you're gonna do and you go do it and it's exciting." That is a kind of game structure that could be very successful and has been very successful for some people.

And, you know, players really like that. Like some players play through a first person shooter and they like it and then they want to go do the, they like find all the things; it gives them more replayability, right? That is all true, and for many games that kind of system can add to the experience. But when you require it, then suddenly you dilute the effect of these other games; you make it actually almost impossible to make these very focused games. And I don't like that. I wish that they were optional.

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