Game talkNotes on game feedback

 Posted by (Visited 9044 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Dec 082011
 

I was mentioned in a comment on Google+, and ended up writing a little bit about game feedback as a result. So here it is.

The discussion was on the absence of combat logs (scrolling text windows showing you exact numbers for combat actions) in the new SWTOR MMO. Some folks regret the absence, because they use the logs to optimize what they are doing, and use it as a learning tool. Other players find them a legacy of the text mud days, or a feature that hastens the deconstruction of the entire system and therefore damages the fun factor.

Both sides are right, really. Combat logs are just a form of feedback. The more feedback the system gives you, the more information you have for the process of figuring out how the system works. This then makes the process of optimizing play easier (read that as “getting the results you want from a given input”).

The first thing to realize here is that everything the game shows you, really, is a form of feedback. The locations of chess pieces on a board, the “game state,” is a type of feedback. Numbers floating off the enemy are feedback; the glowy effect trailing a swinging sword is also feedback.

Some forms of feedback are better suited for certain types of information than others.

  • Vector and physics information is more easily grasped when presented graphically than when presented as numbers, for example.
  • Feedback intended to provide emotional content, such as “this was a good event” versus “a bad event” is typically better conveyed using sound or color. We have a lot of associations with things like major vs minor intervals, specific colors, etc, that are more easily triggered this way than with, say, text.
  • Some forms of feedback are more susceptible to noise in the signal than others — they are harder to filter, or might have multiple channels coming at the user at once, making it hard to distinguish between multiple simultaneous messages.
  • Some forms of feedback are best conveyed to users by concretizing them, using analogies that better get across the information.
  • For the geeks among you, the forms of feedback you use are essentially exercises in solving particular issues in information theory.

Since a player is essentially trying to figure out the rules inside a black box, some form of feedback must be present as the base case, or else the player can press buttons all day long and to them, it looks like nothing is happening whatsoever. In that case, they build a mental model of the black box as being an empty box with some fake buttons on the outside of it. Remember, the player is attempting to arrive at a heuristic for interacting with the model. It does not have to be accurate; it just needs to have reasonable predictive power.

The corollary here is that a deep system with poor feedback will read as shallow to players. For example, it doesn’t matter if your AI NPCs all carefully track twelve levels of anger if they only have three facial animations to display them. Players will instead decode this as three levels. Worse, you can have a situation as in many simulation-based games, where you might have a robust and detailed world simulation that players can’t see, or that feels to them just like a much simply hardcoded state machine (this is the trap that the original ecology in Ultima Online headed into).

OK, so in terms of looking at whether or not to look at combat logs… you have to show the fact that damage is being done at all, of course; that requires at minimum displaying one or both of the current state of the target (aka, its current HP), and the delta that a given action resulted in (aka, the damage done). This is why we tend to see meters (which do state very well, and deltas less so) and floaty numbers (which provide the delta, with higher resolution than a meter does).

But: meters alone have poor granularity and low readability for nuances like source of damage. Combat logs prove full detailed feedback exposing the full depth of the system. And that is why people who care about, say, who did what damage (a whole new type of information) want that feedback.

If you have a shallower combat system you can cap at a shallower amount of feedback. If you have a deep system, your feedback should accommodate revealing that depth or else you may as well cut the depth because people will often literally not be able to tell it is there. In the case of a multiplayer combat scenario, people will obviously know that everyone did something, but they may not be able to tell which delta was associated with which player, leading to arguments over the effectiveness of a given team member.

This can be solved. Every attack could draw a color-coded rope between the player and the target, and tie the delta to that rope, so you could see exactly who did what. It would in fact be a very high-value means of displaying the information, with greater clarity than a rapidly scrolling combat log. But it has two disadvantages: it’s clinical and would work against cool force lightning effects; and it lacks history so you can evaluate it after the fact. But even these things could probably be solved.

This is why combat lags are still around even though they are ugly, and painful to follow in real-time. They satisfice the requirements for players who are invested in investigating the depth of the combat system. They can be captured and analyzed at leisure. They can be used as a raw data flow that can be translated into a variety of more visual tools. This doesn’t mean combat logs are the best feedback design for the purpose, but it explains why the more hardcore (ie depth-invested) players have a desire to have it.

So does it ruin the game and suck the fun out of it to have that sort of information, and the fun “optimized away”?

To pull random perhaps-misremembered quotes out of the book:

“The definition of a successful game is therefore one that teaches everything it has to teach before the player stops playing.”

and

“Fun is a process; boredom is its destination.”

The fun getting optimized out sounds to me like exactly the expected behavior. The players collaboratively figured out the system. This is not the fault of the feedback mechanism per se; all that does is accelerate or reduce the rate of player progress towards their heuristic.  Fun is in the discovery process (barring subtleties like replay as meditation, or the joy in perfect execution of a coordinated strategy which is effectively a different game). If it’s all laid out as a schematic for you, it’s over. Move on. It’s time for the next game (which might very well just be a different system within the same game) or MMO.

  18 Responses to “Notes on game feedback”

  1. Perhaps the immediate question I have is, why not offer both? There will be people who want the detailed combat spam, and there will be people who do not. MMO designers need to understand this, and provide systems for both. I’m not discounting the notion that if your combat system is simpler, it may not need a combat spam, but most MMOs are complex enough that the spam is helpful for theory crafters. Not everyone is a theory crafter, though. In WoW, the solution for people who didn’t want to see the spam was to just hide it. Put the chat window in front, etc. The problem was that this didn’t help players understand what all was happening in combat, and so you get the “what just happened?” situation. A secondary system might be useful, displaying the data in some visual way. Many WoW mods ended up doing just this, as I recall.

  2. I suspect the decision to obscure and not record the precise numbers in a combat log has more to do with reducing the player drama associated with said combat log than anything else (parsers/dps meters/etc). Personally, I strongly support this: I feel a game should ideally either be fully transparent (such as current City of Heroes) or intentionally mask as much of the numerically precise feedback as possible as a matter of theme, consistency, and immersion (Ultima Underworld II). There’s something to be said for not having the mathematical certainty (or near certainty) of knowing the bad guy has 94 HP left, your saber does between 34-36 each hit and takes 3 seconds to swing, your own HP are at 127 and are falling by 20 per enemy blaster shot, etc.

    Given how heavily the game is trading on theme and immersion (by virtue of being a Star Wars game if nothing else), this seems the better direction to take it in provided this data stays masked. If simple third party tools end up rendering this data anyway, then I’d readily agree it’s pointless to deprive only the new/pure-client players and create even more numbers-driven drama as a result.

  3. @ Incobalt: Because developers have limited time and budgets. It’s a matter of finding the biggest bang for your buck. Time spent building an alternative to a combat log could be used to make a new dungeon, etc.

  4. Perhaps the immediate question I have is, why not offer both?

    SWG did.

  5. I suspect the decision to obscure and not record the precise numbers in a combat log has more to do with reducing the player drama associated with said combat log than anything else (parsers/dps meters/etc).

    I would wager that it has less to do with drama and more with a creative choice on the part of the design team to emphasize the narrative flow and reduce the amount of time spent optimizing the combat.

    I would bet (not having played it yet) that the combat system is deep, but not so deep that you ever really need detailed combat logs in order to solve the systemic depth of the algorithms; instead, the depth lies in narrative content, etc, because that is their expressly stated goal.

    If it is in fact a super-deep combat system, then I bet they’ll add a mechanism to get to that data eventually, perhaps after trying to add alternate mechanisms that preserve the story-heavy atmosphere.

  6. I totally agree about the fact that it would be about improving the narrative flow.

    However, I really like the idea of using, instead of numerical feedback, sensitive feedback (sounds, deeper biofeedback or whatever).

    Interesting topic.

  7. I suspect the decision to obscure and not record the precise numbers in a combat log has more to do with reducing the player drama associated with said combat log than anything else (parsers/dps meters/etc). Personally, I strongly support this: I feel a game should ideally either be fully transparent (such as current City of Heroes) or intentionally mask as much of the numerically precise feedback as possible as a matter of theme, consistency, and immersion (Ultima Underworld II). There’s something to be said for not having the mathematical certainty (or near certainty) of knowing the bad guy has 94 HP left, your saber does between 34-36 each hit and takes 3 seconds to swing, your own HP are at 127 and are falling by 20 per enemy blaster shot, etc.

    I don’t disagree with the general point about consistency necessarily. However, SWTOR doesn’t do away with the quantitative element completely. It is still very concerned with how much damage a weapon does on hit, how much health you have, how much health you get from each piece of armor, etc. It is also true that they are focusing on narrative elements, but since there is a deep and complex combat system that *is* obviously quantitatively based and that coexists with this narrative in a complex ecology, I see little reason to not record the information that is already ephemerally available. That is, I can already see how much a hit does and when a hit misses – I just can’t see that in any lasting form. It scrolls up and disappears. I see no good reason for not including an option to save a log of that information, since I see no good reason to restrict players from using the game’s information to improve their use of their character. I similarly see no reason to not record a quest log of quests completed (some games do, some don’t) when a player may want to review the story they have experienced, even if their review of that story is purely textual and thus a qualitatively different experience than their original one.

  8. I suspect that the detailed combat logs were specifically excluded because of the horribly negative phenomenon from WoW of people being ferociously obsessed with DPS meters.

    Yes, dps meters and combat parsing existed before WoW, but WoW took it to nightmare levels.

    The way in which people tracked and analyzed the performance of teammates reached nightmarish peaks in WoW.

    It may be too late to put this genie back in the bottle, but it would be nice to see that level of performance based obsession when choosing who to play a game with subside a bit.

    -Michael Hartman
    http://www.frogdice.com

  9. In WoW’s case, that happened because that was the point of the game. As an elder player, playing in raid groups was the game. You can’t make the point of the game be about carefully managing a host of numbers and not make all the player chatter be about those numbers.

  10. @Raph,

    The WoW thing was pretty much what I was thinking of as well, but I do want to add that I didn’t mean to disparage the choice as being something less than a creative choice. I realize now I sound like I’m saying they made it as a purely pragmatic decision, which, wow, would be pretty insulting. My apologies to any reading for that. (I was meaning to answer incobalt’s question of why there’s not an option to show the numbers, after and apart from the design decision to focus on narrative over numbers: basically, my thought on why they wouldn’t go back to add a checkbox to “turn the numbers back on”, so to speak.)

    Not having played it yet either, I do stand by liking not having the numbers there to worry about. For me, there’s a qualitative difference in having the numbers there and thus thinking in numbers while playing, versus not. I’d liken it to that tendency (I have) to play out of the overhead minimap in certain games whether one means to or not. Not worse, but absolutely different.

  11. Peter, from a player point of view, I am not a huge fan of the numbers either. As a designer, though, I recognize that if I am designing a game where the numbers matter a lot, then players probably need to be able to see them.

  12. That’s true. I’m reminded of Arcanaville’s complete deconstruction of the City of Heroes mechanics (actually a much more collaborative player project, but she did the bulk of the tough number crunching and is the name to search for if curious), how it eventually led to drastic improvements in the game’s mechanics, explanations (and fixes!) for some of the odder powers behaviors, and ultimately led to a complete opening-of-the-hood by the devs to expose all of the numbers to players who cared to see. It did lead to an immensely better game.

    Dammit, I hate having to give up my player self-righteousness, but I agree with you. :)

  13. I suspect the decision to obscure and not record the precise numbers in a combat log has more to do with reducing the player drama associated with said combat log than anything else (parsers/dps meters/etc). Personally, I strongly support this: I feel a game should ideally either be fully transparent (such as current City of Heroes) or intentionally mask as much of the numerically precise feedback as possible as a matter of theme, consistency, and immersion (Ultima Underworld II).

    I strongly agree with this. It’s just, that such combat logs introduce quite a bit of drama. I’ve raided for years (actually until I quit) and the combat log brought more negative apsects than positive ones until a point where it influenced the encouters themselves.

    The story of WoW raids is a long one. The first raids were somewhat hard (at the beginning) without all the mods and people actually had required some kind of skill to dispell the people in quickly enough or avoid certain boss abillities.

    Boss mods, which were based on the combat log parsing of course, made trivilaized much of this. So since the people was able to disable their brains and just read the big fat announces or what the bar until the next special attack, bosses became too easy.

    Blizzards first resonse to this were either bosses which had to be out-geared in order to beat them (gather enough gear (or special gear like resitances)) or give them more damage, more health, more defense or enrage counter (timed bosses)

    This of course started to force people into optimizing damage, in order to kill the bosses quickly enough and also the agro controll. Both realized via addons again. For every serious raiding guild, they became mandatory.

    What? You have no damage meter, threat meter and boss mod + raid UI? Sorry, install it or get kicked out of the raid/guild. Is this what a game designer wants to get @Raph?

    The next problem of course was, with the addons and damage & threat meters optimizing became to easy, so the guilds who massively used it, cleared the content too easily.

    In response the bosses became stronger and stronger, the items from next tier raid content became exponentionally more powerful. Blizzard themselve said, that sometime at AQ40/Naxx40 they started to optimize the bosses with damage- & threatmeters & boss mods in mind, effectively forcing people to use it, no matter it the people cared about the mods or not.

    If you don’t use them, you couldn’t beat the newer bosses. If you did, everyone had to use them etc. This is an excellent example of the horrible consequences of such a combat log.

    At the peak of Burning Crusade it was like: Apply for a guild and install a long list of addons which are mandatory or go to a casual guild which never beats the bosses until they are nerved to death.

    I’ve played Lineage II before that (and many others since Meridian 59), and there never was such an problem. But in WoW it escalated up to a point where whole guilds broke appart on bosses like M’uru the Guildbreaker.

    Before WoW I loved having a combat log and looking at it. After WoW, I don’t think that combat logs are contemporary anymore. The way on how people play MMOs nowadays has changed drastically, so having no combat log isn’t bad.

    It’s better in many ways, as you also don’t see surrounding players in the log (i.e. Aion: The Combat log could be used to display enemy players which are fighting nearby, which ruins the surprise effect… a death sin in an PvP game… don’t get me wrong, Aion is one of the worst PvP games ever, followed by Warhammer and WoW)

  14. In a sense, combat logs remind me of modern high-end sports training, in which an athlete’s performance is recorded and analyzed by specialists in biomechanics to crunch the numbers and squeeze every ounce of performance from the human machine.

    It works. But it wrings the joy out of it.

  15. You mentioned that a deep game with poor feedback may as well not even be deep, as player’s won’t be able to understand the game… isn’t it possible (or even likely!) that SWTOR is a case of the developers withholding feedback in an attempt to give a shallow game an illusion of depth?

  16. Knowing the people on the project, I kind of doubt that, PASTRIES. I thin it is more likely to be a reaction to the anti-immersive nature of the numbers-heavy game. Bioware privileges immersion above all else.

  17. Considering Bioware, and their prior games (Baldur’s Gate, KOTOR, NWN, Dragon Age 1-2), there is nothing more paramount to the developers of SWTOR than immersion.

    From a player perspective, I want the combat log, because I find it useful. That said, I would rather have an open community without guild “applications” and requirements of which ones to use. I refuse to schedule anything in my life around a game, so I generally will not tolerate a guild that expects me to do so, or forces me to use a certain “mod-pack.” As far as I am concerned the benefits of not including a combat log far outweigh the negatives. When you already have two distinct factions players must choose between, you don’t want to further fractionalize the community.

    With regards to the community the ultimate goal is to ensure player associations (“guilds”) are open, welcoming, and constantly consuming new content. This goal is very hard to achieve when you have so many “requirements” to join a guild. you may keep core consumers for exceptionaly long periods of time, but this comes at a very high cost of new consumers. Nobody wants to start an MMO and find out that they cannot join a guild (or even group) unless they first “min/max” their toon, AND agree to schedules, mod packs, communications software, etc…

    When allowing the combat logs, but disallowing mods, you will eventually lose consumers to games that offer logs and allow mods. Many will stay but many will also leave, once they believe they can no longer optimize… Unless you have something more than combat to keep them interested. This has been proven with several MMOs in the past.

    When allowing both, you will guarantee an extremely loyal base of “hardcore” concumers who value nothing more than getting the best of everything, at the cost of ALL RP opportunity. This path limits the audience and (IMHO) represents a poor choice, if sustainability is a factor. WoW can manage this scenario only because they were the “first” to become so large. They were “innovative” enough at launch that they became the benchmark. Many people who want to leave WoW refuse to do so if they believe they are only leaving for “another WoW.”

    Allowing neither mods nor logs, could allow all kinds of players to equally enjoy the game. This path encourages skill of the players, rather than effectiveness of their mods. This path can lead “hardcore” consumers to lose interest fast, which can affect sustainability if there isn’t a sufficient base of “casual” consumers. You may also lose a large portion, if not all, of the less skillful consumers.

    Allowing mods, without logs, can ensure few complain/leave over the lack of customization… at the early stages. You stand a chance of having a balanced ratio of loyal to new consumers, because (as I see it) you satisfy most consumers’ desires. I cannot cite a referrence to prove this point, only point out that this is what I (and most of my real-world friends) would prefer in an MMO. Anecdotal evidence can also be found all over the internet; posts by MMO consumers who express why they make the choices they make. My observations leave me to believe this could be the most effective way to elliminate the “mod-problem.” Of course, this could be slightly circumvented by someone writing a mod that captures combat data and outputs it to the consumer; however the mods would not be able to capture all of the OTHER players’ data (avoiding most of the “number talk”.)

    The final option is to allow mods, and combat logs, but restrict what a mod can do. Limiting mods to non-combat-log functions could be effective, and very satisfying to a wider range of consumers. You would need to set up some kind of “sanctioned” mod center, through which developers would have to gain “approval.” The costs involved in implementing, and managing, such a “mod-store” could prove destructive to overall game sustainability. One could charge for this service, but you would limit the audience again. Perhaps the biggest challenge comes from finding a way to allow only “approved” mods, and prevent “outside” mods from working. Take the Apple App Store for instance; they control everything, but lose some customers because of the level of control. It provides a very safe environment for consumers who are loyal, and preserves the bulk of the base; with almost everything worth installing costing money. Apple likely pays very high salaries to the department that oversees approvals and denials.

    There are so many factors to consider, that there is no right or wrong solution. The decision ultimately comes down to what will provide the best solution for THAT company, and THAT game, at THAT time. It has been changed in the past, and could be again. Perhaps SWTOR is waiting to see what kind of base it has before making that choice, which is a solid strategy.

    Sorry for rambling, I hope it makes sense, I’ll move on now.

  18. […] for the next game (which might very well just be a different system within the same game) or MMO. (Source: Raph Koster’s Website) 分享到: QQ空间 新浪微博 开心网 […]

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