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Great Expectations: Building a Player Vocabulary
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Great Expectations: Building a Player Vocabulary

July 16, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

As designers, we strive to immerse the player in our world by providing a series of interesting and exciting events. In order to do this effectively, it can be very helpful to understand and develop the expectations of the player.

At the start of a game, we can make some basic assumptions about what the player knows. These assumptions can be based on everything from movies, books, and other games, to the way things work in reality. When a player hits a button to call an elevator, they expect the elevator to come to them so they can get on. If they jump off a high building they may take damage or die. If they stay underwater too long they may drown. The player comes to your game with a vast amount of knowledge that you can use.


In order for the designer to use the player's expectations to his advantage, it is important to establish some core game mechanics at the beginning of the game. The player should know what types of objects they can interact with and how they do so. Does opening a door require a "use button" or do they open automatically? Can you use non-player characters? If so, how and in what ways? Things that can hurt the player, like falling, lava, poison, and heat are important rules for the player to know about. These examples may sound simple enough, but its essential to confirm the players expectations if you plan to manipulate them later.

There are a couple of ways that designers commonly use to establish the core game mechanics. In some cases, the designer can teach the player these mechanics as they play through the game. This has the advantage of allowing the player to jump right in and learn as they play. Another option is to create a separate tutorial where the player can learn the basic mechanics without the danger or distraction of the being in the actual game. This has the advantage of making sure the player is prepared enough to really enjoy the experience when they're ready to start the actual game. A tutorial may also be a good idea if the designer is introducing new game mechanics that player may not be familiar with.

As designers, we can carefully build a vocabulary of game mechanics and shape what the player knows about the environment, and when they know it. For example, when the player pushes a button to call an elevator, they simply expect the elevator to come to them so they can get on. This would be normal. However, you could imagine their surprise when the elevator suddenly comes crashing down with a group of screaming scientists on board. We get the element of surprise mixed in with a bit of humor creating a memorable experience for the player. More importantly, we've expanded the player's understanding of what can happen in this environment.

Once there is a basic understanding of how the world works, the designer can further expand on the player's vocabulary and expectations to create new and interesting scenarios. An example: The player walks by a few large grates in a floor, looking down in the first few and seeing nothing of interests. After a while, they come to believe that the grates are a static part of the world. The designers usese this opportunity to take advantage of the player's disregard for the grates. At a grate just a bit further along, a monster comes crashing up through the grate to attack the player.

The designer might enhance this scene in a number of different ways. Perhaps there was an eerie sound coming from the grates that drew the player to look below under every grate. Perhaps they found an NPC hiding under a grate and chose to look for more. After we take the player by surprise, they may now choose to be more cautious about grates. Maybe they'll be ready for combat whenever they walk by a grate. We've expanded the player's vocabulary with regard to how grates work in the world. Players may become more aware and alert about things that may seem "normal" in the environment. Think about the tremendous value we've just given to a simple grate! Designers can use this heightened sense of awareness to make even the simplest things more interesting; a door that is slightly ajar, a ceiling tile that is out of place.

Think of this little scenario: In one part of the game we introduce a simple hallway. In a section just after the hallway, we introduce monsters that drop down from certain types of ceiling tiles. Later, we introduce monsters that can break through closed doors. Now, can you imagine the feeling the player will have when they arrive at a long hallway that has the same grates on the floor, the same ceiling tiles that monsters have been known to drop from, and some doors where monster may be waiting to bash through? Think of the suspense that can be created in the player's every step. This ability to manage and manipulate the player's expectations is a powerful tool for a designer.

If it is quiet, even a well-placed sound effect can be startling to the player. The designer could use any combination of these events or they could choose to layer them. Perhaps the designer chooses to only introduce the grates and the ceiling tiles forcing the player to walk along the walls for safety. This would be a good time to introduce the monster crashing through a door across the hall! Perhaps none of the above happen and a completely new monster runs down the hallway, stirring up all of the other monsters. Ultimately, it comes down to the designer's personal goals and preferences how they want to develop the scenario.

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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