Motivations I

I’ve been sick all week  so I’ve had lots of time to read and think (and cough and sleep). Recently, Chris Hecker posted notes on his Game Developers Conference talk “Achievements Considered Harmful?” Apart from being responsible for some of the awesome tech in Spore, Chris Hecker is working on a game I am dying to play: Spy Party. Anyway, his GDC talk is great and I recommend you listen to it if you have the time. In it he outlines some of the psychological research that could be applicable to game design and achievements on Xbox Live or Steam. As always, I’ve been thinking about how this applies to my current main project, Kung Fu Legends.

I spend a reasonable amount of my idle thought time considering different aspects of Kung Fu Legends. I’m attacking it from lots of different angles:

One of the big angles I haven’t really explored in public is “Will it be fun?” I’ve been reading Jesse Schell’s excellent book on game design (The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses) and it got me thinking about how fun would Kung Fu Legends be? Initially, who knows – I haven’t written it yet. I think the components would be fun and it doesn’t seem obviously boring (compare with some games with incredible depth and detail, but the only serviceable interface would be something akin to a spreadsheet *cough*Eve Online*cough*).

Given Chris Hecker’s talk, I’ve thought about what parts of my current design improve intrinsic motivation and hopefully this translates to how fun or interesting the game would be. Conversely, what haven’t I thought about and how can I design around the theme intrinsic motivation? I figured I might give you a few examples of what I’ve been thinking about, for your reading pleasure. Note that implementation is everything, so this is just free-thinking and the devil may be in the details.

One of the primary components I’ve been thinking about is the player character. Since the inception of the game, I’ve been committed to a duo setup: Master and Student. The Master is necessarily wise, authoritative and responsible for the Student’s development, but is a spirit and so cannot freely impact on the game world. The Student is fresh and full of potential, but does not know how to conduct themselves or train to become a Kung Fu Legend. Which character does the player control? If the Master, then it’s kinda like a Sims/Tamagotchi setup where you’re guiding the Student but not doing anything as your own character. If the Student, then the Master is a guide and the player takes the more traditional control of the main protagonist. You can’t do both because you need give and take of a Master/Student relationship, and some element of conflict. I shied away from the player-as-Student model for a long time because I wanted to be different. Make the game more strategic than tactical. But in doing so, you necessarily create a wider division between yourself and what’s going on. And I’m guessing in this situation a player would be more motivated to try shenanigans, or you’d be trapped in the Sims situation where you want to microcontrol your Student so much you might as well be them.

So if a player controls the Student, what motivations do they have? By motivations here I don’t mean like an actor’s “motivation”. The game world is vast and open, so how do you direct the player to explore the interesting parts and do interesting things? Part of my solution is to remove most if not all the boring micromanagement. This means ditching item management and trappings like “character levels”. The results Chris Hecker mentioned suggest that do best by motivating endogenously, that is, in game. The standard mechanic of character defeating enough foes to earn enough points to get to the next level which makes you a better character – this is an exogenous path via the meta-information of experience points. You mentally make flips back and forth into and out of the game. I think the research suggests I might have a good result in keeping it all in-game. After a battle your character may express frustration that his right punches are weak, but after training and a few fights, comments that it has been getting much better. You get a narrative and a sense of improvement. And because you are the Student (insofar as the player/character divide goes) this motivates you to play more.

Another interesting idea in the Master/Student divide is that you can exploit the Master’s position and some psychology for various effects. For example, the research maintains that for interesting tasks, informational feedback is better than controlling feedback (“You defeated 5 opponents” vs “You defeated 5 opponents, like I told you to”)[1. It occurred to me that the major twist in Bioshock was that Atlas’ informational feedback is ultimately shown to be controlling, and the shock and outrage you experience is the massive reversal in intrinsic motivation. A nice trick if you can pull it off.] We can have the AI exploit this in two ways. Firstly it can encourage the player with informational feedback to help them into the game and get them doing interesting things. Secondly you can demotivate character-breaking behaviour. The idea here is that both Master and Student are initially generated with a few personality traits (a la The Sims 3, if you want a recent example). If the Student is judged by internal metrics to be stepping outside of that character, the Master can offer back-handed compliments on that behaviour (eg. after brutally killing an opponent, a strict Master can comment: “Good! Your peasant father would be pleased.”) You don’t have to say your character is being aberrant, you can just plant the seeds of doubt in the player’s mind with this form of controlling feedback. With a nuanced approach to conflict in narrative, you can use these tricks to set up an initial, subtle antagonism between Master and Student and then move onto genuine, informational, congratulatory feedback to build rapport.

The concept itself of a Kung Fu Legend came from an idea where masters of a particular style or combination of styles earns you the title of Dragon Lord or something like that. How you’d implement the game mechanic for this, I’m not sure. Maybe once you pass a certain level of expertise and renown then people start using it to refer to you. Fable II has this sort of system, but, unfortunately, you can just buy titles and titles seem to encourage extremely specific behaviour (eg. Dog Lover means you train your dog in a variety of tricks). In a traditional RPG you could just have a rule like “once you’re a Level 15 Monk, you’re a Dragon Lord”. In terms of motivating the player, it works as a goal for them to aim for. Maybe it also provides an extrinsic reward of an Achievement or puts you on a web leader board. Once you’ve got it, though, what then? I’m figuring the game mechanics would prevent you from attaining multiple Legend statuses in one game, simply for lack of time. You could play off the “Rights vs Responsibilities” game mechanic I talked about in “On Level Scaling” and open up plotlines that are only accessible to characters of that calibre, or make you fight to retain the title, perhaps via a long line of contenders to the throne.

One other game system I thought of that may come in useful for motivations is that of rumours. Given the way I’m working on text generation, it leads nicely into a system where rumours of events can spread throughout the game world. Not like the usual thing where completing a quest toggles a flag where NPCs mention a certain topic from then on (a la Oblivion), but more the event itself is turned into a meme[2. What’s the opposite of reify?] which can be spread and distorted. Eventually you’ll hear about your own exploits in some form or another. Knowing that you have some surface impact on the game world is a neat feedback mechanism, for good and bad. You might be proud of mercilessly killing a man in a street fight, but when you hear in the next village over of the disgusting murder of a man by some young thug, you might have a crisis of character. Or revel in it. Your choice.

So you might be wondering why I named this blog post “Motivations I”. I’ve focussed a lot on a bunch of intrinsic motivators that I want to try to incorporate into my game. The next post will focus on extrinsic motivators such as building a community presence, and potentially enabling my game development through a new form of community support.