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In a couple of days, it’s time for GDC 2011. One of the lectures that I’m personally interested in is the one on why Jane McGonigal doesn’t not want her “stinking badges“ anymore. I remember her ranting about how great frequent flier miles were as a good example of the lessons MMO games can teach us to make more serious activities fun. The buzz-word “Gamification” was coined to describe – according to Wikipedia – the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications, particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. While I’m a big fan of making boring and repetitive tasks fun, this blog has become a statement of how much I’m disgusted by game design based on behaviorist principles (see here and here). Needless to say, if gamification refers to adding achievements, rewards and badges to serious applications, then I’ll be one of the designers on the front lines fight against it.
Of course, I’m hardly alone there and gamification has had a ton of criticism from game designers and academics alike. So now there will be a lecture on the GDC by McGonigal on how gamification got it wrong and gameful design is the way to go. In her abstract, we read the following:
“If you hate the term gamification, you’re not alone: Plenty of game developers think gamification sounds cynical and opportunistic — a way to motivate gamers to do something they’ ordinarily avoid. Worse, many early adopters of gamification are creating mere shells of a game: game feedback systems stripped of any satisfying activity, meaning, story, or heart. But there is another way. What we need now is a more holistic and whole-hearted approach to using game design to transform reality. This presentation is an introduction to gameful design: how to infuse real life and real work with the true spirit, or emotional and social qualities, of gameplay. You’ll learn a four-part gameful strategy that focuses on how to create the lasting positive impacts that games are famously good at generating: more positive emotions, stronger social relationships, a bigger sense of purpose, and meaningful mastery. As game designers, we can do better than gamification. We owe reality more than some stinkin’ achievement badges, or points, or leaderboards.”
Personally, I’d say that this direction is essential in order to achieve the potential of digital game elements to improve boring day to day tasks. After all, Salen & Zimmerman already pointed out how good game design is based on creating meaningful experience in their influential book Rules of Play. Nevertheless, reading this abstract it seems to me that the essence of the design exercise is still left out. According to McGonigal, gameful design should focus on 1) more positive emotions, 2) stronger social relationships, 3) a bigger sense of purpose and 4) meaningful mastery. Is that even something new, even outside the scope of gaming? And is that something that we can learn from digital games, hence warranting the term ‘gameful design’?
I’d say “no” to both questions. I haven’t seen her lecture yet so I might jump to conclusions here, but to me it seems that all she’s going to talk about is “intrinsic motivation” without actually referring to the concept. Gamification has been called nothing more than buzz-word, and if my suspicions are correct then here’s a great argument to make that claim. Psychologists have written a lot on how people are motivated intrinsically, but I will restrict myself here to Ryan & Deci’s Self-Determination Theory. In this theory, the conclusion is that three elements are essential for intrinisic motivation: 1) competence (i.e. to being effective in dealing with the environment a person finds themselves in), 2) autonomy (i.e. the universal urge to be causal agents of our own life and act in harmony with our integrated self), and to a lesser extent 3) relatedness (i.e. the universal want to interact, be connected to and experience caring for others).
Now let’s look at that abstract again. First, gameful design aims for more positive emotions. McGonigal will explain to us what that exactly means to her, but the effects of intrinsic motivation are often cited to be positive for the individual. And let’s be frank here: this seems to be more of a goal than a design guideline. Second, gameful design aims for stronger social relationships. In SDT, psychologists refer to relatedness which seems to be practically the same. Third, gameful design calls for a bigger sense of purpose. In SDT, that’s autonomy on the one hand, and competence and even relatedness on the other. Fourth, gameful design leads to meaningful mastery. In SDT, that’s called competence. So while I’m very interested in her presentation, I’d say that designers would be better off designing for psychological needs that lead to intrinsic motivation and that are empirically valid, than trying to design to meet the next buzz-word McGonigal helps to launch. The essence of this exercise seems to be designing for intrinsic motivation, and from my point of view gameful design seems to miss this point.
And that’s the point of this post. I didn’t really have a link to share with you this time, but if you’d like to read more about this topic, then here are a few links that are definitely worth your time. The first one comes from a company that designs serious games using intrinsic motivation (without actually mentioning the term either, but the principles are similar as well). The second is a book on why extrinsic motivated behavior (i.e. the stinking badges) is not a good concept to design activities around.
When The Escapist’s Extra Credits reviewed sexuality in games, one of the main conclusions of their discussion was that games should start to explore sexuality without exploiting it. After all, sexuality is a core aspect of the human experience, and therefore an essential element for games’ content to improve upon in order to grow as a an artistic medium. I wish I could say that Red Dead ReDodo is one of the games that does this right, but unfortunately… nothing could be further from the truth. Well, at least I got you interested in reading about this game by referring to a meaningful discourse. So now that you’re here, I think you should really play this demo of a game. Why, you ask? Well, because some friends of colleagues of mine made it during the Global Game Jam and now it’s on Kongregate competing in the $10,000 Unity contest.
Like the other games in the Global Game Jam, the game’s theme is ‘extinction’. What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone brings up the topic of extinction? That’s right, copulating dodos being shish kebabed. Needless to say, this isn’t a game for dodo sympathizers. (In case you are wondering, a dodo – or should I say: the Raphus Cucullatus - is an extinct bird that is famous for how silly it looked.) The game plays like some sort of deranged anti-lemmings, in which you sacrifice your lemmings – or in this case: dodos – in order to progress through dangerous lands. Running out of dodos isn’t a problem as long as you keep 2 of them alive because then they can always… well… do the four-legged foxtrot.
It’s a short but punishing game filled with glitches and bugs, but don’t let that stop you from playing Red Dead ReDodo (and giving it a fair rating, of course.)
(To play, you might need to install the Unity player. I highly recommend it as it will allow you access to many pretty cool 3D games for free on Kongregate. The installation is very fast and painless.)
In a previous post I discussed how some digital games are glorified Skinner boxes, aiming to condition players to keep playing for extrinsic rewards instead of fun. This morning I read an interview with Jonathan Blow that I wanted to share here. You probably know him from the indie hit Braid. If you don’t, then give that game a try. It’s a tad pretentious from time to time, but it’s great fun to play thanks to clever mechanics, a lot of variety and an intriguing storyline that will have you read plot analyses afterwards. He’s a very outspoken indie designer and he’s currently promoting his new game, The Witness.
All that’s in the first part of the interview but the second part was about social games and why they are not social at all. I’ve established in my previous post how games like Farmville – yes, here I go again – are not about having fun (Skinner boxes!). Blow – and I think I remember Jesse Schell making a similar point at DICE or the GDC – argues that they aren’t social either. They are about exploiting friends lists to get more players to play. As a result players will not meet new people through them. They will also seldom play together with their friends, since the games are asynchronous in their designs. They are also about guilt-tripping people into playing because they do not want their friends to think less of them because their virtual farm, hospital, city, cesspit, etc. isn’t as pretty as it should be. Well, I added that last bit but it’s in support of the claim Blow makes. He actually compares certain social game designers to the cigarette industry, and I personally couldn’t agree more with that. To a lot of social game designers, it’s no longer about improving someone’s life, it’s all about how much money you can make of them.
Last month I was coincidentally asked the same question quite a few times: how do you make money developing video games? That’s a perfectly simple question, but I have to admit that I did not have a clear answer to that question since there are many ways games are monetized. I decided to post a list of all the business models for games that I’m aware of, but in the end I found a nice list written by industry veteran David Perry. I’ve written a quick summary below, since the original article is spread out on a lot of pages.
Retail will probably become pre-paid cards when the industry goes online to combat piracy and slower delivery times. Enhanced editions are common practice.)
Steam, PSN, XBLA, etc.
Advertising in various elements of the game
The advertising you’ll see surrounding various free online games that aren’t in the game itself.
Finder’s Fee from First Dollar
Pay a website owner a commission if their website brings you a paying customer. You can balance the fee to a reasonable percentage of your income.
Develop games that are basically advertisements for other products.
Trail- and shareware
Let your customers play a part of the game for free and let them pay for the full experience.
Customers are able to buy the full gaming experience through relatively cheap episodes. Expansion packs are another kind of episodic games.
Skill-Based Progressive Jackpots
Similar to a poker tournament, players buy a ticket to enter a tournament. The winners gets the jackpot, but the organizer (read: you) gets the biggest part of the pie.
Playing the game is free or cheap, but paying allows access to many features (which are often necessary to enjoy the game to the fullest or to be competitive).
Recurring payments, usually through credit cards or automatic payments. Sometimes stopping payments will even delete the player’s progress (which players do not enjoy).
The game is free but for small payments, players can buy new content, such as vanity items, better functionalities, faster levelling, and so on.
Sponsored games and Donationware
Players or philanthropists pay for the game’s costs. Serious games are made this way, but also some open source projects work this way.
Pay per Play/Time
Similar to the arcade machines and pinballs, players pay for what they need or as long as they can make the experience last on a preset number of in-game lives.
Player to Player Trading
Use auctions to let players trade their in-game properties, and use a cut of the money on those auctions to pay for your product. Keeping everything in-game (and avoid players trading on a black market) is an important part of this strategy.
Foreign Distribution Deals
Pre-sell the foreign distribution rights and use the money to finance development.
Sell Access to your Players
Monetize your user database by selling personal information of players to third parties. The value of your database is equal to how exclusive, revealing and fresh your data is. Making such deals beforehand (so you can implement relevant questions in your user profile submission system) helps as well.
Making your game free will potentially get you lots of users and offers from third parties to acquire your game.
Sell your game far too cheap and recover your losses elsewhere. Use the passion of your user to your advantage and sell them other products through your game. The PS3 hardware was sold for a low price in order to boost software sales and make a profit that way.
Make a profit selling peripherals that the game needs to function, such as an exercise bike for a cycling game.
Player to Player Wagering
Allow players to place wagers before competitive skill-based games and keep a share of the money for yourself. A neat way to do this is by having players buy virtual items before competition, and then allow the winner of the battle to keep the items.
User Generated Content
Allow players to create and sell their own content while you get a cut of the profit.
Pay for Storage Space
Let players pay you by buying storage for their in-game assets on your servers.
Pay for Private Game Servers
In order to play with their friends on private servers, players need to rent them. This model specifically caters to hardcore players of competitive games.
An outdated system but still worth noting, renting games that can’t be played through on one rental period is a business model that has seen some use.
Let a bigger corporation or a chain use your game to their benefits. For example, McDonalds used Line Rider in one of their advertisements.
Selling Branded Physical Items
Sell items from your game. For example, sell T-Shirts using CafePress to pay for your game.
Pre-Sell the Game to the Players
Let your players pay for your development by offering them lifelong access to the finished product in return for a smaller sum. For example, Minecraft was sold for $10 while it was in alpha, while letting people know that the eventual price would be $20 after it was finished.
Buy Something Else, Get the Game for Free
Trialpay lets the player buy something they want and they get the game for free alongside the other product.
Before playing the game, players are forced to watch an advertisment. If they pay for the game, the advertisments are removed.
Virtual Item Sponsorship
If your game has a lot of virtual items, then why not put branded, real-life items in your virtual world.
In order to keep the game available for download online, players pay an extra fee.
Pay Players to Meet a Challenge
Put a difficult challenge in your game and pay the first player that defeats it a certain sum of money. Blend it with other models to pay for the reward money.
Sell Something Consumable
Make the game free-to-play but force players to buy for consumable virtual items, such as virtual bullets, gas, etc.
Feed Me or I Die
This tamagoshi model forces players to pay to keep their virtual characters alive.
A lot of these business models have drastic implications for the design of a game. For example, what part of the game will you make freely available through trialware? Too much and players might not be interested anymore, too little and players might not be curious enough to buy the full game.
There’s also quite a bit of overlap between the different models Perry described, which brings us to another point. Many games use a combination of these models. World of Warcraft uses subscriptions, microtransactions, episodic entertainment, trialware, etc.
Of course, there are quite a few psychological tricks involved in some of the business models. Zynga is probably the master of these things, as you can read in a previous post I wrote. A few of these models might not even be morally justified.
For the full article (and some great examples and pictures) check out the link below, but keep in mind that the article was written in 2008 and that the industry moves fast.
Whether doing scientific or pragmatic research, the difficult part is bringing meaning to your data. It’s not easy to extract something meaningful, something innovative, or the essence from a vast body of data. I’ve seen quite a few times how data gets collected and is only used to conjure up some vague notions and general ideas, simply because people do not manage to get past the wall of data. One of the issues there might be the digital tools the world todays offers to aid the process of turning research data into information. To give an example, for the qualitative research in my PhD I used nVivo, and – to be honest – I didn’t really manage to get anywhere after coding my transcripts until I started to use Post-Its and print-outs to make the codes more tangible in the space around me. I tried to do the same in nVivo but even on two 1080p monitors I did not get to the point where it became easy to move through data and make connections. Personally, I don’t even see how a Minority Report interface (like the one they seem to be building a the MIT) would be better at this than a pack of Post-Its. So when I read John Kolko’s article (link below) on turning research into innovation, the point of inertia after data collection just sounded all too familiar. It describes 1) how laptops can make it impossible to see and feel connections between data, and 2) how important it is to draw models when finding connections instead of just talking about them. Well, I guess that’s enough good advice to get a post at this newsfeed.
I’ll just throw it out there. The Secret of Monkey Island is one of my favorite adventure games of all times. I have learned a lot from that games, in the sense that no pirate will beat me in an insult battle to this day. “What is that you say? I fight like a dairy farmer? Well, that is quite appropriate of you to say, since you, good sir or madam, fight like a cow.” See? Razor-sharp Monkey Island wits right there. (And if all else fails, I know I can always rely on the good old “Look behind you, there’s a three-headed monkey!”)
But enough of references to the game that requires readers to have played the game. (Shame on you if you didn’t.) The point of this post is not to impress you with my knowledge of Monkey Island insults. You can just google them if you’re looking for them. The point of this post is to highlight an article I read last night about the narrative of Monkey Island. Silly as it might be some times, Monkey Island is a nice example of Jungian archetypes and Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, and the article applies these theories to the game. (I don’t feel like explaining both concepts, here are two links for a quick overview about them: Jung, Vogler).
The article also discusses how Monkey Island uses the technique of narrative architecture (see here). Personally, I thought that this went a bit far. While I do agree that spaces can conjure up narratives, the symbolism used in the article felt a bit far-fetched to me from time to time. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that water was a symbol for emotion. I personally associated it with life, grace, fluidity, transformation, etc. but emotion seems a long reach. In the end, it look to me that you can just write anything you like about the symbolism of a certain element of the game and get away with it. Then again, symbolism just isn’t my cup of tea so what do I know, right?
So that’s all I had to say about this article. There are a lot of interesting topics in there if you’re not familiar with game narratives very much, and while the article repeats itself quite a bit, I felt that it was still an interesting read. Especially after (or before) finishing the game (or the recently released graphical update, in my case).
For some reason my bar visits often seem to transform into a discussion about good and evil. I guess there’s just so much to talk about before things take a turn towards current affairs and someone at the bar claims that a certain company or person is pure evil. Now, keeping in mind that I’m referring to late night barroom conversations, these conversations are hardly ever grounded in philosophical theories. It’s not like I’m having a drink with Kant or Nietsche, so let’s just say that everybody has their own definitions for what good or evil is. (In fact, some people seem to think that an inanimate object like a jacket I happen to own can be evil, but that’s something I’ll discuss another time. Preferably over a drink at the bar I mentioned earlier. And yes, you’re buying.)
So in the light of these barroom conversations, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the following articles about morality in Dungeons & Dragons, Palladium and the movie Inglourious Basterds. Summarizing the articles here would be a bit of a waste (considering the articles are so fun to read), so click the links below and don’t come back before you can tell my why Rorschach (a character from the Watchmen graphic novel that likes to break fingers in order to obtain information from thugs) will never be able to become a paladin in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.
(And now that we’re on the subject, there is a great book coming out soon on morality in video games later this year. It’s currently being edited by Karolien Poels and Steven Malliet. Keep an eye out for it because it will be brilliant and I am not just saying that because I’m a good friend of the editors. It will quite honestly rock your proverbial socks off.)
Going through some papers for my PhD, I stumbled upon a paper in the DiGRA library by Jonas Linderoth. In it, he argues how we often tend to give games too much credit regarding their learning potential. A lot of people have argued how games have a huge potential as an educational environment (with James Paul Gee’s book probably being to most cited reference to make this claim). We all know how expert gamers “learned” very complex interactions through playing. These interactions might not always be very useful in real life, but then there are some of us have learned English as a second language through playing games. I personally learned it by watching subtitled He-Man episodes on the television as a kid, but games, online chatrooms and discussion boards will probably have played a part in my knowledge of the English language as well. I’ve also learned a great deal about managing complex systems through playing games, and I was motivated to do a lot of “research” on certain topics that were introduced to me in games. In fact, I’m currently writing a PhD on digital games (albeit not about learning from them). So I guess that I have learned things from games, and I bet you will have done the same if you’ve played as much as I have during the course of your life.
Linderoth’s paper questions this assumption using an ecological perspective. In ecology, human learning is a process of being able to make ever finer distinctions. What does that mean? Well, Linderoth explains this using the example of the off-side trap. An experienced soccer player is capable to make the distinction between a defense that is forming the trap and a defense that isn’t. (If you do not know soccer very well, it’s something similar to a half-court trap in Basketball.) So learning to become a good soccer player is a process in which you learn to perceive and respond, and this happens by making distinctions. Now, according to Linderoth, this kind of learning is often present in games but it also dumbed down a lot. You might remember games (e.g. Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, LEGO Indiana Jones, Left 4 Dead, etc.) in which a visual indicator highlights where a certain object has to go, or where are certain enemy has to be. A lot of games use this feature to make the gameplay easier for the player. And as a result, Linderoth concludes that games require less learning than other, real-life activities. Nobody is going to highlight an off-side trap in real life for a soccer player, for example.
Personally, I do not completely agree with the paper in the sense that this does not imply to me that gamers learn more or less than someone doing a different activity. In fact, I remember how certain games (Arham Asylum?) offer the player to disable the highlighting of objects and enemies. Pointing out affordances isn’t very different from training wheels on a bicycle in that case. Riding with training wheels has certain limitations, but it does allow kids who aren’t old enough for a real bike to start peddling and learn another part of biking. Of course, some players will never drop their digital training wheels and some games are only training wheels. But isn’t that simply because people are playing them for entertainment purposes? Nobody is trying to learn how to actually survive a zombie apocalypse in Left 4 Dead. I guess we welcome in-game help, because the game is already hard enough to defeat.
And that’s an argument Linderoth makes in his conclusion as well. Games provide the players a lot of shortcuts and help in perceiving what to do, simply because it is good game design. As a result, this paper is a fine example of how good game design does not automatically respond with good learning. Sometimes games need to challenge players a bit further and not allow them to rely on in-game help so often. So instead of stating how gamers do not learn more (which is the title of the paper), I state how gamers often are lazy learners. Unless at some point, they throw away their training wheels.
A big part of making games fun is related to how well a game teaches. A lot of academics and designers have argued how learning is a primary motivator for playing. We play in order to learn about our environments, we play because we want to get control over reality or cope with reality. The classic example here come from the animal kingdom: a lion cub playing with a butterfly. The little lion has nothing to gain in such a play activity, except for fun and improving his hunting skills.
So, considering how games and learning have always been closely related, how can game designers use this relationship to their advantage? One way to do so is to consider a potential player’s learning experience while designing or evaluating games. A practical way to do so would be through use of Rasmussen’s the SRK framework (skills, rules, knowledge). SRK describes the information processing that goes on in our minds from being confronted with a novel situation to mastering it. This morning, Gamasutra published an interesting article by Paul Goodman and Adams Greenwood-Ericksen that applies the framework to Left 4 Dead and its special infected.
The most relevant topic of 2010 with regards to video game design has to be the debate about the behaviorist principles behind many digital games, of which Farmville is probably the poster boy. The year is almost over so I’m running late here but I wanted to include a post about it on my new blog, especially considering that I have already awarded it my 2010 topic of the year award in the previous sentence. In my opinion the topic deserves this dubious award since 2010 is the year in which the industry has really started to overdo the application of behaviorist principles in its games. Okay, I’m writing this blog for myself but others might be lurking here so maybe I should explain what I meant with that. I’ll give you two examples that led me to writing this post.
First, I quit Warstorm.
Warstorm is a game I started playing when it was still Warstorm.com. Warstorm’s an asynchronous trading card game which I enjoyed because it had a very enjoyable balance between chance and strategy. The game was designed by a company that was bought by Zynga – which you might recognize as the developer of many Facebook games such as Farmville – a few months after Warstorm hit Facebook. And Zynga did its magic on the game. Where the game used to feature competitions in the form of ladders, leagues and tournaments, it now became about battling random opponents while collecting in-game cash. Where the game used to be about trading to acquire good or rare cards, the game now gave you the cards just for showing up every day. These things led to a much more boring and tedious version of the game, but Zynga took things even further. Zynga added a new feature to the game: players got the opportunity to boost their decks in return for some in-game cash. To actually use the boost, they need to come back two hours later. The game that Warstorm once was has turned into some kind of Farmville fantasy trading card game.
Like a Skinner Box, Warstorm now employs variable reinforcement. Skinner’s psychology teaches us that rewarding rats (or people in this case) randomly is a successful method to condition them to perform a certain behavior (or in this case, returning to Facebook Warstorm and playing meaningless battles). Warstorm applies this by handing out cool cards at random after you finish a battle. Like a Skinner Box, Warstorm also employs operant conditioning now, in the sense that returning to the game seven days in a row will get you rare cards. And there are plenty examples of psychological manipulations like these in Warstorm now, just as there are in Farmville and any other Zynga game. Personally, I want games to be meaningful and I want to be motivated intrinsically to play them, and that’s why I decided to quit Warstorm, just like I’ve quit Farmville after week.
But that’s enough about Warstorm, let’s move on to the second reason why I’m writing this post: I was very excited about Age of Empires Online.
… Until I actually saw a developer’s commentary. Wasn’t Age of Empires II just brilliant when it came out? It’s so fun to play that my students (who are about 20 years old) are still playing the game on their LAN network in class, while the game is about 11 years old. They actually still have tournaments at the university where I work. How awesome will Age of Empires Online be then? It will be free to play and it will be focused on online play. All of this changed when I saw the developer’s commentary on GameTrailers. Everything that is shown in that one preview is basically just Farmville. They cover it up with the term “MMO elements” because no hardcore audience will ever want to play Farmville meets Age of Empires, but I can’t get ignore the feeling that Age of Empires fans are in for a surprise when they start playing Age of Farmvilles Online. There are vanity items, a persistent world and so on. Of course, the game isn’t out yet so hopefully Age of Empires Online will not be the Skinner Box I am anticipating. Prove me wrong, EA, and turn it into a brilliant game.
So to conclude this post, digital games seem to be transforming into something that has very little to do with fun or immersion. Instead, many games have “compulsion” as their main goal with regards to the player experience. No wonder video game addiction is on the rise, both in the public opinion as in academic literature. Games are being designed to keep players hooked for as a long as possible. It’s basically the same principle slot machines use.
Anyway, I’m going to leave you with two interesting links about this discussion.