Usability is Your Core Game Mechanic

Perhaps the most common stereotype of the modern gamer is the portrait of an aggressive teenage male who spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the screen indulging his addiction. While youth does correlate with hardcore game-playing (Yee, 2009), a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the average gamer is, in fact, 35 years old (Weaver, et. al, 2009). By looking at this demographic, we can better understand the causes behind the recent rise in the popularity of casual games and learn how to make games with broader appeal.

The game industry has long catered to its younger, hardcore audience while occasionally throwing a bone to casual gamers. More recent triple-A offerings have become somewhat friendlier to casual gamers by offering easier learning curves and more frequent save points, but still require a significant investment of time to play. The average hardcore gamer is male and mainly lies between 11 to 22 years of age (Yee, 2009); He is probably still in school, unemployed, and likely has a decent amount of free time which can be devoted to playing games. He has enough time to learn and master even the most complex of games. By contrast, the average gamer is 35 years old, is likely employed or looking for work, may be married and have children, and probably has comparatively little time to spend on playing games, much less learning how to play the more complex offerings.

During my time in college I was involved in the development of a game called Lacona, which was designed with the goal of creating a hyper-realistic space combat simulator. To this day Lacona is one of the most complicated games I’ve ever played. It boasted some impressive features, such as the procedural destruction of craft components, and an accurate sensor system, which took into account the cross section and heat output of any given target, and in 2007 we went to the 2nd annual Maker Faire to exhibit a beta. What we found was that only a few of the people we showed the game to were able to appreciate it. The average user would pick up the controls, play for 1 -2 minutes, and then move on, but those who stuck with it long enough to get a feel for the game enjoyed it. Our problem was with how difficult the game was to pick up, and understandably so; space flight is extremely complex and counter-intuitive to human nature enough as it is, but the game necessitated additional complexity in the form of control sets for each of the spacecraft’s systems. Even I, as a developer of the game, had a hard time keeping track of all of the different button mappings and craft functions. The game was very fun once you actually knew how to play, but the learning curve was so steep, and the game was so difficult that it prevented the majority of users from actually getting to the point where they could enjoy it properly.

The mistakes we made with Lacona are undoubtedly a more extreme example of the same mistakes that the industry makes today by catering primarily to hardcore gamers. Hardcore gamers are notoriously vocal, but they are a minority. Casual games such as those within the ‘tower defense’ genre are popular because of the simplicity of their game mechanic and ease of use, but of these two elements, it is the usability which is most important. A game does not need be simple to be able to be played casually, but it needs to be easy to learn. A good example of this lies in World of Warcraft (WoW), which currently dominates the market for massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). WoW is a reasonably complex game at the endgame, but is very easy to use and offers a gradual learning curve – it is rare that the player is forced to learn more than one new skill at once and they are never left with the feeling of having been overwhelmed. This is critical for casual gamers, who do not have an abundance of time to devote to learning a new game; a hardcore gamer might see a sharp learning curve as a challenge, but a casual gamer is far more likely to be overwhelmed and simply walk away.

WoW proves that a game does not need to cater solely to hardcore or casual players, but can instead offer something to each demographic. In the case of WoW this is because a player can devote as much or as little time as she wants to it, yet still gain adequate satisfaction from playing. The game itself is not particularly difficult or complex, and requires only a small amount of skill for players to excel. This enables the majority of casual players play as they will, while the minority of hardcore gamers are satisfied with exclusive gear and items which can only be obtained by performing difficult or time consuming tasks.

A game like WoW has broad appeal, as opposed to games in other niche genres like fighting games which are aimed specifically towards hardcore gamers and require a sizable investment of time in order to master. Even within the genre there are differences: the Soul Calibur series by Namco requires players to enter complex and often difficult combinations of buttons in order to control their avatars, while the Super Smash Bros. series by Nintendo offers a much simpler control scheme which is more dependent upon timing than complexity. Soul Calibur is highly rated, but has a more difficult learning curve than Super Smash Bros, which is more popular with casual audiences. The usability of a game is directly tied to the amount of practice required to master its core game mechanic, and so a game that appeals to both casual and hardcore gamers will have a gradual learning curve, but enough features to keep players of all levels interested. It is true that hardcore players will always be advantaged over casual players, but this is an issue of hardcore gamers having spent more time in the game world, and can be circumvented through the use of matchmaking technology.

Time is a limited resource, not only for game developers, but for the players as well. It can be a wonderful experience to lose oneself in a game for hours on end, but not everyone has this luxury. For hardcore gamers, time is in abundance, but a 35 year old gamer with children, bills and a job doesn’t necessarily have the time to practice a game until he gets good; instead he might just load up Tower Defense, or go and play World of Warcraft with his friends.

Using Personality Models to Make Better Games

Personality models are used today in a number of fields for a variety of tasks, from diagnosis in social work, to determination of an individual’s strengths in the workplace. This paper proposes that such tools could be used to help shape user experience in virtual worlds and suggests two methods to integrate these models in games.

In a 2008 article on the subjective well-being of online gamers it was suggested that gameplay could be tailored to the player to better accommodate his/her personality type (Chen, 2008). This would greatly increase the quality of each user’s subjective experience, and in effect increase both the longevity and value of the game. However, as of yet, there seems to be very little implementation of personality modeling systems in games. Rudimentary systems have been used in order to determine a user’s desired playing style, but they often are only used at the start of a game in order to suggest a character’s class, and have little or no further effect upon gameplay.

Much of the research around personality as it relates to playing games has been done using a commonly accepted five factor model (also known as the “Big 5”) which incorporates five different dimensions to describe a person’s disposition. These five dimensions include: Neuroticism, or how easily a person becomes distressed, Extraversion, which is a measure of how outgoing a person is, Openness to Experience, or how flexible a person is in their behavior, Agreeableness, which takes into account factors such as how trusting or how antagonistic a person is, and finally Conscientiousness, which measures a person’s dependability and organization (Costa & McCrae, 1992). Each of these dimensions are measured along a spectrum, which means that a conventional introvert would achieve a low score on openness and extraversion while a person who compulsively cleans might score higher in conscientiousness and neuroticism.

Suggested Integration

Personality types are most commonly determined by self-reporting via questionnaires. These questionnaires rely on the participant’s honest response to develop accurate results. This format makes sense in the context of social work or in increasing workplace efficiency, but not so much in an in-game environment.

The simplest implementation of an in-game personality modeling system would probably look something like the Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test (G.O.A.T.) in Fallout 3. In this example the player’s avatar is made to take an in-game aptitude test, however the test only serves to help the player choose skills for their avatar which would accommodate their playing style and has no further impact on gameplay. With some modification, it would be simple enough to have the results of such a test influence gameplay in later stages and would provide users with a more enriching experience. While this implementation is simple, it is hardly elegant and is fairly intrusive into the gameplay. In some cases, as in Fallout 3, it can be done while maintaining immersion, but in others this would prove very difficult if not impossible. It should also be noted that the current ‘lite’ versions of personality tests in games tend to be relatively short, whereas real psychological personality tests tend to be somewhat longer.

An alternate version of this implementation would take advantage of the ability of current generation console platforms to affect games via platforms such as the Playstation Network, Xbox Live or the Wii’s Dashboard. This approach would be similar to the first, in that the player would fill out a personality test, but the result would then be stored on the user’s profile, and would be usable in any game on that system that had the ability to take advantage of it.

A more elegant way of discerning a player’s personality type would require a system which observed the player’s behavior ingame, and then developed a model over time. This is a technique which undoubtedly is best suited for massively multiplayer sandbox games, but could also be applied to more linear and single player games with some creative design. Such a system could be implemented in many different ways, whether by creating quests which would probe at a player’s disposition, observing how sociable a player is via ingame statistical tools, or even observing different ingame social networks such as guilds/corporations/clans, etc. This method does have drawbacks, as it could be somewhat difficult to implement and brings into account issues of privacy. Each player should be made aware of such a system and be allowed to opt out of it if they so choose.

Once a model was established, it would then be used to shape individual gameplay towards a player’s preferences. In roleplaying games this could manifest in something as simple as rewarding extroverts for participating in social organizations, such as guilds or corporations, or even just assigning different missions or quests to a player depending on their personality type. More complex solutions could manifest in more subtle ways, and could be designed to organically reward players for playing the game in the way which they find most enjoyable.

Conclusions

An ingame system which tailored gameplay to each user’s personality could be immensely useful in subscription retention for MMOs, and in increasing the experiential value of regular single and multiplayer games. While such a system is most obviously useful for roleplaying games, it could also be implemented in a number of other genres with some creative game design. An acquired model could also be used for purposes not directly related to gameplay, such as intelligently targeted advertising or to help identify which users are most at risk for addiction in MMOs, but discussion of these uses are beyond the scope of this paper.

References

Chen, L. (2008). Subjective well-being: Evidence from the different personality traits of online game teenager players. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(5), 579-581.

Costa, P, & McCrae, R. (1992). Normal personality assessment in clinical practice: The NEO personality inventory. Psychological Assessment, 4(1), 5-13.