USING SELF-DETERMINATION THEORY AS A GENERAL DESIGN PATTERN

Overview

During this semester, we ran through a lot of brainstorming process. Sometimes an idea may sounds convincing at the beginning, but the result is frustrating. In one of the blog review, I saw another student mentioned on his blog that, unlike Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), game designers don’t have a “design pattern” that they can follow. At that time I don’t think it’s even possible to have a design pattern in game design since we have so many different genres. How is it possible to have a rule that fit for all genres? But in the GDC this year (2014), I was lucky to hear an insightful talk about system agency presented by Matthias Worch. The “Self-Determination Theory” he seems match my question quite well. I think it could be a useful tool to give designer a clear guideline of game design.

There are already many articles and books that touched the topics about “rules of good game design”. Some of them are very good, like Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design. In this book, there are a lot of lenses that help designer to exam if their current design choices are good. But sometimes the problem is, we don’t know what the problem is, therefore we don’t know which lenses we should refer to. For example, I may be very focus on combat of the game. But it’s possible that the art style is the reason of stopping player from buying the game. Most of the time, following one design rule can’t guarantee the game is fun. I’ve seen someone try to make a game that caters to all types of players in the Bartle’s players’ types, which is nearly impossible to achieve. And in fact, it is totally normal that a good game only cater to only one or two type of player in Bartle’ types. Therefore, we can’t use Bartle’s types to determine whether a game is good or not.

Experienced Game Designer always talks about “this feel interesting” or “I’m skeptical about this mechanic”. I think Self-Determination Theory might be a solution to clarify the instinct feeling, and turn it to a more standard process.

The basic concept of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is that humans have three intrinsic needs: CompetentAutonomy and Relatedness. A good game should satisfy these needs. The need for competence and autonomy is the basis of intrinsic motivation and behavior. This is a link between people’s basic needs and their motivations.

Here are the reasons why SDT might be a good “design pattern” for game design. First, I found that almost all games I like provide players the three needs mentioned in SDT. I know it’s hard to proof reversely (in which the question becomes: Does following SDT make the game fun?), but still, it could be a requirement of good game. And having some requirements usually makes our lives easier. By checking the three intrinsic needs, you get a clear sense of what’s lacked in this game.  If a game obviously misses one of the intrinsic needs, it might be the weakness of the game. On the other hand, if the game meets all the needs, it probably in a pretty good shape even if it don’t have many innovation mechanics. This is a good way to evaluate a game at early stage, and find potential problem systematically.

Detail

Let’s see the explanation on Wikipedia first:

SDT is centered on the belief that human nature shows persistent positive features, that it repeatedly shows effort, agency and commitment in their lives that the theory calls “inherent growth tendencies.” People also have innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration.

 

SDT identifies three innate needs that, if satisfied, allow optimal function and growth:

Competence

Seek to control the outcome and experience mastery

Autonomy

Is the universal urge to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self?

Relatedness 

Is the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others?

 

 

And below is how I would use SDT in game design.

 

 

 

Competence

“Seek to control the outcome and experience mastery.”

A game fulfill the need of competence means that player feel they are having progress in the game. To be more specific: how well is a game keep player in Flow state?

One good example is Monster Hunter. This game is designed to be very skill-base. When you first encounter a dragon in this game, you’re almost guaranteed to die. The only way to progress is to keep trying until you’re out-skill the AI monster. After you defeat the first dragon, you can clearly feel you become more proficient in the game.

The reason I take this game for example is that, in Monster Hunter, they force you to feel competence. In other word, if you don’t improve your skill, you’ll be stuck in a bottleneck forever. And here’s the secret of our brain: When one is master doing something, he/she will want to do it again and again. That’s why there are people in Asia spend hundreds even thousands of hours playing Monster Hunter. People like to stay in their “comfort zones”, and fulfilling the need of competence is like creating comfort zones for players. Players intrinsically feel it is fun because they’re good at doing it.

When designing a game, one specific way to make sure your game fulfill the need of competence is to design the skill-time diagram carefully. In other word, make the players stay in Flow state. You have to know at what specific point the player will be stuck, and how to help them improve their skill.

Autonomy

“Is the universal urge to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self?”

A game fulfilling the players’ need of autonomy is a game with enough meaningful choices. A meaningful choice, in my definition, is a strategy that can be a dominant strategy in at least one circumstance.

Pokémon is a game that have crazy amount of meaningful choices. Even in early level, you can have different strategies like all-in attack or weaken the foe first; you can spend more time to train different Pokémon, or let the protagonist face the most challenges. You don’t need much controlling skill in Pokémon, but it is extremely satisfying that you know how freedom the world is, and you can choose what you want to do.

In Matt’s talk in GDC, he mentioned that Doom is a classic game that provides autonomy. In this case, the choices are taken in real-time. For example, you can choose to kill the closest imp because it’s the easiest target, or you can seek the zombie behind because it will be more threatening after getting closed.

As a game designer, it’s tempted to add a lot of choices in a game. I don’t know what to say here.

There are already many articles about meaningful choice.

Relatedness

“Is the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others?”

Games fulfill the need of relatedness are games which have something people CARE about. It could be a story happened in the similar culture background, a city that player familiar with, or a character they love.

The reason why World of Warcraft succeeds is that it is a world people already know very much. For players familiar with Warcraft 3, visiting Thrall in Orgrimmar is like meeting with an old friend. WOW did a lot of good things to establish the standard of MMORPG nowadays, but its success model is more like Disney Land. The success of WOW is not because the gameplay is better than other, but being part of the transmedia world, and fulfilling the players’ fantasy of this world. After all, experiencing a believable world is why people play MMORPG.

For me, Tunnel Tail is a negative example of relatedness. In this game, you manage a mice colony. Although the mechanic and art is very attractive to me, I just couldn’t care much about the destiny of a mischief of mice. Children like animal because they don’t have much difference in intelligence yet. As we grown up, we gradually find out that we have little in common with animals, that’s probably why I have no relatedness with animal characters anymore. Therefore, most main stream games have to make human character to keep players related to the game.

Social game is a perfect way to provide relatedness. Because once your friends start playing, the whole game becomes related to you.

As a game designer, we have to keep in mind what’s your audience want to relate with. Social elements, user-generated contents are good ways to keep players caring about the game. In Taiwan, the localization team even adds some events and items about the Chinese festival, which create a cultural relatedness between players and the game.

Conclusion

When we have a new idea in mind, we can ask ourselves: “Does it provide the three intrinsic needs? If not, how can I improve it?” And then we can design the game like filling the checklist. Also, people are less possible to question your idea because these points are based on some psychology research. Using this method as a design pattern, designing game can be much easier.

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