Archive for the ‘Mastery’ Category

Compulsion loops in the short, medium and long-term, if visualised, would resemble helm chain

Introduction:

Compulsion loop is a very fancy term isn’t it? It’s a recently coined term, perhaps a couple of years old, I’m unsure of its exact origin. However, there is no official definition of it, so as a result it’s often bandied around with slight nervousness lest someone asks you what it actually is. This of course is the point at which you run away screaming, mumbling crazily something about Zynga and the horrors of manipulation, death and pestilence or whatever.

My definition of a compulsion loop is that it is a construct designed to keep someone engaged by marrying their action/s with an appropriate level of reward. But in essence it has been around forever, we just didn’t have a name for it. The greatest creators of entertainment have had an innate understanding of it since we all sat around the fire scratching our heads as Neanderthals. It’s nothing new. Different mediums achieve it in their own way, but all essentially reward for attention and effort and when this equilibrium falters the loop dissipates.

Here is the rub though; reward for effort in the short-term is very different to what we want in the long-term. Whack-a-mole forever would be hell on earth right? At some point we want a deeper sense of reward from an activity beyond the short-term thrills and if we don’t get it, we move on. It is diminishing returns.

So we need to examine what keeps people compelled beyond the here and now. To this end I believe there needs to be three compulsion loops engaging us at the same time, tapping into our desire for different kinds of gratification in the short, medium and long-term. The most compelling experiences keep on giving through all these timeframes allowing people to form a deep and lasting attachment, which is of course a quality that society and all of us individually cherish in an experience.

So how do we aim to achieve this with our games? To answer this I think we need to look at what drives us in each of these timeframes, then ask how that can help inform the way we structure our games. Of course there have been special games we all hold dear that have already demonstrated a masterful understanding of this topic and I don my hat to them. Hopefully then, these examples may pop into your head as you read further.

 

Short-term: Preoccupation and instant gratification

This is, of course, familiar territory to us all; we live it moment to moment. It is this glorious realm in which instant gratification rules supreme and we revel in our actions having direct consequence and reward.

Of all the timeframes this is perhaps the easiest to reduce the human being to monkey-mash-button-for-banana (I’m not going to mention the games guilty of this!). It’s here where the player’s actions should have a tangible effect on the game world and be sufficient as to preoccupy the player.

Preoccupation is important in the short-term because it is also the point at which us humans are most likely to take flight and find the next pretty flower to buzz to. Your grip on the player is at its most vulnerable so you need to be sticky and your compulsion loops tight to keep the player occupied.

The aim here is for the player to form a sense of attachment. Preoccupying the player can achieve this because it means the player will sink time into the experience. This is significant because investment inevitably seeks a return and the player will naturally develop a growing curiosity on what form this may take.

The point at which the player begins to care is crucial as it ushers in the opportunity to loosen the compulsion loops a bit and build toward something with a bit more substance in the longer term.

Bee a sticky flower

 

Medium-term: Construction and deferred gratification

People are constantly looking for reasons to give up on something. If we don’t feel we’re getting back what we put in, we’ve become very adept at recognising the signals and moving on.

Our lives are now crammed with many opportunities promising instant reward and yes many of them are false and empty, but their potential for distraction is very real. You could indeed argue many people are permanently distracted by this chase (I’m looking at you western culture).

Now more than ever your game needs to give compelling reasons for the player to return. This needs to involve long-term attachment because short-term compulsion has such a weak hold, even when done well. A deeper hook is needed to keep the player caught.

The transition point between the short and long-term is therefore a critical juncture. The fragile attachment developed by players in the short-term can easily shatter and curiosity wane. That deeper hook needs to be alluded to in the medium-term by giving context to the player’s actions. Framing short-term activity as building blocks contributing toward a greater structure should be a key goal for the designer.

It is the job of compulsion loops in the medium-term to convert the player from folly and a dazed state of preoccupation to a sense of clear purpose. Action needs to be rewarded with a sense of contribution toward something, rather than being disparate, unconnected and meaningless.

If you still have the player in the medium-term you are afforded more leeway with your compulsion loops but it is crucial that they are leveraged as much as possible. The medium-term is about deferred gratification because the action here is not about offering a direct reward but the promise of a greater one if you continue building.

Frame the contribution toward a greater structure.

 

Long-term: Legacy and reflective gratification

As in life, players want their short and medium term activities to amount to something in the long-term. We all seek meaning, if the short-term can be the worst of us; the long-term can be the most noble in our pursuit of it.

Building toward something is therefore a hugely compelling force. Through leaving something behind we add definition to the universe and therefore meaning to others. Perhaps legacy is too lofty a concept for games to achieve or indeed for game designers to dare talk about in those terms. But actually, it is through play that we express our understanding of this world and our part in it. Games more than deserve their seat at that particular hallowed table.

So in practical terms what do we need to achieve in this timeframe? What can repay the player devotion exercised up to this point? The answer actually is that the journey repays itself, it is the reward; the long-term structures we allow the player to build toward are simple reflections and distillations of this. Yes it is corny, yes it’s a platitude uttered in many a Disney film but dammit it’s true!

Long-term compulsion loops then, are afforded the greatest size but it is imperative that the structure reflects accomplishment, allows for demonstration of mastery and serves as a meaningful embodiment of the player’s journey. In an ironic final twist the long-term compulsion loop is but a mere apparition. It never fulfils its loop, but it doesn’t matter.

What does the player leave behind?

 

Conclusion:

We are compelled to draw more from life, as we are in a game, the more we’re engaged by it. It is our conviction of purpose in the short and medium-term that ultimately justify our achievements in the long-term and keep us motivated to keep pushing forward. It’s when we lose this that things stagnate and we seek change.

Compulsion loops are often cited as the worst of game development, that it is somehow bringing too much science and manipulation into the art of making games. In my opinion it is actually the opposite and quite beautiful. It lies at the very beating heart of human nature and what we want from our experiences. I say, what better way is there, in fact, to frame how we should approach the way in which we make our games?

 

This is a question which can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the game design fraternity. This is largely due to the assumption that any designer worth his/her salt should immediately know the answer and regale the inquisitor with definitive pearls of wisdom on the subject. But the truth is, there is something quite slippery about game design and no clear answer for the question above. In fact trying to do so could be compared to attempting to nail jelly to a wall. So understandably game designers can suddenly look a bit broken when asked the question. This is largely because it involves summoning every ounce of every experience they’ve ever had and distilling it down into a few choice words on how they try to make things fun for people. In other words it’s a bit of an impossible ask, but hey, I like a challenge so my very own distillations on what makes a good game are below:

Engagement – Players should care about everything that is happening during play. Great games demand attentiveness to the clear and subtle shifts in game-play to achieve success:

“I have to pay attention or I’ll lose”.

Meaningful Choices – The decisions that players make during play should affect the outcome of the game. The more this impact registers with the player/s, the greater the sense of attachment they’ll have to it. People tend to care more for things they’ve had a greater influence on.

“Everything that I and other players do, matters”.

Purpose – Everyone likes to feel they have a purpose and games are no different, players will ask questions like; why am I doing what I’m doing? Why is it important? Any confusion in this area will detract from the game experience. The best games have clear goals. People don’t like to feel that they’re having their time or effort wasted, having a clear and meaningful purpose alleviates this.

“I know what I have to do and it’s important”.

Depth – There should always be something more for players to learn, either about the game or themselves or indeed other players. Mastery of ones actions is a compelling proposition for people because it reveals a refined view of things that can give us advantage over others. Great games have plenty of depth that allow for players to demonstrate this.

“Playing this game gives me a sense of empowerment”.

Accessibility – Players should never feel overwhelmed. An accessible game will always make the player/s feel in control whether a beginner or an expert. The best games reveal complexity with mastery rather than front-loading a player from the start.

“I feel like an expert at this game”.

Bounceability – This denotes the positive feeling players get at the end of a game where they strongly feel they can do much better next time they play. This is often combined with immediately wanting to play again and is tied very closely with the qualities of addictiveness. Evoking this from a player is a very strong sign of an awesome game. Not only does the player feel like they’ve learned from the experience but critically they also feel it is instantly actionable.

“Next time will be different, I’ve got this sussed”.

Player Expression – Everyone is inherently unique, games that allow players to demonstrate individual expression, talent or flair tap into an innate human disposition to show societal value. People enjoy games that allow this to be demonstrated in an obvious way.

“That chess-master clearly has an incredibly logical mind”.

Flexibility – Fantastic games can accommodate multiple approaches and still deliver. Well balanced mechanics form a self regulating system that always give a fun experience that feels unique to the player/s.

“I always have a fun game”.

Value – The best games give players multiple returns on their investment and I don’t mean financially, I mean in time and effort. This can be tangible, but more often it’s intangible; either way players always feel like they’ve got something out of the game. They feel rewarded for playing.

“I’ve got so much use out of this game”.

That final point is where I’ll end because it is one of the most crucial. What has value to people is that which is useful to them. This sounds cold, but actually, what is useful to people comes in many guises as well as games. Great music, art, films, poetry, people, theatre, books, TV alongside many other mediums found across our collective cultures are all useful because they help people find meaning to their own lives. They refine and distill messages, stories, emotions and lessons, they allow people to frame their own life experience in a meaningful way. Ultimately, this is all that people are searching for. The joy of each medium is the way in which it does it. The question we have to ask ourselves as game developers is how do our games fulfill this function? How are they useful to people? I hope this article has gone a small way to explaining how the best ones do.

Light filtering through trees

Teaching the player how to play your game is incredibly important. Under no circumstances should this area of game design be overlooked because getting it wrong means players may never see all the hard work you’ve put into the rest of the game. So the following is a list of what I’ve learnt about how to get it right…mostly from getting it wrong myself…but hey…that’s the best way right! So without further ado here it is:

  • Don’t teach too much too soon: No one likes to feel overwhelmed, even less so when they are playing your game to have fun. People have saturation points, throw too much at them and the information overflow will go unheard. Keep things bite-sized.
  • Don’t be remorseless: Once you have taught something new allow time for the information to set in. Remorselessly moving on from one tutorial to another will makes players feel uncomfortable and not able to cope. Learning something new is a challenge and mentally taxing, so allow players time to feel good about doing it.
  • Reinforce: Demonstrate to the player the benefits of what you’ve taught. People are fairly efficient at marginalising seemingly redundant information. Reinforcing the benefits of a new piece of knowledge or skill will raise its relevance making it much more likely to be retained.
  • Nothing is worse than teaching something when the lesson has already been learnt: So for quick learners or inquisitive players who’ve already figured out what you’re about to teach them, allow them to opt out or at the very least shut you up.
  • Self-discovery and self-realisation are worth so much more to a player than anything you have to say: Make it as easy as possible for this to happen, that’s part of the skill of being a good teacher. Designing your tutorial in a restrictive way that only allows for the game to play according to your lesson plan is dumb, don’t do it.

  • Don’t try to be a teacher: People don’t like having that psychological inferiority of having to be taught something. So the less you rub it in their faces the better. Aim to be more of companion helping to guide them and no I don’t mean a ^@#!*#% Microsoft paperclip.

  • Don’t give the answers before the questions: Sounds simple doesn’t it, but if people haven’t asked the questions then they won’t see the relevance of your answers. In other words present them with the problem before giving them the solution.

  • Finally here is my number one tip, if you go away with anything from this then let it be this, and it’ll sound obvious, but here goes…Don’t be a bastard: There you go I said it. Any hint of you revelling in the players’ lack of understanding by mocking or teasing etc is incredibly naughty and a bit silly because this more than anything else will make the player hate you and your stupid game. They are doing YOU the favour by wanting to learn how to play YOUR game, so show them some respect.

So there it is, it’s a pretty simple list but comprises everything I’ve learnt and stands me in good stead. Do you have any more tips that you can add? Have I missed something? Please do add them on the comments below. Finally good luck with tackling this part of your game, it’s a fascinating and challenging area of design, let me know how you get on.

Ray Davies

I got back from a 2 week vacation on Tuesday. I should have been jetlagged I’d been up for more than 24 hours, I’d arrived home, I should have felt like napping. But I happened to flick on the TV and was transfixed by a documentary that I think was on BBC 3. It was following Ray Davies the legendary singer songwriter of ‘The Kinks’. Go and watch it now whilst you can on BBC iplayer. I felt so completely energised watching it. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever considered myself a diehard fan of the Kinks but as the program went on going through his songs I realised how much they resonated with me and how much I loved them. But what really got me were his words toward the end in regards to being an artist:

“My songs will be here when I’m gone, in a sense they were here before I came. I just picked up the ideas and saw what thousands, millions of other people saw and it came out the way I interpreted it. I could be sitting here one hundred years ago or I could be sitting here in the future, but I don’t ever feel I existed. There’s a lot of me invested in it, but I absorbed everything from everywhere else.

As original as you try to be the ideas have always been there, the same as the city has always been there [in reference to London]. Songs can absorb into the folk culture but whether we know it or not we’re passing on music, we’re passing onto a common collective consciousness.”

What I feel is so poignant about his words are that of being a genuine artist. To truly recognise that you must take ego out the equation, it is not about you, it is about your ability to open yourself up. To channel that which is already around you and focus or interpret it in such a way that it reveals a new angle on the beauty of the world around us. This resonates with people.

In Garr Reynold’s fantastic book ‘The Naked Presenter’ he quotes Bruce Lee:

“My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty”

Garr further on in the book writes:

“Indeed, if we approach life with a full cup, we cannot learn anything new. New skills, new approaches and different ways of thinking will be blocked. Wild ideas, crazy notions, and remarkable insights will have no space to enter a world of certainty, pride, over confidence, and commitment to the past and the known. Part of emptying our cup is a willingness to unlearn what we think we know to be the best or only way.”

All great artists seem to acknowledge that all they are is a conduit. Ideas and insights into our existence are already there in our collective consciousness and life around us, the artist just becomes the right person to find it. The artist recognises their peripheral part of the equation. He/she is transient and will turn to dust only their trail and imprint remain, they feel life make their impression, then leave. An artist is not a dream maker but an open vessel ready to receive and for others to drink from.

Of course the other side of it is immense hard work and focus. The most inspiring thing I’ve recently read regarding facing the resistance in your head and getting to work is in Steven Pressfield’s brilliant book ‘The War of Art’:

“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favour in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete”

So here I was watching this great documentary on Ray Davies with more and more respect and admiration growing for him. Everything that I had just read on holiday was being validated by what this well loved, respected and true artist was saying. And funnily enough what did his good friend Mick Avory the drummer in The Kinks have to say about him?

“I can’t see Ray ever giving up writing songs because it’s too much a part of him. I’d say Ray is the William Shakespeare of song writing, that’s the best way I can describe him. We might even have a Ray Davies Day but it won’t be a holiday it’ll be a day where you work harder [laughs]”.

Your ability to see beauty in the world seems directly proportional to your ability to strip away parts of yourself; Van Gogh maybe took it too far. Ray Davies talks a lot in the program about ‘absorbing’. He is right and in order to do this you need to empty your cup, talent then comes in your interpretation of what you receive and how hard you work in finding it.

The Importance of Mastery

Posted by pcollier under Mastery

Fractals

“If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into an understanding of many things.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Mind, body and spirit; our heroes are masters of at least one. Our pursuit of mastery mirrors our collective will to control the big bad universe around us. We admire those who exhibit an abundance of this control. But it’s natural for us all to seek a piece of the pie ourselves. We all want to take an element of control over our lives. We all want to make our mark in the world.

In Raph Koster’s book ‘The Theory of Fun’ he states how human beings “crave predictability”. Unpredictable things threaten our survival and unsettle us. So it is in our nature to seek control over the world around us. We even place controls over our own nature through laws, order and governance. But the great dichotomy of man is that we need unpredictability to learn more about ourselves. We need a bit of chaos to stir things up, to see how far the rabbit hole goes. Only through exploring the extremities of the human condition can we expand our horizons. But exploring your extremities in society is one sure-fire way to close your horizons quite significantly. So we do so in a controlled way through science, art, literature, film and games.  That is our way of learning new things, where it is safe and where unpredictability is welcomed.

The best games (or anything for that matter) have depth that reveal further layers of complexity the more we master. Also in ‘The Theory of Fun’ Raph states: “The destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun”. The fun part is derived from overcoming challenges and finding new lessons. It is the role of mastery to exhaust them. As limited systems ultimately all games will be wrung dry (the best ones appear inexhaustible). But the lessons learnt from mastering them further enrich us. Playing games equip us for reality. Just watch lion cub’s play-fighting to see this in action. Mastery of a game gives us advantages and insight that are very useful in the real world. By day a Producer and by night avid Starcraft II fan – Jacob Karsemeyer certainly seems to think so too.

In his book ‘OutliersMalcolm Gladwell quotes  neurologist Daniel Levitin: “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. [..] It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to achieve true mastery”.

Sounds like a lot of hard work doesn’t it? Society today is mesmerised by short-term gain. The long-term is far away and neither immediate nor exciting. The problem with mastery is that it sits in the long-term. Games (and other mediums) offer a compelling wrapper for us to overcome this. They reward us with a sense of achievement and contain points systems and level structures to show our progress. Games document our path to mastery. A well structured sense of progression is critical in game design. Good games have intrinsic reward systems where the advantages to mastery of the activity are constantly reinforced.

Mastery is important because it answers the questions we ask of ourselves. Mastering a subject or skill elevates your value in society because it benefits us all. On the path to enlightenment mastery is our torch. So it’s important that scientists, game designers, directors, writers and artists keep asking new questions of us. Only through doing this will we find more answers. They’re both equally important. We, the creators of questions, have a solemn duty to uphold. As do masters, to keep pushing, to keep surprising, to keep inspiring.