Games are laden with story, setting, and imagery intended to evoke a particular mood and other intriguing but useless elements. Gamers derive great pleasure from this feedback. We can represent much of this mélange of artistry with the use of a special type of atom known as a red herring.
Red herrings are atoms that designer knows will never result in a useful in-game skill, but that still evokes the pleasure of partial mastery in the player. When the player experiences the information cues, existing player memories are activated and the brain greedily sucks up the clues. For example, many players have pre-existing associations with mushrooms. If you are of a certain age and a certain liberal background, you may even own a rainbow colored T-shirt that sports a mushroom or two. When such a person plays Super Mario Brothers for the first time, they are quite likely to perk up at the sight of magic mushrooms. A skill atom in their brain is activated and they begin free associating why might dear Miyamoto have placed such a counter culture reference in the game.
Of course, the reality is that the mushrooms mean nothing of the sort. The combination of the player’s limited prediction horizon with the chemicals gained from associating the in game feedback with their existing mental structure is enough to create a jolt of pleasure that the player will happily seek again.
The downside of Red Herrings in their games is that most players rapidly burnout on such sleights of hand. The first time you see the mushroom, you might think it interesting. The second time, you see it as its true nature: a key that unlocks another skill that helps you advance.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this essay. Hopefully, the diagrams give you a good understanding of how to describe a game using skill chains.
Using Skill Chains
As a tool, I’ve found that skill chain diagrams dramatically improve my understanding of how a game works, where it fails and where there are clear opportunities for improvement.
Creating a skill chain provides you with the following information:
- Clearly identify the pre-existing skills that the player needs to begin the game
- Clearly identify the skills that the player needs to complete the game
- Identify which skills need feedback mechanisms.
- Identify where the player experiences pleasure in your game
- Alert the team when and where players are experiencing burnout during play
- Provide a conceptual framework for analyzing why players are experiencing burnout.
Though it takes a little practice, skill atoms aren’t all that complicated to define and are really no more of a burden than writing unit tests for a chunk of code.
Skill chains are a deep topic and we’ve described only the most basics aspects of how they function. Further topics of inquire include:
- Use of instrumented skill chains as a tool in iterative development
- How skill chains related to traditional interaction design
- The role of timing and other reward distribution technique in skill chains
- Critiques of common games using skill chains
- Limitations of skill chains
From Alchemy To Chemistry
I like to imagine that models like skill chains will help raise the level of intent and predictability in modern game design. With the concepts in this essay, you can start integrating this model into your current games and collecting your own data. We’ve got some immensely bright people in our little market and it is almost certain that they can improve upon this foundational starting point. By sharing what you’ve learned, we can begin to improve our models of design. What happens if game designers embrace the scientific process and start build a science of game design?
The alchemists of ages past dreamt of turning lead into gold. They performed mad experiments with imprecise equipment and questionable theories of how the universe worked. Modern game designers are not really so different. Those not simply here for the sake of profit instead rally around equally fantastical dreams such as creating a game that makes the user cry or enlightening the world with games of politics or hunger. We crib cryptic notes from past successes and chortle merrily when our haphazard experiments manage to mildly entertain our audience. We are on the leading cusp of deep human / software interaction and yet we know so little.
It is only by gaining a deeper understanding of the fundamental building blocks of design that game designers with gain the power to break free from the accidental successes of the past. With practical techniques gained from controlled experiments, we will create radically effective new applications. When we have our basic chemistry, our basic systems of measurement and our basic atomic theory, perhaps then we can consistently build games that tap into the heart of human psychology.
The reproducible application of psychological manipulation of individuals and groups using software is big heady stuff. In the short term, I would hope that a deep understanding of models like skill chains help us crack open the rigid craftsmanship of existing genres so that we can build better, more potent games. Long term, it will be interesting to see what world changing uses we can find for our ever improving psychological technology.
References And Notes
The original essay on skill atoms
Effects of solitary confinement on prisoners
Perceptual pleasure and the Brain
Irving Biederman and Edward Vessel, American Scientist, May-June 2006
Abstract: “From hand-held DVD players to hundred-inch plasma screens, much of today's technology is driven by the human appetite for pleasure through visual and auditory stimulation. What creates this appetite? Neuropsychologists have found that visual input activates receptors in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, and that the brain associates new images with old while also responding strongly to new ones. Using functional MRI imaging and other findings, they are exploring how human beings are "infovores" whose brains love to learn. Children may enjoy Sesame Street's fast pace because they get a "click of comprehension" from each brief scene.”
Six sinister things about Super Mario
An example of game chemistry in action
Here is a rough draft of a skill chain for Tetris. It is interesting to note that a game that is mechanically quite simple can possess an expansive skill chain.
· PDF (800k)
· Description of expert level Tetris skills
Relationship of Skill Chains to MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics)
This is a question that has been posed on occasion. MDA is a game analysis framework put forth by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek. It is one of many descriptive techniques that catalog the elements of a game. The hope is that in the process of defining the pieces of a game, the designer will clarify their thinking about a design. This is certainly an admirable goal.
The major differences between the two approaches is that in MDA there is little attempt to model the actual player experience with the game. MDA analysis also fails to provide any objectively testable structure. With skill chains, you can always hook up logging software and observe where atoms light up and where they burn out.
You can read more on MDA here.
A quick overview of alchemy, from a reliably alchemical web 2.0 source