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Expectations in Game Design June 18, 2014

Posted by ficial in game design, games.
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A key part of a good game design is matching the players expectations to the game play actually delivered. This is one of the key points where theme is relevant (though certainly not the only one). More broadly speaking, expectation management is the primary issue of importance where the mechanical aspects of a game (specific rules, general complexity, length of play, etc.) intersect the non-mechanical aspects (theme, graphics, physical pieces, etc.). Kinds of expectations can be divided into two broad categories: mechanics, and experience.

Mechanical expectations have to do with how closely the rules of play match the assumptions / intuition of the player. Essentially, this is a process of drawing on the out-of-game assumed background that a player has (e.g. gold is worth more than silver, people need to be fed, wood burns, etc.) and using symbols and story to match that to the mechanical elements of play (i.e. the rules and game state). For example, if a game includes some bits labeled ‘coins’, then players naturally understand the idea of spending them to purchase a building, for example. If those bits are instead labeled ‘cows’ then it requires more explanation for a player to understand that some number of them may be converted into a building – it becomes a less intuitive rule. Conversely, if there’s a rule that says that at certain times having two of those bits allows a player to get a third then ‘cows’ makes sense in that two animals can be bred to prodcue another, whereas ‘coins’ requires something much more abstract to justify the addition. In this realm the theme of the game suggests the general kinds of actions that are and aren’t available the the kinds of outcomes that might be expected from those actions. The physical pieces both signify particular things (e.g. larger and heavier things are more important; given two kinds of markers, having one green and one brown is less meaningful than having one green and shaped like a leaf and the other brown and shaped like a horse), and suggest what those bits are used for (e.g. a gold colored disc to represent a valuable coin makes a lot more sense than a white cube; a token shaped like a bone might be fed to a dog, or used to build a skeleton; etc.). Graphics allow for illustrative suggestions of relevant rules, and also allow for easy reference to other parts of the game (via illustrations or more abstract icons / symbols).

When a designer has done a good job managing the mechanical expectations then the resulting game is much easier to learn, teach, and play. The actual play tends to be smooth, and faster than it otherwise might be. This is usally what people are talking about when they say a game is ‘well themed’ or ‘the theme is well matched’. When mechanical expectations are not managed well, then players have a hard time learning the game, and even after they learn it play tends to be slower and players are more likely to miss and/or to misinterpret rules. Criticisms tend to be things like ‘it didn’t make sense’ or ‘the theme was pasted on’. Over all, doing a good job with mechanical expectations turns a set of rules and abstract ideas into a good game. To turn a good game into a great game requires managing experiential expectations.

Player experience is the emotions and thoughts that a player has during the course of play — are players playing to have fun, or to compete? where/how does a player get a sense of accomplishment? when does the player feel the most tense, and why? how does player A feel about player B (in the context of game play)? does play feel deep and complex, or light? Experiential expectations are a much fuzzier concept than mechanical ones, in large part because player experience depends so much on the players themselves. The tools for setting expectations are the same – art, setting, iconography, language, story, etc. – but the goal in this case is not to draw parallels between exterior context and in-game elements, but instead to put players in a frame of mind where the experiences that the designer is attempting to create are easy to achieve and more intense when they happen. The art of the game can influence expectations via style, color scheme, size / prevalence, and subject. The setting can suggest particular feelings (e.g. when a player is told that a game is set in a dark cave then they’re much more prepared to feel limitation, enclosure, isolation, and fright than if they’re told the game is set in a sunny field). There are whole disciplines devoted to thinking about how iconography and typography affect a viewers feelings (https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=how+typography+affects+feelings). Language of course has a huge influence (compare ‘the triangle token follows the round token’ to ‘the tiger token stalks the farmer token’), and story or a less rigid narrative element allows an even more effective manipulation of player feelings. Video games can also borrow tricks from all the expertise the movie industry has developed – music, sound, motion, visual effects, background action, etc.

There’s also an interesting sub-set of experiences that can be thought of as having a target magnitude / degree – pretty much any aspect where a player might ask ‘how much’. (e.g. how much depth is there? how much cooperation? how much luck? etc.) For these ones, the target for managing expectations is actually slightly offset below (or ‘closer to neutral than’) the degree of effect the designer is trying to evoke during player. The relation of the actual experience to the expectation can greatly effect the intensity/excitement of the experience. Consider an experience for which the designer has established an expectation of level E, and a players actual experience at level A. When A is less than E then the player is bored / underwhelmed with that aspect of the game. When A is equal to E then the player is satisfied – the game delivered what it promised. When A is just a little bit more than E then the player is excited because the game has surpassed their expectations – this is the sweet spot of experiential expectation management. When A is a lot more than E then the player is overwhelmed and blocks out that part of the play experience or loses interest entirely.

Over all, setting the players expectations is a vital aspect of game design. A game that is mechanically good will be disliked if the players are expecting one thing but getting another, while a game that might be mechanically uninteresting or even quite flawed will be thoroughly enjoyed if it’s clear in the experience it delivers and that matches what the players want.

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