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DESIGNING HAPPY ACCIDENTS

11 May 2009

*[ This article marks my 100th post on this blog. Woot! This milestone also seemed like a good time to introduce a new feature on Third Helix: "Monday Musings", wherein every Monday I dig a little deeper into game design topics with intent to kick-start your brain for a productive week. We all hate Mondays, but now Third Helix helps you dull the pain. ;) ] *

A Conflict of Authorship

A few weeks ago (yeah, I've been busy), Leigh Alexander posted some thoughts on the authorship conflict in games, addressing the question:

Should a designer's objective be to build an environment where players can drive events and experiences, or should the game determine the objective, with responsibility for leading player behavior in meaningful ways?

She framed the discussion with a lecture at NYU by Warren Spector, wherein he discussed his approach to game design and brought up an interesting point:

One thing Spector said during the NYU discussion was that he feels multiplayer games are "lazy." This is the designer in him talking, of course -- his theory that in letting players build stories via Left 4 Dead-style happy accidents in open worlds, the designer doesn't have to tackle complex challenges like making choices meaningful, or making characters believable.

This assertion spawned an energetic discussion between me and a number of designers and colleagues. For the record, I think we all respect the work Spector has done -- when you create something like Deus Ex, you deserve at the very least the benefit of the doubt -- but the idea that multiplayer game design is by definition "lazy" was a little bit... uncomfortable.

Dylan Jobe (who is also my boss) made a cogent point via Twitter:

Think of a dinner party and your guest / seating chart... ... You seat your guests based on personality, sex, interests, dislikes, etc. To maximize fun, social interactions. Planning a game's MP mechanics and experience is very similar!

What we're really talking about here is a specific approach to game design, whereby designers apparently relinquish a significant degree of authority to players, but through an empathetic understanding of those players' motivations we actually loop them back in to our intended experience even when their motivations and our intentions are divergent.

In short, yes, we design "happy accidents". And since I haven't seen this discussed critically before, I'm going to go ahead and coin a term for this approach: motivational convergence.

Defining the Problem

Let's start by defining the problem we face:

authorship-conflict

Simply put, the more authority we hand over to players, the more freedom they have to do things that are inconsistent with the experience we're trying to create. Take this example, from a Gamasutra interview with Warren Spector a few years back:

...in Deus Ex, things happened all the time that we hadn't expected or planned. The example that the team talked about most frequently, was that we had these objects called LAMs that were explosives that you could attach to walls. These were physical objects in the world that had size and mass... What we didn't anticipate is that a player figured out that you could put one on the wall, jump up onto it because it was a physical object, and then put another one up and jump onto it, creating a ladder and letting him get to where we didn't intend.

This kind of situation represents a divergence of player motivation and designer intention: the player wanted to do something that doesn't fit within the experience the designer intended. In a designer-authoritative game, this is usually an easy problem to solve; we're the authority, so we have ultimate power to do whatever is necessary to prevent players from "breaking" the experience. But as the game becomes more player-authoritative, there's an exponential growth both in ways players can exploit the system, and possible player motivations that run counter to our designerly intentions.

So our problem, in a nutshell, is: the more authority we give our players, the less likely they are to want *to do what we *expect them to do.

Exploring Solutions

This is where motivational convergence steps in to save the day. Instead of forcing players to change *their motivation (which will never work), or changing our intentions to *match *their motivations (which sacrifices the integrity of the experience), we want to *design systems in which player motivation and *designer intention will naturally *converge**.

Let's look at a couple examples of motivational convergence in action.

swg

(Just a note: we're talking pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies here; I haven't played since the NGE so I don't know if these mechanics still exist or not.)

In Star Wars Galaxies, you accrued "battle fatigue" as you did combat. After enough time running missions, hunting, grinding, or otherwise ending the lives of the planet's indigenous species, accumulated battle fatigue would act as a drain on your stats until you were so tired that your hits would rarely land, and when they did, they'd be badly ineffective. In order to purge battle fatigue, you had to retreat to a cantina and spend time in the company of entertainers. Entertainers were a playable class, and these players gained experience by dancing and playing music in cantinas. As they levelled, they became more effective at purging other players' battle fatigue, but this always took at least some time.

One of the obvious design goals of the game was to encourage social interaction in addition to monster-bashing. However, most players were conditioned by years of gaming to get on with the monster-bashing as efficiently as possible, because generally-speaking, that's how you progress through games. So there was a divergence *between *player motivation *and *designer intention: players wanted to get rid of their battle fatigue quickly so they could get back to killing monsters, but designers wanted players to party at the cantina and engage in some healthy social interaction.

The motivational convergence in this scenario comes from the fact that hunters -- the players who want to spend their time killing monsters -- are only coming to the cantina to get rid of their battle fatigue (an obstacle to killing monsters), and entertainers are only coming to the cantina to grind out experience and levels. Neither party showed up with the primary motivation to hang out and chat, but due to the battle fatigue mechanic, that's exactly what tended to happen. Thus, the designers' intention was elegantly realized, and no change to either their intentions or players' motivations was necessary.

warhawk-logo400

In Warhawk's second booster pack, Operation: Broken Mirror, we added a new vehicle: the APC. The APC could seat a driver and six passengers, with passengers able to pop up from the back and fire at nearby enemies. Our intention was to create a ground vehicle that promoted "squad rollouts", where up to seven players would group up and deal death to their enemies.

The problem with this intention was that it didn't jive well with the most common player motivation in the game, which was just to get into combat as quickly as possible. Most players didn't care to wait around for teammates to form squads and make plans.

So in keeping with the theme: our divergence *was between the *player motivation *to get into combat quickly, and the *designer intention for players to form squads and roll out together.

We achieved motivational convergence by adding two features to the APC. First and foremost, it functions as a mobile spawn point. When a player is killed, he can select any base owned by his team to respawn at; but if there's a friendly APC out there, he can spawn directly into the APC instead. Second, any player who spawns into an APC receives some additional weaponry right off the bat, so he doesn't have to go looking for weapon pickups. The end result is that, given a well-positioned APC, players can respawn -- with a viable loadout -- right into an active battle.

This proved to be an elegant solution that didn't require us to change our intention *or force players to change their *motivation. Players didn't spawn into friendly APCs because they wanted a group rollout; they did it because that way they could get into combat faster (due to close proximity and a viable starting loadout). That satisfied the player motivation of quick access to combat, but also satisfied the designer intention of group rollouts because an active APC had a tendency to draw the team to it; hence it was usually either full, or supported by recently-respawned teammates in the immediate area.

Is It Just A Band-Aid?

That motivational convergence addresses the divergence of player motivation and designer intention begs the question: is that divergence a fundamental design failure in the first place? Is motivational convergence just a band-aid over a bigger problem?

I don't believe this is the case. I think it's entirely natural for player motivation and designer intention to diverge, especially in very player-authoritative games. If we cast this divergence as a problem, then I think we're failing to fully embrace the promise of nonlinearity in our medium. In film, if the viewer doesn't want to have the experience that the director has created, the viewer simply doesn't watch the movie. But in a game, if the player wants to do something outside the designer's intent, part of the fun is seeing just how far outside the corral he can go.

Motivational convergence, to me, is how designers let players out of the corral without totally losing control of the herd. It's how we "hack" player behavior; not *forcing *them to do this or that, but looping everything they do back into the experience we intend.

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