Friday, August 13, 2010

Cultivating Player Perspectives

We've touched on this topic with a few other posts and has been on several forum topics, so I think it's time we gave this it's own topic. I hear a lot of players talking about what they would want in their game to make it more interesting and challenging for the players.

The problem is that it takes time to cultivate your players to think a certain way. You can't simply change the standards on them overnight. You have to make a slow, methodical change. Not only that, but you have to do it in a constructive rather than a destructive way.

I started thinking about this topic in regards to whether or not you should give players false information as plot. I think any hardcore gamer would agree, that false information (that can be detected) adds an element of information filtering to the game, which should make it more fulfilling.

But what if your players aren't wired for that? What if they've been playing the game for two, three, or even ten years, and never once had to deal with false information like this. They take everything at face value, because that's the game they're used to.

This is a paradigm shift. If you want to make this change, you have to do it slowly. Not only that, but in the early stages of this progression, you should only be using positive reinforcement. You should be rewarding those who filter the information (in a public way), but do not punish those who don't. This is where most people mess up when introducing a new idea.

If you punish players for something they weren't expected to do before, they will react with the opposite extreme. In the case above, punishing players who fail to filter the false information will cause them to be weary of every bit of information you give them, often requiring 3-4 sources before they do anything. This slows the game down and adds essentially no value.

After some time where you've been giving rewards, you'll get an idea for who gets it and who doesn't. From that, you should be able to make a decision as to whether this paradigm shift should stick or not. If no one gets it, it wasn't meant to be.

Another place where this comes up is monster statting. I think we can all agree that we want our players to fight smarter rather than brute forcing every module they go on. Often times, plot teams will give every monster decent defenses against everything - very little weaknesses or strengths. Then, they send out a monster with a specific weakness that is very strong against everything else. They expect it to be an obvious weakness, but the players don't figure it out. Why? Because that kind of thinking has not been cultivated. They're not wired for that.

However, if you start sending out monsters and every one has a weakness of some sort, players might start to pick up on that. Start out with broad weaknesses, and then narrow those weaknesses down. After a sufficient period of time, you can start to add narrow strengths to the monsters, showing the players that it's not only smart to exploit weaknesses, but in some situations it greatly increases overall effectiveness. Then, once you've worked that into their brain, you can start dropping mind bombs on them, forcing them to make tactical decisions, rather than brute forcing everything.

I tend to get a bunch of questions from people on how to introduce a new concept or idea to a game, and the answer's always the same. Start out by rewarding players who follow the new idea, but don't punish players who don't. That should give you a feel for whether something will stick or not.


  1. A good example of this was a plotline where my character's barbarian tribe was going to war with another tribe. The way I've been "wired" to play is that if a challenge is presented to you in the game, then you are supposed to deal with it directly.

    In the writer's mind, we were supposed to recruit an army of NPC allies from the numerous plot factions, and only attack their leaders directly. But because of the way I'm wired, when I was presented with the challenge of "a barbarian army attacked your tribe's settlements," I responded by directly attacking them. The battle was insanely rough, nearly unwinable. Waves upon waves of barbarians with slays were thrown at us, supported by normal-only-to-hit Faeries.

    Afterwards, I was like, "That was insane. If these barbarians are that powerful, how did they not take over the world already? Are my tribe's barbarians that buff? Geez!" The writer's response was, "What'd you expect? Your 8-man team took on *a whole army* by yourselves. There are plenty of allies you could've used, but you just walked up in person."

    My reaction was, "What do you mean, 'we took it on by ourselves?' Of course we did. We're at a Nero event, that's what you do at events. The NPCs say, 'Here's a problem,' and you go solve the problem."

    Neither one of us was wrong, but we both had drastically different expectations.

  2. Ah, now this is something I can comment on knowledgably. Bill is absolutely correct. Positive reinforcement is the single best way to alter behavior, as evidenced by B.F. Skinner's work in Behaviorism. Punishing players for operating in ways that they have been taught are effective, or have not been taught are ineffective, is conter-productive. It leads to feelings of frustration and helplessness, which generate player apathy and ultimately loss of player base.

    The most effective way to generate behavioral change over the long term is to begin with fixed ratio (wherein players recieve rewards each time they complete a task in the desired manner) and transition to variable ratio (wherein players recieve rewards at random within an averaged variable set) Variable ratio reinforcement has the lowest degree of behavior extiction, therefore leading to longer sets of desired behavior with less reinforcement. For practical examples think Las Vegas casinos or WoW treasure drops (both are brilliantly executed).

    The point is, human beings are highly (almost eerily) moldable if you can control significant enough portions of their environment. In LARP, the plot can control virtually all portions of the environment, and are fully capable of adjusting player behavior over what can really be a relatively short amount of time.

    David Jurns, B.A, M.Ed.

    P.S. - B.F. Skinner FTW

  3. Yea I have seen that too, it is important for plot to realize that just because you expect someone to react a certain way does not mean that you should punish them for not acting that way. Some of the coolest plot lines I have ever seen have been off the cuff responses to player actions.

  4. @Noah

    Perfect example, and I couldn't have said it better myself. No one was wrong, but the perceptions were different.

    I will add, it's very easy as plot to think that something is straight-forward, obvious, or common sense when it isn't for a player in the game. Always try and get an unbiased observer to check a plotline to avoid situations like that.

  5. BF Skinner is definitely the godfather of this post. All player behaviors, from Cheating to PvP to emergent plot, can be understood in terms of invcentives. If players aren't acting in the way you expected, they may be experiencing different incentives than the ones you created.