Monday, 27 February 2012

The Joy of Flattery Part 1

This is the first of 2 posts on flattering the player. The 2nd part will be up before the week is done, or else!

The joy of random rewards
A happy rat
It's long been known that the random rewards excite mammalian brains. Give a rat a nut and he'll be happy for a minute. Give a rat a random function that may or may not produce a nut and he'll be happy all day - even to the point of drowning himself in nuts. Random rewards have been shown to produce addictive and perhaps even destructive behaviour in individuals.

The joy of Bejeweled
How's this work out in games? Slot machines and gambling aside, games like Bejeweled have long bewitched us with their flashy lights, random rewards and lever operated mechanics. Talking of Bejeweled, it's easy to slip into slot machine (or one armed bandit) metaphors. After all, it's a game where you're faced with inaccessible wealth, your almost trivial inputs are charged with the potential of huge rewards and you just can't face walking away from all the money you've already put into it.

Bejeweled exemplifies that classic mechanic found in so may other cabinets; Peggle is probably the best other known example of it: the chain reaction. Half-life kickstarted a revolution in narrative drive with a chain reaction (or at least popularised it, and that's what the history books record). Bejeweled doesn't use one to kick a series of events into play; the entire game is a chain reaction! At any point a tiny move by the player can unwittingly kickstart a reaction that will see the coins flooding around their feet! Any move could be the winning move (if you could win that is).

It's that tension, the expectation that the biggest plays in the game are out of your control and could have nearly unbounded consequences, that makes Bejeweled such a fascinating game to the human brain. I'm sure rats would love it too, if only they could see past their giant pile of nuts.

This is not just limited to these games though - Burnout's Crash Mode is another example of this: hurl your vehicle into oncoming traffic and set off a chain reaction to gain points. In fact one could argue that the main gameplay of Burnout falls into this category too: a racing error could cause a pile up that will envelop the competition and prove fortuitous.

Game of skill
If it wasn't obvious, the talk of Burnout, a racing game, brings our prejudices to the fore: there's a matter of skill. Randomness in gameplay is locked in bitter emnity with skill. The more random a result is, the more likely a player with less skill can triumph.

Two short observations on that matter: the randomness of a chain reaction in the games described is actually deterministic (or at least it would be possible to make it deterministic). After all it runs on a computer and producing truely random data on a computer is a challenge. It is simply that the side effects are beyond our mortal minds - and in that much they represent real life rather well. My other point is that there is skill and wisdom in setting off a good chain reaction - these games are not without some skill component.

Flattery my dear
Lots has been said on the merits of random elements in games: they act as a leveller, always giving the underdog a chance to win; random rewards are compulsive (cue World of Warcraft trailer) and keep people engaged. Another aspect that is often overlooked is that they flatter the player. They credit the player with success they had no chance of anticipating. And notice: they do not credit the player with failure they had no way of foreknowing. This blade deliberately only cuts one way.

Flattery done badly comes across as manipulative or sleazy: clearly the flatterer is a deceiver and deceivers are to be avoided. But since the Garden of Eden we know that the best lies have an element of truth: your move started the chain reaction which evolved into a 1 billion point 32x combo that melted your eyes in a visual spectacle foretelling the collapse of the sun, why not take the credit too? You must be great at this game!

Good random reward gameplay is compulsive, it is so compulsive, so flattering that you can be enjoying a game where you doubt whether your skill is actually a factor in it. More on that next time...