Gamedev chemistry or how to manipulate players

    After the publication of my first mobile toy, I actively began to engage in self-education in the field of game design to improve my product. I came across a curious article in a bourget that made me take a different look at games and gave a more complete understanding of the development process. It is rarely possible to meet something really worthwhile, and I liked this text so much that I decided to make a Russian translation. Among other things, I threw out all the lyrics, the author’s attempt to joke and some water.

    1. Beyond Alchemy

    Recently, I came across a description of alchemy, that magical pseudoscience of the past millennium, which has evolved into modern chemistry. For a moment, I thought that the authors seemed to describe the current situation in the field of game design.

    Every time I chop into perfect creations like Tetris or Mario, I see traces of a certain structure hiding behind the gameplay. I believe that a mechanical and predictable heart, built on the basis of human psychology, beats at the center of every successful game.

    But what if we decoded these systems and turned them into a practical methodology for creating games?

    2. The basics of the game design model

    In an attempt to define games, attention was focused on the mechanical elements of the game — the primitive actions that the system allows the player to perform. This approach forces us to treat games as autonomous logical systems.

    Mechanics and aesthetics are undoubtedly important parts of game design, but not only this makes the game enjoyable. Often a set of unrelated elements is obtained that does not say anything about the important side of the interaction between the game, as an incentive, and the player, as an active and developing participant.

    Games are not mathematical systems. These are systems that always include an energetic person, full of desires and emotions, which is the core of the system. To accurately describe the game, you need a working psychological model of the player.

    Player model

    Our player model is extremely simple - it is a subject who begins to act, consciously or subconsciously, to maximize the study of new skills for the benefit of himself. He enjoys successfully acquired skills.

    Three key concepts of a player model:

    • Skill
    • Learning motivation
    • Perception of benefits

    Skill A

    skill is knowledge that a player uses to control the game world. Some skills are based on concepts - the ability to manage a map, while others are very physical - hammering a nail.

    Motivation for learning

    The game is instinctive. In modern conditions, when we are not actively performing activities related to food and housing, people begin to play by default. Stronger mechanisms in the form of boredom or frustration push you to action. If there is a free minute, children rush into the game with dice or dolls, while adults have more complex hobbies. This suggests the need to stimulate people, because solitary confinement is still one of the toughest punishments for hardened criminals.

    The flip side of the coin is that we want tuition rewards. Surprisingly, the gaming term “fun” arises in the process of assimilation of knowledge, skills and tools. When you learn something new or understand something so well that you can use this knowledge for your own purposes, you feel joy.

    When we learn something new, the natural opiates of endomorphins, chemically similar to the morphine structure, are thrown away. We are constantly tuned to the desire to receive new information. What you and I call curiosity can be interpreted as saying that our brain is looking for its next dose.
    As game designers, we are constantly dealing with the emotions of fun, boredom and frustration. It’s nice to admit that these conditions are biological phenomena, not some kind of mysticism.

    Perception of benefits

    Players want to gain skills that will be beneficial in the game. Perhaps the game is a deeply pragmatic activity. Our impulses to take part in games are instinctive due to evolution, because it can help improve our lives, without a threat to life or a possible failure. We play because we are arranged to expect a possible result from our seemingly useless actions. We stop playing when we cannot find anything useful.

    Awareness of benefits is more important than an objective measurement of value. People are not logical creatures. We know that people have strong beliefs about how they weigh their actions. For example, they often risk unreasonably because they are not able to correctly assess the real chances. People have substantial limitations, depending on how much information they can take into account when making any decisions. Many decisions are made based on highly predictable reactions of the sixth sense, which have their own subconscious rules.

    3. Game mechanics

    The main components of the game are well described in various books, passing from hand to hand from designer to designer over the past one to two decades. Each block describes how a player gains a new skill.

    • Action: the player performs an action - pressing a button or a set of actions - navigate through a complex maze.
    • Modeling: based on action, an incentive to play continues to flow. Pressed the button - the door opened.
    • Feedback: the game gives some form of feedback to the player to inform him of a state change. This feedback can be auditory, visual, or tactile. It can be visceral in the form of a corpse explosion, or symbolic in the form of a text block.
    • Synthesis: as a final stage, the player accepts feedback and updates his mental models for success in his activities. If he feels that he has made progress, he feels the satisfaction of the game. If he has mastered new skills or another tool, he experiences an even greater surge of joy. If he feels that his actions were in vain, they feel boredom or disappointment.

    How the model works in Mario:

    • Action: inexperienced player presses a button.
    • Modeling: Modeling a situation launches Mario in an arc.
    • Feedback: the screen shows the user an animation of a jumping Mario.
    • Synthesis: the user forms mental models where clicking on the button leads to a jump.

    The first call can only give a key to understanding. Something happened and did not arouse much interest. Then the user presses the button again to test his theory, and Mario flies into the air again. At this stage, the player smiles, as he understands that he has acquired an interesting skill that can be used in the future.

    What we call a game

    Having acquired a new interesting skill, players began to experiment with it. They test it in various situations to see if it is useful. You can observe an interesting situation when a new player practices jumping, he almost immediately begins to joyfully bounce when the level rises. At first glance, this is a silly frivolous activity. In fact, we are witnessing a human instinctive learning process in action.

    During the game, the player will sometimes come across something where you can get interesting information that can lead to the acquisition of a new skill. At this point, it becomes noticeable that the player’s behavior is becoming more conscious. In his mind, the fusion of the mental model will begin. In our jumping example, the player gets on the platform and can climb to the very top.

    In most cases, to achieve mastery it is necessary to develop a new skill over time. In the end, the player uses existing skill to acquire another skill. He chokes with pleasure and begins the process again and again.

    Game mechanics connections

    One skill is part of a set of skills. By linking more and more skills, you are building a network that describes the entire game. Each expected skill, each successful action, each predicted outcome of stimulation, each bit of the necessary feedback can be included in a simple but functional way.

    Full-height Tetris game mechanics connection diagram.

    The skill chain can be used to model any game you can imagine. Your project can be divided into several dozen simple elements connected together to form an easily readable map of the game. The connection of elements into a single network allows you to make the mechanics of the game deeper and richer.

    The process of interaction of players with the chain of skills

    Players will travel from element to element as Pac-Man runs along the trail, swallowing everything in its path until it reaches the goal. They move from one skill to another, even if they have only a vague idea of ​​the ultimate goal. Getting to the end is their goal.

    At this point, one of our purely human limitations comes into play. Players are not able to predict the value of a new skill beyond a couple of elements in a chain. As long as there is a new skill with potential value on the horizon, players will chase it. Experience is the only thing that can be endless pleasure. As long as there are short-term rewards after a short period of time, we continue to think that there will be some kind of final prize for our efforts.

    4. The position of the elements in the circuit

    The skill chain provides fairly useful information about the state of the player, while he is busy with the game. Imagine a skill chain is a dashboard that lights up as soon as a player succeeds. At any time, you can see the following information:

    • Learned Skills : Skills that have recently been mastered.
    • Partially mastered skills: skills that the player has not yet mastered perfectly.
    • New skills: skills that a player has just discovered.
    • Active Skills : Skills that the player actively uses.
    • Burnt Skills: Skills that the player has lost interest in training.

    We talked a bit about mastered and partially mastered skills. New skills speak for themselves. If the player cannot complete the actions necessary to understand the skill, then the skill will never be involved or mastered. Mastery goes down the chain. If players are blocked early, they will never go any further.

    Active skills

    A player experiences the joy of mastery only once. Perfect mastery of the skill breaks the biological connection and dulls the pleasure received in the process of its use. It used to be catchy, but now you don’t pay any attention to it.

    Players have enormous patience. They are ready to train their skills before losing heart rate, to achieve superior skill. Players jump countless times in Mario, so that the skills associated with the jump also become stronger.


    Players do not always build links between skills. They master a new skill, they play with it, but cannot find interesting application for it. This is called combustion.

    Suppose our player clicked on the jump button. He made the jump, and we assigned his skill a certain level. However, it is this player who will never understand what is the use of this action. Perhaps he did not jump next to the platform and did not gain new experience. After a short period of experimentation without any interesting results, the player stopped pressing the jump button at all.

    When a player burns out in some chain link, the consequences are reflected both from above and from below.

    Early stage of combustion

    In the above example, the ability to “get to the platform” will never be mastered. The jump was not mastered properly. In a tightly bound chain, early combustion can turn off a huge stretch of potential gaming experience.

    Late stage of combustion

    On the other hand, burning in the later stages in a skill chain can invalidate active skills.

    For example, we have a platform on which to jump, but there is nothing useful for the player on it. The player jumps to the platform, does not find anything interesting, and soon stops jumping on the platforms at all. As a result, his jumping skill atrophies. If a player does not need to jump onto platforms, then why should he jump at all?

    Combustion is the best assistant in testing!

    Combustion is a very powerful signal that our game is not able to hold the attention of players. We can understand at what point on which skill combustion occurs. If you track combustion along with other states of skills, you can accurately identify the problem areas of the game.

    5. Advanced skills chain elements

    We examined the basic elements of the skill chain and now we can put it into practice. But there’s something else that’s nice to learn.

    • Pre-existing skills: how the jumping skill originated.
    • A distracting maneuver: how we present history and other useless but enjoyable aspects of the game’s modern design.

    Previously existing skills

    Each player comes into the game with his own set of skills. These skills always form the source nodes of the skill chain. The accurate prediction of this skill set has a big impact on the player’s enjoyment of the rest of the game.

    Lack of skills

    If a player does not have the expected skills from him, he will not be able to use the basic skills in our game. In our jumping example, imagine a player who did not understand that you had to press a button on the joystick in order to do something. Such an example may seem ridiculous, but many non-gamers encounter this when they encounter a monstrously sophisticated modern controller. Many game designs automatically assume the ability to navigate in 3D space with the help of two uncomfortable little round ones similar to each other and many obscure buttons. Users who don’t have this ability despair without seeing the overwhelming amount of content.

    It is important to understand that such users are not stupid. They just have a different starting bag of skills. One of the key tasks of a game designer is to make sure that the people who play our game are able to master the most basic skills in the game. Ultimately, this means that you need to make an accurate list of existing skills for the target audience and structure our early experience around these skills. Do not take into account skills that cannot be used there.

    The dangers of basic skills

    The flip side of all this is that if the players have already mastered the existing skills, the process of mastering the first links of the chain will be quite boring. A dead gamer will get bored when they slip him a 10-minute control instruction. The rewards are worthless because his tormented brain does not respond where necessary. If the game from the very beginning does not teach the player anything new, most likely, he will expect combustion at an early stage.

    For balance, you need to focus on the right set of existing skills. If you choose everything correctly, it will all end up playing “intuitively”, which players really like. If you make the wrong choice, you run the risk of disappointment, boredom, and inevitable burning.

    Distraction maneuver

    Games are loaded with history, attitudes and are designed with the help of images to evoke a special mood and other intriguing, but useless elements.

    A distracting maneuver will never lead to a useful skill in the game, but still brings pleasure to the player. When a player receives informational signals, the player’s existing memories are activated and the brain eagerly absorbs clues.

    The disadvantage of a distracting maneuver in games is that most players quickly burn out during such manipulations. If this is your first time seeing a platform, it may seem interesting to you. The second time you will see its true nature: a key that opens another skill, which will help you move forward.

    6. Conclusion

    Using the skill chain The skill

    chain greatly improves your understanding of how the game works, where there are flaws, and where there are clear opportunities for improvement.

    Creating a chain of skills gives you the following information:

    • Clearly identify pre-existing skills that a player needs to run the game.
    • Clearly identify the skills that the player needs to complete the game.
    • Identify which skills need feedback mechanisms.
    • Determine where the player is having fun in your game.
    • Warn the team when and where players experience combustion during the game.
    • Provide a conceptual framework for analyzing why players experience combustion.

    From Alchemy to Chemistry

    I like to imagine that models such as skill chains help raise the level of intention and predictability in modern game design. With this article, you can start integrating this model into current games and collect your own data. What happens if game developers embrace the science process and start building the science of game design?

    Alchemists of the last century dreamed of turning lead into gold. They set up crazy experiments with inaccurate equipment and dubious theories about how the universe works. Modern game developers are not really that different from them. We take obscure notes from past successes and grumble joyfully when our random experiments manage to slightly entertain our audience. We are at the forefront of deep human-software interaction.

    Only thanks to a deeper understanding of game design did game developers break out of the random successes of the past. We create new effective applications using practical methods obtained from controlled experiments.

    In the short term, a deep understanding of skill chain models will help us discover the persistent mastery of existing genres. I am sure we can build better, more powerful games. In the long run, it will be interesting to see how we can benefit from global changes for our constantly improving psychological technology.

    PS Thank you for the tremendous help in translating Natalya Andreeva, well, and a link to the original .

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