Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three False Constraints

Once again, a call goes out to make games more culturally meaningful. I agree very much with the sentiment, but I've always been frustrated with how designers set themselves up for failure due to the constraints placed on the problem.

In mathematics, computer science, and physics there is a the concept of a 'hard' problem. What does the inside of a black hole look like? How do you identify an NP complete problem? How can we travel faster than the speed of light? All of these are wonderfully interesting, but they are considered ‘hard’ because there may not actually be an answer that is discoverable before the heat death of the known universe.

We’ve turned the creation of culturally meaningful games into a similarly ‘hard’ problem. It doesn’t need to be.

Three false constraints
When we talk about making games culturally meaningful we often limit the discussion in three important ways. The following constraints are completely arbitrary, yet we stick with them like they are some holy mandates from a greater god.
  • Single player: By ‘games’, game developers typically mean ‘single player games’. Multiplayer is either not considered or is treated as a secondary feature.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through content: We seek to create meaning through the use of content created by developers for consumption by players. Only if we author the right content in the form of graphics, movies, music, writing, active and level design will the game have impact. Content created by the players is discounted.
  • Powerful platforms: Inevitably developers talking about ‘video games’ limit themselves to consoles or perhaps high end PCs. There is an assumption that if only we can get better graphics, better AI, bolder levels and more intense explosions, then at some point we will cross over a line in the sand and all must bow before the amazing new reality we have wrought. Big budgets and big tech are clearly essential. The idea that these bits of crafted fluff are secondary to the value provided by the systems of game play is rarely mentioned.

When you relax these three constraints, creating meaningful games becomes immensely easier. We go from a problem domain where there are almost zero compelling solutions to one where there are thousands of solutions. For the rest of the essay I'll cover three big impossibilities facing games' acceptance as a culturally important activity. Each problem appears 'hard' when approached through the lens of our false constraints.
  • "People in a room talking"
  • "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
  • "Reaching a broad audience"
The impossibility of “People in a room talking”
One of the ‘hard’ problems listed by Chris Hecker was the issue of people sitting around a table chatting. This is the mainstay of books and movies, yet it has eluded game developers. According to the false constraints, in order to solve this problem robustly we need the following:
  • Turing AI: A flexible conversational AI capable of passing a Turing test. It would be ideal if we also conquered the uncanny valley and hooked up our AI to virtual actors that were indistinguishable from real humans.
  • AI that can enforce artistic direction: We also need the ability for the developer to seed and control the AI so that the random interactions of thousands of unique players from unique backgrounds results the conveyance of the developer’s crafted message. The AI must therefore not only seem human, but it must understand the intent of the auteur and act as a super human manipulator of the environment and the player's experience.
I would argue that these are ludicrously hard problems. We can currently fake solutions in certain very limited situations, but we are lacking the most basic research necessary to solve these problems in a general fashion.

Even worse, the constraints conflict. There is an inherent tradeoff between increasing the flexibility of our AI and controlling the players experience. "React to the player! But do exactly what I, as the designer, tell you!" is more of a Zen kōan than a solvable problem.

...until you break the constraints
Yet as soon as you break the constraints, conversation becomes a trivial problem. A simple multiplayer online chat room gives the effect of people sitting around a room talking. So does any traditional board game or role-playing game. Or SMS. Or voice chat. Conversation flows naturally.

To the participants in the conversation, this chatter that results is more entertaining than the best writing or acting performed by the top talent in any medium. The tech is simple. The content comes from the players. And the interaction is multiplayer.

The impossibility of "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
Another challenge posed is the goal of saying something meaningful about the human condition.
  • Spatial/temporal/math puzzles that evoke humanity: The vast majority of single player games have their roots in either timing, mathematics or spatial manipulation puzzles. These systems, though entertaining and relaxing, have great difficulty modeling emotions. Often a single player model that attempts to boil down the essence of humanity comes across as dry and soulless. Asking a single player game to evoke rich emotions is much like asking a polynomial to express love. In very limited situations, in the hands of extraordinarily talented people, (see Gravitation or Passage) a single player game can evoke a glimmer from a core group of players who desperately want to believe. But single player game mechanics may never become a populist technique for saying meaningful things about the human condition. No matter how prettily we cloak the issue with artful snippets of non-interactive media, the inherent Truth at the heart of the our favorite single player game systems does not deal with humanity.
  • More direct control over the player experience: As an author expressing our vision, it would be ideal if our systems were scripted content that all players will experience within narrow behavioral bounds. If only we could deliver tight directed payloads of content like they do in other media. When an actor cries in movie, the audience instantly empathizes and reflects that emotion back. Game designers need to develop the same reliable techniques of authorial control. Wouldn't it be great if a designer could type up an equation and boom!...players break out in tears or laughter. If only our math and code would whip up a tight roller coaster of an experience that worked for all players, all the time. Yet our control levers are at least one degree removed from those found in other media. We can't simply show a visual trigger that smacks a hardwired emotion button on our monkey brain. Instead we craft mere rules. The player controls their interaction with those rules and how their ultimate experience plays out. In good games, the player is making choices that matter and exploring the systems at their own pace in their own ways. In books and movies, the audience jumps when we, as authors, want them to jump. In games, the player jumps whenever the hell they want to.
Again, these are hard problems.

...until you break the constraints
Why both with spending all this time attempting to imbue cold, heartless single player systems with the essence of humanity when humans are readily available in the form of other players? When you put real people together in a game and create social mechanics to facilitate their interaction, you see an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions. People form friendship, make enemies, fall in love, offer compliments, insult one another, tell hilarious jokes, comfort one another, bond in groups and basically exhibit the entire rich range of social emotion and behavior.

As a designer, you give up on controlling the exact experience. Instead of crafting each moment, you look at the broader possibility space that your social rules create and foster. The play space can be shaped by the designer by manipulating systems, not content. However this is not situation of singular authorship. Rules, like the laws created by governments, interact with culture and citizens of our games in unexpected and surprising ways. We are improv musicians playing off other equally creative members of the band. Multiplayer design is an ongoing process of give and take with the community. In fact, there is a well established name for absolute authorial control in a social environment. It is called a dictatorship and only tends to work when the audience is coerced into playing along. In the voluntary communities of multiplayer games, authorship is a fundamentally multiplayer activity.

Again, you don't need a powerful platform or advanced tech to bring forth a flowering of meaning. And the vast majority of the content created certainly hasn't be edited by some god-like author. Yet the emotions are real and they are brought about through a system engineered by a designer. By massaging the specific economic and social tools that feed and facilitate the human conversation, you gain a set of design techniques capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games.

The impossibility of "Reaching a broad audience"
Another point about the cultural significance of game is that despite our revenue numbers, we actually reach a relatively small number of players compared to other media. A 'dominant' gaming platform like an Xbox or PS3 has sold a meager 20-30+ million consoles. Only a handful of titles sell through more than 1 million copies and these sales are generally in a limited demographic of 14-39 year old boys. Compare this minor audience with other types of media that regularly serve 5 or 6 times as many people across a broad demographic. Yes, our revenue is impressive, but the facts are a AAA core console game will touch a tiny percent of the billions of people reached by other forms of media.

Year after year, the core gaming industry attempts to broaden the market. Nintendo succeeds a little, but the rest fail. But not for lack of trying! Now matter how detailed we make our graphics. No matter how deep with make our narratives. No matter how powerful we make our GPUs. It all fails. Moms, grandfathers, people in China still insist on ignoring the latest greatest Bioware RPG or Unreal shooter. We have our best minds on perfecting the potency of our best genres and still the core market exhibits anemic growth. Reaching a broad audience is apparently hard.

...until you break the constraints
Yet when you broaden your perspective ever so slightly to include alternative platforms not specifically targeted at games, reach is the least of our worries.
  • There are multiple Facebook games that serve over 25 million unique users a month and the current top game Farmville is played by 64 million unique users a month. The Facebook platform where these games live is at 300 million worldwide and is still growing like a weed. 77 million users are in the US along and the current growth rate is 70% compounded every 6 months.
  • Games are one of the most popular classes of app on the most popular smartphone. Smart phones form a platform that will reach over a half a billion people in the coming years.
  • An individual developer can release a Flash game today and reach 10's of millions of unique players. It really isn't a big deal any more to have a game played by a million people.
There is a common theme to all these platforms. Consoles try to turn people into gamers. They attempt to suck outsiders into the gaming culture so that they play on gaming specific devices in gaming specific contexts. The new generation of social, mobile, casual and web games integrate seamlessly into a person's existing life. Instead of asking the player to set aside 2 hours in the evening locked into staring at the output of a big clunky box, they offer players a chance to relax during while waiting for the bus. Instead of asking "how do we create dedicated gamers", we ask "How can games enhance your current life."

I look to the near future and see the reach of games growing dramatically. In the next 10 year, expect to see a single game with over 250 million unique users. That is a quarter of a billion people playing in the same space. Admittedly, we may not recognize the service as a game. The topic will likely be something mundanely meaningful, not elves and dragons. The platforms will also be mundane. Some players will use PCs. Most will use phones. As a bone tossed to a wounded beast, there may even be a thin client for the remaining console players.

The source of the constraints
All this begs the question: Why do so many of the best developers insist on hanging onto these miserable and damaging constraints? There are cultural and economic factors at work.

Cultural Momentum
I am reminded of a mildly diabolical childhood development experiment performed on kittens. In 1970, psychologists Blakemore and Cooper placed several kittens in dark enclosures that only let through vertical lines of light. Several weeks later, they removed the kittens and tested if they could see any sort of horizontal features. The kittens could not. Upon dissection, it was determined that the portion of the visual cortex involved in seeing horizontal lines was irrevocably stunted. Due to the limited stimuli available during its youth, the kitten was physically incapable of ever seeing the horizon. Shortly afterwards, the kittens were killed in an act of kindness.

Most current game developers experienced a similar form of limited stimuli during their youth. An entire generation of introverted boys was raised on 20+ hours a week of Skinnerian gameplay that emphasized content, technology, and single player puzzles. The crème de la crème became game developers. Is it any surprise that they prefer these constraints? Is it any surprise that they are stubbornly incapable of seeing alternative forms of play? Many single player game developers are like children raised in the dark and unlike a helpless kitten, they will defend and justify the validity of their disability until the day that they die.

Economic Momentum
On top of this is the fact that game developers are paid by companies heavily invested in building products based off false constraints. Their bi-weekly paycheck depends on them being passionately invested in making the games that their bosses want them to make. The innovator's dilemma whispers its seductive logic. Why change what you are doing when what you are doing keeps you warm and well fed? Especially when the upstarts are so tiny compared to your efficient mainline business. Economic momentum can turn quickly, however. Just ask the 1500 core developers laid off by EA when they realized that perhaps social gaming wasn't a tiny market after all.

The False Constraints are here to stay
I have little hope in seeing these false constraints cast off completely. Most auteurs abhor change. They stubbornly stick to their dead end craft, serving a smaller and more rarified audience while the world shifts around them. Single player games stuffed with throw away content that only runs on high end machines...these odes to introversion will never die, but they will dwindle.

It takes a new generation of impudent and crass experimenters to create real artistic change. The kids growing up on Facebook games today will barely know today's poison memes of 'beating the game', or 'the Holodeck'. Instead they'll assume that of course you play games with friends. Of course you play primarily on your phone, netbook and other devices that don't make the distinction between playing games and living your life. And of course you, the player, make the most meaningful content in the game. What games will designers raised without the chains of the past end up designing?

You can waste your life flailing at impossibly hard problems or you can make a real difference in game design right now. We are at a point where there exist vast and amazing opportunities to create meaningful games. Here are some concepts to consider if you head in this direction:
  • Human emotions are simple to evoke with games. Make multiplayer games.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through systems of rules. Create rules that empower players to co-create meaningful content.
  • Reaching larger numbers of players is easy. Integrate games into the player's everyday life.
take care

Notes 12/6/2009
This essay prompted some great comments, but I noticed two issues that I hope to help with this addendum.
  • Fear: Gamers, who love single player games, fear the loss of their hobby. This tends to elicit a passionate defense of single player gaming.
  • Lack of foundation: Some readers get caught up on some of the more basic issues and therefore have difficulty grappling with the meat of the argument. This is not your fault, but mine since this essay presents a point of view without spending the time to lay down the foundation underlying the argument. The following are some notes that should help you understand the assumptions I'm drawing upon.
Re: Can't we continue to explore the meaning in single player games?
Yes, the industry will continue to make single player games. They aren't going away and we will continue to spend billions of dollars every year in an attempt to make them more evocative, narratively rich and perhaps even meaningful. All these commercial efforts, combined with the current burst of single player focused indie game devs are bound to create more expressive and meaningful games.

  • If you like our current progress towards short intense consumable experiences
  • If you like games that focus on crafted content over games that focus on creative systems
  • If you like the trend towards turning games into warped shadow of cinema
Then you have nothing to fear. In 10 years, you'll still have games that serve your particular needs. There is a generation of men just like you and our capitalist society will serve your desires until you are no longer economically viable.

However, I believe the number of new culturally meaningful games will trickle in at a depressingly slow pace. The basic reality of our medium is that the opportunities for creating culturally meaningful games based off the three constraints listed are limited in comparison to those present if you break the constraints.

Instead of worrying about what you are losing, instead focus on what we are gaining. Imagine games that connect people together. Imagine games that improve relationships. Imagine games that solve social problems. Imagine games that create understanding. Are these outcomes really all that frightening?

Re: Emotion in multiplayer games
Many players have had poor experiences with multiplayer games due to griefing. See my recent essay on testosterone in games for some explanation of why games played with strangers are often rife with unpleasantness. On the other hand, they've had delightful experiences with single player games. On the face of personal evidence, many deem it silly to state that multiplayer games offer richer, more culturally meaningful play.

Yet a broader perspective is helpful. Personal experience, or even the experience of the community playing your favorite game is a non-representative sample of the larger trends in the industry.
  • On average multiplayer modes rate more highly in terms of fun.
  • On average multiplayer modes retain users longer and are more likely to cause players to say that they would be willing to play again.
  • During user studies, observers witness a wider range of human emotions in multiplayer games. Instead of only variations on mastery, anticipation, delight and frustration, you see trust/distrust, appreciation/hatred, sympathy/alienation and more. There are entire portions of the human emotional spectrum that are rarely triggered by single player games that become available in multiplayer designs.
  • Of the emotions observed, they tend to be more extreme. People emote more strongly and in some situations, you'll see tears, exuberant celebration and real romantic love.
  • The number of extroverts, people energized by social interaction, is around 60-70% in the general US population. Extroverts make up only around 25% in technical fields such as game development.
I have several sources for these claims

I can easily believe that a decreasing majority of existing play is indeed a solitary activity. However I see this more as a historical and cultural legacy, not a true measurement of the opportunity that lies ahead. Introverts tended to make games that other introverts enjoyed and these initial starting conditions have helped define the gamer identity. However the current game culture is fighting a losing battle against two big trends:
  • There is a competitive advantage in social play: Multiplayer games rate better on the core value proposition of 'fun'. If there are two products on the shelf and one offer a fun level of 3 and the other a fun level of 4, which one will you pick? In a competitive market, the one with the stronger value proposition tends to dominate.
  • The broader audience desires social play: New emerging markets are heavily extroverted. They desire social play. For many, games lack any significance to their lives unless they are social.
I can see the balance changing where 70% of play is social and 30% is focused on individual pursuits. Again, don't worry. Introverts will of course never go away. Even strongly multiplayer genres like MMORPGs still have a single player component.

Re: But it is just a chat room
Game designers create systems that mediate social interaction within their games. The design controls many of the communication channels, availability of certain player skills and resources, as well as access to information. The game design in a multiplayer game is the difference between a ball sitting on a field and two teams playing soccer.

Chat, or more specifically communication of intent, actions and bluffing is an essential aspect of any game involving multiple people. However, the designer still has a huge responsibility to actively shape and influence the experience. To paraphrase Lawrence Lessig, "Game Design is Law" and it has many equivalent moral and social obligations. Millions of people play multiplayer games and our designs strongly influence their behavior. To state that this form of design is 'merely chat' or 'taking the easy route out' means that you are failing to engage meaningfully with the critical concepts behind multiplayer and social game design.

Re: But Facebook games are shallow!
Yes. They are. But then again so was Pong when it first came out. As a commercial industry we have spent decades and billions of dollars on turning Pong into the AAA experiences of today. If you put yourself in the shoes of many an adult at the time that Pong came out, it too was seen as a toy.

Social games on Facebook have been out 2.5 years. That's all. Give them time. And a few billion dollars. And the passion of thousands of creative people. The end result should be quite delightful.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Testosterone and Competitive Play

Lately I've been digging into research on testosterone. Over the past decade, scientists have been placing players in competitive situations and then measuring how their testosterone fluctuations predict future behavior. What you find from looking at the studies is that both winners and losers will leave your game if they are placed in a set of predictable situations involving dominance, luck, and friendship.

There are four points that have experimental support:
  1. How playing with friends affects the testosterone in winning and losing players
  2. How playing with strangers affects the testosterone in winning in losing players
  3. How perception of the role of luck or skill in the outcome affects the testosterone of players.
  4. How players differ by pro-social or pro-dominance inclination.

1. How playing with strangers affects the testosterone in winners and losers
When strangers play a competitive game based off skill, the results fit the common sense understanding of winning and losing.
  • Winner testosterone increases. Dominance and/or aggressive behavior increases. Dominance is defined as behaviors that are intended to "gain or maintain high status" (ref) Physical energy increases (and in some cases men become aroused.) Winning is exciting.
  • Loser testosterone decreases. The losing player attempts to avoid fighting the same opponent, even in situations challenges unrelated.
This is the classic description of winners and losers in a competitive game. The winners get a huge rush from beating the strangers and the losers are sent home with their tail between their legs, humiliated and subdued.

The upside
Beating strangers is a guaranteed source of entertainment. If you want a highly reliable, inexpensive means of making your game fun, toss some strangers together in a game of skill (it barely matters what sort). To boost the emotion even further, place the winners on a high status pedestal. Voila, instant fun, at least for the winners.

Typically designers look for 'fun' in a game and then build the game around what we find. The hard fun or fiero is easily detectable on the faces of the victors and acts as a clarion signal of fun. This overt signal has driven designers to create hundreds of competitive games between strangers. "Hark! Here be fun!" and we flock like moths to the flame. Our fun finding, hill climbing algorithm is predisposed to overemphasize competitive play due to the strength of the delight exhibited by winners.

The downside
Yet there are clear tradeoffs that occur when we go down this design path. Losers leave. First, they know that they cannot gain status by pursuing the game, especially against the winning players. Second, if there is some way for winners to communicate, losers are subjected to degrading displays of status. Losers may react in turn with defensive behaviors if they feel they cannot escape. Especially in games where only a few people can be winners, your player retention will suffer.

The result is an intriguing purification of the community. Only the elite winners stay around. This elite community creates an even more competitive environment that in turn creates and drives out more losers. New players attempting to enter into the community are inevitably of low skill compared to the hardened veterans and are immediately classified as losers. They also leave. Competitive games slowly boil their community down to an elitist core that actively resists and inhibits audience growth.

2. How perception of the role of luck or skill in the outcome affects players
Notice that the above case applied only to games where the loser felt that they were participating in a game of skill. The testosterone response changes when players feel they are playing in a game of luck.
  • Winner testosterone does not increase: Winners feel that their victory was not a true demonstration of superiority.
  • Loser testosterone does not decrease: Losers feel like they still have a chance of winning.
Luck is another name for an unexpected environmental factors outside the control of the player. If humans were to fall into a funk every time they lost due to the weather or an unexpected mishap, we would not have survived very long as a species. Luck turns a loss into a lesson about the environment or game mechanics, not a lesson about which player is superior to another player. As such, our innate social dominance systems fail to kick in and the social penalties from losing are avoided.

The upside
By introducing luck into a game, you can mitigate the ill effects of losing. Losers are often willing to give the game another shot. The fact that humans are notoriously poor at judging their probability of success plays out in the game designer's favor, since even poor players will think they still have a chance of winning.

The downside
Winners fail to feel the rush of victory. Strangers playing against one another in a game of luck will often complain that the game is 'cheap' or 'not a real test of skill'. Many highly competitive players will consciously avoid competitive games involving a high amount of luck since such systems reduce the psychological benefit of winning. What is the point of playing against strangers if you can't beat them into a pulp and demonstrate your dominance?

Pure competitive games of luck between strangers are rare beasts and for good reason. They manage to keep losers around, but the games hardly ever considered fun. Some gambling games may qualify (such as horse betting), yet it is telling that the vast majority of players lose.

An example
Mario Party is an example of a high luck competitive game. The game awards crazy bonuses that appear arbitrary and many games end up with the person in last place winning because they happened to have landed (randomly) on the correct square. Due to the high degree of luck is easy for losers to claim that the victory doesn't matter. The relative status of players barely changes over the course of the game.

3. How playing with friends affects the testosterone in winners and losers
So far, the the previous two studies of competition shouldn't be of much surprise to folks that have designed competitive games. However, the response of players is quite different if they consider one another to be friends. The following is what occurs if friends face off in a competitive game.
  • Winners testosterone decreases. In essence, dominance behavior dips sharply if you win in front of friends. Friends are generally are people you need to get along with in order to live your life. Imagine for a moment, if you were to win a game and then yelled at them to lick your boots (and you meant it). They probably wouldn't be your friends for very long. Our innate social response is to repress our instinctual dominance urge so as not to damage our friendships.
  • Loser's testosterone briefly falls and then recovers: The loser is under threat of being put in a low status position. However, once they receive signals that their trust in their friend is justified, they have no reason to fear a loss of status.
If dominance responses are missing, where is the fun? In general, you see both winners and losers focusing on bonding activities after a competitive game.
  • They discuss the great shared moments in the game. Shared experiences create a common ground between players that they can reference in the future.
  • They compliment one another. Compliments are often reciprocated, creating an opportunity to build mutual respect and indebtedness.
  • The winner claims they got lucky. This defuses the notion that the winner is in some way dominant or higher status. They frame the game as one of luck which makes the loser feel much better.
  • Typically, the winner does everything they can to avoid rubbing their victory in the face of the other player. And the loser does everything they can to not dwell on their loss of status. We even have names for friends that engage in inappropriate dominance behaviors. We call them 'poor winners' or 'poor losers'. Players that behave in a manner conducive to bonding are called 'good winners'. It is rare that you hear the term 'good loser' since the loser is the victim to be consoled.
  • Mutual smack talk is a form of bonding: This can be confusing for the untrained observer, because good friends will often act like they are engaging in dominance behavior by using smack talk. Yet this is just for show. The moment the smack talk actually infringes upon existing expectations of status, the mood of players will change abruptly. You'll often see accusations of one player 'taking it too seriously.' It is a good demonstration of trust to play at dominance, but to actually assert dominance between friends is considered out of bounds.
Bonding requires some form of communication channel. In a game played in a living room such as Mario Kart or a board game like Carcasonne, there are plenty of ambient opportunities. In PC games, text is the common channel. In console games, chat serves this purpose. Game mechanics can also be used as a form of in game communication. Tagging in Counterstrike is a good example of a game mechanic used to demonstrate status or shared affiliation.

The upside
With the increased popularity of couch gaming on the Wii and social gaming between friends on platforms such as Facebook, understanding the dynamics of competition between friends is critical to creating a successful game.

The most important realization is that typical form of 'fun' that we associate with competitive games is either reduced or turned into a negative experience. Competitive game play with friends becomes less about winning and more about shared experiences. This is a very different emotion. The ability to tell player stories, communicate, discuss and joke with one another are all features that enable the core delivery of value to the player. In some sense, the actual competition is secondary to the bonding that occurs around the activity. The 'fun' that comes from playing with friends is completely different than the 'fun' associated when playing with strangers.

The downside
Again, you can't rely on 'hard fun' to deliver the same jolt as you would in a competition between strangers. The simple switch from playing with strangers to playing with friends results in such a shift in player psychology that you now need to rethink your reward and communication mechanisms.

It is easy to be fooled. The mechanics of the game like Unreal Tournament when played with strangers or friends are apparently identical; you shoot and you move. Yet the experience ends up being radically different. It turns out that existing social relationships and ambient communication methods are as much a part of the game as is the level design and the bullet physics. All too often I see designers building a game that they play with their buddies on the dev team. The group knows one another, can yell out in victory and ends up having an immense amount of fun. Then that same game is released online and immediately strangers begin griefing one another and creating an actively offensive elitist environment. The social graph of the playtesters is not the same as that of the actual players. As a result, the playtest sample is massively flawed.

Here's a little chart to keep it all straight:

An example
Let's return to Mario Party. Why would anyone play a luck based competitive game that provides poor rewards for winning? One clue is that Mario Party is always played with people sitting together on a couch. It is a social game about improving your friendship, not about beating the snot out of someone. Due to the game being played in person, there is immense communication between players and almost all communication is focused on bonding over a shared experience. The key gameplay yields is social fun, not hard fun.

It is perhaps not surprising that Nintendo multiplayer franchises have been slow to move into the online world. Most Nintendo games are designed to be played with friends. Due to low concurrency, synchronous play models and a lack of scheduling, most console gaming services are populated by strangers playing with strangers. Changing the dominant type of fun that forms the core of your game changes your value proposition to the player. This is a major brand mismatch that likely needs an entirely new franchise (such as Halo), not a minor design tweak.

4. How players differ by pro-social or pro-dominance inclination
To complicate matters, there are in fact two distinct populations of players in all these studies. The first are pro-dominance players who are predisposed to react to situations in a dominant fashion. They tend to have a higher base level of testosterone in their system and their level rise or fall more strongly in situations where they win or lose.

The second group are pro-social players who are predisposed to react to competitive situations with a focus on relationship building. In general, they have a lower base level of testosterone. Intriguingly, they do not experience the same misery of failure. In some sense, they aren't playing to win so they don't mind losing. In fact, some studies suggest they even experience increased stress and reduced performance on complex cognitive tasks when they are thrust into a high status position. Winning is a punishment.

Age may also be a factor. Testosterone peaks in the late twenties and drop steadily after age 30. By age 40, 19 to 47% of males fall into the low testosterone category, depending on the accepted cut off.

The downside
From a game design perspective, this split in your population has some interesting implications. When you create a game that rewards players by winning alone, there are two groups that you fail to address. The first is of course, the losers. The second however, are pro-social players that are motivated more by forming relationships than by demonstrating status. You can give them opportunities to 'be the winner', but these rewards will fall flat.

These patterns of competition give designers some useful tools.

Note 1: Your design should explicitly differentiate between friends and strangers
You need to differentiate up front between friends and strangers in your design. If you fail to separate these two populations, you'll end up creating system that inevitably alienate multiple segments of your player base. Many of the problems stem from how communication channels are used by each group.

If you create a game for friends:
  • Winning strangers will use the communication channels intended for building reporte to instead act out their dominance and aggression urges. Teabagging is an example of a humiliation behavior that tends to encourage losers to leave.
  • Losing strangers will use the communication channels to denigrate the winners or claim luck or environmental issues were at work. This makes the winners more likely to leave since this is not the 'good job!' pat on the back they were hoping for. Instead of bowing and fame, they are greeted with yells of 'cheaters' and 'lucky'.
If you create a game targeted exclusively at strangers
  • Due to lack of communication channels, winning friends will have no way to reduce the bite of their victory. There is the risk of permanently damaging your relationship with the loser.
By separating friends from strangers, you can offer each population rewards and game mechanics appropriate to their desires. Winning strangers can be complimented in isolation. Losing strangers can be given feedback that emphasizes the luck of the situation and their increased future chance of victory. Friends can be given communication tools that allow them to bond.

Note 2: Games that focus on playing with friends result in stronger retention across a broader audience.
  • Friends encourage other friends to join since they want to share the experience with them in order to increase their bond.
  • Friends tend to encourage existing players to play more since they want to deeper their bond.
  • There is only one class of player that is alienated by bonding oriented play: pro-dominance players that are not able or willing to play amicably with friends. This is arguably a big group (upwards of ~50% of males age 14 to 39) Yet this is distinct minority in comparison to the broader population.
This insight gives some indication why asynchronous social network games grow so rapidly. People typically play with friends and are predisposed to communicate their game experiences and feel social pressure to repeat them. In contrast, competitive activities between strangers tend to result in a steady decline in player populations.

Note 3: Test with strangers and friends separately
As tempting as it is to test your multiplayer game with the readily available team playing within shouting distance, understand that you are fatally polluting your data. Larger scale online tests that allow strangers to interact and figure out how to dominate and insult one another will yield a much more realistic understanding of the culture that will evolve out of many competitive multi player game systems.

Note 4: If you must include communication channels in your online game, create a design that turns strangers into friends.
If you include rich communication channels in a competitive game, strangers will use them to exert their dominance. The way around this is to explicitly create groups where people act as friends. This leads to bubbles of cooperation even within a competitive game.
  • Assign players to a common affiliation. Counterstrike does this by having sides that you join from the start of each mission.
  • Create a common goal: Horde mode in Gears of War does this by giving players the goal of surviving the onslaught together.
  • Create a common experience of suffering or joy: In Eve Online, players partake in vast highly destructive battles. Even after vicious losses, companies still stick together since the suffering gives them a visceral common experience that strengthens their bonds.
  • Offer opportunities for reciprocation: In Left 4 Dead, players can help one another if they are in trouble.
  • Provide channels of communication: In Farmville, players can send messages to one another in game and via Facebook notifications. This helps players negotiate group norms and bond over shared experiences.
  • Allow individual choice: In WoW guilds, players actively choose to participate in a particular group. Players that allowed to choose freely will have a greater affiliation than players that are forced to rely on other players. I find designs were performance is improved with other players works better than ones where players are punished if they do not cooperate.
When we design a game, we are constantly on the lookout for 'fun'. However our ability to identify and augment fun is only as good as our mental model of what fun looks like. Our commonsense models of competition overvalues the delight expressed by winners and undervalues the reactions of other player populations. By adopting a more sophisticated model of how winners and losers react in various situations, a designer has a much better chance of knowing why their design fails and how they might fix it.

The data I've covered is not complete for all populations. For example, there are fewer studies looking at how testosterone changes in women. Though we commonly think of it as a 'male hormone', testosterone is actively produced by both sexes and appears to serve similar purposes in regards to dominance. However, not all behaviors found in men have been reliably produced in studies involving women. Nor have all the studies been validated on older populations, different cultures or children. Scientists have a tendency to use male college students because they are readily available and it is much easier to measure their testosterone. This can skew the results. The solution is to use these guidelines as a starting point and then continually test your hypothesis about competitive play. Put your game designs in front of a diverse group of players and see if they react as you expect. By looking through the lens of a richer mental model, your informed experiments will guide your game in the right direction.

My personal take on these studies is that there is vast potential for new pro-social competitive games. The market took an odd turn for a short while:
  • Early consoles involved 2 to 4 players gathered around the TV. Play was primarily social.
  • We lost the focus on playing with friends with the advent of online play and low concurrency platforms. Since we were playing with strangers, the primary class of fun switched to games of dominance.
  • The advent of social networks again allows us to target online multiplayer games at audiences guaranteed to be friends.
Now we have a fresh opportunity to design friendly competitive games that build relationships instead of breaking them down.

take care