Design with a Grain of Salt: You are not a sociopath

Author’s Note: If you are a sociopath and are offended by the title, I will not apologize. Because it wouldn’t matter to you anyway, you’re a sociopath.

It can be said that a good critique only needs to say one profound thing to be useful. In his review of Breath of the Wild, Matthewmatosis goes a wee bit beyond that, and I learned something very important that should have been obvious to me earlier. It’s okay to not extrinsically reward the player.

Okay that’s going to seem like jargon so stick with me. There’s some background in order.

This blog post builds on a key idea he mentioned, so you should go watch it and get back to me in an hour. It’s a good review and probably the best one of BotW I’ve seen. This blog post sucks in comparison.

The key idea he said that got me thinking was that, in BotW, every few in-game days a “Blood Moon” occurs. This respawns all the enemies that appear in the enemy camps throughout the world. It is therefore pointless to kill those enemies since they’ll respawn later, unless you want the rewards they have on offer (a chest, their equipment, money).
He said it would be more enjoyable to have these camps stay cleared, since that gives the player the feeling of “Taking Back Hyrule” from the enemy.

There is a discussion of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in the game development community. If you’re not in the know, extrinsic rewards are external to the content of the quest. Kill a boss, get an item. Defeat an enemy, get experience and money. Complete a quest, get a unique piece of armor. These are extrinsic rewards since they are not the quest itself, they are external to the quest.

An intrinsic reward is the fact that you did the quest. The quest was fun or exciting or had some good character dialogue. We play games to struggle and overcome, or to experience things. There is no reward for completing a game other than the fact that you enjoyed doing it.

So how does this factor into Pandemonium? I, being an idiot, was too focused on the extrinsic component of the reward system because I assumed everyone is a sociopath and designed things around it. This is particularly amusing because one of the core themes of Chapter 5 is that strict logic (represented by 55) is not enough to live by, you need something more to have a reason to exist. Further, we cannot find this reason extrinsically and logically, we must have this reason intrinsically. This is a theme that is already present and gets developed further in the Biolabs, in case you’re wondering.

This whole time, the players of the game have been telling me what it is about it they enjoy most: The story. The characters. And, uh, the naughty bits… but mostly the story because I am a legitimate author. That’s my explanation and I’m sticking to it.

If we assume a player is a sociopath, then they will have zero empathy towards the characters in the game, and seek only advantage. If there is no reward for completing a subquest, they won’t do it. All they want is the power and the feeling of triumph. Amusingly, this isn’t even true of actual sociopaths, so in this case we’re describing an imaginary ultra-logical human that we have nonetheless decided to base our games around. This is because we are insane.

This is not without precedent, in fact it is quite common. There is an old joke as follows:
It was night out and a man was searching the ground very thoroughly beneath a street lamp. A passerby stopped and observed this thorough search. It went on for some time. The passerby, eventually, asked the man “What are you searching for?”

The man replied, “I lost my glasses and I’m looking for them.”

“May I help? Where did you lose them?”

The man waved in the general direction of the darkness outside the street light. “Somewhere over there.”

“Then why don’t you search for them over there?” asked the passerby.

“Well I can’t see anything over there, so I’ll look where it’s light.”

In many scientific disciplines, there are things which are really hard to measure. If they are hard to measure, we sometimes look for proxies and try to measure those, and then link them to the thing we’re trying to measure. And, if we’re stupid (we are), then sometimes we simply decide to measure something else entirely because it’s a lot easier to do. Hence searching for our glasses where we don’t think they are, but at least it’s lighter here.

This leads to why Game Theory is stupid. It creates a perfectly logical person and gives them a set of rules to operate in, then claims the results of the games they play represent reality. This is false, since one of the important rules of social reality is that there are no rules. Everything can be changed. We created a fake human in a fake world and measured it because that’s easier than measuring real humans in the real world!

So as to game design? It means we don’t need to always find extrinsic rewards for the player, and when we do it’s okay to make them less explicit.

It is okay to have a side quest that is just there for completion, because the quest was fun and the writing was good.

It is okay to have the reward for the quest be “You made the world a better place”.

It is okay to have the reward for a job well done be the job well done.

Having Sophie smile at Christine and say “You did good today” is better than a piece of armor or a new weapon.

You are not a sociopath.