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Nutritional game design

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1 January 2008

by Mike Rozak

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I have lately been trying to create content for my game, CircumReality, but content design has been "slow as molasses" because of a mental block I've had; I haven't been happy with my intended content, and I wasn't sure why.

A few nights ago, I had a dream. While wandering around the dream and doing dreamy stuff, I thought to myself, "Why isn't my game as fun as my dreams?" I have since tried to answer that question, and this writeup is my answer:





Have you ever noticed that after a hot, sweaty day that you have cravings for salt? Actually, you probably don't think of salt directly, but you want potato chips or some other very salty food. That's because your body is low on salt, and it uses cravings to get you to eat something salty.

Players play games because they have mental cravings. They're looking for some sort of experience, feeling, or emotion that they know can be provided by the game.

For example: Some players like MMORPG "crafting", whose "experiential" ingredients/nutrients are gathering (collecting materials), meeting new people (to buy/sell goods to), a challenge (to get the highest price), and changing the world (as crafters see customers using their equipment).

According to my "cravings" theory, someone that likes crafting should like other activities (sub-games) so long as they provide the same basic nutrients.

I know this isn't entirely true with food, so don't expect it to hold for gameplay cravings: Chocolate chip cookies are made from flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and chocolate. If I ask for a chocolate chip cookie and you give me the raw ingredients, I won't be happy. Nor will I be entirely satisfied if you mix them up in a different configuration, such as a chocolate cake... although I won't complain that much. With familiarity, I might even prefer the chocolate cake to chocolate chip cookies.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and any activity is more than the sum of its experiential ingredients/nutrients. Despite that, understanding what ingredients/nutrients make up an experience is a valuable tool for game design because is it predicts what activities a player might like, and what activities can be substituted for one another, allowing MMORPGs to escape from the "Kill ten rats" cliches.

Here's an incomplete list of some of the ingredients/nutrients that players get from game activities (sub-games):


Activities (sub-games) in a game need to support one or more of these ingredients/nutrients, the more the better. For example:

  • MMORPG combat offers moderate challenges, and fulfils primal hunting instincts. Because killing rats often requires groups of players, the activity has social ramifications such as strengthening friendships, meeting new friends, and making the player feel like they belong to a group... and it's a great time waster too.

  • A Myst-like puzzle world is about the challenge, escapism, mystery, and sense of wonder.

  • "The Sims" is about dream/wish fulfilment (owning your own house), challenges, escapism, primal instincts (raising children), a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of agency.


If a game offers activities that provide players with experiential ingredients/nutrients that players crave, players will naturally gravitate towards whatever activity meets their needs. In other words, if a game offers a buffet, people will pick and choose as is best for them, which sounds reasonable to me, and happens to be the way most MMORPGs are organized.

I used to oppose offering MMORPG activities "buffet style", but I have changed my mind (somewhat). However, I still feel that there should be limits to the buffet:

  • Before I got into negatives, let me say buffets are about choices, and choices are good. Too many choices are confusing, but not having any choices makes players feel helpless and frustrated. For more information see Choices III and Interactive fiction equation 1 and 2.

  • However, a spaceless buffet, one where all options are available at all time, is a problem because choices are weakened as players can quickly flip between activities. A spaceless buffet also destroys the illusion of reality (see below), and provides way too many choices at any one time.

    While I'm discussing spaceless buffets: Many contemporary MMORPGs have quest-lists of up to 20 (or more) quests. A 20-element quest-list starts looking an awful lot like a spaceless buffet, and is bad.

  • A logical and self-consistent buffet is important. Meats go next to one another, followed by salads, and desserts are at the end.

    Avatar games (MMORPGs, CRPGs, adventures games, and first-person shooters) undertake the illusion of simulating reality partially because this make it easier for players to learn the "rules" of the game world. Once players know they're playing in something like reality, they have expectations about how their game pieces (aka: characters) can move, what actions the pieces can take, etc. The "rules" of a typical MMORPG are incredibly complicated, but because the rules are reality-based, players can begin play immediately, without ever reading a rule-book. Compare this to chess and checkers which have only a few rules, but the rules must be learned before players can begin.

    Once players expect the world to be like reality, it had better act that way. If gameplay is about killing monsters, there had better be a semi-logical explanation for why monsters are where they are, and what they do when they're not being killed by players. Part of the purpose of a quest's backstory is to explain why the gameplay element exists: "Please kill the troll over there because it's eating my sheep," suddenly makes the existence of the nearby level-10 enemy game-piece (the troll) fit into the game-world's illusion of reality.

  • Some activities synergise with one another and become more fun in combination (peanut butter and jelly), such as the loot from monster kills being inputs into crafting. Other activities hurt one another (garlic-flavoured ice cream), such as the ability for players to build cities combined with the ability for other players to destroy them.

  • Just as with food, I suspect that some people don't know when to stop, and they become obsessed with playing a single activity, harming their overall experience. How much should a game's design encourage a variety of activities?

  • Some foods, such as lobster, are expensive. If they're offered buffet style, they'll be consumed at the expense of other cheaper foods, raising the price of the buffet. In game terms, "mystery" and "wonder" are expensive, and should probably be rationed.

  • People eating garlic and beans affect those sitting nearby. Likewise, players that enjoy a "feeling of power over other people" negatively affect other players. Ingredients/nutrients like these should be tightly controlled. (See "The player pyramid".)

  • People don't always eat what's good for them. See below.




Eat your Brussels sprouts!

Players don't always partake in the activities that are "good for them". A few reasons exist:

  • Not having tried the activity before, the player doesn't know what the experience is like. In food terms, it's the old, "Try it, you'll like it."

  • The activity benefits the player in the long run (and they know it) but they just don't like the activity that much. For example: Physical exercise is "good for you", but most people find visiting a gym to be too boring. Wrap the physical activity in a game of soccer and the problem's solved. Some examples:
    • Learning how to interact with other people
    • Learning new skills
    • Meeting new people
    • Mental exercise
    • Physical exercise
    • Understanding themselves - As per Richard Bartle's "Designing Virtual Worlds".
    • Understanding others

  • Some activities aren't that fun for one player (although not unpleasant), but are heaps of fun for other players. For example: Role playing, or just being polite.



Several techniques (aka: spices and artificial flavours) can encourage a player to try the activity, or to "make an activity more fun":

  • Because I said so - "Try it, you'll like it."
  • Danger to the player's character - "Ten rats attack you. If you don't kill them, your character and all the work you put into it will be lost."
  • Enemies with real players - "Fred Smith, your in-game enemy, will be saddened if you kill his ten pet rats."
  • Friendship - "Hey buddy, please help me kill ten rats."
  • Intermediate step - "I know you don't like killing ten rats, but all great heroes must start somewhere."
  • Mystery - "Wanna know who killed JFK? I'll tell you if you kill ten rats for me."
  • NPC that the player dislikes - "Those ten rats are the evil overlord's favourite pets. Kill them!"
  • NPC that the player likes needs assistance - "Help! I'm being attacked by ten rats!"
  • Rewards beyond the activity's normal rewards - "I'll give you a lollipop if you kill ten rats for me."

Avatar games (such as MMORPGs, CRPGs, adventure games, and first-person shooters) are not stories, but stories frequently use several of the above-mentioned techniques. (Avatar games aren't really games either.) The most common is to create a character that readers become "friends" with, such as Harry Potter, and then put him in danger, adding a touch of mystery. It's a proven formula to get readers to read "just one more chapter" even though they'd rather be going to sleep.


Use these techniques sparingly because they're a finite resource!

  • Many of the techniques are expensive. Turning a NPC from a quest vending machine into a friend (or enemy) takes a lot of design, programming, and cut-scene work. Players then have to sit through said cut scenes, something that's difficult for many of them because they would rather be "playing the game" (aka: satiating their cravings).

  • The techniques lose their effect when used too often. A world can only have so many mysteries, the player character's life can be threatened only so often, and "Try it, you'll like it" only works a few times.


Use these techniques to get players to eat their Brussels sprouts.

  • Get players to try new activities. As such, new players will be asked to gather materials for crafting by a NPC just to make sure the players know the activity exists.

  • Get players to make the game more fun for one another. Use rewards and quests to encourage role playing. Encourage cooperation. Encourage civility.

  • A little bit of real history or mental exercise will make players feel like gameplay wasn't a complete waste of time. It's the difference between a "classic novel" that teaches the reader something about the world and the human condition, and an "airport novel" whose sole purpose is to waste time.


  • Don't waste these techniques by getting players to partake in activities that they would partake in anyway.

  • Don't waste these techniques by making them play un-fun activities that have no Brussels-sprouts nutrition.

    • Corollary: If you have to use these techniques to get people to partake in an activity, then redesign the activity so it's fun on its own (or in synergy with other activities). Adventure games are notorious for providing lousy gameplay, and making the overall experience barely bearable by stringing the player along with a story (aka: mystery).


Here's an anecdote: I created a hobbit character in Lord of the Rings Online. The Shire had oodles of fed-ex quests. Some of them were sub-games, involving time limits and NPCs that would "catch you" and abscond with the sweets you were carrying. They came with rewards, which was good, because I wouldn't have played the moderately-fun sub-games without the offer. However, most fed-ex quests had no sub-game component, but they still included rewards. I found myself crisscrossing the shire dozens of time delivering messages and packages, something that I found quite boring. But, I was rewarded for it, so I did it. And I was rewarded for killing rats (or whatever they were called), so I didn't kill any rats along the roadside until I was given a quest to kill them. In fact, I didn't do anything unless I had a quest for it because there was always a quest for everything, and quests always provided better rewards. Ultimately, I found myself being led around "by the nose", feeling like I didn't have any choice in the matter. The world conceptually changed from a beautiful landscape populated by (boring) NPCs and monsters into a task list.

If killing rats is a "fun" activity by itself and players know that, then there's no reason for NPCs to offer rewards to kill rats. A NPC should still point out the rats so that players know where to find them, and so that the rats' existence is explained for the sake of the world's realism, but the NPC doesn't need to offer anything extra. Rats might still provide experience points as a way to introduce new gameplay so that players don't get bored, and/or loot to synergise with the trading/crafting game.

A typical contemporary MMORPG has the NPC offer a reward of money or loot, and experience points, in addition to whatever the rats provide. This turns the MMORPG into New York City, where tips are expected for everything, which also means that like NYC, tips no longer provide any incentive to provide good service. The act of always providing activity-external rewards means that activity-external rewards can't be occasionally used by game designers to encourage players to "eat their Brussels sprouts".

To play devil's advocate, having NPCs offer rewards for killing rats solves a few problems:

  • It encourages players to talk to NPCs so that players understand why the rats are where they are, making the world feel more real. Then again, if the rats were somewhat hidden, the only way players would find the rats is by first talking with a NPC.

  • It lets the NPC hand players money (or loot) instead of rats illogically dropping loot when they die. Or, the rats could be found gnawing on a dead body, which happens to have a bag of gold.

  • It provides players with a choice of reward: either the key to the city, or a cloak of invisibility. Choice is good. This counterpoint is more difficult to find an alternative to, but there are ways: The body might contain a cloak of invisibility with "Property of Fred Wilkinson" written in it. If a player returns the cloak to the deceased's family, the player might be given the key to the city as a reward.

    As an aside: If the cloak can't be returned to the original owners, and if the rats wouldn't logically be carrying a cloak (which they wouldn't), then don't provide one at all. Money or commodities (such as rat tails) are better because they allow players to make more choices and decide if they want to save up for an expensive cloak of invisibility or buy something else, such as a large-screen TV. Because monsters regularly drop good weapons and armour as loot in WoW and LOTRO, I noticed that I hardly ever bought any; I just took whatever was "offered" to me and used that. Again, another choice removed.




Family restaurants

As I've written about before, there's a reason why most restaurants are family restaurants. Family restaurants provide a varied menu so that everyone in the family can find something they like. The reason they're popular is because every family member has veto powers, and any restaurant which is disliked by even one of the family members is struck from the list. Only those restaurants that don't get vetoes survive.

The same is true for MMORPGs. A mass-market MMORPG must cater to all players' mental cravings, not just a few specialised ones. Any MMORPG that specialises has exponentially fewer players.




Games are memes

I wasn't sure whether to put this at the beginning or the end of the article since it belongs in both places.

People won't play your game unless they know about it and hear that it's good. (The same goes for restaurants.) In order, players are more likely to try a game (or visit a restaurant) if:

  1. They first play the game (or visit the restaurant) with friends.
  2. They have a recommendation from friends, but play/visit alone.
  3. They have a recommendation from reviewers.. who, due to legal and commercial threats, rarely give an clear opinion about the experience.
  4. They see an ad.
  5. They happen to like the look of the game's box when they see it at the store (or happen to like the look or name of the restaurant).


In other words:

  1. If my friends are enjoying a MMORPG, they'll tell me about it too, since playing a MMORPG with friends makes it more enjoyable. This is an incredibly strong positive (or negative) feedback cycle, and explains why mass-market MMORPGs must be family restaurants.

  2. If I ask my friends for a good MMORPG (or game) to play, they'll tell me about the one which made the biggest "impression" on them. This is where "eat your Brussels sprouts" comes in. The reason that "classic novels" (which include plenty of Brussels sprouts) have stayed around so long is because they made a lasting impression on people (partly due to the Brussels sprouts) that causes readers to remember and recommend the books to other people (aka: a meme, a viral idea). Airport novels, on the other hand, don't say anything meaningful and are quickly forgotten, never to be recommended, and soon out of print.

  3. If your game can't rely on 1 or 2, then you'll need a really good PR team and a huge marketing budget.




Getting back to my dream. Why was it more fun than my in-progress game? Because my dream satiated some of my mental cravings and included some deeper meaning ("Brussels sprouts"), neither of which are being implemented properly by my current content... but I'll change that now.

Some of the changes are:

  • I need more rats to kill. Originally I was going to avoid combat almost entirely (chocolate chip cookies) and provide players a substitute (cake). However, I suspect players will need to be weaned from chocolate chip cookies and learn to enjoy cake.

  • Originally I was going to have all content accessible only through quests so that I could inject some story, but this causes players to only look for content from quests and get locked into a "follow the yellow exclamation points" mentality, "Simon-says" like. I have decided that a lot of content will be available without a quest so that players don't feel the urge to walk by content and only play it after being directed to it by a quest.

  • To encourage players to talk to NPCs so that they understand why "ten rats" are hanging out at location X and waiting to be killed, my world may need to be larger so players will have to ask NPCs where the monsters (or other gameplay content) are. Obviously, there's a balance; add too much empty space and there's no urge to wander off and explore, precisely the problem introduced by high-reward quests. Too little empty space and players will stumble over content without knowing why it's part of the world's reality.

  • I liked WoW's "choose your reward" model and was going to offer reward choices for every quest, but have decided to cut back on quest rewards. While choice is good, rewarding for every quest causes players to eschew content unless/until it's part of quest.

  • I use quest programming objects as a mechanism to add hand-crafted intelligence and purpose to my NPCs, which I still need.

  • Quests (including their rewards, mysteries, fleshed-out NPCs, etc.) will be used to encourage players to try new activities, make the game more fun for one another, and produce a lasting impression.



Copyright 2008 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
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