The triumph of experience over reality, and games analytics

For a while after I moved the chest of drawers in my hall, I sometimes saw it  in its old location.   This happened only when I wanted to get something out of it.

Flickr: Binary Ape

Flickr- Binary Ape


It didn’t pop out at me and say BOO! as I walked by en route to doing something else.  Its appearance was linked to my intent to do something with it.

Eventually I caught up with reality  – at least as far as my chest of drawers was concerned – and the chest of drawers no longer met me halfway when I went to get something out of it.  I can’t recall if it faded away slowly like a Cheshire cat,  or just plain old wasn’t there one day.  My guess is that it followed the adaptation in my intention.

Memory, like perception, experience, intentionality and self-report, is a constructive and active process.  This is widely acknowledged – and not well understood.   The relationship between top-down, theory-based processing and bottom-up, data-based processing is the subject of a fair amount of tug of war.

Now, if you are (not unreasonably) wondering what this has to do with games analytics, I am heading over that way just as soon as I tell you a bit about some sessions @developconf I went to recently.  Or you can cut to the chase.

My own session @developconf was about using analytics in support of discovery-driven design, but I attended as many other sessions as I could, and the mix has been fermenting nicely.  For me, there were two themes that stood out:

  • social TV, 2nd screen TV, and games  (all very shiny and uncertain and potentially massive and interesting)
  • the theme that I’m chewing on at the moment, which is the relationship between expectation and experience.

There were four sessions that stirred my thinking on the theme of expectation and experience:

Overall, I was delighted by what I heard.   In the audio sessions they’d busted a gut to rig up a proper Dolby(tm)  sound system for the room, which could partly explain why.  But the sessions were also deeply thought-provoking.   And somewhere in the back of my mind I am still thinking about them.

Steven Root’s Keynote covered a lot of ground over a long period of time and en route touched on how iOS was like going back to basics in terms of resource limitation.  This in turn triggered a nostalgic story about how way back in the old days (on I  forget which platform), they couldn’t loop audio, so on one of his projects they were forced to have a gap in the music until such time as the platform could marshall its tiny resources to perform a rinse and repeat.   The point is this.  People said to him “when you made the music stop, that was brilliant”.

Alistair Lindsay had a similar point to make, amidst his explanation of his game-state-responsive but non-literal UI soundscape for “Prison Architect”.  In the midst of talking about an emotional equaliser, where you can boost the the essence of an effect by finding a contrasting objecting and cutting that, he demonstrated some cymatic frequencies, and wondered whether the whole effect they seemed to have actually concentrated on when the music stopped.  In a flight of creativity, he wondered whether it was possible to do Pavolvian conditioning based on the absence of a sound.  The bell that didn’t ring, the dog that didn’t bark,  as it were.  The violated expectation.

Perceptually and cognitively, we are all expert at detecting change.  Which is a good thing, as it’s important. (In a way, it’s all there is)   We are also, it seems, hard-wired to notice  change vis a vis our expectations.   Which is where the Anatomy of Fun panel came in.    And, at a suitable comic lag, my chest of drawers.

Every panellist had something interesting to say, but for me the highlight was Robb Rutledge talking about his work in neuroeconomics, using MRI scanning to look at how dopamine levels  encode reward prediction error.   A reward prediction error is what happens when- for better or worse –  things don’t work out as you’d hoped.  As I understand it, it’s usually applied to a discrete event with a quantifiable probability of occurrence, not an ongoing unease like a mid-life crisis.

One of his recent findings  – skipping gently over a few ph.d.’s lying in the hallway –  is that it is the relationship between reward and expectation that predicts happiness.  Via dopamine.   I do find it amusing when findings that are intelligible on a social and behavioural level seem to take on an heightened degree of reality when they are found in the brain.     But that’s what brain scientists do, is look for stuff in the brain.  So it’s not like I’m surprised or anything.   And what he said was certainly interesting.

One of the other panellists observed, riffing onwards from Robb’s work,  that at the moment it seemed that people wanted to make games composed of mostly of ice cream, but it was necessary to have broccoli, too.    Mastering uncertainty is rewarding – but such learning usually involves failure en route.   This is extremely important, which is why we are good (in our good-enough way) at detecting it.  The view of the practitioners was that it’s OK to be frustrated or lost, because of the mismatch of expectation and experience,  if the tension was used in some way.

Dear Esther, a moody and atmospheric oeuvre in which there is very little agency possible on the part of the player, is yet another interesting example of the relationship between expectation, emptiness and experience.   The work’s focus is on creating emotional resonance, and leaving space for emotional reactions to the flow of experience without the need for the busyness, the entrained physicality, of a ‘typical’ sensory-physical entrainment loop.    But even without the engagement of a well-mastered physical control feedback loop, even in comparative emptiness, there is still experience.  Symbols appear, and resonate with a long half life.  Here the expectation is generalised – not, specifically, of a chest of drawers, but of the nature of the experience both locally and over the course of the game.   There is a yearning caused by the absence of action, and agency, that builds to a powerful effect.   Not everyone’s cuppa, but a consumable with a strong flavour.

So, what does this have to do with games analytics?   Just this.  There’s no point doing analytics if you aren’t prepared to change your design as a result of doing it.   And, aside from the fire-fighting troubleshooting type of reactive change (which I’m not dissing as it can save your bacon -it’s a question of not only but also),  you get the best mileage out of analytics-powered design change if you use it to systematically explore design options and resultant outcomes  in a way that gets you to closer to where you want the game to be.  The paradox is that easily and obviously quantifiable things, like Google’s infamous 41 shades of blue, are not always the most interesting or useful to vary.   This is where it’s vital to attend closely and thoughtfully to what dimensions of a design are likely to be most relevant.   Always remembering that the unexpected can be a source of delight, and insight.

Come and hear me talk at @developconf Weds July 11th

If you’re @DevelopConf next week please drop by and say hi.     I’m talking @ 4pm Weds.  About Ux and BI in games analytics, and tools and processes.

Heckle, ask q, throw nerfs – let’s make it lively.

Er, yes.  I do seem to be talking more than I’m writing these days….!

Synchronous is a game changer for social games. But it’s not the only game in town.

There are common design patterns to many of the successful social games on Facebook.    But there are also some suggestive shifts in the dominant model.

What’s next for social games?    The only certainty is change.   (Plus ça change!)

Yazino’s CEO‘s Big Idea is that the future of social games is synchronous – that’s what he’s going to be talking about at Evolve.   In the background, I hear a chorus of angels singing a song about the next big thing.   Do you?  It goes like this:  Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  Not another big thing.   But – here’s the thing.  He’s partly right.

‘Classic’ social games have some prototypical features: they are played via social networks; use players’ friend networks as distribution channels; and hook in to deep-seated pre-existing social patterns of display and exchange.    They aren’t synchronous.  Player to player interactions in a game are, in general,  non-blocking. Multiple social exchanges run concurrently with the main plot line.    While inter-player interactions facilitate game play, they are designed so they can occur in parallel with the main player flow, which is about interaction between the game engine and the player.

One shift we have already seen in this ‘classic’ model for social games is the emergence of turn-based adversarial player-vs-player games.   This isn’t a new model.  Quite the opposite.  To date, most of the successful titles in this budding genre have been reworkings of board and card game classics, such as Poker and Scrabble.  Plus ça change indeed.   Turns act as a strong synchronisation mechanism for play, but there is no realtime synchronous dynamic to the game play.

Relationship between time between turns and turn type

Tolerance for lag between turns

I recall being told quite flatly that turn-based games were not ever going to take off in casual social games, as people would not want to wait for their turn.   Wrong.   But – more interestingly – why wrong?  What I think is going on here is this:  there is a relationship between the time and effort required to make a move, and toleration for lag between moves.   Where your own moves are easy to make, and your adversary’s moves have little impact on the game,  having a big lag between turns just doesn’t work, as shown in the Figure.  The other move isn’t worth waiting for, and your move doesn’t need a refractory period.   This is in the ‘not ok’ zone.   But there is an OK zone.

You could make a case for parallel asynchronous interaction in browser based social games having evolved as a creative response to the technical limitations which are fundamental to browser architectures.  But these limitations don’t bite so hard as they used to, as other application architectures have creepingly colonised the browser model.  And the commercial incentives are motivating people to put effort into jumping as high as they can, to try to clear those hurdles that do exist.

So I believe, alongside Yazino’s CEO, that we can expect to see more synchronous social play.    What will the impact be?  Synchronous play, as opposed to turn-based play or parallel play, opens up new design spaces.  It can be more:

  • realistic
  • immersive
  • challenging

The way I see it, it is more suited to ‘traditional’ realtime competitive engagement, whether team-based or pairwise p2p.   It is less suited to symbolic operations.    Will it take over the world?  My own view is that this is a ‘not only but also situation’.    There are games for which having the concept of turns, and the ability to take time between turns is beneficial.   For these, truly synchronous play is not a requirement. I’d use the word synchronised, rather than synchronous.

For a 20% discount to the Evolve in London conference, use the code ELELTE when booking.

In case you haven’t read my other post – I’m acting as an Ambassador for the Evolve Conference in London Dec 1st, where Yazino’s CEO is speaking.    As a part of this role, I’m doing some commentary on what I think the most interesting bits of the agenda are.   I don’t agree 100% with the view that synchronous will dominate social.   But I’m looking forward to learning more about it. Let me know if you’re coming!