"But the Skinner box is still real."
October 14, 2014 2:25 AM   Subscribe

The role of game mechanics should not be the oppressive tyrant telling you to fetch and grind and be thankful for your crumbs of XP and DPS as the scenery blazes past. It should be an à-la-carte menu of options which is opened up for your benefit and at your direction. Slow enough that you can get familiar with each element in turn, but fast enough not to frustrate and limit. Unlockables and crafting should be a way to enable new abilities, not just busywork. Level ups should let you specialize in certain tactics, not just keep up with the Joneses who all bought new glass armor and plasma rifles overnight. Compulsion is just a stick, not the carrot.
Steven Wittens: the Cargo Cult of Game Mechanics.
posted by MartinWisse (44 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think that Zynga may well have done some very interesting and serious research into human compulsion / addictive behaviour and reward scheduling which I would absolutely love to read. They should have started publishing peer review papers on it (actually did they? that would be awesome).

Blizzard equally, if they are not hiring psychologists with the brief to study grindy behaviour then they are doing it wrong (both for their profits and for science)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:19 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Good article. I delete games when they start feeling like work. We all should.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:14 AM on October 14, 2014 [8 favorites]


I think the author is kind of stuck in a valley of being too experienced to be satisfied by big-budget mainstream games, too technical to be satisfied by 'arty' indie games, and yet not daring enough to move out of his nostalgia comfort zone and engage with modern games* with the depth he wants.

* Dwarf Fortress. Kerbal Space Program. Eve Online. Dominions 3/4. Crusader Kings 2. Euro Truck Simulator.
posted by Pyry at 4:17 AM on October 14, 2014 [14 favorites]


It's my understanding that Blizzard indeed did hire psychologists to help design World of Warcraft. When the game was fairly new (about 9 months after launch) I won a copy at a LAN party. I almost gave it away, because the Everquest type MMO was not my thing. 3 years later I had to pretty much force myself to quit.

That game is the crack of the pc MMO world if ever there was one. But to be honest I did make some pretty cool online friends, and if you're broke I challenge you to get as many hours of entertainment for around $12 a month as you can with a game like WOW.

I still have a nice gaming pc that I love, and finally got a PS4 this summer. But so far I've been rather unimpressed with the selection of games. I played Last of Us, which was terrific, and Watch Dogs, which was interesting, and pretty good. But I've grown out of wanting to 'complete' games. I played the storyline of both, and I'm happy with the money I spent, but I'm far too old to give a shit about missing one collectible per level. I'm not sure where that game mechanic started, but it's such a waste of time, and I'm talking about the game development time.

I bought Destiny for PS4, one of the more hyped games I've ever seen, supposedly the most expensive game to make in history, and I took it to Gamestop for trade in credit after perhaps 6 hours of playing. It's pretty, but it's awful. An MMO without any social connectivity. Just a beautiful grind machine. Such a waste.

I thought this article was great, thank you for posting this. There are good games out there but I agree with many of the criticisms he presented.
posted by efalk at 4:20 AM on October 14, 2014 [5 favorites]


This guy hits a lot of good points at the beginning. By the end though it just seems like he's just grinding an axe. In dismissing the current crop of indie games and the ecosystem around them - he lumps a lot of things together. Pixel art isn't only about appealing to nostalgia, and games with minimal game mechanics can still be beautiful even if they operate more like an interactive novel (Sword & Sworcery forever).

I played the old classics that he mentions, and these days with my linux machine I get by on humble indie bundles and kickstarted games. Obviously not ever one is a winner, but there's a lot of great stuff out there. I agree that games are fundamentally about game mechanics, but waxing nostalgic about classic game mechanics seems pretty absurd. Most of the classic isometric RPGs had pretty crappy mechanics. Once you played around with them a bit, you could render combat pretty trivial. The difficulty uniformly goes down in nearly every classic RPG I've played. Shadowrun Returns, which he also attacks without argument, is generally more polished than any of the classics, and Dragonfall's story is right up there.

For me, the idea that leveling up and acquiring new abilities should open up new tactical options has always been something of a holy grail. However, the only genre of games which consistently pull this off are open source rogue like games, many of which have been fine tuned over the course of 20 years. The final stages of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup are still thrilling and challenging. Few other games pull this off, as far as I can recall.

Rogue like games are often seen as prototypical example of procedurally generated content. What's often not mentioned is that most modern rogue likes have auto explore features, because actually exploring these randomly generated environments is kind of boring. I generally avoid sandbox games for exactly this reason. As someone who works in AI, I feel like I have a pretty strong sense for the difference between human and computer generated, and for me the later is typically much less interesting than the former.

I get it that he wants a new generation of games which open up game mechanics by some order of magnitude, but it's a rediculously tall order. I mean, he concludes with 'We need real sandbox simulation, autonomous agents and language-capable AI'. He's basically saying that games won't be exciting until after the singularity. He may be waiting a long time.
posted by Alex404 at 4:31 AM on October 14, 2014 [13 favorites]


> I think that Zynga may well have done some very interesting and serious research into human compulsion / addictive behaviour..... They should have started publishing peer review papers on it.

I can't imagine any company releasing information they can use advantageously. Even when they're better-regarded than Zynga, ethically.
posted by ardgedee at 4:51 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Alex404: "For me, the idea that leveling up and acquiring new abilities should open up new tactical options has always been something of a holy grail. However, the only genre of games which consistently pull this off are open source rogue like games, many of which have been fine tuned over the course of 20 years. The final stages of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup are still thrilling and challenging. Few other games pull this off, as far as I can recall."

Metroid, Chrono Trigger, and the PS2 era Grand Theft Autos come to mind.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:57 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


From MeFi's own unconed0.
posted by Jpfed at 5:17 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


This person has been watching me abandon games for the last 2 decades. I mean, I love the idea of many games. Some have really good ideas and fully realized worlds. But actually playing anything more involved than a puzzle game is so tiresome and boring.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:57 AM on October 14, 2014


an interesting argument but a little axe grindy. I wasn't around for the wave of gaming he considers grail - for me, it's morrowind, ocarina of time, halo 1.

Sometimes I think it's not the games that matter, but the attitude you take into them. The amount of focused attention you can pour into mastering it. The difference between an incredible plot and a boring, can't be bothered plot might be as simple as weather the player can remember when they saw character X last - and for some players, that means expository hand-holding (which will drive other players up the wall!).

The single point that I really enjoyed, no qualms at all, about this article was when the author said, of old games, "The spartan graphics served to highlight the mechanics, instead of needing focus rings and prompts."
posted by rebent at 5:59 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Kingdom of Loathing. Game strategy changes significantly between earlier runs and later--eventually the game becomes a very, very different thing from where you first started. Granted, eventually it's hit the point where I don't really play anymore and haven't for about two years, but it's the only game I can say that I played with some consistency (not every day, but often) for like five solid years and irregularly for some time after. It's not like you really need things to be fancy in order for them to be engaging. I think people often get distracted by the fancy. It's not that you can't have a better game with the fancy, it's just that usually we don't. Complexity requires resources and time. KoL had the benefit of tons of time, if not tons of resources.

This really isn't just video games. D&D has an ongoing problem with, like--do you just keep giving people increasing bonuses on everything as they go along? Eventually if you have a long-running game it just becomes the +5 sword to replace your +4 sword which replaced your +3 sword. It takes creativity to really give the players a changing game as they progress. The up side of tabletop is that you can respond very personally to the players you actually have and what makes them happy. I have no idea where the original story's from, but I've heard of some group that once sort of accidentally ended up running a magic shop for an extended series of game sessions. Because they were having fun and the DM could run with it. If AI should give us anything, I would like to eventually see games that start to pick up on where your fun is and giving you more of that.

I just hit the "oh god this is work" point with Clicker Heroes, which was sad, even though it's the way all those clicker games go eventually.
posted by Sequence at 6:35 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


Lots of GamerGate style "people are funding things that are not for meeeeeeee!" in there too, which sours things a bit.
posted by Artw at 6:46 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


This complaint resurfaces every couple of years or so. This is what it boils down to.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:00 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


I sort of agree and sort of don't. All of the rendering, the additional polygons, the voice actors, the tuned-up physics ... all of these give you a real-world illusion that makes you think you ought to have more choices. Damn, this is so realistic, I could put down my gun and become a farmer! I could start with that field over there.

No, becoming a farmer isn't an option anyone is going to code into a FPS.

However, you're still on the same old railroad. In Dungeons & Dragons, if you are a bad DM, the players can see the tracks. A better DM will create a network leading to a variety of outcomes, but that's about as much planning as you can do in a video game without having an AI around.
posted by adipocere at 7:15 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Having put 20+ hours in to Wasteland 2, and having loved The Broken Age and FTL, the criticism that Kickstarter games are both (a) unpolished and (b) still doing things all the same way feels off. The old games he loves were also broken in various ways, and there is some (well-justified) nostalgia at work as well. I was left waiting for an answer, or at least a clear diagnosis, but didn't feel I got it here.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:26 AM on October 14, 2014


I agree with the general premise but the veer off into Kickstarter axe grinding seems like it was copied and pasted from a separate rant. He may think the PROCESS of Kickstarter is exploitative, but it's not the indie developers using Kickstarter that are making these skinner box games. He just seems to be mashing everything he doesn't like into a pot.
posted by selfnoise at 7:45 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, the only way to have a high ratio of options to time spent is to make the game short or spend a *fortune* developing content. People enjoy repetition in games and prefer a longer, more repetitive game to a shorter game with no repetition.
posted by michaelh at 7:48 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Or... Minecraft.
posted by Artw at 7:53 AM on October 14, 2014


By the way if you want a game that will really reprogram your brain in regards to this sort of "goal dopamine treadmill", I highly recommend Crusader Kings II. There are only vague goals, you are often the victim of circumstances, and failing is oddly poignant and enjoyable.
posted by selfnoise at 7:55 AM on October 14, 2014 [7 favorites]


I should say, the thing I really enjoy about the game is that when your ruler is a dumbass, it kinds of encourages you to actually RP and play the game "badly", and that is very strange and sort of neat.
posted by selfnoise at 7:56 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have two things I want to mention:

The best games are games where your character doesn't level up, but rather you, the player, get better at the game. I'm thinking games like FTL, Spelunky, bullet-hell games like the Touhou series, Super Hexagon, Tetris, Mario-style platformers. These are real skills that you are learning, not abstract XP that your character is earning. Your brain predicts more patterns, your fingers become more nimble. It's the joy of discovery and the feeling of gaining mastery over a system. They are skills that are transferable to other games, and (I like to think) to real life.

Compulsion isn't the same fun. "This game is addictive!" is said as positive trait, but addiction is not a positive thing. You can design a lever which gives a jolt of pleasure but no compulsion to keep pressing it. You can also design a lever where a lab rat will press it compulsively forever until it dies of exhaustion. The rat will be miserable the entire time, but I guess it's a lot more profitable from a human standpoint.
posted by cyberscythe at 8:04 AM on October 14, 2014 [7 favorites]


The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam does not require puzzles. It does have a secret passage but the only achievement you get for finding it is sadness.

This is a nicely put phrase.

I actually wish that there were more games where the payoff for finding a secret was not a powerup but sadness. Or joy, that would be OK, too.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


It's appropriate that the article is about the Skinner Box.

Push the lever, get the reward is indeed what motivates a lot of behavior.

But the really, fun, really incredible *emergent* behavior comes from the Skinner Box as well. And can be as contrived as anything else in a game, if the game designers bother.

Check out this famous experiment by Dr. Robert Epstine. He wanted to show that the then-famous Monkey and Banana Experiment didn't show advance cognitive problem solving that was exclusive to apes, because after all even a pigeon could do it.

Here's how the experiment worked:
Step 1: Use operant conditioning (your basic skinner box stuff) to train the pigeon to peck the banana.
Step 2: use operant conditioning to train the pigeon to hop on a box
Step 3: use operant conditioning to train the pigeon to push the box to a specific marked location on the floor

Then, you put the banana out of reach and put the box in the operant chamber, like in the linked youtube. And guess what: Emergent behavior occurs!

This is game design 101! And yet, so many games do not get past step 1! Don't just give me a sword that does +3 damage, or hookshot that basically acts as a key to a new room. train me to use trampoline, and a ladder, let me figure out the rest from there.

that moment where it all comes together, where you just *get* it, is literally the best part of a videogame. Not the high scores, not the bro chatter - the actual, in my self level up of understanding. Use the "skinner box" reinforcement to propel me to the place where the REAL learning, and enjoyment can happen.
posted by rebent at 8:24 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


The best games are games where your character doesn't level up, but rather you, the player, get better at the game. I'm thinking games like FTL, Spelunky, bullet-hell games like the Touhou series, Super Hexagon, Tetris, Mario-style platformers.

It's really insane how good we humans are at learning stuff. Seeing a Bullet-hell or Super Hexagon being played at the higher levels really looks impossibly superhuman. But it isn't, it just takes a little practice.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:26 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is game design 101! And yet, so many games do not get past step 1! Don't just give me a sword that does +3 damage, or hookshot that basically acts as a key to a new room. train me to use trampoline, and a ladder, let me figure out the rest from there.

that moment where it all comes together, where you just *get* it, is literally the best part of a videogame. Not the high scores, not the bro chatter - the actual, in my self level up of understanding. Use the "skinner box" reinforcement to propel me to the place where the REAL learning, and enjoyment can happen.


...and this is why Portal is such an insanely good game. Basic tools are introduced, and then the entire rest of the game is creative problem-solving.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:28 AM on October 14, 2014 [5 favorites]


here's another video about epstine's experiment .

Portal is an incredible example.

Could the explanation truly be as simple as "we didn't feel like spending the time to make a good game"? I know that portal took FOREVER in tweaking, little changes here and there - this is a little too far out of sight, these puzzles need to happen later in the game, etc. For a game like portal, where the player is inside a series of boxes, that's easy. But for, e.g. Mass Effect, with its huge, expansive landscapes and artwork and soundwork and everything - would it be possible to do that type of subtle manipulation?
posted by rebent at 8:57 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have a lot to say to rebut this article, but I need to spend this morning waiting for the WoW servers to come back up, post-patch, so I can spend several hours leveling tailoring. These Excessive Pantaloons of Contumely aren't going to sew themselves.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:56 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have a lot of issues with the points raised in this article, but this this one especially:

"I'm pretty sure The Stanley Parable is Art. There's just one thing bothering me. It doesn't actually offer you any choice. The game is an admission of defeat.

Like, the whole argument about games as art is dumb. You want Bioshock Infinite hanging in the Louvre? Will that make you happy, finally? Will that prove the late Roger Ebert wrong?

If you want games to be art, then you're going to have to change your definition both of Art and Games. These games are not going to have Player Choice. The Art is not going to fit onto a canvas. It won't belong in the Louvre. It won't sell for $3 million at auction. You're going to look at it and scoff "I could do that" and you know what, maybe you should.
posted by hellojed at 10:10 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


> I know that portal took FOREVER in tweaking, little changes here and there - this is a little too far out of sight, these puzzles need to happen later in the game, etc. For a game like portal, where the player is inside a series of boxes, that's easy. But for, e.g. Mass Effect, with its huge, expansive landscapes and artwork and soundwork and everything - would it be possible to do that type of subtle manipulation?

Valve did the same thing with Half Life 2. You could argue that HL2 is a linear game with setpieces, a series of boxes. Except, instead of portals the puzzle is how to shoot guys and maybe move some barrels on top of conveniently-placed see-saws.
posted by cyberscythe at 11:04 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


The best games are games where your character doesn't level up, but rather you, the player, get better at the game.

That's one of maybe a dozen different types of video game enjoyment people who study these things have tried to identify.

I'm so tired of people writing these sweeping essays ("This is What A Video Game Is," "This is The Problem With Video Games") without even bothering to acknowledge the vast differences among game players and the kind of things they want, among games and the kinds of things they are trying to do. When you write an essay like this and nothing you say applies to Minecraft or League of Legends (or Spelunky, or Brothers, or Super Smash Brothers...) you need to go back and revise your topic sentence.
posted by straight at 11:19 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


Valve has linear had progression between setpeices like subsections of enviroment down since Half Life 1. Their reasoning has been to take all the padding out of games and always have the user doing stuff, and I think it works quite well though it's not the only kind of game I'd want to play.

The darkside of that of course is replacing "mini-enviroment with stuff to do" with "cutscene" or "QTE".
posted by Artw at 11:24 AM on October 14, 2014


Artw, Minecraft is really repetitive. It's cool, and it's a good example of what people really want to play.
posted by michaelh at 11:25 AM on October 14, 2014


Minecraft doesn't have to be very repetitive. There's a solid exploration & survival game in there that doesn't require a whole lot of mining or building.
posted by straight at 11:29 AM on October 14, 2014


I've played a lot of FTL and have gotten a lot better at it but, honestly, it's one of the more naked skinner boxes out there, at least for me. Every run is a gamble on what the random number generator is going to grant you. The thrill of finding exactly the weapon I want and the despair in realizing half way through a battle that it's not going to end well and everything in between are very much random reward schedules. They make me want to play more and hit the perfect run.

Exploring in Minecraft is a magical game, but eventually I felt like I'd seen most of what the game could produce, and the survival part of has also started to feel like a chore. I'm way more interested in building things with my friends, but mining and building are total grinds. I should probably look into whatever external tools people use to design in game things, I wish that were more directly part of the game.

I definitely am interested in games actively trying to cut grinds out of themselves, I wonder how often that's really possible though. WoW outlawed bots because they found people were less engaged when the grindy stuff was automated.
posted by macrael at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2014


IMO Saints Row IV is as good or better than any of the touted 90s games, because it's is just so balls-out overfuckingjoyed that you are playing it right now and does everything it can to communicate that feeling.

And actually, it's a perfect embodiment of the quote in the OP. At every stage SR4 empowers and delights you, while also creating a resistance to achieving your goals that is enjoyable to overcome.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:17 PM on October 14, 2014


Mercenary: the first open world
posted by Artw at 2:20 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Also this video, of Mike and Jerry from Penny Arcade playing the 'kingmaker' minigame of Shadows of Mordor with a droll Aussie designer, filled me with joy. But I am refusing to buy it until I've finished SRIV, Dishonoured, DX: HR and Shadowrun Dragonfall.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:24 PM on October 14, 2014


The tottering majesty of the unfinished excellent game pile is the true boss monster.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:38 PM on October 14, 2014 [4 favorites]


Minecraft is a fine toy, but I don't know that it's a game in the same way that, say, a triple AAA shooter is a game, or chess is a game, or Mad Libs is a game. Until the Ender Dragon was released, it didn't have any inherent goals or anything for the players to progress towards or achieve; what you were going to do was entirely up to you.

It's one of those games where I come back to it every few months when a big content update comes out, spawn a new world, build myself a fort and wander around enjoying the new stuff, then get bored and stop playing because once I've built myself a castle and explored a bit, what's left for me to do? Build more castles and explore some more? Grind to the Ender Dragon? Without a server with a good community, the game really doesn't have enough to sustain engagement.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 2:41 PM on October 14, 2014


Hey can anybody show me how to play Distant Worlds: Universe because I bought it on Steam on the weekend and holy god. I feel like I did when I bought Crusader Kings II.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:55 PM on October 14, 2014


Having put 20+ hours in to Wasteland 2, and having loved The Broken Age and FTL, the criticism that Kickstarter games are both (a) unpolished and (b) still doing things all the same way feels off.

I dunno dude. Wasteland 2 gets super-samey fairly quickly, and everything after Arizona is broken as hell. I don't regret buying it, I just wish I hadn't bought and finished it so early, because I think in about 6 months time it is going to be a much better - and much cheaper - game.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:49 PM on October 14, 2014


Chess is a grind once you realize that computers play it better.

I'm just saying, everything is pretty subjective. AAA games have different market forces than did the old PC games. They have to appeal to a huge audience (some of which actually suck at games but think they don't) and the player has to complete the content in N hours or they'll get mad.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:55 PM on October 14, 2014


I think there are a lot of really great ideas in indie games that aren't enough to carry an entire game. Gone Home comes to mind. There are tons of great ideas there, but I think I'd prefer a section like that in a larger game. I think more big budget games should slow down and just include 'walking simulator' sections, or more sections where it's just about relationships between characters like a telltale game. I think a lot of game designers get stuck on a core gameplay loop, and wrap a story around it, instead of using everything games have to offer as a means of exploring a theme or story.

I know that a lot of people would get frustrated if like in the middle of a call of duty game, you had to, I dunno, have a phone call with your wife back home that's struggling to deal with your rebellious teenage son, but I think stuff like that would make the game more real and involving, instead of making your character a cipher.
posted by empath at 8:17 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Pretty much all RPGs are "walking simulators". Man, the amount of walking.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:43 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


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