Illusionary Gameplay

Organizer: Alexx Kay, 2K Boston.

Jonathan Rubinger's Notes:

Use: a tool by which you can manage player perceptions to create the appearance of systems, even when none exist.

  • Story branches that converge
  • Dialogue trees with no actual choice
  • Descriptions of AI behavior that don't actually correspond to the gameplay

Specific example: In Bioshock, splicers never (except in scripted circumstances) prey on Little Sisters, but the player is told they do because this justifies the existence of the Big Daddies.

General example: Purported specialist enemy types that actually run identical code, and are distinct only in the player's mind.

Specific example: Simlish is procedural nonsense, a mere 30 lines of code - and yet players have tried to learn to understand it.

Specific example: Star Wars Galaxies would occasionally, with no context whatsoever, inform the player that s/he had progressed on the path of the Force. This happened for no reason whatsoever related to gameplay - neither the player's actions nor those of the NPCs had any effect, nor did the message precede any change in the workings of the game. It was a message that meant and did nothing.

Players are fascinated by mysteries more than by explanations - a locked door that can never be opened may save dev time and create mystery for the player, but the appropriate context must be applied or it'll definitely look like laziness. Example: the Combine locking down the city in Half Life 2.

The act of naming creates attachment, as in Pokemon or Viva Pinata.

You dog in Fable 2 will behave differently only in terms of aesthetics (animation, audio) based on whether it likes you or not, but this won't affect gameplay at ALL. It still fights for you and searches for treasure in the same manner, but players will think that maintaining a good relationship with the dog is advantageous somehow.

"It's MY weighted companion cube!" - there was nothing about the cube itself that made it special except for the hearts on it and GlaDOS saying that this one belonged to the player. Players who resisted disposing of the cube demonstrated an attachment to it which, given the futility of the player's actions in the game's story, played into the feeling of being manipulated by GlaDOS.

On the other hand, the treatise on the power of human choice in the "Would You Kindly" scene from Bioshock led to an expectation that I had a choice not to kill Andrew Ryan, although I didn't. This broke flow for me since at this point he clearly wasn't the real villain of the story and I genuinely didn't want to kill him. Had the illusion of a choice been presented, Ryan could have died through some accident after his life had been spared, which would have at least given legitimacy to the player's desire not to kill him.

AI is difficult/expensive to build, as are multiple paths through the story. Dialogue options that go nowhere can at least acknowledge other paths, which beats pretending they don't exist when a player may well have thought "Well wait, why didn't my NPC friend just go take care of that since he's immune to the dangers and I'm not?" (Fallout 3?)

When playtesters notice mechanics that weren't planned, the developer can make it real OR add to the illusion and capitalize on what's already there.

Since emotional response is entirely individual, it's important to monitor the player community.

Ask yourself: when cutting a mechanic due to expense, can you still suggest to the player that it exists and get the benefits without the cost?

BIG PITFALL: If players pick up on the fact that a perceived mechanic is missing, they will HATE you for it.

Johnny Richardson's notes:

Illusionary gameplay is things which players think are gameplay but don’t actually exist

  • Ties in with literary theories
    • Book is collaboration between words on page and how reader interprets them
  • Examples
    • Thief: The Dark Project—players said, always headshot the guards! Not really a part of the game’s engine. It was just that guards were unaware of you for damage bonus
    • Planescape – players said there were multiple endings. There is only one, but players swear the music changes based on what they did
  • It’s the player’s CONSCIOUSNESS
    • Also happened with BioShock
    • D&DO: players think that using diplomacy on chests gives more loot. Untrue!
    • Players project what they want to hear conversation into of Simlish
    • People think AI cheats in Puzzle Quest

Emotional experience being projected into a game.

City of Heroes tweaked their random # generator for battles so there were caveats to hitting more.

WoW loot drops now ramp up.

Player expectation can bite you

  • When a quest says its objective is urgent, usually it isn’t! What happens when it actually is (e.g. AI dies, “timer” ends)
  • If you don’t explain to player what a system is doing, they perceive it as random
    • 2k Boston motto: “No simulation without representation!”
    • Players will perceive systems as random otherwise

Player perception can aid in adding content where none actually exists

  • In BioShock, players saw an AI ecology with Splicers hurting Little Sisters. Splicers never actually did unless otherwise scripted!
  • Bionic Commando (?) all characters have same stats, but players think they play differently (“he’s better with rockets!”)
  • Ultima Online: simple code routine for Wisps dialogue. A few dozen keywords entered by player would be echoed back by Wisps along with another random English word, but there wasn’t an actual language!
  • SW Galaxies: “you are on the path to becoming a Jedi!” No context on your progress, so you keep playing.
  • Diablo 2 chat gem button that did nothing! But players spent years on trying to figure out what it did.

Players are fascinated by mysteries!

  • Much more than they are by explanation
  • Pavlovian superstitions can be coded into people
  • Constellating: projecting theories onto something that you think was put there through intelligence
  • Emotional attachment:
    • Personal Weighted Companion Cube in Portal
      • Trying to not incinerate it because you’re engaged in it
      • It’s JUST A BOX, though!
      • Can you see the developers’ ploy? Does it take you out of the game?

Pursuit of choices:

  • “Would You Kindly” sequence in BioShock
    • Why can’t you let Andrew Ryan live?
    • No alternative even though game says you have a choice!
  • What if you always lose no matter what you do?

Best games are where you can actually come up with a solution within the rules of the game

  • Being clever about finding your own way
  • When we come across boundaries, might feel cheated, and when we find actual choices, we’re really happy
    • Did developer intend that?
    • Having multiple solutions for all parts of a game is costly
    • Giving players the illusion of choice is a good compromise; content not really there
  • Full Throttle or Fallout 3 at least have dialogue for choices you try to make that don’t work

Some games with non-narrative, and purely systemic gameplay have enough significance within the randomness to engender player projections

  • Or, emotion where there are no emotional triggers in actual narrative
  • Little King Story or X-Com as examples – you can name a character and if they die, you feel more attached
    • Naming a character something doesn’t change her personality, but it does affect player’s perception of her
      • it’s not a “fake” effect, though. The name is there.
  • Getting the player to tell his/her own story
    • Save on production
    • Fable 2’s dog
      • Most things you do to dog have no effect on him “liking you better”
      • But we feel like we have a relationship
      • It is aesthetic, though, which Alexx does not put under Illusory Gameplay (IG)
        • Disagreement and debate ensues!

Part of the pleasure

  • Game Designers don’t spend enough time on emotional state of player
  • IG is cheap, easy way to do so
  • If people think something is real during playtesting, should you make it real or “fake-real”?
  • Studying tricks from doing magic?

There’s a difference between systems and numbers and building an actual world.

  • Bejeweled aesthetics
    • Copycats only copy mechanical concepts, but low-level aesthetics had a huge impact on original’s success
  • If gamers can see through an intentionally cheating design, they will hate you! Be clever…
  • Good characters/story can mask poor gameplay
    • Phoenix Wright series
  • Filling in characters’ background when there are none if you can edit character
    • People injected backstory into Shadow of the Colossus, maybe from Ico
  • Locked door that can never be opened, and maybe there’s a story behind it

Because game creators are not the mainstream, we have to watch how our players play

  • A lot of people love naming characters

Further Reading:
Gamasutra article on free will in BioShock, related to some of the topics in this discussion.

Session Audio

From Johnny Richardson:
.mp3 Audio, 6.38mb (Decent quality, may need to crank your volume)

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