Hidden Game Mechanics: Design for the Human Psyche – Extra Credits


Games are illusions. a big ol pile of smoke and mirrors. and sometimes… In an attempt to make the player feel something real through a virtual experience Designers have to get a little sneaky. ♪♪♪ In order to discuss the way that game designers sometimes hide mechanics from their players to improve the play experience, We have invited game designer and cool person, Jennifer Scheurle to help us write this. Here we go! When we think about design in other disciplines, We can usually tell the parameters they’re working within. and those parameters are defined by who they’re designing for, and what product or service they need to create. Furniture designers design for the human body and human needs. Their work has a very specific purpose and is mostly informed by how human bodies function. To make a chair, for example, the designer has to consider the human physique, how high up and wide should the seat be? How should the chairs back be shaped for maximum comfort? The design of everyday things like this is so deeply ingrained in our cultures and our societies that we only really notice them when the design is bad. Have you ever instinctively pushed on a door with a horizontal bar like this only to find that you’re actually supposed to pull it open? That right there, is some bad design. we actually did a whole episode on stuff like that. I’ll put a link to it at the end of the video. Game designers have to work within these parameters as well. However, unlike the chair designer, who has to design for the needs and comforts of the human body, game designers essentially design for the human mind and perception. Now, these are fields which even science does not fully understand yet. but we do know one thing above all about the human psyche. That it is deeply, and beautifully, flawed. and for game designers that means that we are designing for a system that is likely to lie to itself. To skew reality. a system that is utterly horrible at judging things like chance or self-awareness I will give you an example. Let’s say I designed for you a game with a combat mechanic where your ability to hit enemies is determined by a percentage chance. Let’s say that the game tells you that your attacks have a 50% chance of hitting your target at each time. and so you think, Okay! I have a 50% chance of hitting the target! Cool! but if the game was actually giving you a 50% chance of hitting, it would feel wrong. See, the human psyche is baaaaaad at judging chance. and so it expects a 50% chance of success to mean that attacks will succeed roughly every second attempt. but that’s not how chance works. In reality, a 50% chance of success could lead to four consecutive hits, or seven consecutive misses. But a game designer knows that missing a 50% chance twice or more in a row Just feels wrong and bad. when XCOM tells us that a shot has a 95 percent chance of success and we miss, that feels wrong. because our brain interpreted that as guaranteed success, even though that 5% chance of failure is real and sometimes you just happen to roll a 1. And so the game designers job is to design experiences in a way that accommodate and manipulate these quirks in the human psyche, in order to give the player a better experience. Have you ever played through a combat situation in a game that just felt amazing? because it looked like you just barely got out of there by the skin of your teeth with a shred of health and almost no ammo left. like you somehow managed to overcome the odds and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, And you get this huge adrenaline rush. I am sorry to report, it is very very likely that the game’s designers implemented hidden mechanics to create exactly that kind of scenario for you. See, one of the most common examples of hidden game mechanics are instances designs to give you a feeling of tension and empowerment and that can come in many forms. Maybe that very last bit of your health bar secretly represents something like a quarter of your actual hit points. Maybe your last few remaining rounds of ammo secretly deal way more damage. Maybe, when you take that first fatal hit, instead of killing you, the game leaves you with one hit point and makes you immune to damage for a couple of seconds, just to give you a chance to bounce back. All of these hidden mechanics play with our perception. They take our expectations, our understanding of how the game works and subvert them tricking us, in order to give us a better experience many health and damage balanced systems are deliberately designed to put you in a situation where you lose health quickly to make fights feel overwhelming, just so they can start kicking in hidden game mechanics when your health is low to help you overcome the challenge anyway, it makes those battles feel awesome And it creates these exhilarating moments of triumph that can really support a games core empowerment aesthetic. and there are many other types of hidden game mechanics that allow designers to play with our perceptions. To make us feel relaxed or engaged. some games like Bioshock make it so that enemies always miss you the first time they shoot at you, Which ensures that you don’t feel unfairly ambushed while you’re still trying to orientate yourself in an environment. other games like shadow of mordor slowly give the player health back over time to artificially extend fights for the sake of spectacle. One of the most common hidden game mechanics is something we call Coyote Time. which gives players a slightly longer window where they’re allowed to jump after stepping off a ledge. you will be hard-pressed to find a good platformer that doesn’t apply coyote time. it really helps to maintain a platformers flow and fast pace. Or if you want a really extreme example of hidden mechanics, there was this racing game back in 1995 called High Octane. it had a bunch of different vehicles And they were all displayed with a list of different stats. under the hood, every single one of those vehicles behaved exactly the same. There was no difference at all. But!! no one noticed. because seeing that list of stats made the vehicles feel different enough that players still debated over which vehicles was the best. Like I said before, video games are all smoke and mirrors. All designs to manipulate human perception. They trick us into being immersed in fantastical worlds, believing that the characters in our adventuring party have emotions They trick us into believing that we’ve overcome impossible odds all on our own. Or that we’ve significantly influenced the outcome of a story event. Or that we’ve even surpassed our expected limitations in ways that the game’s designers didn’t even anticipate. But those experiences are carefully orchestrated The designers are laying out dots in specific ways knowing that our psyche will be eager to connect them. Our brains are hard-wired to seek enjoyment, stimulation, and praise. it releases all of those feel-good chemicals, that leaves us in a state of joy that all players of all backgrounds and ages know in one shape or form in the of all backgrounds and ages know in one shape or form. in the end, a game designers priority is to engage and entertain. to sometimes lead players down paths that they didn’t even know they wanted. Human perception is flawed, and whether we players realize it or not, we want to be fooled. Designers hide implicit rules under the explicit ones because game design has always been the art of Illusion. And at the end of the day, everybody likes a good magic trick. See you next year! ♪♪♪

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