On the heels of my discussion of implicit rules, I finally got around to reading “Outside oneself in World of Warcraft: Gamers’ perception of the racial self-other”, which was co-written by my dear friend Amanda Barton McBrian. It’s written in academic-ese, but it’s a fascinating read, especially in light of “What I Learned from OWbN Girls.” But this part of the paper tied into my last post in a very interesting way (it’s in paragraph 3.11):
Another respondent indicated “I don’t Role Play in games, so generally what my character is like is dictated by the class and my personality” (emphasis added). Since the game’s programming rarely attributes a certain set of behaviors to the avatars directly, based on initial creation, the implication of this respondent is that gamers also project certain behavioral obligations to certain classes: healers must heal, and thus must produce an empathetic personality. However, behaviors produced by any given class will itself vary from player to player, thus indicating that while the player perceives a certain behavior-per-class expectation, no such standard exists objectively.
That right there is a perfect example of what I called unexpected confinement. More specifically, even people who don’t consider themselves “roleplayers” will confine their activities based on their perceptions of their avatar. Further, “no … standard exists objectively” to predict what kinds of behaviors players will project onto their avatar. Sure, you can make informed assumptions — healers must heal, after all — but you cannot accurately predict how players will confine their play based on their avatar.
So how do you find out how real players will react to your design? Playtesting, playtesting, playtesting. Get real players in front of your game, shut the hell up, and watch them play it. Take notes. Don’t correct them or tell them how to play, but watch how they are playing. Playtesting in the design phase (or “internal playtesting”) is valuable, but playtesting with people outside of the design team (or “external playtesting”) is just as important for a new design.
Sadly, the timetables to get a game to market often allow for enough of the former, but not always enough of the latter (aside from fixes like bugs and rules corrections). In most cases, what happens is that designers learn from feedback from the past design to inform the next one.
If you have the time, I do suggest reading the paper. It has a number of fascinating little insights, and the team is very open about some of the conflicts and problems they had during the study, allowing you to put the data into the proper context. (Sadly, a lot of game design “science” doesn’t actually apply scientific rigor, so it’s refreshing to find a study that does.)