What Games Are



That light in a door­way in Half-Life 2, those two switches coloured red or green in The Stan­ley Para­ble, those shiny golden rings that trig­ger a sat­is­fy­ing ding when you col­lect them, that ta­ble that shows you all the loot you have yet to un­lock: there is an un­abashedly be­havioural com­po­nent to al­most ev­ery game. Colour, sounds, an­i­ma­tion and mu­sic have in­her­ent qual­i­ties that a smart team can use to ac­cen­tu­ate ef­fect. As a de­signer, if I need you to no­tice some­thing, feel some­thing, or find some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing, there are lots of be­havioural tricks I can use.

It all de­pends on the kind of game I want to make. An ex­pe­ri­ent de­signer thinks in terms of highs and lows. He’s all about the theatre and psy­chol­ogy of games. Per­haps his goal is to get you more deeply into the emo­tive space of the game. Per­haps he wants to use the game to con­vey a point. Ei­ther way, he fo­cuses on the beats of the game and mak­ing sure he has your at­ten­tion. But ex­pe­ri­ent de­sign has a dark side.

‘Dark game de­sign’ is a term I adapted from ‘dark pat­terns’, a phrase used in the user­ex­pe­ri­ence com­mu­nity to de­scribe sleazy web (and other) de­sign. Dark pat­terns are low­brow tricks, such as dis­guis­ing a ban­ner ad­vert to look like a Win­dows di­a­logue box in or­der to make a user down­load mal­ware. A less in­va­sive pat­tern is the prac­tice of fill­ing an in­nocu­ous check­box by de­fault to reg­is­ter a user on an email list.

An equiv­a­lent dark game de­sign pat­tern uses tu­to­ri­als to di­rect a player into buy­ing things. You open a city-build­ing game for the first time. It wel­comes you, in­vites you to build your first build­ing, open your first quest, earn your first re­ward and then buy your first in-game ob­ject. If you feel that trans­act­ing is easy, safe and so­cially ac­cept­able, you are more likely to do so again. Psy­cho­log­i­cally, this is called ‘on­board­ing’.

With the rise of so­cial and mo­bile games, dark de­sign pat­terns have ex­ploded. In part, this is be­cause they are easy to repli­cate, but also it’s re­lated to eco­nom­ics. On PC or con­soles, games tend to be sold up front. There is a kind of trick­ery used in pro­mot­ing many games to max­imise sales (ef­fec­tive trail­ers, say), but once bought, there’s rarely any more need for dark game de­sign.

The dark un­der­belly of de­sign De­cep­tion is of­ten re­warded. All ar­gu­ments to the con­trary start by say­ing you shouldn’t go dark be­cause it’s wrong

But free-to-play games rely on a few users pay­ing for the many, and do­ing so re­peat­edly. There’s greater temp­ta­tion in that en­vi­ron­ment to ma­nip­u­late the game in or­der to gen­er­ate bet­ter out­puts (bet­ter adop­tion and bet­ter rev­enue). The free-to-play game maker of­ten has to con­sciously choose not to fall into dark­ness.

As with all dark sides, choos­ing to de­ploy dark game de­sign usu­ally swaps short-term gain for long-term trou­bles. Just as many web users have learned to avoid those fake di­a­logue boxes and look for the check­box sign­ing them up to a news­let­ter, play­ers get wise to dark game de­sign. The nov­elty of shar­ing high scores is re­placed by au­to­cancel­ing. Play­ers learn to do this as re­flex­ively as mut­ing their TVs when ad­verts play.

In the short term, your game’s player num­bers may go up and your rev­enue might ex­plode, but you in­evitably sac­ri­fice in­tegrity. You might have on­boarded a few play­ers to pay for stuff, but you’re teach­ing many more to ig­nore any mes­sages that the game spits out. It be­comes harder to com­mu­ni­cate with play­ers and you lose their loy­alty or the pos­si­bil­ity of a game build­ing a unique, de­fen­si­ble cul­ture.

Maybe you’re fine with that. Casino game mak­ers solve loy­alty prob­lems with mas­sive amounts of ad­ver­tis­ing. They know what the ex­pected life­time value of their pay­ing cus­tomer will be and sim­ply work out a cost of ac­qui­si­tion.

Maybe you hide in eth­i­cal equiv­a­lence. If you play the iOS ver­sion of Dun­geon Keeper, it asks you to rate the game. But if you want to rate it less than five stars, it pushes a form on you to email the de­vel­op­ers. The re­sult? Lots of five-star rat­ings and a de­fen­si­ble ar­gu­ment against the trick.

Per­son­ally, I think the main prob­lem with dark game de­sign is the way that it leads to fa­tal­ism. Once you do one grey thing and the num­bers go up, you do some­thing a lit­tle greyer, and an­other, and an­other. Pretty soon you can’t re­ally tell what’s dark any more.

When your stu­dio only thinks of a game in terms of its num­bers, that frames how you make de­ci­sions. Do we add fea­ture X or mode Y? What num­bers back that de­ci­sion up and how do you know it will be suc­cess­ful? Dark game de­sign may be founded on a cir­cu­lar sort of logic, but it’s a cir­cle that’s hard to break out of.

Tricks of­ten work. De­cep­tion is of­ten re­warded. All ar­gu­ments to the con­trary start from the place of say­ing you just shouldn’t go dark be­cause it’s wrong. And the fa­tal­ist says: prove it. The out­puts do mat­ter, but so does the dark­ness or light of the so­lu­tion to im­prove them.

When adding a fea­ture, do pay at­ten­tion to what you ex­pect the num­bers to do, but also ask the ques­tion: ‘Are we go­ing dark to get there?’ If so, find an­other way. There is al­ways a smarter path, a way of get­ting to where you want to be with­out sac­ri­fic­ing the ephe­meral qual­i­ties of the player com­mu­nity you’re en­gen­der­ing.

Tadhg Kelly has worked in games, from table­top to con­soles, for nearly 20 years. Visit him at www.whatgame­sare.com

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