Thursday, March 20, 2014

Behavioural Effects on Design

I'm going to muddle through this post ... part of the reason I want to write it is to organize some of my own thoughts on design, and the process of design, specifically upon the behavioural response to design.  As I'm writing this, I'm thinking about yesterday's post, about Dave Cesarano's comments to that post, and about the inimical Ron Edward's endlessly present GNS theories.

My personal feelings - opinions, yes - is that 'GNS' is a will-o-wisp.  It is presented as an attempt to nail down the sort of game that people play, but it does so from a perspective that views the whole matter from an 'in game' perspective rather than a 'player at the table' perspective.  The effort reminds me of the endless hair-splitting arguments about whether a particular band plays 'synth-rock' or 'electronica' ... where in fact neither distinction means very much.  Whether the game is narrative or simulationist doesn't tell the outsider anything about what the game feels like for the players, nor is there any relationship between any of the forms and 'quality' - in fact, quality, or any measure of value of any kind, is deliberately left out of the mix.  In fact, the theory offers a great deal where it comes to contributing to a meaningless, unsolvable argument, the kind the internet loves, without there actually being any point in winning such an argument.  Whether my world is narrative or simulationist is a matter of complete indifference.  It is my world, regardless ... and stating that it is this or that doesn't actually tell the reader the least thing about my running style, or whether my game is something that others should avoid or embrace.  It is a will-o-wisp in the sense that because it seems to be the brightest, most interesting thing about the dark forest surrounding us, in no way whatsoever does it offer the least knowledge about the forest itself.

I think Mr. Edwards meant to offer insight into how a game should be run, or how by understanding how we do run games, we could tweak our behaviour in order to play the game closer to the purpose we hoped for. The difficulty, however, is that it is not the character that is playing the game, but the player; however much the argument may be advanced to make the character 'feel' more real, the player will always see the game as a thing to be utilized.  Some, yes, will want to feel the reality of the situation, but others will only be concerned with how to massage the figures to get the best angle on success for them.  That is, no matter behaviour you WANT as the designer of your supposed game, the players will ignore your want and pursue their own, as that is human nature.  Calling the game simulationist or narrativist, or going for either, without an eye to the actual behaviour of your players, and redesigning in order to take into account behaviours you never imagined, is only massaging your own ego and not addressing the realities of play.

Here and there I've been reading arguments about DMs beginning worlds where a behavioural response is deliberately requested.  For example, I am creating a game about pirates, and I want the players to behave as pirates in that game.  I want them to exhibit the behaviour of pirates, hopefully because they want to, and not to exhibit some other behaviour because that would be anathema to the game I'm creating.

This is something like saying, I am planning on creating a phone that will enable use underwater, that will be of use to scuba divers and so on, but I would really like it if you wouldn't use the phone unless you're underwater.  That is, in effect, the purpose of the phone, and if you're not going to use it for that purpose, we would just as soon you didn't buy or use our phone.

IF this is really the sort of thing that's wanted, the solution should be easy: don't ask people to respect your product wishes.  Make the phone so it doesn't work in the open air.  Don't give people the option.

Let me give a good example of the actual behaviour of customers compared to the expected behaviour of design function.  Back in the 90's, Panasonic decided to create a disposable camera.  This being the age of film developing, Panasonic's plan was that people would take their pictures, mail the cameras to Panasonic and that the cameras would pay for themselves through developing costs.  This seemed like a good idea. Only, it took very little time for people to realize they could just break the cheap plastic cameras open and either develop the film themselves or take it to anyone local.  The end result was that Panasonic lost a lot of money.

When I see someone online writing about an idea for changing the rules, I rarely see any mention of the desired behaviours that their players are going to offer once these rules are in place.  If there is a mention, it usually comes down to, "they like it."  How useful is it to you to ask someone about their phone and get no more answer than, "I like it"?  Do you not then immediately want to ask why?  You're not really concerned with whether or not someone else likes their phone, your concern is whether or not you'll like it.  Thus you want evidence or some sort of explanation that suggests you would.

If what you're reading about a rule is mostly, "Here's how it will better reflect reality," you're not getting any sense at all about whether or not it will improve your personal game.  You'd perhaps like an improvement for your game, and you might be looking around for such an improvement, but you need more than to be told this IS an improvement because it is more real.

Nothing about game design has anything to do with reality.  It has everything to do with evoking a chemical mix in your body that puts you on edge without toppling you past the point where you start to feel threatened or overwhelmed.  If the game is just at the edge of what you can handle, so that handling it is difficult but not impossible, and it fits with imagery and interests that compel you, then it is is a good game.  If you can handle it by moving very, very slowly, and the game allows that, the difficulty isn't a selling point.  It's annoying. Difficulty is only a selling point if you're also hopped up on adrenaline, dopamine, seratonins and so on. Difficulty without those chemicals is equivalent to filling out your tax forms (which might produce other, less pleasant chemical reactions).

What is wanted then isn't reality, but a sense of overcoming a challenge that is fast-paced, potentially threatening, requires problem solving without making that problem solving a dry, distended process, and ultimately packing that all together into a utilitarian form that you can adapt to fit your personality and perspective.  You want to fight combats in role-playing, but you don't want to get bogged down in things that don't contribute to your 'high,' you don't want to find that something has suddenly gotten very easy if you fit puzzle piece A into slot B (which destroys the problem solving aspect, as a problem ceases to be interesting once you've solved it) and you DO want to feel agency.  This is your phone.  You'll use it in the open air if you damn well want to.

If you look around, you'll soon find that virtually every past-time humans have invented for themselves includes aspects of the past-time that are based on no logic.  Why is the king only able to move one square? Certainly it isn't for a realistic reason.  But it makes for a good game.  Try to play the game with the king moving as a queen and see what happens.  Take note - the king's movement is the phone that only works underwater.  No other movement scheme works ... because every other movement scheme doesn't make for a better game.  It is irrelevant that other movement schemes are possible.  In this particular case, for this particular game, in 400 years no one has found a better scheme.

Because this is simply so, the players don't want another scheme.  They're not looking for it.  The improvement of the game is not based upon the design of the game, but upon the behaviour of the participants of the game, who set about to crack it by refashioning their strategies.

It would be this: even though the phone can only be used underwater, it is such an amazing phone that it thrives despite that drawback.  That is really, really good design.  So good, in fact, that even though this is your phone, you don't want to use it anywhere but in the water.  The behaviour it inspires might be to compel more people to spend more time under the water just so they can use your phone there.

This post is, as I say, a strange muddle, but it comes down to these principles:

A.  You need to design for player behaviour, because utilizing your design is all that matters to a player.
B.  The behaviour you want may not be the behaviour you get.  There's nothing you can do about that.
C.  If you want to deny behaviour, build it right into the design.
D.  If you deny behaviour the player really wants to have, your design will fail.
E.  If your design is incredible, it may change the world.
F.  You can never count on E.

Chances are, your design is pretty shitty.  And that your players will ignore the behaviour you're asking for. And that you were better off letting them continue the behaviour they already possessed towards the design that already existed before you waded in.  If you must wade in, however, do so on a better ideal than satisfying a wish to make something more 'realistic.'  Ask your players what they want, then make designs that give them what they want ... and to hell with whether or not the final design fits with history, physics or reality.

You're not designing for the approval of history.  You're designing for human beings.


James said...

I have little patience for the cries of "well that isn't realistic!" It is a world of magic, dragons, planar travel, active gods, etc. How the hell would you know what is realistic in such a world?

I often feel that players' cries regarding realism are little more than players whining because they wanted X to happen and Y happened instead. Often what they think should happen is no more grounded in "reality," than what the DM proposed, especially since it is the DM who knows the mechanisms behind the world and its NPCs.

As for the larger point, anytime you are producing anything, you have to look at your target audience and envision how your product is worthwhile to them. If you don't, it is likely to fail (unless you are lucky). Players (and DMs) will bend, twist, and outright break rules if they think it will make things more fun, and a well-designed system needs to keep that in mind.

Zrog (ESR) said...

I've always assumed that people asking for "realism" in a fantasy game are actually asking for "cohesion". If they like detailed, heavy-math games, they want the whole game to be that way. Cohesion could also mean for certain core mechanics to work the same way for multiple facets of the game (magic, combat, social, etc).

I've also noticed that when gamers ask for "simplicity", what they are actually looking for is that the PROCESS be exciting - they want the die rolls to be meaningful at each step, even if they have to roll a ton of them. If it takes 8 steps before the rolls mean anything, then it's boring. If each roll is a nail-biter, then the system "works".