Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

GDC 2010: How to Honestly Lie To Your Players

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 25, 2010

Looking back at this year’s GDC there was a single thread running through most of the sessions I attended: Deceiving the player. Both Sid Meier and Rob Pardo explicitly told us to lie to players about how we calculate random chance, because of the way human psychology interprets probabilities. Chris Zimmerman laid out in detail how to lie to the player about what their hands did. Chris Tector explained how to perform a deeply technical form of lying to build the illusion of a continuous world from streamed chunks.

Sid Meier talked about the “Unholy Alliance” between designer and player, and Ernest Adams talked about the “Tao of Game Design”. On reflection the concepts have much in common: they are about the collaboration between player and game designer to craft a shared experience. From both the player and the designer, a unique mix of deception and trust is required: Suspension of Disbelief.

It can be interesting to compare gaming to another form of popular entertainment: Professional Wrestling. Back in the dark days of carny scams, Pro Wrestling was presented as real with the explicit goal of bilking the consumer. Over the last 30 years or so the deception inherent to Pro Wrestling has shifted: The vast majority of fans are completely aware that it’s all fake and planned, but they don’t care. They are completely willing to suspend their disbelief, and in return become part of the show. The experiences are real even though they’re based on a foundation of deception, and that’s at the core of gaming as well.

So lying to your players with the goal of building a collaborative experience is key to the power of the medium, but where can it go wrong? Ernest clearly talks though the different design philosophies of different types of games and argues that designers should effectively be more truthful the more a game moves away from a conventional Player vs. Environment game. Jaime Griesemer talks about ignoring the literal feedback of players, but never proposes lying to them in a competitive PvP environment. Eskil Steenberg’s whole talk was about moving Procedural Generation away from it’s long history of deception and towards the front of a game’s design.

Finally, much of GDC was talking about a completely different form of player deception. Soren Johnson’s great blog post lays it all out: game designers are increasingly being asked to lie to players about the very process of playing a game. With a flat fee, subscription, or large chunk DLC model the goal of a designer is honest and out in the open: they want to make the player happy so they will recommend the products to their friends and buy future related products. The goal of a designer in a microtransaction-based game is instead to exploit the second to second emotional weaknesses of their players to sell as many individual bits as possible. But, you can’t tell players this so they brand the games  as “free to play” or “social”. This deception (and others such as DRM) doesn’t have anything to do with improving the player’s experience, it is simply about maximizing short term profit at the possible expense of long term credibility.

Update: Just as I posted this originally Soren’s twitter pointed me to a great post by Frank Lantz on essentially the same topic. He takes a bit of an opposing view in holding that the kind of deception advocated by Sid and Rob can be destructive because it stops players from learning about actual truths in the world. Give it a read.


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