What Do Players Expect?

Once players have decided they want to play a given game because of one motivating factor or another, they will have expectations for the game itself. Beyond the game not crashing and looking reasonably pretty, players have certain gameplay expectations, and if these are not met, they will soon become frustrated and find another game to play. It is the game designer s job to make sure the game meets these expectations. Indeed, player frustration is the nemesis of every game designer, and it is important that game designers do everything possible to eliminate it. So once the gameplay begins, how do game designers minimize player frustration? Exactly what is it that players expect?

Players Expect a Consistent World

As players play a game, they come to understand what actions they are allowed to perform in the world, and what results those actions will produce. Few things are more frustrating than when players come to anticipate a certain result from an action and then the game, for no perceivable reason, produces a different result. Worse still is when the consequences of the players actions are so unpredictable that players cannot establish any sort of expectation. Having no expectation of what will happen if a certain maneuver is attempted will only frustrate and confuse players, who will soon find a different, more consistent game to play. It is the consistency of actions and their results that must be maintained , for an unpredictable world is a frustrating one to live in.

Fighting games are a particularly appropriate example of the importance of predictable outcomes from actions. Players do not want a maneuver to work sometimes and fail other times, without a readily apparent reason for the different outcomes . For instance, in Soul Calibur , if players miss an attack, it has to be because their opponent jumped, blocked, was too far away, or some other reason that players can perceive. The players perception of the reason for the move s failure is important to emphasize . It may be that the internal game logic, in this case the collision system, will know why the attack missed, but it is as bad as having no reason if players cannot easily recognize why the maneuver failed. Furthermore, if only expert players can understand why their action failed, many novices will become frustrated as they are defeated for no reason they can understand. If a sword slash fails in a situation that closely resembles another situation in which the same slash succeeded, players will throw their hands up in frustration.

Pinball games are another interesting example. Of course, a pinball game is a completely predictable game-world, since it is based on real-world physics. Expert pinball players know this, and will use it to their advantage. But a problem arises with novices. Inexperienced players will often fail to see what they did wrong when the ball goes straight between their flippers or rolls down one of the side gutters. These players will curse the pinball game as a game of luck and not want to play anymore. Of course, the fact that players of different skill levels will have radically different levels of success at a given pinball game proves that it is not just a game of luck. But only those players who stick with the game through numerous early failures will find this out. I am not suggesting that pinball games should be abandoned or radically simplified, but one of their shortcomings is that they alienate new players who cannot see the connections between their actions and the outcome of the game.

Players Expect to Understand the Game-World s Bounds

When playing a game, players want to understand which actions are possible and which are not. They do not need to immediately see which actions are needed for a given situation, but they should understand which actions are possible to perform and which are outside the scope of the game s play-space.

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In Doom II , the player will not expect to be able to start a conversation with the monsters he is attacking.

For instance, in Doom , players will intuitively figure out that they are not going to be able to hold a discussion with the demons they are fighting. Players will not even want to initiate a conversation with a demon during which they suggest surrender as its best course of action. Players understand that such interpersonal discussion is out of the scope of the game. Suppose that Doom had included a monster late in the game, a foe that could only be defeated if players were friendly to it, winning it over with their witty conversation. Players would have been frustrated, since they came to understand, through playing the levels that led up to that level, that in Doom all that is needed for victory is to blast everything that moves, while avoiding getting hit. Talking is completely out of the scope of the game.

Of course, a chatty monster in Doom is an extreme example of a game having unpredictable bounds, but plenty of games break this design principle. These games have players performing actions and completing levels using a certain type of game mechanism, and then later on insert puzzles that can only be solved using an entirely new mechanism. The problem is that the players have been taught to play the game a certain way, and suddenly the game requires players to do something completely different. Once players come to understand all of the gameplay mechanisms that a game uses, they don t want new, unintuitive mechanisms to be randomly introduced.

Players Expect Reasonable Solutions to Work

Once players have spent some time playing a game, they come to understand the bounds of the game-world. They have solved numerous puzzles, and they have seen what sorts of solutions will pay off. Later in the game, then, when faced with a new puzzle, players will see what they regard as a perfectly reasonable solution. If they then try that solution and it fails to work for no good reason, they will be frustrated, and they will feel cheated by the game.

This sort of difficulty in game design is particularly true in games that try to model the real-world to some degree. In the real-world there are almost always multiple ways to accomplish a given objective. Therefore, a computer game set in the real-world must also try to allow reasonable and logical solutions to a problem to result in success. Of course, a designer always provides at least one solution to a puzzle, and that solution may be perfectly reasonable. But there may be other equally reasonable solutions, and unless the designer makes sure those solutions work as well, players will discover and attempt these non-functioning alternate solutions and will be irritated when they do not work. It is the game designer s task to anticipate what players will try to do in the game-world, and then make sure that something reasonable happens when players attempt that action.

Players Expect Direction

Good games are about letting the players do what they want, up to a point. Players want to create their own success stories, their own methods for defeating the game, something that is uniquely theirs. But at the same time, players need to have some idea of what they are supposed to accomplish in this game. Not having direction is a bit too much like real life, and players already have a real life. As I have discussed, many gamers are probably playing the game in order to get away from their real lives, to fantasize and escape. They usually do not play games in order to simulate real life on their computer.

Thus, players want to have some idea of what their goal is and be given some suggestion of how they might achieve that goal. With a goal but no idea of how to achieve it, players will inevitably flail around, try everything they can think of, and become frustrated when the maneuvers they attempt do not bring them any closer to their goal. Of course, without an idea of what their goal is, players are left to wander aimlessly, perhaps enjoying the scenery and marveling at the immersive game-world. Yet without something to do in that game-world, it has failed as a game. If players do not know what their goal is, the goal might as well not exist.

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SimCity 3000 is the third in a series of city simulation software toys, which let users play without giving them a specific goal.

The classic example of the goal-less game is SimCity . In fact, Will Wright, the game s creator, calls it a software toy instead of a game. SimCity is like a toy with which players can do whatever they want, without ever explicitly being told that they have failed or succeeded. In some ways SimCity is like a set of Legos, where players can build whatever they desire just for the thrill of creation. The trick, however, is that SimCity is a city simulator, wherein players are allowed to set up a city however they want. But since the game simulates reality (constructing and running a city), and players know what is considered success in reality (a booming city full of lovely stadiums, palatial libraries, and happy citizens), they will naturally tend to impose their own rules for success on the game. They will strive to make their idea of the perfect city, and keep its citizens happy and its economy buoyant. In a subtle way, players are directed by their own experience with reality. If SimCity had been a simulation of a system that players were completely unfamiliar with, it would certainly have been less popular. Indeed, Wright s games that are based in concepts average users are considerably less familiar with (such as SimAnt and especially SimEarth ) have found considerably less popular success. Though SimCity does not explicitly have a goal, the very nature of the game and its grounding in a widely understood reality encourages players to come up with their own goals. And so, what starts out as a toy becomes a game, and thus players are compelled to keep playing.

Players Expect to Accomplish a Task Incrementally

Once players understand what their goal in the game-world is, they like to know that they are on the right track toward accomplishing that goal. The best way to do this is to provide numerous sub-goals along the way, which are communicated to players just as clearly as the main goal. Players are rewarded for achieving these sub-goals just as they are for the main goal, but with a proportionally smaller reward. Of course one can take this down to any level of detail, with the sub-goals having sub-sub-goals and so forth, as much as is necessary to clue players in that they are on the right track.

Of course, not every goal needs to be communicated to the players via text. For example, in a story-based shooter such as Call of Duty , there are macro-goals that are communicated via text to players on the mission objectives screen. There are an average of four objectives on any given level. Beyond that, though, the game is littered with sub-goals (such as clear out the machine gun nests ) that players intuitively figure out along the way. For accomplishing these goals, players are rewarded by congratulatory dialog from their fellow soldiers, the health and ammo they will be able to collect from the fallen German soldiers, and the ability to access a new area of the level. If one takes it to a truly micro level, each enemy that players must kill can be considered a mini-objective with tangible rewards such as seeing the foe fall over dead, the fact that he stops being a threat to players, and players ability to collect his weaponry. Platformer-style games such as Ratchet & Clank are particularly good at providing incremental micro-goals, with all of the thousands of bolts players are able to pick up throughout the game each helping them a tiny bit toward their larger goal of buying the super weapon to use against the giant enemy. The great platformer games all use these incremental pick-up rewards to pull players through their levels.

Without providing feedback of this kind (no matter how small it is), especially if the steps necessary to obtain a goal are particularly long and involved, players may well be on the right track and not realize it. When there is no positive reinforcement to keep them on that track, players are likely to grow frustrated and try something else. And when they cannot figure out the solution to a particular obstacle , they will become frustrated, stop playing, and tell all their friends what a miserable time they had playing your game.

Players Expect to Be Immersed

A director of a musical I was once in would become incensed when actors waiting in the wings would bump into the curtains. She suggested that once the audience sees the curtains moving, their concentration is taken away from the actors on the stage and their suspension of disbelief is shattered. They are reminded that it is only a play they are watching, not real at all, and that there are people jostling the curtains surrounding this whole charade. Perhaps exaggerating a bit, this director suggested that all of Broadway would collapse if the curtains were seen shaking.

But she had a point, and it is a point that can be directly applied to computer games. Once players get into a game, they are progressing through various challenges, they have a good understanding of the game s controls, and they are role-playing a fantasy. They have forgotten that they are playing a game at all, just as a film audience may forget they re in a theater or a book s reader may become completely swept up in the lives of the story s characters . Commonly referred to as the suspension of disbelief, this is the point when a piece of art can be its most affecting on its audience. Once their disbelief is suspended , players do not want to be snapped out of their experience. For starters, a game should never crash, as that would be the most jarring disruption possible. Beyond that, the littlest glitch in the game can immediately bring players out of their trance-like immersion. If a character that is supposed to be walking on the ground starts walking into the air for no recognizable reason, players will realize it is a bug and their suspension of disbelief will be lost. If players come to a puzzle, figure out a perfectly reasonable solution to it, and that solution does not work, players will again be reminded that they are only playing a computer game. If the game s GUI is not designed to be easy to read, transparent, and stylistically consistent with the rest of the game-world art, it will stick out and ruin their immersion. All of these pitfalls and countless others detract from players feeling of immersion, and the more players are rudely awakened from their game-world fantasy, the harder it is to re-immerse them in it. Remember that many players want to play games in order to fulfill fantasies. It is very hard to fulfill a fantasy when the game s idiosyncrasies keep reminding players that it is just a game.

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Despite all his fame, Mario does not have a very distinct personality. He is pictured here in Super Mario 64 .

Another important component of player immersion is the character that players are controlling in the game. Most all games are about role-playing to some extent. And if the character players are controlling, their surrogate in the game-world, is not someone they like or can see themselves as being, their immersion will be disrupted. For instance, in the third-person action/adventure game Super Mario 64, players are presented with a character to control, Mario, who does not have a very distinct personality. Mario has a fairly unique look in his pseudo-plumber getup, but he never really says much, and acts as something of a blank slate on which players can impose their own personality. On the other hand, some adventure games have starred characters that acted like spoiled brats, and players have to watch as their character says annoying, idiotic things over and over again. Each time the character says something that players would never say if they had the choice, they are reminded that they are playing a game and that they are not really in control of their character as much as they would like to be. In order for players to become truly immersed, they must come to see themselves as their game-world surrogate.

Players Expect Some Setbacks

Players tend not to enjoy games that can be played all the way through the first time. If the game is so unchallenging that players can storm right through it on their first attempt, it might as well not be a game. If they wanted something that simple they might as well have watched a movie. Remember that gamers are drawn to playing games because they want a challenge. And a challenge necessarily implies that the players will not succeed at first, and that many attempts must be made to overcome obstacles before they are finally successful. A victory that is too easily achieved is a hollow victory. It is not unlike winning a fistfight with someone half your size .

It is important to understand that players want setbacks because of their own shortcomings, not because of the idiosyncrasies of the game they are playing. When players fail, they should see what they should have done instead and they should instantly recognize why what they were attempting failed to work out. If players feel that the game defeated them through some trick or cheap shot, they will become frustrated with the game. Players need to blame only themselves for not succeeding, but at the same time the game must be challenging enough that they do not succeed right away.

It is also a good idea to let players win a bit at the beginning of the game. This will suck players into the game, making them think, this isn t so hard. Players may even develop a feeling of superiority to the game. Then the difficulty must increase or ramp up so that players start to fail. By this time players are already involved in the game, they have time invested in it, and they will want to keep playing, to overcome the obstacle that has now defeated them. If players are defeated too early in the game, they may decide it is too hard for them or not understand what sort of rewards they will receive if they keep playing. If a game allows players to win at first, they will know that success is possible and enjoyable and will try extra hard to overcome what has bested them.

Players Expect a Fair Chance

Players do not want to be presented with an obstacle that can only be surmounted through trial and error, where an error results in their character s death or the end of their game. Players may be able to figure out the proper way to overcome the obstacle through trial and error, but there should be some way to figure out a successful path on their first try. So, extending this rule to the whole game, extremely observant and skilled novice players should be able to progress through the entire game without dying. It may be that no players will ever be this skilled on their first time playing, and, as we discussed, ideally the designer wants players to have many setbacks before completing the game. However, it must be theoretically possible for players to make it through on their first try without dying. If players keep dying from each shot-in-the-dark attempt around an obstacle, they will realize that, due to short-sighted design, there was no real way to avoid all of these deaths. They will be frustrated, they will curse the game, and soon they will not waste their time with it any longer.

Players Expect to Not Need to Repeat Themselves

Once players have accomplished a goal in a game, they do not want to have to repeat their accomplishment. If the designer has created an extremely challenging puzzle, one that is still difficult to complete even after players have solved it once, it should not be overused . For instance, the same painfully difficult puzzle should not appear in an identical or even slightly different form in multiple levels of an action/adventure, unless defeating the puzzle is a lot of fun and the rewards are significantly different each time the puzzle is completed. If it is not a lot of fun to do, and players have to keep solving it throughout the game, they will become frustrated and will hate the game designers for their lack of creativity in not coming up with new challenges.

Of course, many games are built on the principle of players repeating themselves, or at least repeating their actions in subtly varied ways. Sports games such as NFL Blitz and racing games such as Project Gotham Racing are all about covering the same ground over and over again, though the challenges presented in any one playing of those games are unique to that playing. Classic arcade games like Centipede and Defender offer roughly the same amount of repetition. Tetris is perhaps the king of repetitive gameplay, yet players never seem to grow tired of its challenge. The key component of these games that makes their repetition acceptable is that these games are built purely upon their game mechanics and the enjoyment players derive from various permutations of them. In games where exploration is a key part of the players enjoyment and in which the challenges presented in any specific playing are fairly static and unchanging, players do not wish to unduly repeat themselves. In these games, after exploring a game-world once, subsequent explorations are significantly less interesting. While every time players engage in a game of Tetris, Defender , Project Gotham Racing , or NFL Blitz the game is unique, every time players play The Legend of Zelda: TheWindWaker , Doom , or Baldur s Gate the challenges presented are roughly the same. Therefore, players do not mind the repetition in the former games while they will quickly become frustrated when forced to repeat themselves in the latter.

Game players lack of desire to repeat themselves is why save-games were created. With save-games, once players have completed a particularly arduous task they can back up their progress so they can restore to that position when they die later. Players must be given the opportunity to save their work after a huge, tricky challenge has finally been overcome. Allowing players to save their game prevents them from having to repeat themselves.

Some games will even automatically save players games at this newly achieved position, a process sometimes known as checkpoint saving. This method is somewhat superior since often players, having succeeded at an arduous task, will be granted access to a new and exciting area of gameplay, one that they will immediately want to explore and interact with. Often, in their excitement, they will forget to save. Then, when they are defeated in the new area, the game will throw them back to their last save-game, which they had made prior to the challenging obstacle. Now players have to make it through the challenging obstacle once again. However, if the game designers recognize that the obstacle is a difficult one to pass, they can make the game automatically save the players position, so that when players die in the new area, they are able to start playing in the new area right away. Indeed, automatic saving provides players with a more immersive experience: every time players access a save-game screen or menu, they are reminded that they are playing a game. If players can play through a game without ever having to explicitly save their progress, their experience will be that much more transparent and immersive.

However, it is important to note that automatic saves should not be used as a replacement for player- requested saves, but should instead work in conjunction with them. This way players who are accustomed to saving their games will be able to do so whenever they deem it appropriate, while gamers who often forget to save will be allowed to play all the way through the game without ever needing to hit the save key. Many developers are concerned that allowing players to save anywhere removes a key element of tension for the player. Indeed, if players can save after each tiny, incremental step they make, the game will be significantly less challenging. However, it is important to remember two fundamental things. First and foremost, if players truly want to ruin their experience by saving constantly, we should allow them to do that, because games are supposed to be about empowering players to do whatever they want to do. Secondly, by not allowing players to save whenever they want, they will be forced to do ridiculous things such as leave their game system on overnight because a parent or spouse has demanded that bedtime has arrived but they do not want to lose their progress. If games are supposed to be the most interactive medium, game designers need to make sure they are at least as interactive as a DVD player or a book, and thus allow players to stop the activity and save their progress at any point they desire.

Players Expect to Not Get Hopelessly Stuck

There should be no time while playing a game that players are incapable of somehow winning, regardless of how unlikely it may actually be. Many older adventure games enjoyed breaking this cardinal rule. Often in these games, if players failed to do a particular action at a specific time, or failed to retrieve a small item from a location early in the game, they would be unable to complete the game. The problem was that players would not necessarily realize this until many hours of fruitless gameplay had passed. The players game was essentially over, but they were still playing. Nothing is more frustrating than playing a game that cannot be won.

As an example, modern 3D world exploration games, whether Metroid Prime or Super Mario Sunshine , need to concern themselves with the possibility that players can get hopelessly stuck in the 3D world. Often this style of game provides pits or chasms that players can fall into without dying. It is vital to always provide ways out of these chasms, such as escape ladders or platforms that allow players to get back to their game. The method of getting out of the pit can be extremely difficult, which is fine, but it must at least be possible. What is the point of having players fall into a pit from which they cannot escape? If they are incapable of escape, the players game-world surrogate needs to be killed by something in the pit, either instantly on impact (say the floor of the pit is electrified) or fairly soon (the pit is flooding with lava, which kills players within ten seconds of their falling in). Under no circumstances should the players be left alive , stuck in a situation from which they cannot continue on with their game.

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Level designers for 3D action/adventure games, such as Metroid Prime , need to create maps that prevent the player from ever getting permanently stuck behind a piece of architecture.

One of the primary criticisms leveled against Civilization , an otherwise excellent game, is that its end-games can go on for too long. When two countries remain and one is hopelessly far behind the other, the game can tend to stretch on past the point of interest while the dominant power tracks down and slaughters the opposition . Indeed, the less advanced country is not technically without hope. Players can still come from behind and win the game; it is not completely impossible. Players are not stuck to the same degree as players trapped in the pit with no exit, but the players are so far behind that it might as well be impossible ; the luck they would need to have and the mistakes the dominant power would have to make are quite staggering. The solution to this is perhaps to allow the AI to figure out when it is hopelessly overpowered and surrender, just as players who are hopelessly far behind will do the same by quitting and starting a new game.

Players Expect to Do, Not to Watch

For a time the industry was very excited about the prospect of interactive movies. During this period computer game cut-scenes got longer and longer. Slightly famous film actors started starring in the cut-scenes, and the budgets ballooned. Games became less and less interactive, less, in fact, like games. Then ” surprise, surprise ” gamers did not like these types of games. They failed to buy them. Companies collapsed , and everyone in the industry scratched their heads wondering what had gone wrong. Of course the gamers knew, and the game designers were soon able to figure out what was amiss. The problem was that players wanted to do; they did not want to watch. And they still feel the same way.

I am not completely against cut-scenes; they can be very useful tools for communicating a game s story, or for passing along to players information they will need in order to succeed at the next section of gameplay. That said, I do believe that cut-scenes should be stripped down and minimized to the absolute shortest length that is necessary to give some idea of the game s narrative, if any, and set up the next sequence of gameplay. Cut-scenes over one minute in length, especially those that fail to provide information essential for completing the next gameplay sequence, should be avoided. It does not matter if the cut-scene is text scrolling along the back of the screen, full-motion video with live actors, cel animation, or done using the game engine, the entirety of this break in the gameplay should not take longer than a minute. If there is gameplay involved in some way, such as players planning out troop placement for the next mission, then it is not really a cut-scene and can be as long as is necessary. And certainly, if the cut-scene contains information critical to the gameplay, the designer will want to let the players replay the cut-scene as many times as they desire.

The quality of the cut-scene really does not matter either. There have been many games with the most atrocious acting ever witnessed, usually as performed by the assistant producer and the lead tester. There have been games with Hollywood-quality or better production and content. But in the end, if the game is any good, gamers are going to want to get back to playing and will skip the cut-scene.

In short, the reason people play games is because they want something different from what a movie, book, radio show, or comic can provide. They want to interact. I did not include among the reasons why people play games because the library is closed or because the TV is on the blink. Gamers want a game, and game designers should give it to them.

Players Do Not Know What They Want, but They Know When It Is Missing

One of the biggest mistakes a designer can make at the start of development is to have a focus group with a bunch of gamers and ask them what they want to see in a new game. One could see this as an argument against focus groups, but that is not quite the point. Having playtesters is a very important part of game development. By playtesters , I mean people looking not for bugs in your game, but rather analyzing the gameplay and providing constructive feedback about it. A designer should have lots of people playing his game once it is at a stage in development where a majority of the gameplay can be judged. This may include using focus groups to obtain invaluable feedback about where the game is too challenging or confusing, but only once the game is ready for them to play.

On the other hand, having a focus group of gamers before a game has been created just to bounce ideas around is pretty much useless. Gamers are good, of course, at judging whether a game they are playing is any fun or not. They may not be able to explain in a useful way what exactly they like or dislike about a particular game, but they certainly know when they are having a good time, whether they are having their fantasies fulfilled, whether they are being appropriately challenged, or if a game gets them excited. When the game is failing to be any fun at all, gamers will be able to point that out to you but relatively few will be able to tell you what to do in order to fix the problem. Furthermore, just because gamers enjoy a wide range of finished games does not mean they are qualified to critique raw game ideas. Similarly, game ideas they come up with are not certain to be good ones. It is the rare person who can discuss the idea of a computer game and determine if is likely the final game will be fun or not. People with these skills are those best suited to become game designers. Not all game players have these skills, so when asked what sort of game they might be interested in playing, gamers may not really know what they want. But, as I say, they will be sure to tell you when it is missing from the final product.

Game Design Theory and Practice
Game Design: Theory and Practice (2nd Edition) (Wordware Game Developers Library)
ISBN: 1556229127
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 189

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