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June 2023


Ten Player Motives #8

8a - CuriosityIf you asked me which of the ten player motives was the most underrated, I would without hesitation reply: the curiosity motive. Not only do most game designers not appreciate the tremendous power of this aspect of human experience, but there is very little recognition of the intensity of the emotions that can be brought into play through curiosity. Yes, the emotional experience of triumph is intense and powerful, but it is also so commonplace as to be cheap and forgettable. But players never forget a moment that brings them wonder.

Exploration is the standard way that videogames evoke curiosity, but it is not enough to just throw out a world and drop the player into it. Morrowind did this, and unfortunately a great many players were turned off by the vertiginous freedom of the game. Later Elder Scrolls games cleaved to the now over-familiar formula of the Grand Theft Auto open world, shaping the world through chains of waypoints. This formula works, and is very successful, but it's insufficient to get the best value from the curiosity motive. Nobody's enjoyment of Vice City or San Andreas was primarily centred upon exploration.

Curiosity is an experience that runs on unanswered questions. For the open world game to truly satisfy the curiosity motive, the landscape has to be crafted in order to raise questions. Zelda has the best ever example in the cracked wall: the moment players see a cracked wall, they know there's a way through, and it just becomes a question of what will open it (a bomb, a hammer, a minotaur...). Indeed, if you want to learn how to put together an open world to evoke curiosity, Nintendo's Breath of the Wild is a masterclass. Each corner of the world is designed with tall features clearly visible ahead, and from up on high you can spy many intriguing spaces to fly down to. The player is constantly drawn to explore, and there is always something new to discover.

The Zelda franchise has also done well evoking the secret weapon of the curiosity motive: wonder. This is a full-bodied emotion that leaves a serious mark on those who experience it, and in both its landscapes and its bosses, Zelda has delivered. The boss experience at its best is a blend of fear and wonder - awe. Shadow of the Colossus managed to one-up Zelda in this regard, but it was working from the same playbook, and these days there are a great many games that do a great job getting awe out of bosses.

Yet wonder is not just to be found in the awe of titanic enemies to beat. There is wonder to be found for every new player of Minecraft, who experiences it the first time their mining down breaks out into an underground chamber of great breadth. This joy of encounter quickly fades - but it is telling that even a procedural landscape can produce wonder. There are also ways of designing for the experience of wonder that do not require combat - Endless Ocean gave me a more memorable experience of wonder in the encounter with a wild whale than any videogame boss I can think of.

Curiosity is not just a matter of exploration and encounter, though. Hidden object games like Mystery Case Files or Gardens of Time evoke curiosity despite being set on a single 2D visual field. What's more, this is a genre to have enjoyed enormous success among female players - which in part explains why the gaming media has been so disrespectful of it. Like it or not, there is still a strongly sexist bent among the people who write about games, and even female game journalists often earn their success by toeing the party line.

Finally, there is another way to get at curiosity and wonder - letting people create. This in fact was more crucial to Minecraft's success than anyone wants to admit: creative is the most popular mode in this game, and the fact that it is possible to sell calendars showing off what people managed to build with virtual LEGO ought to be telling. Roblox too thrives on the sense of the weird and the wonderful waiting to be discovered - and Google's grand media colonic, YouTube, is just as dependent upon the curiosity motive.

However, to make the curiosity motive work in games requires tremendous co-operation between departments. If you want to evoke wonder, you will need artists with immense skill and passion for their work, or programmers willing to prototype systems that can be made to behave in unexpected ways. More than any other motive, the curiosity motive is a team effort. There is tremendous enjoyment and pleasure to be had down this path - but the whole development team will have to work together to make the jaws of players drop.

Next week: Narrative


Ten Player Motives #7

7a - SocialWhy is playing with other players fun...? The simple truth of the matter is that no matter how introverted or antisocial you might be, humans are social animals as a matter of biological inheritance. Those with social anxiety or similar issues that make socialising difficult still love spending time with their friends, it is simply that habitual fears make social life troubling for certain people (and many more people than we tend to admit). Indeed, although it is not often discussed, multiplayer games can be a godsend to people with social anxiety because they provide a structured activity that reduces some of the sense of pressure entailed in interacting with other people face-to-face.

When designing videogames for the social motive, it may seem odd to start by examining interpersonal fears - surely players who are into the social motive are extroverts? Well, no. Natural extroverts are far more likely to go out somewhere to socialise with people than to stay at home and play games. Designing for the social motive, therefore, requires an awareness of the different attitudes people have to social interaction. Although there is only one social motive, which draws against the action of the hypothalamus and the neurochemical oxytocin, there are many different ways of satisfying it.

For many of its early years, International Hobo tried to explain to publishers that co-operative play had an important role in videogames, but this largely fell on deaf ears. This problem is the one that I mentioned right at the start - the mistaken belief that the victory motive is all that games are about. In social play, this illusion can become heighted because one way of tapping into the social motive is by giving players real human opponents to beat. The social motive enhances the sense of victory - ask anyone who plays Fortnite or Call of Duty!

Yet if winning in competition was all it was about, Mario Kart would have flopped. After all, this is game in which the players doing the worst are given the best power-ups, and a skilled player can still be taken down by the dreaded Blue Shell. Where's the appeal in that...? It's not in the feeling of triumph that Mario Kart's genius lies but in the emotion of schadenfreude, the pleasure we take in the misfortune of others. There is something immensely satisfying in watching the mighty being brought down, and laughter, not victory, lies at the heart of the greatest joys the social motive has to offer.

However, do not make the mistake of assuming that friendly competition is the only aspect of the social motive. Players of Words with Friends do want to win, but this game (which is really just Scrabble reinvented for online play) is as much about the 'conversation' that comes out of building the board as anything else. This is even more evident in certain co-operative habits that occur around games such as Minecraft, where people are working together to shape a world into a collective image.

More than any other game, however, the power of the social motive was demonstrated during the height of the popularity of Pokémon GO, Niantic's powerhouse mobile game. Suddenly, unexpectedly, introverts of every age, gender, shape, and size were gathering in public places together with a common purpose - to collect pokémon, and to beat raid battles together. The design may have been simple, and it obviously relied heavily on the popularity of the Pokémon RPGs, but Niantic more than perhaps anyone else in the history of games knew the power of videogames to draw people together - even people who otherwise would never choose to be in the same place at the same time. The social motive is more than a means of enhancing victory - it can bring some of the greatest emotional rewards in the whole of gaming.

Next week: Curiosity

Park Beyond Out Now!

Park Beyond Available Now
Limbic and Bandai Namco's delightful theme park sim Park Beyond is out now! We've been working on this project for a few years, and it's been an incredible thrill ride!  Especially enjoyable were the hilarious voice recording sessions - there's nothing quite so gratifying as getting your jokes delivered by professionals. Congratulations to the team on shipping it!


Ten Player Motives #6

6a - HorrorWhy do we love horror? It's a question that has provoked a great deal of debate, but the two most important things to understand about the horror motive are that it is about indulging in unpleasant feelings, and that precisely because it's about nasty things, it's not for everyone. Indeed, the absolutely vital point about the horror motive is that if you choose to include it, you're excluding some proportion of your possible audience. Super Mario Chainsaw is not a sensible videogame project to pursue.

The key emotions are fear and disgust, and of the two it is fear that is most important. For the thrill-seeking motive, games trick an ancient part of our brains into responding to the illusion of danger and risk. Fear comes from the same neurobiological roots - the only difference is that we feel the thrill of excitement when we think we are in control while we experience fear when we feel out of control. This is why a great deal of the bag of tricks used by the horror genre involve ambiguity, uncertainty, and surprise (which also play into another motive, curiosity, we'll get to later).

Disgust is an intriguing emotion, because by definition it is unpleasant. However, there is a pleasure to be taken from the end of this experience, and this makes it cathartic. Perhaps more importantly for videogames, disgust is the ketchup to the horror burger: it enhances fear. The boss - by far the most conspicuous attempt to evoke fear in players - becomes even more fearful when it is married with disgust, something that From Software have made excellent use of in the design of their bosses for titles like Dark Souls and Elden Ring.

The vast majority of the play book for the horror motive is taken from film. Although horror stories are as old as humanity, the classic tale of horror plays on a reveal that combines fear and disgust as a payoff. That doesn't work in videogames, which are longer and more repetitive experiences. Film, on the other hand, already developed a set of tools for reliably evoking fear - most notably in the use of the soundtrack. Plucked strings evoke tension, the soundtrack goes silent before a jump scare - there's a wealth that game developers can learn from the movie play book that will work just as well in games.

At the heart of what makes a Silent Hill or Last of Us game work is the application of tricks from Hollywood horror to the videogame format, and audio is a huge part of it. The radio static that tells you monsters are near, or the sirens when worlds collide in Silent Hill - or the ominous insectoid clatter of the Clickers in The Last of Us allow sound design to do most of the heavy lifting. What's more, because audio is cheap, games playing on the horror motive are perfectly suited to low budget development, as Outlast and Five Nights at Freddy's demonstrate. Also, since darkness is ideal for evoking fear, games riffing on the horror motive can get by with less graphical detail - Amnesia made excellent use of darkness, and even made it into a gameplay feature.

Despite the dependence upon film techniques, game designers do have one brilliant trick that they can use to enhance horror: limited supply. This is the true secret to the Resident Evil franchise's genius, and why it was able to found the genre name 'survival horror' (the tagline for the first game was 'Enter the Survival Horror'), despite there being many earlier horror games all the way back to the old 8-bit computers. If the player feels powerful, they will not feel fear. By restricting access to ammunition and healing items - and even more so, their saves - Resident Evil created a design pattern that was unique to games, making limited supply into the raw material of players' darkest nightmares.

Next week: Social