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How is design more ethical than marketing?
by Jeff Alexander on 02/11/14 03:19:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

When it comes to ensuring that your game will make money, the conventional wisdom is that you are unsavory at best if you dispassionately incorporate elements primarily based on whether they’ve made other games profitable. The community tells you to go by your internal sense of ethics and your personal expertise as a professional, and not place too much faith in the objective measure of what customers pay the most money for because that measurement is so easily manipulated. The methods of hijacking human psychology are familiar, proven, and more widely understood by companies like King and EA every day.

Yet when it comes to designing what players can do within the game rather than how they can spend money on it, we find a parallel situation with opposite advice attached. Here, objective playtesting and player observation are lionized. The designer who produces a play mechanic or a control scheme or a tutorial level purely from intuition invariably creates a bad game. What you think players will like, want, understand, or do is invariably less accurate than what they say they will, which is, in turn, notoriously off the mark from how they actually act.

In other words, when designing a game, it’s smartest by far to base your decisions primarily on what players do and less on what they say they want or what you think is best, but when it comes to selling your game, following that exact plan — basing marketing and monetization decisions primarily off what players do pay for and less on what they say they want or what you think is best — is despicable.

I’m not sure why this is. Possibly it’s because human purchasing behavior is more susceptible to influence than play behavior is. At least, that seems to be a common first-order explanation. But consider:

  • In designing Canabalt, Adam Saltsman deliberately allowed the player to jump for a fraction of a second after running off the ledge of a building, when he’s visibly in empty air, as well as jump cleanly over obstacles even if they’re so close that the character clips through the corner on the way up. Saltsman did this as a result of so many test players mistiming their jumps and getting frustrated at the game for being oversensitive and unforgiving.
  • SounDodger and other bullet hell games have a convention where only the center point of your ship is vulnerable to collision, which leads to the satisfying feeling that you’re squeaking past enemies by the skin of your teeth when, in actuality, they did touch you, just not enough to count.
  • City of Heroes and some installments of the Civilization series had custom random number generators to avoid outcomes that were mathematically valid but felt unintuitive or unfair to people, such as attempting something with a 66% success chance and failing twice in a row.

The common thread behind all these kludges is that players find games much more enjoyable when they blame themselves, not the game, when they fail or lose or die. Tweaks like the above are all accommodations to avoid the player feeling like the game is buggy, arbitrary, unpredictable, or unfairly difficult. Avoiding that has been a critical part of successful video games for as long as they’ve existed, something even the famed Shigeru Miyamoto recognized from studying Pac-Man and concluding that its success lay in convincing the player that she could have made it further if she’d only played better.

But the situations aren’t totally equivalent. Miyamoto increased Donkey Kong’s fairness by giving the player more bona fide power: he added jumping over barrels, which were otherwise frustratingly inescapable. In contrast, the games mentioned above accommodate the player by misrepresenting the way the game world works. They coddle. They fudge. They lie. And all because it playtested better.

So maybe designing games to be the most fun is, in actuality, precisely as unethical as selling them to make the most money. Maybe they’re both laudable. Maybe they’re both reprehensible. Both certainly can be more concerned with being believable than with being honest.

Or, perhaps, it’s not what you do, but why. Adding compulsion loops and pay-real-money-to-continues is selfish. It helps you. Allowing the player to jump for 8 more pixels after he runs off a ledge is magnanimous. It helps him. Friends of mine have made the analogy to a stage magician. His entire job is to fool his audience, yet they attend willingly and even enjoy the misdirection, and no one can legitimately claim that the nature of the magician’s profession makes him inherently unethical — unlike, say, a pickpocket, who employs many of the same techniques.

In any event, in the back of my mind now lies the specter that good playtest results are just as likely to mis-indicate that I’ve made something legitimately fun as high sales figures are to lead a producer to believe the product has been made better, not just more profitable. It’s not a feeling I enjoy.


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Comments


Michael Joseph
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so seems to me the two questions you're asking are
- what's the difference between fair 2 play and fun 2 play?
- when does the focus on fun 2 play cross the line into exploitative design?

I think to an extent when you have to start asking these questions you're probably already in danger of crossing that line. Some developers feel almost compelled to make a particular game and to make it something good and the question of whether they're making something exploitative never comes up. But for other developers, the process of making a game is a much more mechanical process and much time is spent thinking about "fun"... thinking about player psychology and selling more copies. And many marketing folks live full time in that mechanical realm as well.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetris#Easy_spin_dispute


Jeff Alexander
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It's only the second question, really. That plus calling out the double standard of putting "whatever makes the game the most profitable" under a stronger microscope than "whatever makes the game the most fun" when both can be done in less-than-genuine ways.

TC Weidner
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who said marketing is ethical? Just because some may find F2P to possibly be ethically exploitative in certain instance, doesnt then mean that 'regular marketing" therefore must be seen as ethical. To be honest it has many of the same pitfalls as well. You want to talk about marketing pitfalls, I would love that discussion as well.

Life doesnt have an "else" code in it.

Ben Sly
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I wouldn't say that designs based on playtesting is the ethical issue here. It's an integral part of the high amount of polish that big companies like Blizzard, Valve, and Zynga are renowned for. The primary difference between companies like Valve and Zynga in this respect is that Valve has put much more effort into the core of the game before relentlessly polishing it, whereas Zynga takes a very simple game (which is likely a clone) and polishes it until it's a very compelling but still very shallow experience.

As far as giving the player favorable mechanics like the ones you mentioned and not telling the player about them... I'm rather uncomfortable with it as well, even if they playtest well. It feels like I'm misrepresenting the game to the player and quietly dialing the difficulty mode to easy without telling them. Personally, I'd probably still include the mechanics but still tell people about them openly outside of the game, so that the novice player who doesn't read forums or wikis unknowingly benefits from them but the expert who carefully analyzes the game can do so honestly.

Incidentally, issues with people's intuitive understanding of probability is also one of the major reasons I'm very wary of making random chance a significant part of games - it leads to issues just like Sid Meier's where lying to the player is the best option too frequently.

Michael Joseph
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Blizzard and Valve and others certainly do spend a lot of time focusing on things like "flow" to make already good game designs (eg Starcraft, Portal) more "fun" but I hope developers don't automatically start associating the word "polish" with those practices until they become synonymous.

Ara Shirinian
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How do you define a good playtest result? Whether you are evaluating monetization or pure gameplay patterns, the inevitable problem is that the metrics never supply a complete picture about the dynamic at work and your hand in it. There is too much subtle psychology happening. You have to rely on your own expertise to read between the lines.

Indeed, all these things you describe are certainly manipulations, but it is the intent of the manipulation that makes the difference. Wisdom about the complete effects of your manipulations also makes a big difference. This is particularly difficult to learn, especially when studying metrics, because one does not know what they don't know. The metrics do not always clue you in on everything that is happening.

Ron Dippold
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Your examples seem to make the difference clear - the player driven design choices are to improve the player experience (even if they 'cheat'). F2P marketing driven design choices are to degrade the player experience to the point they will pay money to temporarily relieve the pain you're inflicting. It's not about the realism, it's about your intent.

John Trauger
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If you're designing a game just to monetize, it's Marketing doing the designing.

Josh Foreman
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I must be missing something here. I can't figure out how you are applying an ethical dimension to mechanics design. Your examples are about making the mechanics more intuitive and fun, not about 'lying'. Hit box sizes and the physics of a platformer cannot be truthful or lying as far as I can tell. It's all symbolic action designed to elicit specific feelings in the player.

Ben Sly
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The "lying" is in implementing mechanics that don't behave like someone fully understanding thinks the game logic should behave. The examples of being able to leap off of empty air, having a flat percentage chance be affected by prior percentage chances without disclosing that to the player, and making a hitbox smaller than it physically makes sense are all things that the average player would assume were not happening, but made for better playtests in the long run.

The ethical dimension is that you're profiting off of the player's incorrect assumptions. For these examples, the profit is that you've made a more fun game and as such the player also profits from it; so, in these instances, no harm no foul. However, it still should be uncomfortable that the developer is actively working against the player being fully informed of how the game works. That serves as a foot in the door for the developer to assume that the players don't know anything, and may result in the developer incorrectly assuming that he knows better about how the game works than any player could or, worse, convincing himself that he isn't exploiting the players when he really is. I'm not saying that these example tweaks are bad (indeed I'd consider them good), but their impact - both in terms of gameplay and in the developer's psychology - should be considered carefully.

Josh Foreman
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So it's a slippery slope thing? I guess I don't see how small hit boxes establish precedent for exploiting players. AS a player, if I FEEL like a bullet flying through the wing of my spaceship makes the game play better, that IS a rule of that universe I'm playing in. As a developer, I FEEL like I am SERVING the player by making the hitbox that way, not duping them. Perhaps it's just a perceptual shift where some devs are on one side, and some on the other?

Patrik Kotiranta Lundbeg
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If your intent is to trick the player for personal gain, then the chance is high that you are doing something unethical.
On the other hand, if you trick the player for His personal gain, then the chance is high that your action is ethical.
Like others have already pointed out, it is a question about intent.

Playtesting is just a tool to achieve goals like driving a car is a tool to reach destinations. If your intention is to to ram the car through a window to rob a store then... you get the idea.

There are many reasons why game designers tweak game mechanics. Instead of thinking on it as ethical or unethical... ask yourself what it was that lead the designer to make that specific choice. Did they decrease the collision box to give the game an "arcadish" feeling? Was it because the detailed collision detection got to expensive or was it because the player has to pay 10$ to respawn?

Ricardo Hernandez
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I guess in this case I am not an audience for this article, as I love Demon's Souls and Dark Souls which are games that precisely avoid the kind of "help the player" attitude many games seem to have. To me I find it a tad unethical that a game is making itself easier behind my back- but if at least lets me know, I am ok with that (though I still don't like it).

However, I think the problem is best presented by the magician and pick pocket analogy- one is putting up a show to which you have come willingly and expecting to be surprised, the other is taking advantage of the fact that you are enticed on something to make you pay.

It's really different on that end. That said, I want comment on some examples you gave:

"I’m not sure why this is. Possibly it’s because human purchasing behavior is more susceptible to influence than play behavior is. At least, that seems to be a common first-order explanation. But consider:

"In designing Canabalt, Adam Saltsman deliberately allowed the player to jump for a fraction of a second after running off the ledge of a building, when he’s visibly in empty air, as well as jump cleanly over obstacles even if they’re so close that the character clips through the corner on the way up. Saltsman did this as a result of so many test players mistiming their jumps and getting frustrated at the game for being oversensitive and unforgiving."

I don't see much issue here if the game applies this consistently as a rule. It becomes part of the game design and it's not really something hidden. It's part of fine tuning gameplay mechanics. It's almost like saying "Mario can now double jump."


"SounDodger and other bullet hell games have a convention where only the center point of your ship is vulnerable to collision, which leads to the satisfying feeling that you’re squeaking past enemies by the skin of your teeth when, in actuality, they did touch you, just not enough to count."

Again, I don't understand how exactly this is even remotely similar to hiding or exploitative. If it's applied consistently I see it as a basic game rule. Imagine the case for example where the game 'killed you' instantly then it self adjusted gradually to only kill you when you were touched in the center- that's different

"City of Heroes and some installments of the Civilization series had custom random number generators to avoid outcomes that were mathematically valid but felt unintuitive or unfair to people, such as attempting something with a 66% success chance and failing twice in a row."

If it's set to avoid something unintuitive to people, I don't see an issue there either. That's game fine tuning. It's polishing a set of gameplay designs so the player can understand it better. Unfair to people- now that depends.

Except for the last one in the right context, I can't see how these are remotely dishonest. More dishonest is a game that you start playing and it removes or diminishes the difficulty of monsters greatly in the second level because it "saw" that you had a hard time with monsters in the first level - creating a different kind of challenge and game-> *and* did not inform the player about this change.

I find it insulting quite frankly because I don't want to spend $60 for content tourism, I want to play a challenging game.

Jeff Alexander
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"Imagine the case for example where the game 'killed you' instantly then it self adjusted gradually to only kill you when you were touched in the center-"

Imagine the case where a game tells you a battle is 2:1 in your favor and you actually have a 66.7% chance of winning it, then it tells you another battle is also 2:1 in your favor but you secretly have a 100% chance of winning because you lost the last one. That is precisely what happens in the next example -- the one where you "don't see an issue there either".


"More dishonest is a game that you start playing and it removes or diminishes the difficulty of monsters greatly in the second level because it "saw" that you had a hard time with monsters in the first level - creating a different kind of challenge and game-> *and* did not inform the player about this change."

That sounds like the very concept of dynamic difficulty. I have to say I find that very interesting.


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