Agency

Ten Player Motives #10

9 - NarrativeDiscussing the narrative motive, we came up against an essential problem of using games as a storytelling medium: the player expects to have influence within the game world. This is the domain of the last of the ten key commercial player motives: agency. But in order to understand how the agency motive works, we have to appreciate that there is an essential tension. Not between stories and games, as the line is typically drawn, but between agency and narrative.

There is perhaps no better way of illustrating the distinction between the narrative and the agency motives than comparing the long and distinguished lineages of Japanese computer RPGs and their 'Western' variants. Although these lines are increasingly blurred today (as AAA cRPGs will tend to draw heavily from both traditions), there is a clear historical period after the Ultima-Wizardry split that dominates more than two decades of cRPG design. In many respects, Final Fantasy VII and Bioshock that were mentioned in the context of the narrative motive highlight this very split: the Japanese took Wizardry and choose a form that prioritised the narrative motive for its storytelling (hence the 'animated movie cut with a game' that followed in the 1990s). Conversely, Ultima placed the agency motive above the narrative motive - the play itself creates stories from the toy box the game provides.

Nowhere is this foregrounding of agency above narrative more evident than in the open world games - whether we're looking at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V, these games give the player the illusion that you can 'go anywhere and do anything'. This is the agency motive in a nutshell: our psychological need for autonomy manifests in games as it does in life. But in games, we come across a specific barrier that causes problems, and it is one we met before with the problem-solving motive: confusion.

Agency arguably hit its peak in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrorwind - a game with unparalleled player freedom! There was only one problem: the majority of players had literally no idea what they were supposed to be doing. Players for whom the problem-solving motive was a key part of their play had a blast with this game - enduring confusion being the 'mutant power' of such players. Most players of the game were just hopelessly lost. They needed much more help than it provided. Grand Theft Auto III provided the solution: use a film-like narrative to block out a prescribed route to follow, so that the player alternates between intervals of 'infinite agency' and following-the-path. It is the model that all contemporary open world games follow.

Yet the agency motive has more to offer. We have lost sight of the possibility of playing with the implicit narrative of The Sims or Ultima. The original inspiration for Grand Theft Auto were a series of British videogames that were the first to offer 'playground worlds'. All of these games were published between 1984 and 1985, and while Elite is the most famous, Paradroid, Mercenary, and The Lords of Midnight all show this same capacity - overcoming the limited technical capabilities of 8-bit hardware by providing a framework with which the player has maximal agency.

For a brief time there, it felt as if we might rediscover the power of the agency motive that these pioneering proto open world games unleashed. With the meteoric rise of Minecraft in the mid-2000s, we once again experienced worlds that overcame technical capabilities to offer unparalleled agency. In this case, the trick was the simple expedient of simplifying the world into cubic blocks. In a brutal yet hilarious irony for me personally, I had done exactly this several years earlier with Play with Fire, a project that eventually flailed and fell into obscurity because of the utter lack of investment in indie game projects (a problem, I might add, has never gone away).

What happened with Minecraft, however, was that it succeeded as much because it was virtual Lego as because it successfully channelled the agency motive. It enjoyed great and deserved success, but the key to its prosperity was its support of diverse regimes for play - enormous risk-reward in Hardcore, exciting exploration in Survival, and boundless imaginativeness in Creative. Yet successors copied only the substructure of Minecraft, and fell back on the familiar tricks and techniques of the game designer's playbook. If we want to truly push the agency motive forward, we need to understand why Minecraft's freedom to choose exactly how you want to play opened a door the games industry has remained reluctant to walk through.

Next week, the final part: Aesthetic


Narrative

Ten Player Motives #9

9 - NarrativeWhen I talk about our motives for playing games, I am usually able to identify a clear set of emotions that show the psychological underpinnings of why we are drawn to play that way. This becomes impossible when we talk about the narrative motive, because any and all emotions can be evoked by a narrative! But it would be wrong to suggest that there is not still a clear, if you will, 'psychic shape' to our engagement with narrative. So what is it? Why do we love stories so much?

A short and lazy way of answering this question is to state that stories are the basis of the entire human operating system. We live on a daily basis within our stories - the whole idea of a 'you' as opposed to a 'me' is a framework set up by our need to tell tales about everything. We are the most imaginative beings that we know of, and our inner life consists primarily of telling stories about who we are, as individuals, as cultures, and as a species. This same impulse can be found in our relationship with games because, well, there's no escaping it! Even scientific research is absolutely built upon metaphors. (I mentioned above 'human operating system' - a loaded metaphor if ever there was one!)

But precisely because we live in a world of 'stories everywhere', we need to be careful to understand how games engage with narrative. There is a long standing belief among game developers that stories are something other than games, and that something like Final Fantasy VII is basically an animated movie cut with a combat game and an inventory management game. This interpretation is basically spot on, but it applies just as much to a game like Bioshock, which attempts to place the player right in the heart of a story that could not be adequately be told in another medium.

The danger in coming at this problem this way is that it leads to us thinking that narrative and games are different kinds of things. But if we look at games like The Sims or Nintendogs or the hugely successful Animal Crossing series, we can see that the kinds of explicit narratives that we find in games as well as movies and books aren't the only way stories make their way into our games. There is also the implicit narrative that comes from playing with a virtual doll set - and what is The Sims if not precisely this? Sure, the climax of Animal Crossing - let's say, paying off your final mortgage - is not so much a surprise as a distant goal, but we are still engaging with a fictional world with characters and events that build to a satisfying conclusion. And that's narrative. It was never just about conflict, as Hollywood screenwriters are wont to claim - it was always about uncertainty, and 'when' is just as uncertain as 'what'.

What's fascinating about how the narrative motive expresses itself through games is that we can eliminate all of the overtly 'game-like' aspects of the experience and still end up with a narrative that is not at all like a movie or a book. Dear Esther opened a brand new path here, where other games like What Remains of Edith Finch have followed. The genius of The Chinese Room's ground-breaking ghost story was to see that a game world is a canvas upon which stories are painted just as much in a walking simulator as in a so-called open world game.

Yet there is a problem that the narrative motive faces when we play games that we do not face with other narrative media like film and written stories. Games love to fool the player into believing that they have control and influence in the game world (which they do - but only of a much narrower kind that we tend to recognise). This means that, for instance, killing a character for dramatic effect, as in Final Fantasy VII, works only so much as the player is primarily letting the narrative motive draw them forward. If the player is otherwise motivated, this attempt fails because it does not feel like the player's action, it is something forced upon them.

This is the brilliance of the twist in Bioshock: it takes this essential weakness of game stories and inverts it, turns it into a knowing twist without ever breaking the fourth wall. It reminds us that it is not quite true that stories and games are two different things - it is rather that when we engage with games as stories, we have to understand and accept the strengths and limitations of this specific narrative form. And this is something that every story faces in its own way, regardless of which medium it flows through.

Next week: Agency


Curiosity

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


Social

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!


Horror

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


Origins of Ghost Master, Part Two

Ghost Master 20 (3 of 3)
Today is the twentieth anniversary of the release of Ghost Master. Of all my hundreds of game projects, this is still the title where I am most proud of the game design, the project where I beam with pride when I think of the incredible team and the contributions everyone made to make such a memorable and unique experience. Destiny was stacked against the game, but it did not pass unnoticed, and to this day I am forever discovering new fans who played - and loved - this extraordinary haunting simulator that entered our world on the 23rd May 2003.

In Origins of Ghost Master, Part One, I went through all the haunters from Act I of the game, what influenced them and where they came from. In this second part I will do the same for Act III, and then on Halloween this year I'll complete the series with the haunters for the final Act. These articles are my thank you to all the fans who kept the faith with this game over the two decades since it was released. It means a great deal to me that this very special game has burned in your hearts, and has lingered on in the memories of its players with a spooky afterlife.

The Refugees

At the start of Act II, the player is gifted three new haunters. Why? It's not that the player is short of fiends and familiars at this point, it's that we cut certain hauntings from the game, and as a result we ended up with some orphans who had nowhere to go. Rather than cut from the game entirely (which would have been silly since they were already animated!) I suggested to Gregg Barnett, who was in charge of development, we could just give them to the player at an Act boundary. And so it was!

Buck

BUCK
Part of my original plan for the game was to have certain mortals who would appear alive in one haunting, then die and appear as a ghost later. However, this presented technical problems since it meant a different model for the mortal and for the haunter, which wasn't good for our pipeline. As a result, this whole idea fell out, and with it a trilogy of hauntings sent in an old mansion - "The Uninvited", "Where There's a Will..." and "The Butler Didn't Do It".

BUCKCONCEPTThe key character of this was Old Man Carter, whose faithful bloodhound Buck was so loyal to him that he dies soon after Carter does. While I can put quite a bit of detail into how Carter comes about (and will do in the final part this Halloween), Buck himself was inspired by classic tales of the loyal dog who gives up the ghost (so to speak) to join their master in death. I think I might have been partly influenced by the US ghost story of the Blue Ghost Dog, about a blue tick hound belonging to Charles Thomas Sims. However, a large part of my motivation was to find another way of mounting the concept of a Horde (which attacks with a horde of specific creatures) and a flea-bitten dog really appealed to me for this.

Hypnos

Hypnos Another refugee from "The Uninvited", the name 'Hypnos' comes straight from H.P. Lovecraft (and "The Univited"" is also a play on Lovecraft's "The Unnameable"). That story features a sculptor who is afraid to fall asleep because of the horror he might find there, where the Greek god of sleep appears as a mercurial being in dreams.

Fuseli 1781 The NightmareA little influence from Gaiman's comic The Sandman was going on in my mind here, and Hypnos was going to be stuck in an hourglass (playing on the sand theme, as indeed Gaiman does in the comics). However, our concept designer Nick Martinelli was given a free hand on this and came up with a design inspired by a 1781 paintings by Henry Fuseli called "The Nightmare". Honestly, I would have renamed this ghost 'Nightmare' if I'd been on the ball - or perhaps 'Hipnos' (to play on the prefix 'hippo-' meaning 'equine'). But regardless, she stayed as Hypnos.

Quiver

Quiver_renderAnother refugee from "The Uninvited", Quiver's appearance was partly inspired by Casper The Friendly Ghost's uncle Fatso. For me, however, he came out of the idea of a boy who is scared of everything who then becomes a ghost - that he is afraid of. If I had an inspiration for that idea, I don't know what it is, but I wouldn't be surprised if I came across this somewhere!

 

 

 

The Unusual Suspects

Obviously the name is taken from The Usual Suspects, which is a film I rather dislike but that was so popular I couldn't resist borrowing the title for our first police station haunting. Actually, that's not strictly true - I wanted this haunting to be called "Hell Street Blues" after the Steven Bochco show Hill Street Blues, as I was a fan, or perhaps I'm misremembering and that was to be a second haunting in this location. Either way, the name 'Hell Street' did stick, and appears in the game as the precinct name. You'll find a great deal of the police officers are named for that show e.g. the police chief Frank Travanti mashes up actor Daniel J. Traventi and his character Frank Furillo, and Norman Franz combines Dennis Franz with his role of Lieutenant Norman Buntz. There are also some random extras - I particular like Ursula Kudrow, named for Lisa Kudrow's hopeless waitress character Ursula from Mad About You, who is perhaps better known today from later appearing in Friends.

Electrospasm

Electrospasm_renderIt will come as no surprise to anyone that this character was inspired in part by the Scoleri Brothers in Ghostbusters II. I don't think I'd seen Wes Craven's Shocker at this point (the only film of his I'd seen at this point was The Serpent and the Rainbow), so this is unlikely to be the inspiration - and if it had, the mortal who gives rise to Electrospasm would have been called either Mitch Pinker or Horace Pileggi. But there's a mystery here as I went with the name 'Harold Smears', which I cannot link to anything! It's possible that my right-hand-man on the design team, Neil Bundy, knows where this name came from, but I suspect this story is lost to time.

 

 

Blue Murder

BLUEMURDERI have a feeling there's a part of her story that I have forgotten, since her epitaph namechecks both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, but all I can really say about her is that her name is a play on the phrase 'to scream blue murder' and that movie-wise this character was inspired in part by the 1990 Kathryn Bigelow movie Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis.

 

 

 

 

Banzai (Secret)

BANZAIThis one is just a straight up pun between the Japanese word 'Bonsai', meaning miniature ornamental tree, and 'Banzai' meaning '10 thousand years of life!' (a battle cry a bit like 'God save the King!' in English). We needed more elementals, and so I came up with a punny-name. That's really all there is to this one!

 

 

Deadfellas

No prizes for linking up this haunting with the 1990 Martin Scorsese mob flick GoodFellas, which was the first mafia movie I was taken with (I had not - and still have not! - seen any of the Godfather films for reasons I simply cannot fathom). Okay, but why does it take place on a boat...? Well, funny you should ask...

Fingers

Fingers_render Fingers_concept_artOnce we knew we had a mobster story, it was all but inevitable that we'd end up with someone who got the ol' 'concrete boots'. Enter Fingers, the pianist who originally would have been at the bottom of the ocean. Indeed, that was the reason for having this haunting set on a boat - so we could have underwater ghosts. But this turned out to be a colossal nightmare in practice, not least of all because of the panning between the sea bottom and the boat, which were a fair distance apart. It had to be changed, so we tethered Fingers to his old Piano instead. (We also lost another ghost this way - Thorne, a pirate, and he didn't make it into the game, although the Ghost Master Complete team have rescued him with creative modding!).

Flash Jordan

Flash JordanThe name is an obvious pun on the early sci-fi superhero Flash Gordon, but the inspiration here was Jennifer Jason Leigh's fast-talking reporter Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy. I think both for the Coen Brothers and for me, there may also be some influence from Rosalind Russel's brilliant performance as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. If she looks completely anachronistic in the game it's precisely because all the influences are from movies from the mid-twentieth century. And who doesn't love a flashbulb!

 

 

Wavemaster

WavemasterA bit disappointed for the name for this undine, to be honest... it's lacking. I definitely feel like I could have dug a little deeper on this Water Elemental, but never mind. What I do love is the epitaph: "The multitudious lifeforms that crawl and proliferate upon land are mere echoes of the legacy of Wavemaster's kind." There's an H.P. Lovecraft vibe here, the suggestion of a time before life on the land when the undines were the masters of this planet. If only the name synched up with this I'd have been satisfied.

Knuckles

Knuckles_PosterNo, nothing to do with a certain echidna I assure you! Rather this is 'Knuckles Malone' in reference to Alan Parker's 1976 debut movie, Bugsy Malone, which really was the first place I ever saw a tommy gun. I think this all might have been Neil's idea, but regardless of where it comes from Knuckles is the name of the enforcer in that movie (so called because he cracks his knuckles). It's the tommy gun that I love here - such an iconic weapon!

 

 

Facepacks & Broomsticks

Bringing back the sorority witches from Haunting 101 we needed a name... where else do we have witches, I thought? Why not the 1971 adaptation of Mary Norton's charming tales of witchery, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, starring Angela Lansbury as a witch-in-training! Facepacks is pure sorority cliché, but throwing it in made for a great interstitial title page!

Tricia

Tricia_Ghoul_RoomI loved the idea of a Fetch the moment I discovered it during the research for this game. Mirrors are wonderfully spooky plot devices in a number of movies, and I was delighted that we got two for the game. Tricia was the first. I think at one point she was going to be a cheerleader in Haunting 101 and would die, and then be a ghost in this haunting. However, as I noted above, this idea fell out of the game (as did the cheerleaders!) so this was a way to rescue that model. I'm not sure about the name (this may be one of Neil's...), but for some reason she brings to mind the 1995 Amy Heckerling movie Clueless, which I thought was a brilliant interpretation of Jane Auten's novel Emma.

Hogwash

Hogwash Hogwash_Concept_artOnce upon a time there were plans for a haunting set in a drive-in theatre, and I was planning to do something time-loopy in reference to the 1993 Harold Ramis movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. This groundhog-themed ghost is the only survivor of that plan - and boy doesn't it look like Nick took inspiration from Pikachu in the concept art!

 

Firetail

FiretailI love Firetail, the impish salamander who is annoyed with the witches for not dismissing him properly (pagans take note - always close down your rituals!). The visual inspiration is a newt, and I have an especial love of newts, while the name is just an obvious portmanteau, although one that I like. It would be wrong to say that Charmander was an influence here, rather both Pokémon and Ghost Master take influence from the fact 'salamander' was a word for a fire spirit before it was a name for a type of brightly coloured newt.

 

Poultrygeist

Hardly a surprise that this haunting is inspired by the 1982 movie Poltergeist. I loved this film, and also its sequel, and as I've said before I remain surprised that we don't have a ghostly preacher anywhere in Ghost Master!

Hard Boiled

Hard BoiledThe problem with the poltergeists was how to tell them apart. I mean, we used up every poltergeist cliché with Whirlweird, so what's left? Puns to the rescue! Once the haunting was nicknamed 'Poultrygeist' we just needed a chicken-themed haunter to go with it, and it amused us to take Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Saunders and make him into the arch enemy of our vengeful hen gestalt. In the movie, it's an ancient Indian burial ground - in this haunting, it's a hen graveyard. Some small influence here from Sapphire and Steel Assignment Three. Hard Boiled' is, of course, simply a reference to eggs. I feel like we missed a pun here somewhere, but I'm not sure what it would have been!

 

Phantom of the Operating Room

If there was one thing I learned above all else from working with Terry Pratchett, it was never to back down from a terrible pun. We had a hospital, we needed a name... this one leapt out at me and grabbed me by the church organ.

Brigit

Brigit_renderOriginally she was just 'Zombie Bride' - I'm pretty sure Gregg wanted us to have a ghost in the style of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, forever caught in her wedding dress. She had a lot of names on the way, including 'Beryl' and just 'The Bride'. But in the end I'm pretty sure I picked the name 'Brigit' in reference to the Celtic Goddess with that name. However, I can find no good reason for this connection now, and I wonder if it is simply a lazy keeping of the first three letters the same from 'bride'! However, there is definitely not a connection to Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones' Diary, as some have suggested - if it had been, I would have taken that spelling. I suspect the help/interference of some pagan friends living in Knoxville, TN for this one...

Harriet

Harriet_RenderNothing at all to do with Lola Bunny from 1996's Space Jam I'm afraid, this one is a straight up clash of influences working its way out in an unexpected way. I learned about the pookah from the unbelievably brilliant 1950 movie Harvey, starting James Stewart as a man who best friend is a spirit of this kind who appears to him as a six-foot tall invisible rabbit named Harvey. There's your first three letters in the name right there. However, Gregg was a huge fan of the 1988 Robert Zemeckis film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and if we were having a rabbit he wanted to take inspiration from Jessica Rabbit. Who, as you may be aware, is not a rabbit. Nonetheless, between these two films, Harriet came to life.

Daydreamer

DaydreamerRENDEROur second and final Sandman, Daydreamer was bounced around between hauntings and ended up here as we had nowhere else for him to go. Unlike Hypnos, he has the look I had imagined for these disturbances in the first place - a spirit made of sand. Once I knew he was going to end up in the hospital, the backstory of him being an anaesthesiologist fell into place. This is another name that feels wrong to me in retrospect, but then he's completely messed up however you think about it. I mean look at him - he's clearly dressed in a uniform from the American Civil War! I have a feeling this is tied to the scenario he was originally intended for "The Abysmal", which took place on a shipwreck, but it's hard to be sure.

 

 

 

The Blair Wisp Project

No prizes for guessing the reference here. It's not that I liked the movie, which I felt was rather weak for all that it had a great high concept. It's rather that I felt obligated to chew up and spit out every pop culture ghost movie I could lay my hands on. This is also the haunting I'm least happy with, as it uses the weather powers extensively and the game never trains the player in how they work. A real shame, as that game system is really interesting, but it's rather cruel to expect players to work it all out with nothing to go on.

Sparkle

Sparkle_Render1Sparkle, another Fire Elemental, who is not as charming as Firetail, alas, and has more plain name. But still, flaming newt - what's not to like!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blair Wisp

BLAIRWISPRENDER...and lastly for Act II of the game we have the title ghost for this haunting. The will-o'-the-wisp is such an iconic ghostly entity that I wanted to work it into the game somewhere, and the pun with The Blair Witch Project gave an opening. Honestly, I'm not happy with the Wisps, which are the most fussy and awkward of the haunters (except perhaps the Headless Horsemen, which at least have the benefit of looking cool!). But I like the design of a disembodied skull and the upper part of a spine at least!

 

After Two Decades...

That's everyone in Act II of the game! This Halloween I'll complete the origin stories for all our ghosts with the final part, which includes some of the most visually striking members of our rogue's gallery. It just remains to thank every fan of Ghost Master for keeping the game alive in their hearts for twenty years. Of all the many games I've worked on, there is none that is quite as dear to me as this spectral simulator that reminds us all just how much fun it is to scare the pants off someone!

Happy anniversary to every Ghost Master fan, wherever you may be fettered!


Thrill-seeking

Ten Player Motives #5

5a - Thrill-seekingWhen we first started conducting surveys into how and why people play games, we discovered that one aspect of the play experience was almost universally loved by our respondents: excitement. The example of Bejeweled shows that this was somewhat misleading, however: yes, everyone enjoys feeling excited, but one person's rollercoaster is another person's vomit-inducing nightmare. Time-constraints do make games more exciting, but they also exclude certain players who do not want to feel that stressed when they are playing games. For the most part, however, the thrill-seeking motive is something that everyone enjoys, provided the game doesn't take it too far.

The self-adjusting speed of early puzzle games like mega-hit Tetris worked extremely well to ensure wide appeal. A game like Super-Hexagon divides players and turns off a great many who can't get to grips with the level of challenge, but Tetris adapts beautifully to the skills of the player. Lower difficulties give even unskilled players time to work out how to put the tetrominoes together, whereas a skilled player can jump ahead down the speed curve to find the place that's exciting for them. A huge range of brilliant puzzle game designs in the 90s and 2000s delivered thrill-seeking play that was fundamentally not about winning. The player of an endless mode never wins: defeat is inevitable. Yet players still have fun doing it.

There are other ways of tapping into the thrill-seeking motive that aren't just time constraints and gently-ramping pressure. Among the most iconic are the high speed racers that were extremely popular in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s. The Need for Speed franchise is the commercial the poster child, although Criterion's Burnout series is arguably an even better example. These games were so perfect at pushing player's high speed buttons, that EA bought Criterion and gave them the Need for Speed franchise to develop.

In the 2010s, another way of leveraging the thrill-seeking motive was added to the game design lexicon: the battle royale. Pioneered by PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds but then cloned and tweaked by Epic's Fortnite as a supplement (or replacement) for its underwhelming Save the World mode, the battle royale throws a hundred competitors into a simultaneous knock out tournament. These games are fundamentally about the victory motive - everybody likes to win, after all - but the excitement of being fielded against ninety nine other players in a sudden death, winner-takes-all format was palpable. So much so that even if the victory motive is why people say they play, the excitement is the reason that they stay. After all, only one player wins in each round... if victory were all it was about, these games would not have the thriving player communities that they do.

In a marvellous act of circularity, the success of the battle royale format led to game developers adding this to other existing game mechanics, leading to the return of the puzzle game in a surprising new format. Tetris, for so long the epitome of thrill-seeking purity, has come back as Tetris 99, combining the excitement of the original with the seat-of-the-pants glory seeking of the battle royale format. It is a striking reminder that while ideas come and go in videogames, there is always room to combine something old with something new to take players somewhere very familiar in a new and interesting way.

Next: Horror

Ten Player Motives will return this Summer on ihobo.com.


Luck

Ten Player Motives #4

4a - LuckEverybody likes to win, but not everyone is willing to suffer to get there. Fortunately, there's a way of making games anyone can win - pure, blind luck. The reason that kids love games with a low degree of skill and a high degree of luck (Snakes and Ladders or Candyland for instance) is that anyone can win - they have just as much chance of beating their parents at these games as vice versa, and that makes games of pure chance very appealing to younger players, who are certainly not going to beat Dad at Chess or Splendor - at least until they get a little older!

The same lowering of the level of challenge was key to the success of Popcap, whose game Bejeweled (modelled on the brilliant Panel de Pon), which was the origin of the term 'casual game'. Bejeweled was built on the breakthrough realisation that having a timer in puzzle games was inherently stressful, and not everyone enjoyed this stress. The addition of an untimed mode was key to the success of this pivotal casual game, which in untimed basically became an opportunity to switch things around at random until the player eventually won. (As a postscript, I note that when EA bought Popcap, they immediately destroyed this clever design by making Bejeweled Blitz...) Along with kids boardgames, this demonstrates how the luck motive can substitute for the victory motive. However, most examples in commercial videogames will substitute luck for the acquisition motive - or combine the two.

By far the most commercially successful example is not even a videogame, however: it's Magic: The Gathering, which took the design principles of trading cards and built a howling goldmine with it. The luck motive is put into play in two ways in the design of this game, one of which has millennia of precedence, the other being less than a century old. Firstly, by shuffling a deck of cards as a source of randomness, games of Magic: The Gathering and any of its descendants such as Hearthstone or Marvel Snap, play differently every time. It's something that adds enormous values to boardgames and all videogames that have boardgame-like system. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there's the incredible power of the booster pack.

In a trading card game like Magic: The Gathering, booster pack contain random cards of varying rarity. In the original release, a pack would contain one rare, three uncommons, and eleven commons. Over the years, Wizards of the Coast (and later Hasbro, who bought them) varied these designs and came up with different configurations but the core concept was the same. Every booster would have one card you definitely wanted, either for your own set or for its trade value - the rare. It would have three cards that would be of high utility in deck building - the uncommons. And it would have a bunch of commons that were exciting when you first opened booster packs, but would just become chaff after a while.

Magic: The Gathering's booster pack design was incredibly powerful. For acquisition motive players such as myself, it means spending a huge amount of money on boosters to collect (and trade for) a complete set. But even for players who weren't interesting in 100% collections, the luck motive made each booster an adventure in itself. This in turn led to videogames inventing loot boxes, which were digital versions of the booster pack, with the same monetisation policy.

Loot boxes divide players. Many consider loot boxes manipulative... and they certainly can be, even when what is contained is purely cosmetic. You only have to look at the Steam marketplace for gun skins on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to see how players can be motivated to look for ultra-rare, ultra-valuable skins like the karambit knife skin. But the possibility for exploitation isn't a certainty. The design and monetisation of Supercell's Clash Royale has many defenders, for instance.

But you don't have to monetise random chance to make the luck motive work for your design. There is a long and honourable history of games using the luck motive without monetising it. Most of these designs descend from TSR's (and later Hasbro, who bought them) venerable Dungeons & Dragons design, which used random tables to determine treasure drops. Nearly every computer role-playing game that followed over the decades made use of random chance drops to add variety of experience - and, when done well, to capture some of that excitement from 'opening the booster pack'.

Next week: Thrill-seeking


Acquisition

Ten Player Motives #3

3a - AcquisitionIf the victory motive asks us to endure frustration to get to the win, and the problem-solving motive asks us to endure confusion to solve the puzzle, is there something else we can endure for our future pleasure? There is: boredom. You may have noticed that a lot of videogame players complain about grinding, and yet games still contain an enormous amount of grinding. Why is that? If grinding is inherently negative (and it is, that's why we call it 'the grind') why would we want it...? The answer is that the boredom associated with grinding is also something you can endure to reach a sense of enormous satisfaction. It's the pleasure that comes with hitting 100% completion, with doing everything, with collecting everything. It's the quiet joy of acquisition.

Believe it or not, just like everybody likes to win, everybody likes to get stuff - at least at first. I mean, not everybody is a hoarder or likes to keep things, but who doesn't like to win a prize, to receive a gift, or even to get paid? 'Getting' is fundamental to the experience of being a living being. Even amoebas like eating food. The same neurobiology that underpins the enjoyment of foraging is tied up with the acquisition-motive - the reason why getting stuff is enjoyable. And yes, searching a field for all the nuts and berries can be tedious... but the question is, are you the kind of mammal that enjoys the satisfaction from knowing you've searched the whole field, or aren't you...?

Paradoxically, videogames have become more dependent upon acquisition than upon winning. In the arcade, where a coin-drop was only supposed to sustain between two and thirty minutes of play (and the quicker the better up to a certain point), there wasn't much motive to acquire. Sure, you collected points, but you collected them in order to set a high score - the motive was victory. But at home, from the tabletop role-playing games instituted by Dungeons & Dragons to their immediate digital descendants, there was a simple and compelling pleasure to acquiring that was to infuse a huge variety of game styles.

Whether it's gold, experience points, or interesting treasures actually doesn't matter that much as long as it keeps your interest. And for the most acquisition-focussed players, they're going to do everything the game says can be checked off the list. Achievements were only a logical extension of this compulsion, moving the stamp collections and to-do lists of the acquisition-focussed games into the meta-level of the platform itself, and with the same goal: the quiet addiction of pointless busy work that comes with a gold star at the end. Well done, you did it!

The sheer beauty of the acquisition motive is that you don't even have to be good or clever to get at it. If you're striving for victory you had better 'git gud', as the illiterate expression goes. If you want to overcome the problem, you need to have the intellectual chops to solve puzzles. But if you want to acquire, well, now all you need is patience. And that's much less demanding than the alternatives. Ever wondered why the so-called 'social' games were so heavy on the grinding? Because they let their designs by dictated by the metrics of retention, and nothing is better at retention that giving people stuff and telling them to get more stuff. Frankly, the moment you were born into a world with money, you were primed to play in this way.

This motive rounds out the three 'hot' motives - victory, problem-solving, acquisition - all of which require players to suffer through something in order to get to a hit of dopamine. Through frustration to reach the big hit of victory, through confusion to the quietly satisfying hit of solutions, and through boredom to the calm satisfaction of 100%. But there are seven other commercially important motives that don't require anything like this kind of endurance. Understanding these other ways to play provides game designers crucial ways to make these core player goals even more compelling, and to reach players who otherwise might never even consider playing in the first place.

Next week: Luck