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Beyond Psychological Theory: Getting Data that Improves Games

March 21, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

How can I make my game more fun for more gamers?

This is the question for those who want to make games that are popular, not just critically acclaimed. One (glib) response is to "design the games better." Recently, the idea of applying psychological theories as a way of improving game design has been an increasingly popular topic in various industry publications and conferences. Given the potential of applying psychological theory to game design, I anticipate these ideas to become more frequent and more developed. While I think using psychological theories as aids to think about games and gamers is certainly useful, I think that psychology has much more to offer than theory. An enormous part of the value of psychology to games lies in psychological research methods (collecting data), not the theories themselves.

I should clarify some terms here. When I talk about "psychology," I do not mean the common perception of psychology--talking to counselors, lying on the Freudian couch, mental illness, etc. In academia, this kind of psychology is called "clinical psychology." In this paper, "psychology" refers to experimental psychology, which employs the scientific method in studying "normal populations functioning normally."

But before I talk about how psychological research methods can help improve games, I need to first explain more about how psychological theories are helpful, and the limitations they have with respect to game design.

Psychological theories can be useful, but data are more useful
All designers think about what people like, hate and want. Some designers may be consciously using theories from psychology as part of the process to evaluate what people want, but most designers probably just rely on their intuitive theories of what they perceive gamers want.

The risks of relying on intuitive psychology. What I call "Intuitive psychology" is the collection of thoughts, world views, 'folk wisdom' etc. that people use to try to understand and predict others. Some examples might make this clearer--one common intuitive psychological belief about attraction is that "opposites attract." However many people (and many of the same people) also believe the opposite, that "birds of a feather flock together." Both of these ideas have some merit and are probably true in some ways for most people. But given that they are clearly conflicting statements, it is unclear which statements to believe and act on--which statement is true? Or, more likely, when is each statement more likely to be true? Does the degree of truthfulness for these statements vary by people? By situation? By both? The problem with intuitive psychology is that many intuitions disagree with each other, and it is unclear which world view is more likely to be right, if either of them are at all. You're just trusting that the designer's theories are close enough to reality in that the design will be compelling.

The insufficiency of formal theories of psychology. Formal theories of psychology have been subjected to rigorous testing to see when they map onto reality, and when they do not. In order for a theory of psychology to gain any kind of acceptance, the advocates have to have battled with some success against peers who are actively attempting to show it to be incorrect or limited. This adversarial system of determining "truth" and reliable knowledge employs the scientific method of running experiments and collecting data. Because of this adversarial system, formal theories of psychology are more trustworthy than intuitive theories of psychology--you know that they are more than just one person's unsubstantiated opinion about what people want.

But while theories of psychology from academia can be quite useful as a lens to examine your game, their limitation is that they are typically too abstract to provide concrete action items at the level designers need. This lack of specificity in psychological theories hasn't really hurt designers too much, because in the most part designers (and people in general) have a decent enough idea of how to please people without needing formal theories. I think very few people had light bulbs go on when they learned that Skinner's theory of conditioning stipulates that people will do stuff for rewards. But the work that Skinner and others did on how to use rewards and punishers well in terms of acquisition and maintenance of behaviors can be enlightening. But academic theories of psychology don't get granular enough to tell us whether gamers find the handling of the Ferrari a bit too sensitive.

An example of why academic theories of psychology aren't enough is in order. Skinner's Behaviorism is probably one of the most well-defined and supported theories, and the easiest to apply to games. (In fact, John Hopson wrote an excellent article in Gamasutra in April 2001 demonstrating how to analyze your game through behaviorism's lens.) One of Hopson's examples is about how players in an RPG behave differently depending upon how close they are to reinforcement (e.g., going up a level, getting a new item, etc.). He talks about how if reinforcers are too infrequent, the player may lose motivation to get that next level. However, how often is not often enough? Or too often? (Who wants to level up every five seconds?) Both "too often" and "not often enough" will de-motivate the player. Designers need to find a 'sweet spot' between too often and not often enough that provides the optimal (or at least a sufficient) level of motivation for the player to keep trying to level up. Theory may help designers begin to ask the more pertinent questions, but no theory will tell you exactly how often a player should level up in three hours of play in a particular RPG games.

Beyond Theory: the value of collecting data with psychological methods
So I've argued that the psychological theories (both intuitive and academic) have limitations that prevent them from being either trustable or sufficiently detailed. Now I'm going to talk about what IS sufficiently trustworthy AND detailed--collecting data with psychological methods. Feedback gleaned via psychological testing methods can be an invaluable asset in refining game design.

As I said at the beginning of this paper, the central question for a designer who wants to make popular games is "how do I make my game more fun for more gamers?" and that a glib response is to "design the games better." Taking the glib answer seriously for a moment, how do you go about doing that? Presumably, designers are doing the best they can already. The Dilbertian "work smarter, not harder" is funny, but not helpful. The way to help designers is the same way you help people improve their work in all other disciplines--you provide them feedback that helps them learn what is good and not so good about their work, so that they can improve it.

Of course, designers get feedback all the time. In fact, I'm sure that many designers sometimes feel that they get too much feedback--it seems that everyone has an opinion about the design, that everyone is a "wannabe" designer (disguised as artists, programmers, publishing execs, etc.), as well as everyone's brother. But the opinions from others often contradict each other, and sometimes go against the opinions of the designer. So the designer is put in the difficult situation of knowing that their design isn't perfect, wanting to get feedback to improve it, and encountering feedback that makes sense, yet is often contradictory both with itself and with the designer's own judgment. This makes it difficult to know what feedback to act on. So the problem for many designers is not a lack of feedback, but an epistemological problem--whose opinion is worth overruling their own judgment? Whose opinion really represents what more gamers want?

Criteria for good feedback and a good feedback delivery system
Before launching into a more detailed analysis of common feedback loops and my proposed "better" one, I need to make my criteria explicit for what I consider "good" feedback and a good feedback delivery system. The addition of "delivery system" is necessary to provide context for the value (not just accuracy) of the feedback. The criteria are:

  1. The feedback should accurately represent the opinions of the target gamers. By "target gamers," I mean the group of gamers that the game is trying to appeal to (e.g., driving gamers, RTS gamers, etc.) If your feedback doesn't represent the opinion of the right group of users, then it may be misleading. This is absolutely critical. Misleading feedback is worse than no feedback, the same way misleading road signs are worse than no signs at all. Misleading signs can send folks a long way down the wrong road.

  2. The feedback should arrive in time for the designer to use it. If the feedback is perfect, but arrives too late (e.g., post RTM, or after that feature is locked down), the feedback isn't that helpful.

  3. The feedback should be sufficiently granular for the designer to take action on it. The information that "gamers hate dumb-sounding weapons" or that "some of the weapons sound dumb" isn't nearly as helpful as "Weapon A sounds dumb, but Weapons B, C, and D sounds great."

  4. The feedback should be relatively easy to get. This is a pragmatic issue--teams won't seek information that is too costly or too difficult to get. Teams don't want to pay more money or time than the information is worth ($100k and 20 person hours to learn that people slightly prefer the fire-orange Alpha paint job to the bright red one is hardly a good use of resources.)

The first criterion is about the accuracy of the feedback which is critical; the rest are about how that feedback needs to be delivered if it is going to be useful, not merely true.

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