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Don't go in the basement

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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Everyone knows the cardinal rule if you're in a horror movie and you hear a mysterious noise in the basement, or the attic, or the boathouse; everyone, that is, except the horror movie characters themselves, who violate it almost at the first opportunity. Why would anyone do something so foolish?

We can explain such behavior as the consequence of irrepressible curiosity, and stories going all the way to the myth of Pandora tell us that this has been with us as humans for a long time. Games could make more of this, as a vehicle for playful fun. An example is the envelope in Risk Legacy that says "Don't Open This, Ever." I've not played Risk Legacy and don't know what's in the envelope, but I have to admit I've always wondered! But, if you know, please don't post it in the comments, even as a
Spoiler (click to reveal)
spoiler
; I think the envelope stands as a testament to an effective toying with psychology, reminiscent of the inscription in "The Magician's Nephew":

Quote:
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger/Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad/ What would have followed if you had.

The existence of Narnia turns out to hang on the outcome of Digory's response to that bit of temptation.

corn

Curiosity can be expressed in gameplay in ways that closely correspond to strategic creativity. "I'm going to try this, to see what happens." That might mean figuring out how a particular approach plays out in light of the game's scoring landscape or its risk-reward elements, or it might mean trying something to see how one's opponents will react. Experimentation is one of the best ways to get replayability out of a game, so a game that cultivates that sense of curiosity among players is likely to be highly replayable as a result. But as always, players are only wise to experiment to the degree that the game's scoring system actually rewards such creativity.

sugar

Thus strategy games live at the intersection between players' instinct to go with something they reasonably think will work, and their desire to try something of unknown outcome. To make a game that can accommodate "curiosity"-driven play, it's tempting to rely on game theory and its predictions about how rational actors will behave in a given situation. The game rewards certain behaviors, you can assume people will behave according to those incentives, because it's in their rational self interest to do so.

But as our horror movie characters show, people don't always act rationally and they don't always act in their own interest. And in games, weird things can happen when players act against their own rational self-interest. In many cases this isn't a design problem: as long as irrational behavior doesn't win the game, it's fine. But sometimes it nevertheless has to be considered.

I mentioned several months back a new game "Welcome to Terra" about running resorts for aliens and groveling to those aliens as a way of enticing them to your resort. If the group as a whole grovels too much to one species in the same turn, that species destroys the earth, which ends the game, and if you caused Earth's destruction, you auto-lose. In our first and only test to date, players almost destroyed earth in the first turn and did destroy earth in the third turn (of a possible 7). They didn't flirt with how close to the line they could get, they went all-in with very high bids, which obliterated the threshold.

I think this shows that people evaluate their own self-interest differently from what you might expect.

indigo

In another game of mine, "Kungaloosh!" (the Candyland bidding game), if you run out of money, you start taking on debt in future bids. In the end, players get points based on their relative level of indebtedness (among other things), the less debt the better. But once you're ahead in debt, there's no sense being coy, just take on debt flamboyantly and try to make your points from the other sources.

That's fine, except, what if a player does that from the very beginning? They bid to the max every time, and just keep doing it as they go deeper and deeper into debt? The answer, from solo testing, appears to be "they will lose": other players have the means to outscore a player who does this, BUT they must play a certain way to do it, bidding to the max themselves. Thus this player, though they will surely lose, forces the play style of the rest of the group and in a way that's boring and unfun.

So. Can we count on the incentive structures of the game to steer a player away from this losing strategy, or do we have to build safeguards into the game to prevent one player, who elects to do something irrational, from ruining the game for the rest of the group?

Previously I would have said the former -- the incentives are everything, expect players to follow them! -- but I think I'm leaning more toward the latter now, with the belief that the experience is everything, and the contest supports the experience, not the other way around. Viewed that way, a simple guard rail of "If you have X debt, you are frozen in place and do not bid again for the rest of the game" is enough to make that strategy unsuccessful without other players having to play along with it, as long as the value of X is properly set.

This is a fiddly rule, which I tend to dislike, and I think it will rarely be needed, but in the (hopefully rare) cases where it is, it should hopefully save the day. The question is whether it will cause problems for a case where a person is NOT attempting a sort of "shoot the moon" strategy but nevertheless bumps up against the debt limit. I don't think so, as long as X is greater than the amount of debt players typically accumulate.

coffee

In our earlier post about playtesting we talked about players providing feedback that can be out of scope for the game's design phase. One helpful mid-to-late-phase thing for playtesters to do is to act irrationally and see what this does to the game. Try something unfun, try something outlandish, try something that will probably lose. It's hard to get a tester to give up trying to play to win, and so sometimes this is more easily done in solo testing, but if you can find testers willing to try such things, it's important and highly beneficial to let them have a whack at your game and see if they discover any of these ways that irrational play styles are rewarded or are destructive to the rest of the group's session.

tobacco

I'm reminded of a game that Rich Durham had us test at Spielbany one time, a game that was played in multiple rooms, each of which had some little game element that you had to interact with, sort of a scavenger hunt. I'm reminded of another game, this one made by my wife for our (young-ish at the time) daughters on Halloween, called "Scaredy Cat". Each card was a creepy dare like "go up in the attic and stay there with the lights off for 1 minute", each with a commensurate candy reward. I wonder about the possibility of a game that pulls these thoughts together, a social/voting game where a card instructs someone to "go investigate that noise in the basement" and the group must decide who of their number will go, and then the person has to physically do it, whereupon they learn the outcome. Perhaps more of an activity than a game but maybe a fun experience.

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