Changing the Gamer Mindset

Quite a few intriguing ideas came out of the ODIN Project brainstorm today, and I thought I should share one of them.

As gamers, we often have goals or objectives given to us. But the instant that we know exactly how long it will take, and exactly where we must go to accomplish our objective, the goal becomes a chore. Often times, our goals are broken up into explicit “checklists” of things we must do to finish a quest or mission. When given the objective to travel to another city, we know point A, point B, and that it will take about 10 minutes to get from A to B. We immediately run from A to B, trying to get there as fast as possible. However, even when our goal is clear, if the way to accomplish it is a mystery, then the chore can become an adventure.

Consider the following two game stories:

  • You receive a mission/quest to find your lost father, rumored to be somewhere in the city. The location of your father is placed on your mini-map, and it seems he’s located in the black market by the eastern docks, and you immediately set off. You take the shortest possible route to the other side of the city, ignoring everything else. When you arrive, some shifty-looking guards bar your way. They demand that in order to pass, you’ll need today’s password. They give you a quest to find the password, which leads you to a woman standing outside the market. She has a giant “I HAVE A QUEST” marker floating over her head. She will give you the password if you can find a certain item for her. The item’s location is marked on your minimap, and you …
  • You receive a mission/quest to find your lost father, rumored to be somewhere in the city. You have only a few, dubious leads. You begin to ask around, but people seem reluctant to talk to you as soon as you mention your father’s name. It seems he’s made some powerful enemies here in the city. Finally, you get some luck, convincing a somewhat drunk bum to mention what he knows: He warns you to stay away from the eastern docks, since they’re near a notorious black market, and it seems your father got into some trouble with the crimelords who run it. Also, a dark-haired woman was similarly asking around for your father about a week prior. She had vanished somewhere around the docks a few days ago, and no one has seen her since. You decide to investigate the docks anyways, under the guise of a black market merchant. But first, you’ll need something to sell, so you…

Can you see the difference? Both scenarios have potential for a great story, but one of them is designed with the “task” mindset, and the other is designed with the “story” mindset. One is a series of “checklist” objectives, and one feels like an actual adventure. Far too often we design games exclusively in the task mindset, trying very hard to tell a story through objectives. When we tell stories through tasks, gamers feel frustrated whenever the completion of a main task is delayed by what they feel to be a “side-quest.”

I believe that in order to have better storytelling in games, we must create games that change the mindset of gamers. It’s easy to become a “checklist” gamer when the game is designed to make you think like one. The key seems to be to have clear goals with open-ended solutions and multiple approaches, as well as some uncertainty and risk about exactly what will happen.

There’s also a balance that must be kept. We need enough ambiguity to feel mysterious and adventurous, but always provide hints when absolutely needed, so that you never feel confused or frustrated at what to do next. A quick disclaimer, often times that balance is tipped differently for different players, so this line needs to be tread carefully.

-Machination

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8 thoughts on “Changing the Gamer Mindset

  1. Not sure there needs to be a balance. I wouldn’t mind if all quests were the “story” type. The only problem though is replayability (which is easier accomplished in laundry list type quests). If I found a lost father yesterday, I’d probably know where to look if I had to find him again today (even if it was slightly randomized, not easy to do with “story”).

    • I would personally enjoy all quests being the story type as well. You’re absolutely right about replayability. If you re-play the exact same quest again, then the mystery is gone. You’ll still have to do a little digging, but now you know all the spoilers, and it’s not nearly as exciting the second time around.

      To be honest, you’ve hit upon one of the fundamental challenges of designing any game. It’s not an easy thing to solve, but there are some intriguing possibilities, such as an AI Game Master that can synthesize and combine new story quests that make sense, just by looking at what is happening around you in the world.

  2. Perhaps another issue we need to keep in mind is that the story type is more difficult and hence will be more frustrating. We’d have to find a way to keep the player from raging when they can’t find anyone who talks about their dad simply because they’re looking in the wrong place. I think this is why a lot of games adopt the checklist mentality. If we find a way to pull this off, though, it would be pretty awesome.

    • Again, note the potential advantages of having an AI Game Master who can ensure that you never go too long without a solid lead.

      For example, it doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s the bum or the bartender that tips you off about your father’s location. It could be a merchant, guard, or a shadowy stranger for that matter.

      To continue the discussion of “Plot Hooks”, once you start trying to ask around for your father, you now hold a “Plot Key” (looking for someone to give you a lead), and the game can introduce a “Plot Lock” (The 4th, 5th, or 6th logical choice of NPC you talk to just happens to know a lead) whenever the pacing seems right.

      “Logical choice” of NPC means simply that you could believe that such an NPC would know the lead. A little 5-year playing in the street is probably not a logical choice when investigating information about your father’s disappearance. The bartender is much more likely to know, since they hear a great deal of rumors from customers. This way, it’s not “set in stone” that the 4th NPC you ask always has the answer. You’re rewarded for being clever and making good choices (you find the lead quicker), and delayed for making dumb choices (interrogating the emperors’ gardeners). Sure, eventually a gardener will point you to someone who DOES know, but it will take longer.

      • A clever GM would do this of course when a player wanders off….we need our AI powered GM to have a big bag of tricks and know when to play the right one to any given circumstance…sounds like a programmers nightmare and a possible players delight!

  3. I would love to see more quests become story-type quests, as well. It would definitely be fun to have multiple approaches to solving it, too, though not always necessary to make it more of a story quest. In some cases there may be only one approach that works, but you don’t have it explicitly told to you by a marker on your mini-map. Creating several approaches for each puzzle in a game would be demanding for the designers, so they would need to select when it’s worth the effort. If an AI were creating the multiple approaches that could make it easier, but you would also have to make sure it is doing it well, which right now is sketchy, but hopefully that possibility will become more feasible as technology progresses.

    • You’ve totally nailed it. Developers are definitely capable (a la The Secret World), but don’t have the time or resources to hand-craft and ensure balance among all the approaches. Computers have the time and resources, but still kind of suck at it.

      I’m betting that there are some shortcuts we can take with AI such that it doesn’t have to be a fully cognizant intelligent storyteller, but instead just understand simple rules about creating and balancing multiple-paths. Combine that with a flexible rule-set for the world which the developers hand-craft, and we’re doing better already. The illusion of story is all we need. Still just a pipe dream, but probably not as far away as we think (or so I hope).

  4. Pingback: Mashing Genres | Mysterious Artifact

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