Collaborative Play to Companionship

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In the last year, we’ve seen the publication of the Trust Spectrum, and broad discussion of the ph2016 paper Game design patterns that facilitate strangers becoming Friends. But both of these papers, rightfully, take a hands-off approach to defining design best practices for motivating players to play together. Friendship and trust are a challenging frame to motivate from.

Another ph2016 paper has received less discussion: Design for Collaborative Play. It’s worth expanding on Collaborative Play, and thinking deeply about what mechanics produce collaborative play, what leads to feelings of companionship, and the implications for friendship, the trust spectrum, and general social design.

I believe Collaborative Play is the main reason players love cooperative experiences in games, and is thus the main driver of (game-specific) stranger-to-friendship relationship change. Therefore, its nature (and constraints) shape social design theory. That further understanding would greatly improve related frameworks like the trust spectrum.

Potential questions:

  • What defines collaborative play? What separates general “I’m in a group” play from collaborative play? (Even when they are on teams.)
  • Why is collaborative play such a strong motivator?
  • Beyond proximity and similarity, what rules create collaborative play?  What are the best practices for mechanics, shared goals, rewards, etc?
  • What feedback enhances collaborative play? Environment, call and response, culture, etc?
  • How is collaborative play informed by the trust spectrum? How does collaboration change at different trust levels?
  • Does collaborative play design inherently encourage players to particular trust levels?
  • What are the best practices for encouraging collaborative play?
    • One example, to show there’s more to discover: clear, authentic, positive reactions to assistance.)
  • What is companionship? How is it separate from belonging/relatedness? From friendship?
  • What creates feelings of companionship? What conditions cause collaborative play to lead to companions?
  • Can companionship exist with NPCs? What separates real people from Epona or Garrus or your dog? What separates players from NPCs?

Non-Colonization RPG Game Systems

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Here’s a Subversive Game Design Concept that might have some legs —

RPG game systems are built on a conceptual foundation of colonization without consequence. Systems that enable players to explore, exploit, refine, industrialize, and extract value from the world, either natural or social, are often the basis for our crafting systems & tech trees.

So what experiments could we propose for RPG game systems that simulate a different approach to resource & social engagement?

  • What types of games already exist with systems we can learn from?
  • What are ways to reframe existing colonization simulation systems to make seeking balance fun?
  • Who are the players who would be drawn to games where there are there fun ways to explore while pursuing balance and fairness?
  • Do some types of game systems support and enhance that pursuit?
  • How will players simmered in western value systems perceive or understand  these systems, if we can even propose them?
  • Your question here!

Using Dunbar’s Number to Design Online Worlds

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Since their inception, MMOs have been focused on scale. Massively is right in the name! And we have expended large amounts of creative and technological energy creating larger and larger simulations to support bigger and bigger groups of players. We love to design large, interconnected mechanics, and global scale systems. Managing and shaping big systems is fun for designers/developers but is often inaccessible and confusing for players. And when it comes to social systems, large scale works against community building. So we add a lot of support systems, complicated UI, and hierarchies to make our games manageable for players. This approach (make it big, then add support to navigate the big) has produced some really cool designs but what if we approached this from the other direction? What if we designed small first? What if we designed to optimize human interaction and relationship building and then create the framework to scale? Specifically, what if we used Dunbar’s number to guide design of an online world?

I am interested in exploring what design of an online world based on Dunbar’s number would look like, what approaches and constraints would look like in this type of design, and whether this lens could produce a better, more social online world. There are many resources we can draw on from psychology research, games that have unintentionally been shaped by Dunbar’s number (maybe there are even examples of games that used this lens already), online community history, and even past Horseshoe work groups. I believe this could be a rich and interesting topic for people interested in social gaming and online worlds.

Designing for Friendship, Part Deux – The Trust Spectrum

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Two years ago, I was running a project to explore innovation in mobile gaming. I had the great good fortune to work with Raph Koster, Sean Vesce, and others.

Our design focus areas were:

  1. Colocated play with phones (YDKJ, SpaceTeam, “couch co-op for phones”)
  2. Design that supported true human connection between the players, based on my interpretation of hundreds of papers I read in sociology, psychology, neurobiology, popular science, etc.

At the same time, Daniel, Bill, Joel, Yuri, Michael, and others at PH2016 were working on the same challenge, and posted their report on “Game design patterns that facilitate strangers becoming ‘friends’“.

Synchronicity. The movement to reclaim our electronic lives – to counterbalance the unhealthy unintended consequences – gathers steam. The game design morphogenetic field in action. An idea whose time has come?

The result of my project was a design lens called The Trust Spectrum, which Raph published in great detail on his blog. I have been continuing to refine and update the theory in my personal work, and just gave a talk on it at the Intentional Play Summit.

Since it is no longer my ‘full time job’ to develop and refine this theory, I feel PH is an ideal forge in which to temper the concept, put it to the test with some of the greatest minds in the industry, and see if there’s anything there.

This concept – creating games that have positive social impact in the real world, that help strengthen the bonds of humanity – has become my personal lodestone, a guide in my career to help me work on things I will be proud to leave behind.

I would like help refining and solidifying the Trust Spectrum into something usable – or determine that it’s superceded by the work of others. Jumping off points for a workgroup (not a checklist – a brainstorm starter):

  • Do design analyses of a broad array of games
  • Refine the levels of the trust spectrum
  • Deep dive back into the scientific research from whence the Trust Spectrum came
  • Cut away that which does not work
  • Attempt to correlate Trust Spectrum measurements of games to other indicators – audience size, popularity, ratings scores, even profitability. Does the Trust Spectrum predict anything?
  • Pick it up and use it as a tool. See if it helps us design something healthy, something new, something beautiful. (Something blue?) One success story would be to develop a physical game to share with other PH attendees that leaves players feeling better about themselves and each other.
  • Oh, by the way – how do we define that? How do we measure it?
  • Explore the morality of ‘gamifying’ friendship. I strongly believe games should not *push* people closer together – rather, serve as enrichment, as nutrition for a relationship. Where do we draw the line, and how does a game use friendship as part of a compulsion loop? What stance should we, as an industry, take when we *know* that a game is unhealthy – and how do we know?

I’m eager for the opportunity PH offers to dive into this research and concept, and would be thrilled to have others along for the journey.

Thanks for reading!

– Aaron

The Harmony of Fun and Profit

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Once upon a time, we could sell a game for $50 in a box. Within that box, we could strive to craft the most fun experience possible that $50 could buy. Those days are largely gone now. As the entertainment landscape gets more crowded, larger budget games stand out the best, and they demand a bigger bottom line.

As the revenue demands have increased, we have invented all sorts of new ways to make more money from games over the years. Subscriptions, loot boxes, boosts, energy, DLC, and timer-rushing are the most prominent. All of these methods are effective, but have negative impacts to the player experience. Alas, this is more than just an ethical issue. It is a game design issue.

They aren’t the best possible player experiences. Each of the mentioned tactics does the same basic thing: it creates a need in the player, and offers to fill that need if only they will pay some money.

  • Subscription: Add lots of grinding
  • Pay for boosts: Add frustrating levels where you almost win
  • Loot boxes: Add highly chase-able rarities of content
  • DLC: Add cliffhangers for DLC or withhold content
  • Timer-rush: Add lots of timers gates which can be rushed

Players now come to games with skepticism. “How are they trying to part me from my money?” the player must ask. Games used to be a trusted friend; a wholesome and revitalizing activity. There must be a better way.

There is a glimmer of hope. One kind of monetization is a shining example of enhancing the player experience without sacrificing what makes the best game: Cosmetics. Cosmetic economies are great, but they only work in certain types of games for certain types of players. It doesn’t seem like most games could effectively utilize a cosmetic economic model. Can we extrapolate from what is working so well here and apply it elsewhere?

I would like us to help usher in a new era of ideas around how the fun and the business side of games can work together to create a better experience. I believe it can be done…sometimes. Cosmetics show us that. The business needs of our craft are not going to go away – if anything they will become more demanding as the market gets more crowded. Let’s try to find some tools to guide us towards experimental monetization strategies that are as good as cosmetics for a wider variety of games.

  • Are there any games have good harmony between design and monetization strategy? (Cosmetics are a good starting point)
  • What can we learn from those games?
  • What are the defining characteristics of a monetization strategy that doesn’t sacrifice the player experience?
  • What are some new monetization strategies to try that would work in harmony with the games we know and love?

Constructing Emergence

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Emergent gameplay holds a lot of fascination for many people, and yet we have a difficult time nailing down what it is — much less how to reliably create it. There are a lot of descriptions and attempts at definitions of emergence, but they’re often incompatible and fairly ad hoc in nature. As a quick and dirty definition (with thanks to John Holland) I’ll propose that something is an emergent effect when it creates a new “thing,” a new object based on the interactions of multiple parts, but without being dependent on any of them.

A simple example of this is the “glider” in Conway’s Life: it can be described by the way individual cells turn on and off, but is more compactly described one organizational level up from that as a thing in itself that moves on its own.

There are a lot of other examples too of course: Nicky Case’s fireflies is one of my favorites.

As systemic/procedural/rogue-like gameplay gains popularity, creating emergent effects reliably is becoming more important, and I believe is an important part of the game designer’s toolkit.

I’ve been working on this problem a fair amount, and would love to chew on this topic with others (I may well be lost in the Dark Forest). What I’d like to get to is a minimum set of requirements for reliably constructing emergence but without constraining the emergent result itself: “do these things and you’ll get emergent behavior/gameplay.” And, just as important, some examples of how that actually works in game-like situations.

What I have gotten to currently is that to construct emergence you need objects with internal state and behaviors at affect other objects (i.e., nouns and verbs). To further set the stage, the verbs must be:

  • Local: operating only on “nearby” objects, typically spatially but also in terms of level of organization. A single bird changing direction doesn’t on its own immediately change the flock, and a single cell in Conway’s Life doesn’t determine the state of an entire region.
  • Narrow: they have one or at most a few very well-defined, clear effects. They affect only one or two attributes in another object, not many all at once.
  • Modular: they have well-defined bounds and unambiguous effects.
  • Generic: they operate the same way no matter what, without special exceptions or needing to know the context in which they’re operating.
  • Hierarchical: going back to “local,” emergence appears at different levels of organization. At each level, the emergent effect creates a new object “one level up,” which can then interact with other objects at that level.

The examples I’ve poked at — Conway’s Life, flocking, firefly displays, slimes in Slime Rancher, etc. — all fit these requirements. Are these necessary? Sufficient? Does this help us understand and construct emergence? Are there aspects missing? Is this worth looking at for creating engaging gameplay? (I believe so, as it helps reduce reliance on the content treadmill but… maybe that’s an illusion?)

I’d love to get a group of like-minded people to dig into this, or at the very least all end up looking as baffled as I sometimes feel.

Design for Passivity

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YouTube streamers have become a major force affecting the game industry. We now live in an environment where games don’t just have to consider what it’s like to play, but also what it’s like to watch.

Professional sports have been designed this way for many years (although we only get a new one of those that catches on once every several generations), but it’s a relatively new design consideration for today’s video game and board game designers.

The purpose of this group would be to create a set of core design principles and best practices specifically towards creating games that are at least as fun to watch as they are to play.