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13 Mar 2010

The GDC keynote address was given Friday morning by Sid Meier, of *Civilization *fame. It was entitled "Psychology of Game Design: Everything You Know Is Wrong".

Sid opened the keynote with a simple assertion: "Gameplay is a psychological experience." He framed the talk with four key psychological concepts: egomania, paranoia, delusion, and self-destructive behavior. These, he said, are the mindsets players have that designers need to work against. "One of the responsibilities we have as designers," he said, "is to protect the players from themselves."

Speaking of egomania, he described something he calls "the winner paradox". "In real life," he said, "you don't always win... However, in the world of games, you pretty much always win." Fundamentally, he argued, "The player is looking for a satisfactory conclusion."

The underlying point here was that designers should make players feel like winners, even when they're really not. He pointed out that when players receive a reward, their default assumption is that they've legitimately earned it (egomania); when they receive a penalty, they assume the game is broken (paranoia). He argued that designers shouldn't fight that psychology, but should instead embrace it.

Regarding delusion, he related stories of balancing Civilization: Revolution. When players entered a 3:1 battle in their favor, they tended to feel cheated if they lost. Sid explained that, statistically speaking, the player *should *lose approximately one in four battles at that rate, but that didn't line up with gamer psychology. If the odds were reversed, however, players didn't see anything at all wrong when the happened to win the battle, despite the situation being mathematically identical.

It goes to show, Sid said, that gamer psychology has nothing to do with rational thought.

Firaxis addressed the issue by changing the math in a number of ways, including taking into account the results of previous battles so that the more often players lost, the more likely they become to win even against poor odds. "More odds" and "odder odds" were the catchphrases of the day.

Sid also discussed what he called the "unholy alliance", which he described as "an agreement the player and the designer make with each other: I'm going to pretend certain things, you're going to pretend certain things, and together we're going to have a great experience."

Fundamental to the unholy alliance is the implicit agreement that the player is really good at the game, even if he's not. "It's all about the player."

We also must agree, he said, to suspend disbelief. He suggested that old-school designers like himself may have an advantage in this area, because they've historically had to work so much harder to suspend disbelief in the context of the limited graphics capabilities of early computers and consoles.

Another aspect of the unholy alliance is the idea of "moral clarity". Sid argued that it's more satisfying to defeat absolute evil than to wallow in moral ambiguity. His assessment seemed pretty clear-cut -- moral absolutes are good, moral gray areas are bad -- and I find it difficult to agree with that position. Even in the context of Civilization, I would think moral ambiguity is almost imperative to accurately communicating the theme. World history isn't about absolute good and evil at all.

Sid also spent some time discussing the role of AI in games, opening his argument with the assertion that "AI is not a person." That's certainly true for some games -- the enemies in Halo, for example, are very explicitly designed to provide a fun experience for the player, rather than human-like competition -- but I also support Jason Rohrer's theory of single-player game design as multi-player design that relies on competitive AI, which I would think would be the ideal approach for a board-game-like title like Civilization. Of course, *Civilization *is immensely popular despite apparently not taking this approach, so it could be that I'm just blinded by ideology. ;)

Sid did attach an interesting definition to his perspective on AI, selling it as an "improvement metric". This dovetailed into some brief thoughts on difficulty levels, with him noting that Civilization IV has nine difficulty levels, and that they can be seen as a progression path for the player's skill level.

He discussed the importance of listening to players, not only to what they're saying, but also to what they mean and how they feel about it. Emotional responses, he said, are as important as verbal feedback. He argued that part of a game designer's job is to mitigate negative emotions and accentuate positive ones, and he noted that while players' suggestions are rarely the correct solution, they often contain a nugget of truth that can lead the designer to uncover what the player doesn't realize he really wants.

He closed the keynote with the concept of "the epic  journey". "This is what we're trying to create for the player," he said. "How do we use psychology to make the journey more epic?"

He said he keeps coming back to the idea of interesting decisions: "The journey is the process of exploring all these decisions, and seeing how they relate to each other and playing through them."

He argued that decisions which encourage the player to predict the outcome, and which make the player wonder about the path not taken, are the most powerful. "If you can build them into your game," he said, "you're well on your way to creating the epic journey."

At the end of the talk, I found myself agreeing with some things and disagreeing with others, but mostly wondering exactly where the "everything you know is wrong" part of the keynote title came from. While everything in the keynote was well presented, none of it was particularly surprising or new: these are fairly straightforward game design principles that have been well-known for a couple of decades. Sid did hint at the beginning of the session that he chose the title in part for its provocative quality, but come on: he's fucking Sid Meier. He doesn't need a provocative title to draw a crowd. :P

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game-design gdc video-games