Thoughts on Design: Perception Part 2: Show and Tell

by Dr Taliesin Coward

In the first part of this article, we looked out how games can deliberately mislead players in order to influence their experience. We continue this in part two, with a look at some of the more subtle ways developers manipulate players by what they tell players, how they tell them, and what they allow them to see.

One of the simplest ways to manipulate players’ experience with a game mechanic is to simply not tell them what’s going on. In World of WarCraft, players have the ability to ‘inspect’ other player’s inventories. This is so that if a player sees someone with an impressive looking piece of equipment, they can find out what it is. However, early on in the game’s history, whenever one player inspected another, the person on the receiving end would receive a notification saying ‘so-and-so is inspecting you’. As you can imagine, this tended to freak people out, and there were repeated calls for the system to be ditched. Rob Pardo, the Executive Vice-President of Game Design at Blizzard Entertainment, said they solved this problem by simply removing the notification. The result? People now comment on how convenient and useful the inspect system is.

Similarly, in Resident Evil 4, there is, in fact, a hidden scaling system. The game secretly scales its difficulty to the skill of the player. Players who are having a hard time, will, unbeknownst to them, be given easier encounters, while expert players will be given harder ones. This not only keeps the game accessible and challenging to different skill levels, but by hiding it, it stops players feeling like they are being penalised or handed training wheels (which they are).

Of course, games can also control how players react by how they ‘frame’ the game’s systems when telling the players about them. Again, a good example is World of WarCraft. In an effort to encourage players to play a maximum of a few hours at a time (this is, after all a subscription game so Blizzard understandably want you to play as long as possible), during testing, World of WarCraft featured a system whereby after the first hour or so of the game, the amount of experience points players got from any action was reduced by 50%.

This was absolutely hated by the players. The solution: double the amount of XP needed to level, double the XP that was awarded, and then apply a ‘bonus’ granting double XP for the first hour or so of play. In reality, this changes nothing: the systems work exactly the same as the relation between the numbers stays the same (going from 100%-50% halves something just as surely as going from 200%-100% does). The numbers simply helped obscure this, and the rename helped change how players perceived the system. No longer were they getting penalised for playing too long. Instead they were getting a temporary reward for playing the game in the first place.

Games can influence players’ experience by what they let the player see. These can be obvious examples like characters and room popping into existence or vanishing, depending on whether they are needed or not. For example, in Batman: Arkham Asylum, as the player moves through rooms that they will never visit again, the game removes them to save resources. Likewise, a character may pop into existence off-screen, play out their animation, go off-screen and then vanish. Allowing players to see this would go a long way to breaking the feel of the game. For those curious to see how this works it’s worth investigating Shesez’ Boundary Break series on Youtube, which takes the game camera to all the places it’s not meant to be – so, for example, you can see that the player character in Bioshock consists only of arms and a gun (the only bits of their character the player can actually see, circle for a head, and nothing else).

Related to this is how the game controls off-screen AI. In Devil May Cry 4, for example, enemies which are off-screen have their movement slowed or stopped, to avoid the player getting swamped. Similarly, in 2016’s DOOM, the AI uses a ‘token’ system. If an AI foe wishes to attack a player, it requests a ‘token’ which allows it to do so. These tokens are limited, so even if there are dozens of foes they cannot all attack at once. However, the AI can redistribute tokens depending upon which enemy the player can see. This ensures that any enemy in the player’s field of view will always be positioning itself in order to attack, or attacking. This avoids breaking the illusion of sentient enemies, by allowing players to see an enemy standing idle and waiting for a command.

In these articles we’ve had a look at a number of ways in which developers can manipulate the player, either overtly or in secret, to influence the gameplay experience. Of course, there are many more ways (and examples) of how this can be done, but it is hoped that this series has provided a fascinating ‘taste’ of these methods. ■


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