Option Availability and Loss Aversion in Game Design

[This article originally published June 2011 on Gamasutra.]

Studies have shown that humans have an innate aversion to losing options, even if those options are not ones we ever plan on making use of; the psychological term this falls under is “Loss Aversion.” To be clear, Loss Aversion is an umbrella term that basically refers to the nearly-universal human tendency to weigh losses more heavily than we weigh gains, but the primary focus for the purposes of this exploration will be the aversion to losing options.

As a starting point, think about how Loss Aversion turns many of us into hoarders in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas: because we have unlimited storage space in any given container we indulge our aversion to the loss of options and end up with way more stuff than we will ever use. “Even though my energy weapons skill is only at ten, I still want to keep these fifteen plasma rifles around… just in case,” this type of reasoning is a great example of Loss Aversion in action. We can derive pleasure from the simple state of having many options—from Option Availability.

There was a famous experiment in psychology from Jiwoong Shin and Dan Ariely of Duke University a few years ago that explores our Loss Aversion and Option Availability instincts. Interestingly enough it took the form of a simple video game where the participants’ goal was to win money which they would receive at the end of the experiment.

Imagine you have a screen in front of you with a set of three doors on it—one Red, one Green, one Blue—that each lead to an associated room. When you click on a door, you don’t win any money but you move into that room—click the Green door, go into the Green room. When you click inside the room your money goes up or down, somewhere between -2 cents and +14 cents with an overall distribution average of 3 cents. Unbeknownst to the participant, each room has a different range of potential winnings. Let’s say the ranges were: Red, 0 to 7 cents; Green, 1 to 5 cents; Blue, 3 to 14 cents. Eventually the participant should catch on that the Blue door consistently offered more money than the other doors. Simple enough.

Here’s where it get’s interesting: Each round that a participant hasn’t clicked on a given door—let’s say Green—the door shrinks 1/15th of its original size. After 15 rounds, that door will disappear forever. But the door will reset to its original size if a participant spends a click to use the door, thus “saving” it. Consider also that a participant that goes directly back to, say, the Blue room after “saving” the Green door has just spent two clicks and won no money to save it. From our perspective the choice seems obvious: Who needs the cheapskate Green door? But oddly enough, the participants overwhelmingly opted to save doors even if they never intended on using them again. Why? Loss Aversion; they wanted to keep the option of the Green door around.

Read More

How Homefront Got Its Priorities Backwards

[Originally posted Apr-2011 on: GameSetWatch.com]

[In this piece, I examine how Homefront failed to play to its own strengths and criticize the poor implementation of the “Hidden Treasures” mechanic.]

When stacked up against other modern shooters, Homefront is average or worse in almost every category. The graphics aren’t all that impressive, everything from character designs to asset textures feel outdated. It isn’t an ugly game exactly, it just isn’t anything to gawk over, and paled against the FPS heavy hitters.

Level designs are repetitive, linear and highly constraining, meaning there are very few tactical options in any given battle. Controls are slightly less responsive than they could be, and the weapon selection isn’t exactly thrilling.

Also, the campaign clocks in at only around five or six hours—granted, this isn’t much longer than Modern Warfare 2, but unlike MW2, Homefront isn’t brimming with extra content.

Despite its many weak points, there are two areas where Homefront has an upper-hand: story, and emotional impact. The opening scene is infuriating and painful to watch. I won’t ruin any of it for you – I’m sure you could find a YouTube video of it if you’re so inclined – but it will suffice to say that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a gun and make the bastards pay. It didn’t end there either, the game has plenty of emotionally charged imagery to throw at you to get your hackles up and get you in the mood for some rebellion.

Doesn’t everyone love a story of rebellion against brutal, tyrannical overlords? Doesn’t everyone love a story about a rag-tag group of passionate fighters taking on a superior force against all odds? I know I do. Unfortunately, Homefront failed to play to its own strengths, opting instead to be a Call of Duty clone.

If we look at Homefront as a kind of case study, there’s a lot we can learn from it. There wasn’t anything glaringly wrong with Homefront's gameplay, it simply had no chance of matching up against the top-of-the-line competitors like the Call of Duty and Halo franchises in the realm of gameplay and production value.

Let’s face it, the FPS market is generally run by the guys with the biggest budgets. So what’s a studio to do if they’re not one of the big dogs with the deep pockets? Well it’s easier said than done, but they have to have something to set them apart, something that makes their game unique. For Homefront, as I said, this was plot and back-story.

Read More

The Era of Player Creativity

[Originally posted Mar-2011 on: GamaSutra.com & GameSetWatch.com]

[This week, I applaud the rise to prominence of games that emphasize player creativity, point out some of the more notable examples, and mention the benefits of player-created content capabilities.]

Here at The Blue Key, I talk a lot about the desirability of immersion in gaming – about losing yourself entirely in a game. But there is another side of gaming which takes almost the opposite approach to player interaction, and it seems to be gaining a lot of ground lately.

In this alternate realm the goal is not to make the player feel like they are entirely inside the game, but rather to acknowledge the player as such and utilize their creativity to enhance the gaming experience.

Of course player-creativity has long been an aspect of gaming, whether you’re trying to come up with an inventive combination of equipment and/or skills and/or magic, devising a tactical plan of attack in an FPS or an RTS, or trying to find a new way to think about a puzzle that’s stumping you, games engage you in a way that few other mediums can.

When you boil it down though, video games are based on the idea of “play,” and the recent wave of creativity-games really embody that basic idea and take it to the next level. In fact some games are little more than physics playgrounds, like the popular Source-based Garry’s Mod. But even when there are predefined goals (generally agreed to be a defining characteristic of a game) many of these creativity-centered games have a distinctively “playground” feel to them.

Look at Scribblenauts for a great example. If you’ve never heard of it: the game allows you to write a noun and and summon nearly any object you can come up with (exceptions include anything trademarked, offensive or vulgar) in order to solve a variety of puzzles.

With over 20,000 objects available for use in-game, every level has at least a handful of solutions. But if all you do is rush through each puzzle and get to the end, you’re missing the point of the game. Sure, you could use a “jetpack” or the “ROFLCopter” on nearly every level and never look back, but the real brilliance of the game is to be found in returning to the levels you’ve already completed.

Read More

Snobbery Aside, or: How I Learned To Love The Indie

[Originally posted Mar-2011 on: GamaSutra.com  GameSetWatch.com & GameCareerGuide.com]

[In this column, I share the experiences that led me to love the indie gaming scene, and I encourage others to join me in supporting the indie innovators.]

Confession time: I’ve been so caught up in the era of triple-A gaming – with its endless polygons, fancy shaders, cinematic set pieces, epic scores, voice acting and on and on – that I have largely neglected the burgeoning indie scene. My loss, to be sure.

My few forays into the indie world were extremely satisfying – Darwinia rocked my world and Braid blew my mind – and yet, I was still hesitant to spend my limited gaming time playing indie games because they often felt so obsolete (in an admittedly superficial way).

Oddly enough, it was the free, browser-based Super Mario Crossover that sparked the revelation that led to a new resolution: Play more indie games. After loving every second of each (still memorized) level of Super Mario Bros. as a tiny Link, some piece of my gaming past came back to life.

It was something like a eureka moment: Despite all the time we spend discussing gaming’s minutia, a game’s first and primary goal is to be an enjoyable experience – the range of forms that enjoyment can take has expanded greatly, but the goal remains the same.

So, if a game is enjoyable, who cares if the graphics are on par with an NES? I loved video games back when all I had was an NES. The mere existence of the next-gen consoles doesn’t invalidate the fun of Mega Man, Bubble Bobble, or The Legend of Zelda, those games are as fun today as they were when I was a kid.

In the same way, the mere presence of triple-A, big budget games does not invalidate the fun of Aquaria, Give Up Robot 2, Organ Trail or (the highly addictive) Desktop Dungeons. (Another bonus: Indie games also tend to be more accessible for those of us with busy schedules.)

Read More

PlayStation Move And Why Motion Control Deserves A Closer Look

[Originally posted Feb-2011 on: GameSetWatch.com]

[In this opinion piece, I share my cautious optimism about motion-control, and the hope I gained for the future of the technology thanks to the PlayStation Move.]

I’ll be honest here, I never had even the slightest interest in buying a Wii. When it was initially released I was at most cautiously optimistic about motion control. After a few sessions of messing around with a friend’s my opinion was that the Wii was nothing more than a gimmick, and wouldn’t be more than that until the technology took a significant leap forward.

Sure it was fun, but the significant lack of accuracy and consequentially unwieldy controls had me completely disillusioned with the whole idea. In my mind, it was an idea who’s time had come, but who’s technology hadn’t.

At this point I should note that despite my reluctance to materially support Nintendo’s new ventures (I was also unimpressed by my short time with the then-new DS) I was still in full support of them emotionally. Nintendo took a big leap with these projects, and I wholeheartedly applaud them for their boldness.

But I simply didn’t like using the actual products. This isn’t a new phenomena for them either, Nintendo has a history of releasing products before the technology is really there to support them – PowerGlove anyone? The Virtual Boy? So while Microsoft and Sony were duking it out over the sweet spot between Tech and Price Tag, Nintendo was looking for the next evolutionary leap instead, and it paid off.

The Wii has managed to tap a market that I think many gamers felt was un-tappable. Our moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents, etc – many of whom often looked down on our hobby – suddenly wanted Wiis, suddenly wanted to play Wii Sports with us, and suddenly understood how fun video games can be. All it took was a new kind of interaction, one that felt more natural to non-gamers. But to me, it felt clunky – an interesting novelty but nothing more.

Read More

Why I Abandoned New Vegas for Renaissance Rome

[Originally posted Feb-2011 on: GamaSutra.com  GameSetWatch.com & GameCareerGuide.com]

[In this column I juxtapose my disappointment with Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas against Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and examine what the games reveal about each other when played back to back.]

Nothing was going to stop me from picking up Fallout: New Vegas, I couldn’t wait to see a whole new wasteland. To drive the point home, I should mention that even though I rarely buy DLC, I bought every DLC pack available for Fallout 3 because I couldn’t get enough of it.

My first experiences with New Vegas came in waves. For the first few hours it was like I never left Fallout 3 – in a good way – I was excited to explore this new wasteland and see what surprises might be lurking behind the next rocky outcrop.

I wasn’t expecting a brand new game, so I wasn’t going to fret that there wasn’t much in the way of new mechanics, and the few new ones were interesting enough. But my enthusiasm steadily faded and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.

Was I just over it? Had the novelty of this particular flavor of post-apoc wasteland simply worn off? Or was it something more tangible than that? As far as the game’s narrative, I knew I was supposed to take sides in the larger conflict but I found myself entirely unmoved by any of the factions competing for control of the Mojave. I knew that I hated the slavers of Caesar’s Legion – even when I’m playing the most evil of evil characters, I still cannot abide slavers – but I didn’t care about the imperial NCR or the mysterious Mr. House either.

Read More

Chase Scenes, Momentum, and Hidden Treasures

[Originally posted Jan-2011 on: GamaSutra.com  GameSetWatch.com & GameCareerGuide.com]

[This week, I take a look at how a few often-interconnected elements play off each other, how they might be used effectively and how they might interfere with one another.]

Immersion: For most big budget games these days, this is the goal; to so completely immerse the gamer in the world and action that the chase scenes make her heart beat faster, the gunfights make his palms sweat, the visuals make her eyes go wide, and the soundscape makes him want to close his eyes and just… listen.

There are a lot of things developers can do to enhance this feeling of immersion, but beyond great audio/visual design, physics, and dialog, good pacing is essential. This is a difficult element to get just right though, and there are no all-encompassing solutions because each game requires very different pacing methods.

You wouldn’t want to use the same pacing in Shadow of the Colossus that you would in Gears of War. This is also a difficult area to tune because it is the product of a variety of factors; if something is off it’s not just a bug to hunt down, it’s something less tangible than that. But in any case. one surefire way to put the gamer’s attention in a full nelson not let go is the ubiquitous chase scene.

Take Mirror’s Edge for example, most of the time you are completely outnumbered and outgunned and your only option is to run for your life. I found this to be an absolutely fascinating mechanic, and quite novel actually. I’m used to being the powerful protagonist who wins against all odds, but there I was: Fleeing for dear life, surviving by way of dexterity and agility rather than power and fortitude.

My heart was beating faster, my eyes were pinned open, and I was leaning into my screen like it would help me get a better view of my surroundings. I realized that it was the momentum of the game that kept me so completely immersed. If you slow down, they will catch you; if you get stuck, they will catch you, and if they catch you, you will almost certainly die. Mirror’s Edge is an entire game based on the chase scene – and superhuman agility of course.

Read More

Fable III - The Good, The Bad, and The Surprising

[Originally posted Dec-2010 on: GamaSutra.com  GameSetWatch.com & GameCareerGuide.com]

[In this column I examines the good and the bad in Lionhead’s newest installment in the Fable series.]

Shakespeare wrote “… Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds” so, I must love the Fable series. Despite Lionhead’s many missteps, despite Peter Molyneux’s irritating habit of promising more than he can deliver, and despite so many of my friends repeatedly insisting that the games (especially II and III) are horrible, I can’t help myself.

These games are too fun and too full of character, I can’t not love them. Don’t misunderstand though, I’m not saying that Fable III is a phenomenal game, but it’s not horrible either. Even though I was extremely disappointed with Lionhead this time around, I still couldn’t stop playing.

Basically there’s good news and bad news, unfortunately more bad than good. There are quite a few elements missing from Fable III that were such strong signifiers of the brand that I never would have imagined they were on the chopping block. For me, it boils down to this: Previously, the gamer’s imagined internal narrative was greatly enhanced by the nearly unlimited control over the character’s (inter)actions, but in III much of this narrative control is lost.

The Fable franchise was built on the premise of giving the player more control over what kind of character they wanted to be. Fable III takes a large step away from this philosophy, removing many actions that were freely available previously, and replaces them with limited, repetitive, and context-sensitive options.

Read More

Upgrading Legends

[Originally posted Dec-2010 on: GamaSutra.com  GameSetWatch.com & GameCareerGuide.com]

[This week, I look at the slow ascent of the trend to re-make or upgrade titles from previous generations, and how this can impact the sales of such re-releases and ports.]

When Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions came out in 2007 on the PlayStation Portable, I was more than a little excited at the prospect of having one of my favorite games of all time in the palm of my hand.

So imagine my surprise when I booted it up to find a brand new – and gorgeous – title sequence, and my greater surprise when I found that every single line of dialog has been completely re-written.

Not to mention the beautiful, faux colored pencil animated FMVs with high quality voice overs that have replaced many of the cut scenes that were previously done through the in-game engine and written dialog. Final Fantasy Tactics has always been pretty high on my list of greatest stories ever told in a video game, but it was great despite a pretty clunky, inelegant translation that often left you at a complete loss as to what just happened. It was far from a terrible translation, but it was equally far from a great one.

FFT's incredible narrative took on some lofty themes in a sophisticated way, religion, class warfare, familial allegiance, justice, sacrifice, corruption, and betrayal to name only the most prominent. But the full weight of these efforts was lost in the original translation, emerging despite the dialog more than because of it. This is certainly not the case with The War of the Lions.

Every single piece of text in the game has been rewritten with such incredible skill that I often found myself pausing to read a particular line over and over, because it was written so beautifully.

Read More

Switching MAGs

[Originally posted Nov-2010 on: GamaSutra.com & GameSetWatch.com]

[In this piece, I take a look at the mixed-bag MMOFPS MAG and Zipper’s attempt to reinvent the title.]

In January of this year, Zipper Interactive released the ambitious PlayStation 3 exclusive multiplayer action title MAG to mixed reviews. Some applauded the teamwork mechanics and the epic scale – up to 256 players in a single battle, while some focused on the fairly numerous negative points.

These included obvious compromises to technological limitations imposed by squeezing so many players into a single game; the top-heavy leveling system that puts new players at a maddening disadvantage; unbalanced level designs that often give one team a huge advantage; and a surprising number of glitches that weren’t patched before launch despite a lengthy beta-testing cycle.

Despite the many valid complaints, MAG still managed to get scores ranging from decent to excellent across the board; according to Metacritic it received a Metascore of 76 (out of 100) from their compiled critical reviews, and an 8.3 out of 10 from Metacritic users.

Keeping Your Community Happy and Healthy

Even though MAG feels like a fairly generic game on the surface, it does have a hard-to-pinpoint appeal that keeps me coming back for more. Somewhere between the Stonewall and Steamroll matches that occur so frequently, you occasionally get a Superbowl-esque struggle of epic proportions, and win or lose, you feel like a stadium full of people should be cheering for you and your squad. It’s exhilarating.

Read More