Monday, September 16, 2019

Pleasure. Arousal. Dominance.

Despite its somewhat lurid title, this article is a sequel to the "Six Zones of Play" below. Also, it has been reprinted from my BGG blog here:

As a game design educator, you can't help but think about all of factors that influence the way people play games. These thoughts lead to realizations. One of these realizations is about how the player's placement at the gaming table influences their play. 

I have seen situations where entire strategies have been ignored by players because of their distance to them on the table. For the past few years, I've been conducting a slow and informal study of this behavior. As a result of this informal study, I have devised what I call the Six Zones of Play. I've already written a somewhat in-depth description of it HERE.

Look. I drew an illustration for you.

However, I have more thoughts on the subject. 

I've been thinking about other things that benefit from ergonomic design (because that's really what this is all about): I've already explored game controller, touch screen controls and HUD design in my books Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Designand Swipe This! The Guide to Touchscreen Game Design) but in my further research I realized there was a field that could help game designers understand this issue even further: the psychology of dinner settings.

My first stop was that stalwart champion of etiquette: Emily Post, who had this to say on the subject of a "proper" table setting layout:

A proper table setting ala Emily Post

"The most formal table is strictly symmetrical: centerpiece in the exact center, an even number of candlesticks, place settings spaced evenly around the table, silverware lined up and at the same distance from the edge of the table. The space not taken up by place settings is your available real estate."

I have long held the belief that symmetry should be built into the design of the player's tableau. I think that this contributes to the rise in popularity of recessed player boards and gamer trays in the hobby.

Scythe's player boards bring order to what could otherwise be a cluttered player's tableau.

As I went down the rabbit hole, I came across a white paper called "Turning the Tables: The Psychology of Design for High Volume Restaurants" I found the following:

"One prominent theory of environmental psychology is that human behavior in a given setting is largely a result of the interplay of three distinct perceptual factors: pleasure, arousal, and dominance. Various combinations of those perceptions can either attract us to an environment or cause us to avoid it. Mehrabian and Russell describe pleasure as a measure of how much we like an environment and arousal as a measure of how an environment stimulates our perceptions or excites us."

Pleasure. Arousal. Dominance.

I have always been a proponent of what I call a board game's "curb appeal" - that is, how interesting and enticing the play space is for the player. Fortunately, board games are rife with examples:

I admit, I fell in love with this game, just by looking at it.

IMHO, Quacks of Quedlinburg's player tableau offers a perfect example of this: pleasure in the form of the delightful art and cutout shapes, arousal with the bright "candy like" colors and shapes of the tokens (made even better with BGG store's resin tokens), and dominance as the tableau grows in complexity, it builds towards the player's success.

Games that focus on these three traits, tend to generate more initial excitement. And when the game doesn't quite have these three traits, players will just find ways to create it for themselves.

This is what I attribute all of custom Terraforming Mars overlays and player boards too. The standard board is prone to getting disorganized (it's not, what I call, cat friendly*) and those recessed parts on those custom boards help make everything stay so darn tidy. 

Game designers, take another look at your player's play spaces. Do they provide pleasure, arousal and dominance. Why not?

*The metric of a game being "Cat Friendly" is when your cat jumps up onto the gaming table, how much will the game be disrupted by it?

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The 6 Zones of Play

I’ve been doing an unofficial study (unbeknownst to my fellow gamers) pertaining to where a player sits at the table and how that affects the way they play during the game. While my study is still early, I’ve noticed some interesting trends – particularly how players who sit closer to a certain spot at the game board (usually their own starting position) will tend to primarily keep to that section of the board regardless of whether there are better options elsewhere. 

For example, while playing Charterstone, I observed that even though players could make a play any available location on the board, they tended to play nearer their “home” location (within arm’s reach) regardless of how “good” any other optional move was. Some of the players were even hesitant to get up from their chairs to observe what the offerings were at the other side of the table, even if there was a better move to be made by placing there.

This same phenomena occurred during a game of Formula D. Players new to the game remained seated in their chairs until it became absolutely clear that they would need to get up, move around the table in order to move their cars. (In some cases, the player asked another player to move their car for them!)

After witnessing this, I started thinking about the relationship of the player to the table, the player to the components of the game, the components to the table, the direction of the components on the table, and even the relationship of the player to their own hands and how they affected the play of the game. 

Not long after, I was playing a prototype in which an important victory condition was on a side-board. As a result of my unfamiliarity with the game as well as the distance of the side-board from where I was sitting, I neglected to interact with the side-board. As a result, I lost the game handily - mainly due to missing scoring opportunities on the side-board. I identified the issue to the designer, but they didn't have a better solution to my concern. Which got me thinking, what could be done to alleviate this for the player?

The topic came up once again, during an episode of Ludology podcast (on which I am the co-co host) about my concept of “handiness” – what players do with their hands during a game and how it is impacted by the number of components the player may have to handle during play. As a general rule, you don't want to overload the player with too many things to handle unless there is a place for them to "live." (like on the player's tableau in Scythe)

I was thinking more about how to formalize these concepts when the subject came up again when I was a guest on Becca Scott's Victory Points podcast. Becca had caught wind of my survey (probably through an errant conversation on Facebook) which led to a conversation about what I am now calling the "6 zones of play". I decided to stop lollygagging and to go ahead and get my thoughts down about this subject. I even drew a picture!

The theory is that there are 6 zones of player activity that physically compete for a player's attention during play of a game. (Game designer Mike Sellers pointed out that there is a "0 Zone" the player's mind, but since they don't concern physical components, I will leave it out of this thesis.) These zones are based off of physical interaction and ergonomics of the player. I find that the proximity of the zones to the player impacts certain aspects of play as well as emphasizes their importance to the player during game play. 

There is a natural priority to these activities due to their proximity to the player. The zones are as follows:

ZONE 1: The Player's Dominant Hand. This Zone is where the player holds cards or information that are most important to play of the game. It is the most secret and personal of spaces and in most cases, not accessible to the other players unless a card or ability allows it. From a functionality point of view, the player might often swap out what is in this hand to perform some other action - such as move a unit, roll die or make some other significant move during the game - but players will hold these components "close to their chest" as it were. They are often critical to the player's success of the game and the best zone to which the designer can convey or even change information to the player.

ZONE 2: The Player's Non-Dominant Hand. This Zone is the domain of the hand that is doing what the other hand isn't. Depending on the player's handed-ness (left, right or ambidextrous) the non-dominant hand might be reaching for resources, moving a pawn or even grabbing snacks. Often a player will switch between these two hands to perform different tasks, only to return back to the dominant hand. This hand is an accessory to the player's dominant hand when it comes to functions and the designer should never make the functions in the non-dominant hand redundant to that in the dominant hand. (For example, a player should never have to juggle two hands of cards at the same time!)

ZONE 3: The Tableau. This Zone is the personal play space of the player. It's where a deck of card goes, where the player keeps their character sheet, their pile of meeples or coins or resources or a status tracker for health or some other currency. The other players rarely have access to this space - unless a card or special ability allows it - and it is where many of the player's tactics are plotted out. As a designer, this is the second best location to convey information to the player as it is literally "in front of the player" and hard to ignore. Plus, this Zone often undergoes the most change during a game, allowing a location for new status or rules to be communicated to the player.

ZONE 4: The Board/Shared Space. This Zone is the first and most important common space in the game. All players have access to this place where they can move and place their pawn/meeples, collect resources and cards, or interact and combat the other players. This is usually where you find resources and currency used in the game. This Zone often represents the microcosm of the game - a representation of the game's world and everything that isn't of personal use to the player in it. Information and rule changes can be done here, but because of the distance of the board to the player, it is less desirable. Any change to any game state represented on this board should be big, obvious and clear to all players.

ZONE 5: The Sideboard. This Zone is the domain of extensions to the main game board (Zone 4) and is often where secondary mechanisms for the game play resides. (such as Lords of Waterdeep: the Scoundrels of Skullport's corruption tracker) In many cases, these side boards are used to track points or world conditions such as a round or time tracker. Because of its distance from many of the players at the table, components in this zone should be designed to have a lesser priority or infrequently used (such as once every player has had their turn or when a specific condition arises) by the players. This Zone is where problems can arise for players. One suggestion is to make this Zone mobile - so that it can be passed around to the other player rather than being locked into a fixed and distant location.

ZONE 6: The Rule Book. (The internet also counts as Zone 6 for purposes of this theory.) This Zone is also troublesome to game designers. When a player has to refer to a rule book during the game, it breaks the game's magic circle and the immersion of the game. Designers should strive to make players refer to a rule book as infrequently as possible - this of course is the greatest challenge to a game designer - clear and concise rules. Player aids (which can live in Zone 3) or rules printed on cards (Zone 1) or icons on the board (Zone 4) or even a shorthand guide printed on the back of the rule book (to keep the player from having to "go into" the rulebook) can help the player with this dilemma. However, some books (such as those found in Seafall or Betrayal Legacy) are a thematic component of the game that help keeps the players within the magic circle. But despite this, they still can disrupt the rhythm of play and their use should be used infrequently at best.

What is the point of identifying these Zones? The goal, as a designer, is to bring activity from the further Zones (4-6) into the closer Zones (1-3), so that way necessary information can remain in the player's view and easily accessed. Remember, all game play should be centered around the player and the closer you can keep a game's components and information "within reach" of the player, the more engaged they will remain in the game.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

To Unionize or Not to Unionize?

On Monday May 5, 2019 the employees at developer Riot Games staged a walkout to protest the company’s corporate culture and to raise the issue of unionization for the game industry. Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends that earned $1.4 billion in 2018, is one of the biggest gaming companies in the industry. Riot has over 2,500 employees working on their 20-acre Los Angeles campus.

The protest comes after the company filed motions to force two employees involved in lawsuits against Riot Games into private arbitration; aiming to prevent the cases from reaching a jury trial. The lawsuits stem from the publication of an article on the website Kotaku titled “Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games,” which investigated claims of sexism, gender discrimination, and toxic masculinity within the company. 

The protesting employees felt that even after the issues within Riot became public, the company has done little to address them. Riot claims that they have taken steps to change the company’s culture--even starting an internal team to address said issues--however, protesting employees feel that Riot has been slow to exact change. 

While these problems are not exclusive to Riot Games, the protesters have used their platform to bring attention to another issue that has been whirling around in the games industry for decades: the call for unionization within the gaming industry.

Game developers have been debating whether unionization is necessary or not for decades. Reports of mismanagement and long, unpaid overtime hours known as “crunch time” have been at the top of developers’ list of grievances. But others state that unionizing won’t address the core problems and might bring more trouble than it is worth. 

Game developers have looked at their counterparts in the film industry as a possible model. But would it help? Let’s take a look at the issues labor unions have historically solved and how unionizing might help or hurt help game developers: 

Hours and Overtime: Up until now, many game studios have told employees that “crunch time” is just a way of life in the game development community. They often try to lessen the burden with free meals, snacks or even T-shirts. Additionally, they may offer services such as gyms, play spaces, or sleeping areas to keep employees in the office. 

Labor unions have historically lobbied for their members to only work specific hours, limiting overtime hours or requesting a higher pay to compensate for the extra hours. Some game developers believe this extra expense would convince management to rethink their scheduling, which would ideally reduce “crunch time.” or, if crunch still happens, better compensation for the employees. Others argue that game developers that more compensation would lead to higher job competition with workers willing to accept less hourly pay.

Working Conditions: Labor unions have historically fought for changes in dangerous working conditions and resolving conflicts between management and the employees.
While the most dangerous part of a game developer’s day is probably staring too long at a computer screen, conflict resolution, like the problems happening at Riot, is a stronger reason to unionize. A union gives employees a voice when they might be too afraid to stand up to management against issues such as sexism or “bro culture”. 

Creative rights: The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is one of the few unions for creative artists that closest resembles what a video game industry union could be. The WGA supports several rights for their members including creative rights, protecting creative works, and credit arbitration. 

There have been instances of game creators being miscredited in games or being left out of the credits entirely. Game concepts have been stolen and credited to other developers. Holding game developers and publishers accountable for creative rights would only improve company morale and drive creativity overall.

Should game developers unionize? It’s a tough decision. Many developers are too frightened to even mention the topic for fear of losing their jobs. Others feel that a union would quickly become corrupt and neglect their members in favor of catering to big developers and publishers. It’s a hard issue to discuss but one that feels like it is soon coming to a head.