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Shoot to Thrill: Bio-Sensory Reactions to 3D Shooting Games
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Shoot to Thrill: Bio-Sensory Reactions to 3D Shooting Games

December 2, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[How can you measure player reaction to games? Using games from Half-Life 2 through Gears Of War, this Gamasutra article, originally published in Game Developer magazine, shows how tech company Emsense uses brainwaves, heart activity, and even blinking to estimate engagement.]

By 2007, the next-gen ecosystem had come of age. The Xbox 360 had been out for more than a year, and both the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii had hit the market with a slew of new titles. The shooter genre, in particular, had pushed the envelope both in terms of graphics as well as new gameplay.

As part of our research activities at EmSense, a San Francisco-based company that uses proprietary brain monitoring EEG and bio-sensing technology to measure engagement and emotional and cognitive responses to content, we set out to understand exactly what defined the successful modern, next-gen shooter title.

Where does it engage, and where doesn't it? How do players actually respond to new innovative gameplay (minus the hype)? We were also determined to identify broad trends that have occurred across all next-gen titles.

We started by looking at how players responded to then-new first- and third-person shooter video games on the market: Battlefield 2142, Call of Duty 3, F.E.A.R., Gears of War, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, and Resistance: Fall of Man. We added two "classics," Halo 2 and Half-Life 2, to provide perspective from the previous generation of titles.

We measured players' responses to the first 90 minutes of those games, a time that we consider the most important for making a positive impression.

More than 300 hours of physiological and gameplay data were generated and analyzed to develop our findings.

We came in with no preconceptions, no prejudices, and let the response data demonstrate what worked and what didn't. The results are at times a confirmation of existing techniques that are timeless to good game design, and at other times, surprising and revealing about what gamers truly care about but often can't find a way to say.

What Went Right

1. Cutscenes with overarching emotional themes.

Uncovering the "perfect" cutscene, in terms of power of physiological emotional response, proved to have no formula. Just like their cinematic movie counterparts, game cutscenes have no single creative blueprint. As you can imagine, a horror film evokes a different set of emotions than a comedy, but both may be powerful and effective pieces of art.

What we did find is that games like Gears of War, F.E.A.R., and Call of Duty 3 consistently engage players by specializing in a particular thematic emotion.

In F.E.A.R., for example, dark themes and creepy music consistently translated to a high level of engagement. The introductory cut scene of F.E.A.R. was associated with a high level of adrenaline, even more so than much of the combat in the game. Creative elements like dialog, music, and blood-filled scenes combined to create this strong fear response about 73 percent of the time -- significantly higher than the genre average we recorded for cutscenes.

Call of Duty 3 used a different formula, albeit one that is just as effective. Its most engaging cutscenes came not from fear, but from a feeling of reward, as measured by our positive emotion vector. Each of the cutscenes at the end of a level in Call of Duty 3, which naturally included NPC encouragement for a job well done, led to a strong positive reward response in up to 80 percent of players. It was a simple and effective way to link the intensity of gameplay with feelings of accomplishment.

Our big surprise came with Gears of War. We examined the 10 biggest events in Gears of War as defined by the highest levels of recorded player engagement. We weren't surprised when we saw fights against swarming Wretches or other epic battles. What we didn't expect to see was a cutscene: Lieutenant Kim, the protagonist's comrade, is killed suddenly and violently by enemy forces.

Together, over 80 percent of players reacted with one of the 10 most intense engagement responses of the game, no small feat for a title with bloody chainsaws and huge courtyard battles. Consistently, Gears of War players showed high levels of engagement during action, battle sequences, and when in conversation with their comrades.

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