Thursday 27 August 2009

Towards a Moral Code for Game Designers

I've finally played Dan Cook's Bunni Game: How We First Met - a horrendously addictive casual Flash RTS which he has blogged about as a part of his Flash Love Letters series. You can play the game here, but I recommend you don't click through until after finishing this article, because you won't be back for an hour or two. I especially enjoyed the deer quest which happens about 20 minutes in, having had to deal with deer in the garden at home recently (The local council suggested I shoot them or, failing that, throw rocks at them. I'm not sure whether IEDs would have been an appropriate substitute).

Bunni has quite a subtle resource mechanic: flowers provide support for you units, but it is also possible to over farm resources if you have too many workers which balances the urge to rush them and requires you devote attention to getting the mix of worker and resource quantities right. Later in the game you may want to do this, as it's a far easier way to upgrade resource types without having to bomb them.

In fact, the only thing missing from the game was a click through advert for Starcraft: GotY edition. ('Thank you for playing Bunni. If you enjoyed this, you may also want to try: Supreme Commander.')

But, praise for the game aside, Bunni has an excellent example of the moral quandries of game design. One mechanic in the game is very similar that in another casual game, Plants vs. Zombies, and is an example of what I'll refer to as clicklets. A clicklet is something you have to do within the game - clicking a location on the screen - for which there is no situation where it makes sense not to perform this action. In Plants vs. Zombies, the sunshine collection mechanic is a clicklet - some plants generate sunshine, which you must manually click on as it drifts across the screen in order to collect it. In Bunni, the clicklet is tree shaking, which allows you to collect fruit and other rewards. I could not see any situation which warrants not shaking a tree when fruit is available.

There's several key differences between a clicklet and other game mechanics. The only resource a clicklet uses up is player attention: clicking to attack in Diablo is not a clicklet because it distinguishes which monster you spend time attacking. A clicklet is an atomic action: it always makes sense to shoot Space Invaders, but you do this through moving left or right, firing, not by clicking on the Space Invaders individually. And a clicklet is not optional: you can choose to crouch roll or not crouch roll in Zelda: Ocarina of Time while you travel across Hyrule field and it will not impact the game in any way.

I'd argue, in fact, that a clicklet is not a game mechanic at all, it is a process of operant conditioning. But luckily I don't have to argue this, because Raph Koster has already done the hard work for me:

Now, there’s no reward in this game, there’s no winner or loser, and there’s no endgame. Yet even during testing, I had to tear myself away, and when put into Metaplace Central, average session length for the day went up 50%. But… in some sense, it’s a crummy game. Why this effect? Because the Easter Egg hunt is a confluence of a lot of highly manipulative tricks.

In the example Raph gives, he took the moral high ground and removed the Easter Egg game he designed from Metaplace. I would like Dan to consider doing the same: either redesign the tree shaking mechanic so that there are advantages to leaving fruit on the trees, or remove the need to shake trees by clicking them. I'm asking Dan, and not Pop Cap (publishers of Plants vs. Zombies), because I know Dan reads this blog and I have a good chance of engaging him in a robust discussion either here, or on his blog, about this feature.

But if Dan Cook, who I know as an experienced and thoughtful game designer, can make what I consider to be an incorrect design decision from a moral stand point, where does that leave less thoughtful, less experienced or less morally scrupulous game designers when it comes to game design?

I suggest there should be a moral code for game designers: one which provides clear examples of the boundaries of which a game design should be careful straying beyond. This code should say nothing about the content of games: I'm not interested in whether a game offends religious or ethnic groups, could be considered pornography or explores issues which would be illegal in real life such as rape, pedophilia, murder or drug use. It would however, have everything to say about the way the game mechanics work so that we have a common platform to criticise games for breaking the code unwisely.

To construct such a moral code requires a dialogue between designers, about what is appropriate and inappropriate in game design. We can all point at grinding as the whipping boy of bad design, but as I pointed out in Permadeath, there is a delicate balance to be struct between grinding and necessary exploitation. I'd like to throw open the floor to comments, sugggestions and criticism, but I'll include some quick suggestions with which to start the discussion.

'The Golden rule:' The most valuable resource in your game is the player's time and attention.

'The Monopoly rule': Any game mechanic which is designed to be instructive rather than fun should be for a game intended to be played only once, and not by children.

'The Rule of Repetition': Any repetition in the game should be to allow learning of the game rules or automated away: once learning has been successfully demonstrated, further repetition should only be as a part of learning more complex rules.

'The Supermario Rule': Your level design should exist only to support 1) the learning of game rules, 2) suspension of disbelief and 3) if it is cool enough (for content that is only to be used once).

'The N-Armed Bandit Rule': Any random rewards should be delivered via an N-armed bandit where M-arms are pulled, where N > 1, N >= M >= 1 and the underlying relationship between the quality of rewards and arms pulled is non-random. Multiple pulls should be governed by the rule of repetition.

'The Rule of Seven': A player should be at most presented with seven options at any one time.

'The Rapture of Choice': Anything which is presented as a choice, should actually be a choice.

'The Playing to Win Rule': Your summits should be scalable.

'The Axiom of Cool': Coolness and utility should be two separate axis.

'The Anti-Garfield': Everything available should be useful.

What others could you suggest?


Dan Kline said...

Is it operant conditioning if you're using it to drive attention and expose mechanics that do fit the rest of your conditions?

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

I can see an argument against operant conditioning in games on moral grounds, but the proposed list of rules seems more targeted at bad design in general. I don't think bad games are immoral, I just think they're bad games. What underlying principles do you use to determine what is a "moral" issue in game design, and what is just bad design?

Some specific thoughts on the individual rules you propose:

The Monopoly rule - Is this referring strictly to mechanics which are not intended to be fun at all, but instead to just be preachy? I'm not sure I can think of any that fit that definition. Otherwise, where do Math Blaster and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing fit in here? What about Peacemaker or Hidden Agenda? This rule seems to be either so narrow as to define itself out of relevance, or so broad as to brand both educational and persuasive game development as immoral fields. Also, what is Monopoly serving as an example of, in the name of the rule?

The Rule of Repetition - This seems dangerously broad, and overly specific in its exception; is Mario repetitive, for requiring the same actions in very similar situations, or is it only repetitive when you repeat a level entirely? Is it in violation of this rule when you jump to hit the same coin block three times in a row and get a coin each time, without learning anything from the experience?

The Supermario Rule - I don't know what the goal of this rule is, and without understanding the objective, it seems misguided. If you're regulating the purposes of level design, for the sake of creativity and expansion of the field I can't see any way of doing it other than condemning what you think is wrong and allowing anything else, not specifying a list of allowed things and suggesting anything else is bad. For example, multiplayer maps in a real time strategy game are designed to give a balanced playfield that is fair to both players even after they have mastered the game rules, and enables interesting emergent gameplay situations. This appears to be condemned under the above construction of that rule, because it is not about suspension of disbelief, single-use coolness, or learning the game rules.

The N-Armed Bandit Rule - Am I correct in reading this as essentially a prescriptive approach to eliminating operant conditioning? Here again I wonder if a negative approach to specifying what is unacceptable, rather than prescribing a specific solution, would be a better way to construct the rule.

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

The Rule of Seven - I'm assuming this comes out of psychological research on human short-term memory limits, but in practice it seems a bit hazy. Suppose you start a roguelike in the pattern of Angband, starting in the town; there are ten buildings to enter and a set of stairs, plus a bunch of people milling around. Is the game already in violation of this rule? What about when the player enters the general store and there are literally two dozen options in a menu as to what to buy? Further consideration: The research specifying seven as a magic number really says seven plus or minus two is the capacity for an individual's short-term memory; it varies from five items to nine. Disregarding all reservations, should the rule really be five, not seven?

The Rapture of Choice - While I think everyone can agree how stupid false choice mechanics are, and it seems defendable if debatable to take a moral stand on trying to trick the player into thinking the game gives them choices where it doesn't, I can see a few cases where false choice mechanics could be useful. Hidden Agenda, for example, has several places where all advisors (and therefore all possible paths) are giving the same suggestion, and this makes sense. Other times, you can make a choice out of two options and have your selection summarily ignored, or overruled because it's such a bad idea. These are a part of gameplay, they're rare, they make sense in context, and they're the result of the situation in-character, not opaque design limitations in the horrible style of old JRPGs that would ask you if you want to be a hero and then repeatedly ask if you're sure if you say no. If the purpose of the false choice is not to fool players into thinking they have a choice, but to demonstrate the futility of their options, I see no moral objections.

The Playing to Win Rule - Although generally true, are there no cases where this can be done well? Does the proposed rule prohibit the popular "last stand" style games and levels that are designed to be impossible to win? If the player knows they're up against an impossible situation, and has open-ended goals within this situation, this doesn't appear to be a problem.

The Axiom of Cool - I don't actually understand this one. Is it saying that coolness and utility should be linearly independent, ie, you shouldn't be able to judge how useful it is by how cool it is? I don't think I agree with that; I think that which looks cool on the surface should exhibit high utility in practice, else it's deceiving the player. Or is it really just saying that the cool things shouldn't be useless and vice versa?

Nick said...

I don't see this as a moral issue at all. The clicklet is an act of free will on the part of the player - as is playing the game in the first place. And it can make sense to me not to perform any action if I don't feel like it. I would have very little sympathy with someone who claimed to have been exploited by a game designer via a silly mechanic.

Unknown said...

I also don't see what's wrong with using operant conditioning. Could you spell out that argument a bit more? Does it somehow hurt players? Or is this aesthetic argument?

Also, why is it bad for a mechanic to only consume the resource of attention? In regard to Plants vs Zombies, if I have a surplus of sunpower, and there is a horde of monsters destroying my pumpkins and spikeweeds (demanding attention) and ready cob cannons to fire (demanding attention) etc. I might very well choose to ignore collecting suns to deal with the other issues.

Now perhaps you mean at the beginning of a game, when you have effectively unlimited attention, so there is no reason not to click the suns. However, I'd describe this more of a pacing mechanic. The game starts off slow and easy, and gradually ramps up the tension.

Ben said...

I think I see where you're going with most of these rules, but I also think "moral" is too strong a word here. Are instructional games for children immoral? Potentially, but not inherently. Instead, these mechanics are probably best categorized as cautions, as in, avoid them unless you know what you're doing.

I'd like to suggest another one, which I'll call "The Screwdriver Rule" based on a quote (which I can't locate right now) from Richard Garriott (I think). Don't give the player a screwdriver if you don't want the player to be able to pry the hinges off a door. In other words, reward creative thinking in a consistent manner, and whenever possible, within the framework of your game rules. If things that should work in real life are impossible in the game, the player will stop looking for creative solutions that you actually do implement in your game. It is, I think, the rule that eventually killed adventure games (Sierra, LucasArts, Infocom) and spawned the more rules-based roleplaying era.

Of course, this is only applicable to game genres that suggest that real-life solutions are applicable. I don't bemoan, for example, that pawns in chess can't form a shield wall, or that the dude in sokoban should reasonably be able to jump over the damn crate.

Daniel Cook said...

Hi Andrew!

A wonderful and insightful post. Glad you played Bunni!

I haven't talked too much about Bunni from a game design perspective since it is at best of a sketch of a game. Some elements (like the fruit trees) exist primarily as a filler until more interesting mechanics can be implemented. They are simple slot machines and like all slot machines, there is an element of compulsion involved that isn't always beneficial.

But the fact that it is sketch of a game does not sidestep that morality of creating a product that has at this point consumed millions of hours of gameplay that will never be returned.

What is the goal of Bunni? Is it to teach? It is to provide a view point? There is some of this, but it is an underlying theme barely revealed in the game's current state. The primary goal of Bunni is to help people hang out and relax.

At some point in the prototyping, we noticed players were spending large amounts of time in the game. This was pre-slot machines. They would run around, buy stuff, check on their bunnies and be in a constant state of 'bustle'. So we optimized for 'bustle'. We balanced the game so that there was always a little something that needed to be balanced, tweaked or improved. We tweaked the visuals so that there were also workers running around doing stuff and acting busy. To some degree this is micromanagement, but it is very actually don't need to 'do' anything if you don't want to. Other than the occasional deer, there is nothing threatening.
The intent was to create the pleasant effect of being in room full of activity. Bustle.

The result is a game that acts as a mild relaxant. The player's mind is occupied and mostly empty. If some games are a shot of hard liquor quaffed alone, Bunni is a light summer beer sipped slowly in a place gives the illusion of an energetic community and space. The community shall become more real over time, but that comes with future releases. :-)

There are really two classes of sin we are discussing here.
1) Direct provable harm: Slot machines in casinos take more money than is put into them. There is a provable economic downside to frequenting them. And for a small percentage of the population, gambling can ruin their lives. This is why there are laws that limit their usage.
2) Lost opportunity: By manipulating people to play a game with full of empty entertainment, a design ties up their time that could be spent more profitably elsewhere.

Is the gameplay in Bunni a sin? I think it is no less moral than comfort television, comfort food and or a comfortable beer. All these items hack the human brain. Fat and umami in Slim Jims give us uncontrollable cravings. Beer yields that pleasant buzz. In moderation, such sins of lost opportunity are the guilty delights of civilized life. Not everything passing moment must involve toil in the fields. (I say this as someone who watches Dancing With the Stars in the living room of my ivory tower :-)

The one failing I would however lay upon the Bunni design is one of game design aesthetics and not intentional harm. People *really* get into shaking trees...way more than I would have liked to see. The alternate paths for gathering gems were turned off before release. As a result there is such a strong economic incentive that shaking trees becomes a dominant activity. This is bad degenerate design. I'll try to fix that. :-)

But Bunni aside, there is indeed a need for moral game design. I would lean towards using the stronger definition of "direct provable harm". What is one person's waste of time is another person's evening well spent.

Andre said...

In very early testing the clicklet proved to be one of the more fun activities in the game.

"Wow spent a lot of time on this game. Got 100 gems in about an hour and a half of work. Covered all the islands (except for pirate peach's) with apple trees and continually collected. " - early tester comment

People found shaking trees one of the most entertaining and challenging aspects of the game.

So if this not mechanic is fun and players are enjoying it. That's validation enough for me to keep it in the game.

Andrew S said...

I'd love to see each one of the rules you proposed expanded into full blog posts.

Merus said...

I recall a developer interview with the developer of Plants vs Zombies in PopCap that gave the motivation for the sunshine clicklet: it gave players something to do in the moments when there was nothing else that required their attention.

Considering the tower defence genre is all about setting up a system that requires as little attention as possible, this means that players have precious little to do if they're doing well, while if they're not doing well they're much more engaged in the actual mechanics of the game. In this instance, the clicklet actually serves a gameplay balancing purpose: players who do poorly will have less resources, and will find themselves overrun quicker until they find a strategy that allows them to ignore the plant towers.

CPL said...

It's all very well and good giving the player something to do when there's nothing else to do (clicklet as thumb-twiddling)... but in games like PnZ (and it's spiritual predecessor, Insaniquarium), you have to do it... it's the primary resource-gathering mechanism. Moreover, the resources vanish after a while, so there's actually a punishment for not clicking. This means that the game often gets to a point where the reward per click is constant... the player is rewarded for bashing on the mouse like a hyperkinetic pigeon mashing a feed-bar... at which point, the Bad Design line has probably been crossed.

In cases where clicklets are a core mechanic, it seems like a good idea to either clamp the frequency of clicklet events, or offer the player the ability to automate (most) clicklet-whacking once they're reached a point where they've clearly got the hang of it.

Unknown said...

You make an interesting (correct) assumption here that I think it's worth pulling out and highlighting: the real message of a game, the part that you might worry about having a bad effect on players is not primarily the content, however violent, sexist, or subversive. The main content of a game is in how it works.

Maybe you think your game has a positive message because the game's goal is to rescue a princess - but if what the player spends their time actually doing is slaughtering everything they see, that's the message they'll take home. (It won't, of course, turn them into a murderer - people are not that plastic - but that's the message of the game.)

This is in part an answer to Roger Ebert's claim that video games are not art because they give the player too much control: they don't actually give the player nearly as much control as they seem to. Each game has a structure of what you can and can't do, selected by the designers (and by the technology). And since the player spends most of their time figuring out how to work within these rules, if anything leaves an impression on the player, it will be these game mechanics.

Andrew Doull said...

cydmab: I spent a lot of time thinking about what's wrong with operant conditioning with the intention of writing a blog post expressing the reasons behind my ambivalence about it. But it turns out it was much easier to start writing articles about being for operant conditioning - that way my ambivalence is directly expressed by holding two contradictory opinions at the same time.

Ken Oh said...

I've thought of one that might work (no name for it yet): no part of the game should be able to be played via a simple macro.

Bots with a fair amount of AI are one thing, but if you can play the game via a macro, there's something wrong. Those parts are best left automated or at least done in ways that aren't mindless.