Player-centered design

 Posted by (Visited 19552 times)  Game talk
Dec 072005
 

Terra Nova has what apparently is T. L.’s last post, and it’s about player-centered design.

Is anyone (any company? any commercial enterprise?) integrating something roughly called “player-centered design” into their MMOG dev processes or is that wording the kind that makes the practicing designer cringe as it seems to undermine the artistic/auteur aspect of producing a game?

The first temptation is to answer “anyone who isn’t player-centered in their design is an idiot.”

After all, the entire discipline of design — and I don’t mean game design, I mean all of design — is about user responses. It’s about holding a conversation with the intended user of an artifact (I was going to type “product” there and then changed my mind), via the artifact itself.

And yet, I know that a lot of folks (such as the ones who typically bash me on, say, game or guild forums, will say that I’m far from being player-centered in my own designs. I’m a poster child for ignoring what players want, right?

The question, to my mind, is “where is the player, really?” and that’s not an easy question to answer.


Games, particularly boardgames, have a very long tradition of one form of player-centered design. That is to say,

  • someone designs a core game
  • they make a prototype
  • they get their friends to play it over and over and over and over and over
  • they “tune” the game until it’s as fun as they think it can be

This is a process that I go through a lot when I do a boardgame, or my weekend puzzle games (I often make a puzzle or retro arcade game over a weekend, just for fun). The step of playing over and over again is mindboggling: so much rears its head in terms of presentation, balance, degenerate strategies, and so on, that it’s simply inconceivable not to go through this step.

MMOs, of course, have the beta process. Having been through that a few times, I can tell you it does not compare in the slightest to the tuning process possible on a smaller game. The only time I can think of when I have gotten to experience similar levels of tuning feedback were very very early on in the SWG public testing, when we had only 100 people in, and we broke them into groups of 20 or so, and we tackled one system in isolate from all the others. We didn’t get to do this for too many systems, but I think that it ended up being very apparent which ones they were.

Another thing that we did on SWG, which was driven in part by my feeling that on UO we got into too much of an “ivory tower” a lot, was expose the design process much more. Essentially, this was sanity-checking the design ideas in advance: posting design documents, getting player feedback, explaining why we were thinking of doing something a particular way.

These days, there’s an undercurrent of folks out there who say that if anything, we listened too much, that vocal lobbyists in the future playerbase drifted us off course from the One True Star Wars game. I tend to think that this isn’t an accurate picture; for one, that message board process was immensely valuable to me, and for another, I think we tended to be fairly stubborn about what we wanted to do. Most changes that originated with the playerbase were minor. Big changes in direction originated from within.

But this sort of participatory design as Kurt Squire called it (link unfortunately broken at the moment), does have those issues raised by T. L., the question of surrendering of authorship. As Kurt put it,

Ultimately, the privileged status of “game designer” becomes questionable, and the line between designer and user becomes blurred. Who is the designer of a community like SWG? The design team who writes the code, or the people who populate the world and give it life? Research from the sociology of technology suggests that it is not the code or hardware that defines a computer-mediated organization, but also the social networks.

…to which my answer is that while the precise community that emerged during those early days on the SWG forums was not specified in detail, it was most certainly designed to take a particular form. Social architecture is the process of designing the environment to create particular sorts of social groupings, which you then count on surprising you.

In muds, of course, there’s a long tradition of rolling feedback cycles, because the communities were small enough and tight enough to permit it. As with so many things, it’s scale that interferes. The gap between LegendMUD’s town hall meetings and a typical Stratics House of Commons can be fairly large.

If we wanted to get highly blue-sky about it, we ought to pursue the House of Commons metaphor, and introduce a means for players to select their representatives to things like Team Leads or Correspondent Programs, rather than the devs choosing them… then we’d really have participatory design!

But these days, the buzzwordy term “player-centered design” means focus groups, heatmaps of eye movement across an interface, and so on. Microsoft has done great things with these, and of course there’s a wealth of knowledge to pull from in this area, as it has been in use for decades in different fields.

There’s plenty to debate regarding the value of focus groups, but the point I want to make here is that properly done, user-centered design is about refinement, not conceptualization. It’s about exposing affordances in clear coherent ways. Like much of design, it’s about interfaces — not the “heads-up display” sense, but in the sense of interfacing with something.

Most of the fumbling around with focus groups that I see isn’t just about interfacing; it’s about the core model underlying things. If you go to use UCD on a copier machine, the process is not intended to tell you that you should add a paper shredder to the machine. It may tell you that as part of the process, but it’s a by-product. For example, a common use of printers these days is as a source of scratch paper. We go to the printer’s paper tray, open it, and pull out a blank sheet, because it’s the fastest way to get something to write on. Will UCD tell you that therefore it should be easier to get to scratch paper? Perhaps all printers should have a “dispense paper” button?

Similarly, when we focus group a game concept, we’re often asking “what alternate uses would you put this model to?” which is not at all the same question as “how do we improve your interaction with this model?” And that’s why there may well be a designer/auteur/artiste kneejerk negative reaction. A given model is generally intended to accomplish a particular thing (and if it isn’t, then it’s a bad design virtually by definition).

This brings me back to “where is the player, really?” Because all of these methods are really trying to ask that question in different ways.

  • Sometimes we want to know what the user wants, and we ask in order to give them something that they don’t have but that probably everyone can see ought to be there
  • Sometimes we want to know what annoys them, and we ask in order to streamline an existing model
  • Sometimes we want to know what they don’t know they want, out of which new markets and new audiences are born

All of a sudden, that boardgame design process changes to look like this:

  • ask the users what sort of game they want
  • someone designs a core game
  • ask the users whether it’s the right idea
  • make a prototype
  • ask the users whether the prototype looks right
  • play it over and over and over and over and over
  • ask the users what they would change
  • they “tune” the game until it’s as fun as they think it can be
  • ask the users whether it’s actually done

We just about never see all those steps being taken together. And some of them are inherently counterproductive in terms of creating something fresh and original (out of the box ideas frequently get a negative reception when polled for, for example).

So my question for T.L., to turn it around, would be which of those questions is what you consider player-centered design? The naive player view is often “give us what we want,” and a perhaps more sophisticated view often heard is “at the least, don’t piss us off with stupid methods of interacting with the model.” At the extreme is the Squire view of a sort of participatory society of design.

And, just to go all meta, what is it that players want out of allegedly player-centered design?

I’ll tell you that to me, player-centered design means not only sanding the rough edges off of your interaction with the game, and not only seeing the game from the perspective of the player, but also always thinking about what the ultimate experience of the player will be, when the interaction is completed. And sometimes, the ultimate experience might mean that there’s rough edges left in on purpose. It might mean breaking the player out from seeing things only from the player’s point of view. It might mean answering Kurt’s question about privileged status by saying that really, we (all of us, players included) have to engage in the process of designing the game, and the game culture, and the interaction surrouding the game culture, and the process of discussing the game, and yes, even redesigning the designer as you go. It’s an ecology.

And that leads me to conclude that perhaps saying “player-centered game design” is analogous to saying “fish-centered ocean design.” A valid way — and incredibly important way! — of looking at oceans, but there’s some hidden depths that it probably ignores.

  22 Responses to “Player-centered design”

  1. Blogroll Joel on SoftwareRaph Koster Sunny Walker Thoughts for Now Sex, Lies and Advertising

  2. Bartle?s 5 most important folks in virtual worlds [IMG] Posted by Raph’s Website [HTML][XML][PERM] on Fri, 20 Jul 2007 03:12:38 +0000

  3. […] » Player-centered design from Raph’s Website Terra Nova has what apparently is T. L.s last post, and its about player-centered design. Is anyone (any company? any commercial enterprise?) integrating something roughly called player-centered design into their MMOG dev … [Read More] […]

  4. First off I want to admit that I’ve never played UO or SWG, so everything I know is secondhand information. Secondly most of the following could probably fit under “give us what we want” or “don’t piss us off”, but I’m going to write it anyway, so there. :p

    It comes down to expectations. One of the more common gripes that I’ve read about SWG and UO is that UO wasn’t “Ultima-y” enough, and SWG wasn’t “Star Wars-y” enough. I think you’ve addressed this before, though.

    IIRC, awhile back Ubiq and Jeff Freeman talked about “experience-driven design”. To me, this means that: if I played a smuggler, I’d spend most of the day trying to smuggle stuff; if I played a bounty hunter, I’d spend most of the day tracking down people for money;etc. What I wouldn’t think is that I’d spend a great deal of time killing giant butterflies (or whatever floozles you had) to skill up.

    A few days ago, Lum talked about instancing and how Mythic used it in Catacombs. Now I haven’t played DAoC in awhile, but when I read that part my first thought was, “wow that sounds boring”. Quite frankly, most of the pve in that game was boring and played as if it was intentionally made to be boring. (To be honest though I feel that way about every mmog I’ve ever played, so take it for what it’s worth.)Now as I type this I know full well they didn’t go out of their way to make pve boring, but that’s not what I thought while playing the game.

  5. Experience-driven design is great, but it’s not the be-all end-all either. Let’s pick one of the best pieces of experience-driven design out there, which is Guitar Hero. The point of the game is to give you the experience of playing rock guitar and being a guitar god. It does that really well.

    But there’s other experiences of being a guitar god that it doesn’t give. I play guitar, and there’s no real sign of alternate tunings, of writing your own music, of jam sessions, or of actual differences between gear in Guitar Hero.

    That’s not a knock on the game. But what it points at is, as you said, the issue of expectations.

    DDR doesn’t try to convey what actual dancing is like, frankly — instead, people have to bring that to the title. And what is the experience people want from, say, World of Warcraft? There probably is no right answer. I didn’t get the experience I wanted, which was “being in the world of Warcraft,” because every time I left the path, I died. What about Tetris, what’s the experience that people are coming to it wanting?

    One of the tremendous challenges with a license is that there may well be a predefined experience, and it might be impossible to provide in a given game type. Got the Star Wars license for puzzle games? Sorry, dude, you’re probably SOL, you’ll NEVER be “Star Warsy” enough, even if the game is brilliant.

    In the end, experience-driven design works for games intended to provide a certain sort of wish-fulfillment experience. But not all games are of that sort. MMOs in particular are good at satisfying certain kinds of wish-fulfillment, but not all.

  6. Oh… and if it weren’t clear, I do think that some professions and activities in SWG did pretty good on the experience, and others didn’t. And the question is whether it was on the particular experience that you were looking for.

  7. My (cynical?) opinion is that asking potential users what they want in a product of type X is useful, but if you follow the users’ feedback too much you’ll end up with no innovation whatsoever because users will almost inevitably request the cool (not necessarily good) features they’ve seen in competitors’s products, and veto anything new.

    See http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/LawOfNewInventions.htm.

    I tend to think of the following: (Not that different from Raph’s comments.)

    (a) Put myself in the player’s shoes.

    (b) Could my (grand)mother figure out how to use the software?

    (c) Watch players actually use the software AND ask them what they’re thinking. It’s amazing how many concepts that the design team feels are obvious, are actually difficult for users to pick up on.

    (d) Guestimate what players will tell their friends about the experience.

  8. The main reason why I didn’t buy WoW was that it was a mmorpg and not a mmorts :), but apparently I’m the only one in America who was bothered by that, lol.

    I played both a Star Wars- and LOTR-themed Stratego game. I didn’t have any expectation (other than there would be pictures of various characters on the pieces and that they still played like Stratego); the alternate rulesets where a pleasant surprise. Perhaps it’s only mmos (specifically those based on some other works) that I and possibly other gamers have preconceived notions about? We expect a holodeck with a LOTR theme and get a mmorpg with a LOTR skin.

    I see your point though on experience-driven design. Just let me say though that I hope that whoever’s in charge of the DC Comics mmog has thought of this and, to paraphrase Brad, how expectations are going to be managed. 🙂

  9. […] (7 comments | Leave a comment) 06:46 pmraphkoster[Link] Player-centered designhttps://www.raphkoster.com/?p=191Terra Nova has what apparently is T. L.’s last post, and it’s about player-centered design. Is anyone (any company? any commercial enterprise?) integrating something roughly called “player-centered design” into their MMOG dev processes or is that wording the kind that makes the practicing designer cringe as it seems to undermine the artistic/auteur aspect of producing a game? […]

  10. I have more of a question than a comment. Do game developers target particular play styles for focus groups and player feedback? I would understand if they just followed the most popular opinion, they are trying to reach the largest customer base and the profits that come with it. I have noticed that on most game forums that “what-we-want” is an exercise in futility. The players constantly contradict themselves. Everyone want things improved for their play style. It seems that in the effort to please everyone, many game alienate everyone. How does a developer sift out the productive ideas from the chaff?

  11. Wudu, usually the way it works is that a target audience is identified by marketing, development, or a strategic imperative. Then focus groups are assembled based on that target audience. You usually put together a few separate ones that represent slightly different groups; for example, an MMO might get tested with a non-gamer audience, or with players chosen from another game’s userbase, or with RPG players who don’t play MMOs, that sort of thing.

    So playstyles plays into it, but it’s more about broad segments. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a formal focus group for “crafter-types” for example.

    Beyond focus groups, sperating the wheat from the chaff is very hard. This is why I favor stuff like correspondent programs. You get “more wheat” if the people passing along the feedback are in a position where they are a) gathering it from many constituents and b) forced to interact with representatives of other playstyles, to arrive at mutual compromise.

    But it has proven very difficult to manage said programs. 🙁

  12. My own point of view is with Mike here. There’s only so far the players can get ya. They can certainly help with defined elements like interface features, methods, and in general, anything they can touch and feel. But asking them beforehand? Nah.

    I think there’s an implicit trust between Designer and Experiencer. Some violate that trust and others don’t 🙂

  13. I don’t so much try to ask players beforehand as try to understand players beforehand. That’s why Brad McQuaid calls me “a computational anthropologist” and why so many folks say I’m all about social experiments. But I’m not trying to shape people into new social structures or roles, so I think that label’s wrong. I’m trying to see social structures and social roles that exist, an give them a better environment in which to grow, because current games tend to stunt them.

    A game where the only productive activity is to kill things is the social experiment. A game where people can dance at a bar is more like normal humanity. 🙂

  14. […] Raph on Player-centered design […]

  15. A nice thing with the WoW design is that it screams: Imagine the potential of a mmorpg which delivers both quality and creativity.

    Is size really all that important? ^^

  16. […] MMOs, of course, have the beta process. Having been through that a few times, I can tell you it does not compare in the slightest to the tuning process possible on a smaller game. The only time I can think of when I have gotten to experience similar levels of tuning feedback were very very early on in the SWGStar Wars Galaxies von Sony Online Entertainment. public testing, when we had only 100 people in, and we broke them into groups of 20 or so, and we tackled one system in isolate from all the others. We didnt get to do this for too many systems, but I think that it ended up being very apparent which ones they were. Another thing that we did on SWG, which was driven in part by my feeling that on UOUltima Online von Electronic Arts. we got into too much of an ivory tower a lot, was expose the design process much more. Essentially, this was sanity-checking the design ideas in advance: posting design documents, getting player feedback, explaining why we were thinking of doing something a particular way. These days, theres an undercurrent of folks out there whoWarhammer Online von Mythic Entertainment. say that if anything, we listened too much, that vocal lobbyists in the future playerbase drifted us off course from the One True Star Wars game. I tend to think that this isnt an accurate picture; for one, that message board process was immensely valuable to me, and for another, I think we tended to be fairly stubborn about what we wanted to do. Most changes that originated with the playerbase were minor. Big changes in direction originated from within. Link: Raph Koster ber Player-Centered Design 150)?150:this.scrollHeight)”> __________________ The tools suck! — Raph Koster […]

  17. Raph said: “A game where the only productive activity is to kill things is the social experiment. A game where people can dance at a bar is more like normal humanity.”

    I hope you are trying to be funny here Raph, but I suspect you are not. Bescause we can also say, at least in regards to MMORPGs:

    A game where the only productive activity is to kill things has a chance at success. A game where people can dance at a bar is likely a niche game.

    I don’t understand the why of this. But not understanding why doesn’t make it less true. We are surrounded by an anecdotal evidence.

  18. Oh, wait until my rant today, Nyght! You just triggered something!

  19. To be honest, I see little true value in player-centered design. Players, as a whole, are not focused on innovation of new ideas and instead focus on refinement of existing ideas.

    I’m not interested in a market of MMO’s that continually refine the same design principles in search of perfection. I am interested in a market of MMO’s based on innovative design.

    When I look to Asia and see the diversity of games their market supports, I ask myself why we aren’t seeing that here in the States? Is it that the players soundly refuse anything other than combat orientated MMO’s? (Smaller companies are already proving this not to be true) Or is it that the larger companies who have huge success are afraid to reinvest the profits into an innovative developer-driven design process?

    Where is the MMO research company that allows the technical people (like Raph) to sit in a lab and cook up ideas for the sake of the ideas themselves, and then asssigns a more market orientated team to figure out how to profit from that idea?

    Why is Blizzard saying they have no plans in the works for a new MMO not instead saying “We are looking into other forms of MMO’s so you have something entirely different to enjoy!” ??

    They have a successful product, and obvious revenue streams coming in at some scale. Even if they only took a small portion of those revenues to fund new design ideas, it could empower a developer in their staff to come up with something radically different, and new, and good.

    Player-centric? No thanks. I want innovation!

  20. Raquel said, “The main reason why I didn’t buy WoW was that it was a mmorpg and not a mmorts 🙂 , but apparently I’m the only one in America who was bothered by that, lol.”

    I didn’t buy in, either. =P And they’ve only got 4 million players. Yes, only. There are roughly 300 million people in America. Assuming all 4 million are discrete Americans, that’s 0.25%. We’re in the majority.

    But on a serious note, innovation (or “revolution”, to put it in political/non-business jargon) has always come from small groups of people (1+) with a vision for change. It’s hard to imagine a couple million users causing change; they’re too big for social inertia to cause radical shift.

  21. The 4m is worldwide. My understanding is that half of them are China, and half the remainder is Europe.

  22. […] Zink, 48 minutes ago. It’s just kind of sad when you can’t make a profit with $3mill in monthly income. Assuming that’s the right figure, which I sort of doubt; I think it’s a lot higher. Still, it would make a lot more sense to put the original SWG in maintenance mode and launched the new game with a new name. But sense is something they don’t have much of at Imperial Headquarters. I love the way people are still making apologies for Raph. It’s like he connected with them in some way and forever more they will be stupid about him. I guess that’s how doctor’s avoid malpractice, for that matter. he was always obviously an idiot. He’s still in denial. […]

  23. […] Raph Blogϥǥ˴ؤ¿ǶǤPlayer-centered designפȤǽ SWG ˤĤƸڤƤꡢForcing interactionפȤ SWG Υ󥿡ƥʡˤĤƸڤƤꤷޤ […]

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