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January 2009

Adapting for Player Satisfaction

Georgios Yannakakis sent me these links for the work he's been doing on adaptation mechanisms for increasing entertainment value. I caught his talk about this at the AI conference I keynoted at recently. The work is based on a neural network function that maps between various player metrics and the degree of fun that players report with the game (in this case, a simple Whack-a-Mole variant), and looks very promising.

  • You can read his paper, "Real-time Adaptation of Augmented-Reality Games for Optimizing Player Satisfaction", here.
  • You can see a video of the adaptive behaviour in action here.

Players Don't Need Violence

A new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin this month reinforces a message that International Hobo have reported in their previous player studies: players aren't necessarily looking for violence in videogames, and different players are looking for different things. The study in question singles out challenge and autonomy (i.e. player choice) as key themes.

You can read a potted account of the research on Psych Central here, the abstract is here, and the full paper in PDF form is here (for subscribers of the bulletin only, alas, or $20 on a "pay per read"). Here's an extract from the summary of the research:

Through two online surveys and four experimental studies, the researchers showed that people stayed glued to games mainly for the feelings of challenge and autonomy they experience while playing. Both seasoned video gamers and novices preferred games where they could conquer obstacles, feel effective, and have lots of choices about their strategies and actions.

These elements, said coauthor Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the university, represent “the core reasons that people find games so entertaining and compelling. Conflict and war are a common and powerful context for providing these experiences, but it is the need satisfaction in the gameplay that matters more than the violent content itself.”

This study is the most comprehensive investigation into this subject, and should be of great interest to both academics and commercial game developers.

Jane Austen's Wii and Wonderment

The January Round Table has as its topic: what would your favourite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? In my entry, I've decided not to use my favourite piece of literature – I'm no longer sure what that would be – but instead the piece of literature that I have most wanted to convert into a game, not least of which because of the apparent insanity of such an attempt. Thus, without further ado, here is my take on how Jane Austen would have made a Wii game...

The box to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is rather different from most of the games around, showing several neatly dressed Victorian ladies and gentlemen in the grounds of a stately home. The tag line rather bizarrely reads “Adventures Among Polite Society in the Village of Longbourn!” Intensely curious about the game, I crack open the packaging and place the disc into the Wii. Soon, an on screen display reads “Please Wait... Establishing Social Norms” as the game loads.

After selecting a female Mii, I am presented at first with a third person pseudo-isometric view of a bedroom, within which is a neatly dressed Victorian lady with the face of the Mii that I choose. Another Mii-faced young lady enters my room and speaks:

“Why, Lizzy, you should know that you have to point your Wii Remote at the screen to begin.”

I do so.

“Marvellous! Now, press A to walk to what you are point at – it's ever so fun!”

It's a simple point-and-click interface.

“Why don't you get changed, Lizzy? Point at the wardrobe and press A.”

Inside the wardrobe, a small selection of dresses are shown to me, and I pick one to put it on with A.

Kitty continues here tutorial: “You can use A to select any object and engage with it politely.” This intrigues me: what does engage politely mean?

So I click on Kitty herself and press A. My avatar says: “Oh Kitty, you are such a dear child.”

Kittty explains to me that I can move the furniture around the room by holding A while pointing at an object, and then dragging it around with the Wii remote. When I release A, it stops in place. I can also rotate the objects either by twisting the Wii remote or by using + and - for fine adjustments. I rearrange my bedroom and wonder what I need to do to get new furniture. I can also press 2 when pointing at an item of furniture to "move it to the basement", or press 1 to bring furniture out of the basement.

I exit the bedroom and go into the hallway. There is a vase on a table here.

Kitty explains: “Should you wish to be wicked, you can engage with people and objects impolitely with B – but beware, for people do not like to be treated rudely!”

I cannot resist finding out what it means to interact with something impolitely, so I point to the vase and press B. My avatar walks up and knocks the vase to the ground smashing it.

Immediately, an older looking woman enters and scolds me: “Lizzy, how can you be so tiresome! You are such an ungrateful child.”

I point to my avatar's mother and press B. My avatar says: “Mamma, you are as vexing as you are ridiculous.”

A storm cloud appears above the head of the mother, and she assumes an angry expression and storms off, crying: “Mr. Bennett – Mr. Bennett! Did you hear what your daughter said to me! Mr. Bennett....!” Her disgruntled cries fade into the distance.

A new interface overlay appears at the top of the screen – a line of ten circles. The one on the right contains a red frowny face.

Kitty says: “You ought not to antagonise mamma so, Lizzy, but I forgive you.” She continues: “When you behave impolitely or improperly you gain a point of Rudeness. You can see it in the bar above. If you fill the bar with Rudeness your level of Notoriety will increase.”

This fills me with a desire to find more things to interact with impolitely! But Kitty interjects: “But you will be more popular if you can fill the bar with Charm instead. Either way will gain you a level of Notoriety – but what people think of you will be very different according to how you act.”

I decide to try and earn a point of Charm, so I track down mother who is scolding her husband, Mr. Bennett, in the sitting room. As I arrive, Mr. Bennett speaks firmly: “Lizzy, you must apologise to your mother for your actions.”

I click on father and press A for a polite interaction: “You are right, papa, forgive my indiscretion.”

I then click on mother (who still has a storm cloud above her angry face): “Mamma, I am an ungrateful child, and I shall endeavour to pay you more of the respect you deserve.” This seems to settle her – the storm cloud disappears, and a regular face returns. The bar of circles at the top of the screen appears with a yellow smiley face in the leftmost circle. The red frowny face is still in the rightmost circle.

Kitty explains: “You can fill the bar from left to right with Charm, or right to left with Rudeness. If the next circle is filled with the other kind of face, you will replace it.” ('Ah,' I think to myself, 'like the powering system in Doshin the Giant. That was a neat mechanic too.')

Thus, I decide to try and gain a level of Notoriety. Presumably there are many ways to be rude, so this should be very easy, but I decide to be a good girl and gain a level of Notoriety by being polite.

There is a door out to the garden here, so I exit, with Kitty trailing in my wake. “You can run by holding B when you point at place – but be careful, as running is very unladylike and some people may consider it rude. I don't mind though. Why don't you try it?”

I point to the far side of the flower beds and hold B – my avatar runs through the middle of the flowers, trampling them, and I gain another point of Rudeness, filling the second circle on the right.

“Oh dear, Lizzy!” Kitty exclaims. “I should have warned you: when you move with A, you will move along the paths and avoid causing harm. But if you run with B, you may damage those things you encounter.”

Clearly the capacity for mischief is quite high in this game! But I decide to stick to my goal of rising up the levels of Notoriety politely. I wonder if there's a way to repair the flower beds, and notice a garden shed. I click A on it and a set of tools appear. I choose the potting trowel.

“You can plant flowers with the potting trowel,” Kitty explains. “Simply point to a flower bed and press A to choose a flower to plant.”

I do so, and select a red geranium. It is planted, and I gain another smiley face, next to the one on the left of the scoring track. I have two Charm and two Rudeness now. Planting flowers seems to be a good way to gain some Charm, so I persevere, planting three more in spaces in the garden. After planting the third, I gain another point of Charm – I imagine I could get more if I planted more, but that the rewards are regressing so I will have to plant more and more plants to gain further benefit.

Kitty says: “You can put away the trowel by flicking the Wii remote downwards. Why don't you try it?”

A quick flick releases the trowel.

Kitty then states: “Flowers must be tended to in order to grow. Why don't you water these with the watering can in the shed?”

I continue to mess around with the garden for a while, gaining several more points of Charm by tending to the plants, taking me to seven points. Kitty explains that even if I don't tend to plants, someone else in the family may do so, but I will gain Charm if I tend to these chores myself.

Suddenly, there's a man at the garden gate! He says: “Forgive my intrusion, is this the Bennett residence?”

I decide to greet him politely with A. “Indeed it is, sir, and you are?” (I gain a point of Charm for making a good first impression - I now have filled the eight leftmost circles with smilies, and the remaining two contain frownies).

“My name is Charles Bingley – I'm the new tenant at Netherfield Park. Your father was kind enough to visit me, and I wanted to extend this invitation to him and his family to attend a ball I am holding.”

He gives me the invitation, and I press A to thank him. He tips his hat and departs.

“A ball – how exciting, Lizzy! You must give that invitation to papa right away!”

Some time later, and we are all arriving by carriage at Netherfield Park for the ball. I am wearing my finest dress, and keen to meet the eligible bachelors and earn more Charm.

Dancing is simplicity itself – first, I wait to be invited to dance and accept with A (or alternatively, I can politely ask a gentlemen to dance – but I gain a point of Rudeness for being so forward). I can also curtsy politely by holding A and flicking downwards, in order to make a polite introduction of myself.

Once the dance has begun, I respond with the appropriate gesture at the appropriate point in the dance – pressing A, making a circular gesture with the remote, or a vertical flick, all as depicted on screen. Completing the dance earns me Charm - I can also “accidentally” trip other dancers by using B to earn Rudeness.

The successful completion of the dance earns me the Charm I need to fill my bar, and I “level up” in Notoriety – a beautiful calligraphic “2” is now displayed by the progress bar. I hear Kitty whisper to me: “Well done, Lizzy – you've gained in Notoriety from your charming behaviour. Delightful new choices are now available to you if you press 1.”

Pressing 1 brings up a screen with four boxes - two containing clothing, and two containing furniture. I am to press A to pick two items to keep. Items I don't pick may come up again, but I can press B to permanently reject an item. It seems I get new choices of clothing, furniture and so forth every time my Notoriety increases – this mechanic replacing cash in the game. It makes me wonder what happens if I gain Notoriety from Rudeness. A quick glance in the manual shows me I would get different kinds of clothing and furniture for playing this way, as well as other options for interacting in the world.

Kitty continues to whisper: “Your level of Notoriety increases from both Charm and Rudeness – you can be the paragon of polite society, the epitome of wickedness, or a mysterious blend of the two.” This intrigues me – so I could get to level 3 by being impolite, if I like. This is too tempting.

At this point, a new gentlemen arrives at the ball – tall and handsome. I see him move about the room, and some of the ladies present engage in polite conversation with him. But when they do, a storm cloud appears above their heads and they leave in disgust! Who is this stranger?

I move closer so I can listen in. Mr. Bingley walks up to the stranger and announces: “Come, Darcy, I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner.”

The stranger, Mr. Darcy, replies: “I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. There is not a woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”

I cannot resist interjecting. “You think it a punishment to dance with the women of Longbourn, sir?” I gain a point of Rudeness for my bad first impression.

Mother is standing nearby and is appalled. “Lizzy,” she cries, “remember where you are! You must not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home.”

I decide to maintain my campaign of rudeness. “Mamma,” my avatar responds with a press of B, “I am used to your tiresome scolding, but Mr. Darcy has better things to scoff at than your manners.”

More Rudeness is added to my progress bar.

Mr. Darcy says: “Are you so ungrateful a daughter as to insult your mother in public, so?”

I press B, and my avatar says: “Are you so haughty a guest as to insult all the women of Longbourn without exception?”

I decide to try a different tack, and hold A and flick downwards to curtsy. Then I click on Mr. Darcy to ask him to dance. “Would you care to join me on the dance floor?” my avatar asks. (Another point of Rudeness for being so unladylike).

Before Mr. Darcy can respond, Mr. Bingley interjects: “I'm certain he would be honoured, wouldn't you my friend?”

And thus we are dancing together. I perform the dance steps as required, but every time Mr. Darcy is required to act, I press B to trip him up – causing him to land ignominiously upon his rear end on one occasion! In no time at all, I have filled the bar with Rudeness and reached level 3 of Notoriety. A storm cloud appears above Mr. Darcy's head.

“Why do you aggrieve me so, madam? Why do you behave with such hostility towards me?”

I reply with B. “I should think it clear that your arrogant pride has insulted every lady present.”

He replies: “You have taken such a prejudiced view upon my behaviour that I think it hopeless to defend myself from your accusations. Now I shall take my leave before any further harm befalls me.”

Thus began the great love affair between my avatar and Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, available for Nintendo Wii, only in your imagination.

For or Against QTEs

Resident_Evil_4_Wii.QTE Quick Time Events, or QTEs, are sequences in videogames which occur suddenly and ask the player to input a particular control to avoid a penalty (often death). They date back to the 1983 Cinematronics arcade machine Dragon's Lair, the gameplay of which consisted of nothing more than QTEs, but the term “Quick Time Event” was coined by Yu Suzuki in reference to sequences in his game Shenmue which featured numerous action sequences requiring sudden control input to be completed.

But are you for QTEs, or against them?


The beauty of the QTE is that it adds excitement and challenge to a game. Rather than watching a static cut scene in which the story unfolds, the player can be challenged to react quickly to a sudden event. This was the stated reason for the inclusion of QTEs in the popular Resident Evil 4 videogame. This game marks a turning point in videogames to some extent: before its release, QTEs were uncommon, after its success they began to become ubiquitous in certain action games (although it was not the only game to contribute to this trend).

Since the whole purpose of a videogame is to offer interactivity, part of the perceived benefit of including QTEs is that the entire game can offer interactivity – no sitting through long and tedious cut scenes with nothing to do... in a game with QTEs the player must stand ready at all times to react to a sudden occurrence. It keeps the player on their toes, never letting their pulse rate drop too low.

By including QTEs, the challenge that a game offers can be heightened. There are a fair number of players among the gamer hobbyists for whom overcoming difficult challenges is the reason they love videogames – Nicole Lazzaro calls this style of play Hard Fun, while International Hobo has dubbed players of this kind Conquerors. They are willing to endure hardships in order to rise to the challenge of overcoming them, ultimately resulting in the emotional reward which in Italian is known as fiero – triumph over adversity, that feeling that causes you to punch the air. Since action videogames are always pursuing this feeling of victory over impossible odds – after all, a boss fight is all about this feeling – it does not seem unreasonable for games to include other mechanics which lead to the same reward.

Of course, QTEs can be done badly – few if anyone will defend Fahrenheit's ten minute QTE sequence that requires the player to repeat the entire chunk of play every time they fail – but this doesn't change the fact that they can be done well. Ideally, the keys to be entered should make sense in the context of what the player has already been taught. If A is normally a forward roll, pressing A to roll out of the way of a boulder is an intuitive response. In this way, QTEs can be constructed such that rather than the player having to hit an arbitrary control, they learn the meaning of each control and can react in a logical fashion when the QTE occurs.

If a game is already targeting Conquerors as their audience, why shouldn't they include QTEs which add more challenge, enhance the excitement, and thus increase the eventual rewards of victory when all the challenges are overcome?


Up until recently, the Wikipedia entry for QTEs began with the phrase “QTEs are a form of torture used in videogames.” This is far from a minority view on the matter. If you are a Conqueror, QTEs have a lot to offer, but most players of videogames are not Conquerors.

What QTEs offer most players is frustration. You must complete the QTE or you fail, a gameplay mechanic which Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation has devilishly characterised as “Press X To Not Die”. A recent survey of emotions in gameplay by International Hobo revealed that while 1 in 5 gamers report that frustration can enhance their enjoyment of a game (the classic Conqueror play experience) twice as many players reported that they don't enjoy feeling frustrated and angry, and avoided games that made them feel that way.

In a game which is offering to sandpaper off your face in your quest for victory (say, God of War) perhaps QTEs make sense, but there were a great many players who liked the core play of Resident Evil 4 but whose enjoyment of that game was stopped dead by the inclusion of QTEs in which the player had to rapidly and accurately enter the correct control, or die. This was a game with an innovative control scheme that split the moving and shooting actions into independent functions, allowing players who didn't enjoy “twin stick” controls to play a 3D shooter. It reached out to a more casual player with one hand, then slapped them with the other.

Game literate players – which includes pretty much everyone working at a game developer – routinely misjudge how complex the controls of videogames have become. A prerequisite for completing a QTE in the time alloted is that the player must know with absolute unconscious certainty which control is where on the controller – this doubtless seems trivial to those players who have racked up innumerable hours of play, but for more casual players this can be more problematic. When the time it takes them to work out which control is which equals or exceeds the time alloted for completing a QTE, such a player is effectively barred from enjoying the game.

Some games are intending to offer blisteringly difficult challenges, and thus appeal to a smaller audience (the reduction in breadth of appeal offset by the fact that most Conquerors buy and play many games each year, and thus suitably polished and marketed games of this kind can hit a few million unit sales quite comfortably). But any game which is trying to hit a wider audience cannot in good conscience include QTEs.

QTEs heighten the requirements of fast reactions at the exclusion of all other approaches: there is no way to devise a brilliant strategy to compensate for poor reflexes in a game which uses QTEs. If you insist on employing this kind of mechanic, why not allow the player to opt out of the QTEs when selecting the difficulty at the start of the game? Videogames are sold to players on the promise of an enjoyable and entertaining experience – shouldn't players for whom QTEs represent a form of torture have the right to leave them out of the play experiences they have paid good money to enjoy?

Over on The Minigame Court, we are putting QTEs on trial as an alleged Crime Against Gamers. Guilty? Not Guilty? You decide! Cast your vote here! Alternatively, if you want to discuss the finer points of videogame torture, feel free to engage in discussion in the comments here. Votes cast here, however, will not count in the trial so be sure to go to The Minigame Court if you want to determine the fate of QTEs.

Beyond Game Design Announced

BeyondGameDesignSA_CvrMock3 It is with great pleasure that International Hobo announces the imminent publication of Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Toward Creating Better Videogames, with Charles River Media (an imprint of Course Technology). The new multi-author book features chapters by Richard Bartle, Chris Bateman, Noah Falstein, Michelle Hinn, Katherine Isbister, Nicole Lazzaro, Sheri Graner Ray and Joseph Saulter, and is edited by International Hobo’s Chris Bateman.

Beyond Game Design is a master class in videogame design, marketing and theory, and essential reading for anyone working (or hoping to work) in the games industry. The book deals with the entire spectrum of issues relating to how and why players enjoy the games they choose, the different ways of modelling play, and the many distinctions in the audience that make the creation of videogames such a challenging and rewarding experience.

The book has two key themes: understanding the psychology of play and including a wider audience, both of which combine towards the goal of teaching how to make superior games for everyone to play. The first part of the book shows how understanding the psychology of videogames can help make better games, covering Bartle Types, the Four Fun Keys and Roger Caillois’ patterns of play, as well as looking at social play. Combining psychological research and observation with helpful and pragmatic advice, the reader is taken on a journey that shows them how to understand players, and how this knowledge can guide game design.

The second part of the book shows the many different players who are often not considered when making games, and the practical ways to include these often untapped audiences. Issues of cultural diversity, accessibility and gender are all covered by the leading experts on these subjects. By including these wider audiences into the market for videogames, we can learn how to truly make games for everyone.

An essential read for any game designer, marketer, producer or anyone interested in what makes videogames such a vital medium, the book will be available from 16 March 2009, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Charles River Media, and all good book stores.