gdc 2010

Sid Meier: Gamers Aren't Logical

by Nick Ahrens on Mar 12, 2010 at 09:00 AM

This year's GDC keynote was delivered by none other than the king of strategy himself, Sid Meier. Titled "The Psychology of Game Design," the Civilization creator proposed to the large crowd of developers that "Everything you know is wrong." The focus of his talks really centered around trying to figure out what works for the people playing his games. He also used key words like "egomaniac", "paranoia" and "delusion" and ended with a note about a player's self-destructive behavior. This was clearly some foreshadowing for the rest of the talk.

Digging deeper into his observations about players, Sid brought up an interesting bit about what he calls The Winner Paradox. "In the world of games, you almost always win," explained Meier. No one has ever sent him an e-mail about winning too much. This also brought up the battle of reward versus punishment. Harking back to creating the battle system for Civilization Revolution, his team ran into play testers that would be excited if they won a battle with three-to-one odds. Upon asking them if that felt right, they would reply with an obvious yes. But when it came to winning a battle with one-to-three odds, Meier expected the player to question it. Instead, the player was just as excited as before. This lead to the realization that it cannot just be a math-based system. Things really got interesting when they observed the two-to-one battle. Upon losing with those odds, more often than not, the player was OK with the loss. But when the odds were pushed to 20-to-10 and the player lost again, they become upset. To Sid (and math) there's no difference between 20-to-10 and 2-to-1, but the player doesn't see it that way during the battle. "It's 20-to-10! I should win! It's a big number!" Clearly, there was more to it than simple odds, it was psychological.

Even balancing a game for difficulty has been a long-standing question in game development. Previously, Meier has publicly stated that four settings of difficulty in a game is perfect. It covers beginner to expert. Of course, he admitted today that he was wrong and with some laughs pointed out that the new magic number is in fact nine difficulty settings (which Civilization IV does have). These challenges have been something Meier has been trying to figure out since the release of the first Civilization. Sid revealed that he originally wanted a rise and fall mechanic which would have the player almost lose everything in a dramatic disaster and then recover at the last minute. This just ended up forcing the player to reload an old save because they thought failure was on the verge. But players don't just need to be protected from the game design, but from themselves too. "How many of you remember the Cold War? Let's hear it for the Cold War." jokes Meier. Bringing up Mutually Assured Destruction, that balance between the two is critical design.

Revealing more of what he called "My Bads," Sid brought up the upcoming Civilization game for Facebook. "This is a fun world to take Civilization to," says Meier. It was all different now because people's playing habits we're going to be totally different. Not only were they going to be playing with friends, but they also wouldn't be playing as long. The specific example brought up involved adding the ability to give gold to friends. Originally, he thought this would be a brilliant idea. People could give gold out of pity, just for fun or whatever reason popped up. But after watching the results of people playing, pretty much no one gave away gold.

As he started to finish up, Meier pointed out some things that could save developers time and money. First and foremost, listening to the players is key. While not every specific issue can be resolved that way, it will help push a game into a good direction. Also important is to play off of the player's imagination. It's not always necessary to show everything on screen for the player o think it's there. Sometimes a text box is enough and can save millions. Replayability is also very valuable and sometimes quite easy to add. These things are part of what Sid calls the "Epic Journey" and the learning experience that comes along with it.

When he was done, Meier got a laugh out of the crowd by simply saying: "Now you know everything."

For more on Civilization, check out our video interview with Civilization V's producer, Dennis Shirk.