This is a UX design presentation that I held at our internal DevDays at Sharkmob this year. It is something I’ve been thinking about lately, so this is not a fully formed theory, it’s more of a hypothesis. This is about setting expectations and primarily it is about WHO sets the expectations for me. Is it us as game developers, or are there other aspects that play into setting expectations?

  • When expectations are made, how do we as game developers deliver on what we have promised?
  • What happens if we don’t?
  • Does the intended audience have any impact on expectations and experiences?
  • And in the end, what is required to make a game memorable?

So basically, as Game Developers:

  • How do we set expectations?
  • How do we meet expectations?
  • How do we create experiences?
  • How do we manage to make the expectations and experiences work together and not against each other?

Before we start looking at experiences and expectations, let’s take a quick look at the theory of self-determination.

What is the theory of self-determination?

  • It’s the closest thing to what we have when it comes to what motivates people to do what they do
  • It focuses more on intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation
  • It can help us as developers craft an experience where the player themselves want to continue playing – not just through extrinsic rewards.

The theory of self-determination states that there are three aspects that influence what intrinsically motivates us:
Autonomy – which is the desire to feel that you have control over the situation you are in, in this instance the game. You feel in control of your choices in the game.
Competence – to have the tools to control a situation and the outcome of a situation. In this instance it deals with having the tools to control the game and to exit victorious out of conflicts.
Relatedness – to feel related to and connected to and care for others. In a game, this might be a relationship to an NPC or the relationship to other players.

Intrinsic motivation is the internal drive to do something. We play games because we enjoy it. We enjoy playing for many different reasons, but most of those reasons are aspects of autonomy, competency and relatedness.

Extrinsic motivation is the external rewards we get for doing it. We might want to show up on a leaderboard for a game, or collect those trophies and achievements we’re given when we play.

Extrinsic motivations are always weaker than intrinsic motivations, and giving a player too much extrinsic motivation may weaken the intrinsic motivation. In other words, there has to be an internal drive to play the game. The leaderboard placement or trophies are just icing on top of the cake.

Meeting expectations

There are a lot of ways the player sets expectations for a game or for a game experience. Unfortunately, we’re not in control of all of them. What happens if the expectations of a game is set before the game is released? Keep in mind that this is not entirely unrealistic.

I’m going to use Mass Effect Andromeda as an example of a game that was not really in control of the circumstances under which it was released, but also where the developers had huge expectations to live up to.

For ME Andromeda, the expectations of the game were not only based on the communication around the game itself, but also the trilogy that came before it and the reaction from the gamers around Andromeda. The game was widely derided even before it was released, and it coloured the interactions the players had with the game.

“[…] the central argument against it seemed to be that Mass Effect: Andromeda was bad because it wasn’t what people expected. Fan reaction to the game was so universally bad BioWare canceled its plans to release additional downloadable content and shifted their attention to fixing bugs. Frustrations mounted; gamers griped, or just gave up.”
Swapna Krishna, Wired

Players expected Andromeda to be a bad game before even playing it, and this was something EA struggled with controlling, but ultimately failed to do. Andromeda as a stand alone game is not as bad as the expectations on it. BUT it didn’t live up to the expectations of the fans that were waiting for another Mass Effect. Mass Effect is iconic. It is widely regarded as a very good game series, no matter what one might think of the end of the third game.

Andromeda failed to live up to those expectations and thus, the experience of playing the game was lessened.

Does this make Mass Effect Andromeda a bad game?

No, Andromeda is actually a decent game by game standards.

It does suffer from too many complex systems that aren’t properly connected to one another and it also suffered from bugs and a too hasty release. This is a trait it shares with many other more successful games though, so theoretically this shouldn’t have made much of a difference.

In contrast to the expectations on a game before it is released, we do have some power over how a game is set up when designed. How do we set up expectations while the player is playing the game? What am I expecting to be able to do?

This depends on the player and their motivations. I am a narrative driven player, that means that I want autonomy, competence and relatedness in connection to the narrative I am experiencing, which is why God of War is an awful game for me. But it isn’t solely related to the player motivation. It also depends on what the game tells me that I should be able to do. If there’s a crafting system, I expect to be able to craft. If there are relatedness aspects to the game, I expect to be able to have some form of relationship with an NPC, good or bad. And if it is a narrative game, I as a player expect to have some influence over the narrative. That said, every player is different. Every player has their twist on the theory of self-determination.

I prefer having control over how my character moves trough the world on a narrative plane. Many players don’t care about the actions of their character. They’d rather just get out there and upgrade their axe.For me, a game like God of War from 2018, is a puzzle more than it is a game. I figure out how to use the axe, the shield and Atreus’s arrows and solve any puzzle that comes at me – aka the enemies in the game. For me, however, because I have no control over the narrative outcome, not even the illusion of control, God of War does not motivate me. It does not make me feel autonomy OR relatedness, or even competence. As a narrative driven player, my expectations are not fulfilled by God of War.

The clip shows Atreus and Kratos hunting. Atreus is asked to kill a deer, he hesitates because he’s just a kid. Kratos does not help him, and Atreus apologises for his “lack of courage”. All it would require for me to feel more control is some influence over the narrative aspects of the game. As with many games, it doesn’t even have to be actual control. Just the illusion of control would be enough. God of War is fond of quick time events. Give me a QTE to put my hand on Antreus’s shoulder. That would be enough. Based on the fact that Kratos is an awful father, I think it would take more than this to mess up the narrative.

Does this make God of War a bad game?

No. It most certainly does not. But this is where the player motivations and the theory of self determination comes in. Different people are motivated by different things. What motivates one player – in my case narrative – does not motivate another player in the same way. I know a lot of players who will just skip all the cutscenes and jump straight to combat because combat is what motivates them. For me, however, this does not cut it. It lacks the interaction that I require in order to feel in control of my character and their actions, one of the reasons, in fact, that I have such a hard time connecting and identifying with Kratos. In other games I feel I AM the character I play. In God of War, I play Kratos, but I am not him. There’s a disconnect between me and the character.

But it’s not just narrative systems that can fail to live up to a player’s expectations. I have an issue with being too much of a completionist meaning that I continually over level my player character for the end game. It happens in most every game that I play, and the latest game I experienced it in was The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. By the time I got around to the end game and the end battle, I was level 36. The intended level is somewhere around 25 – 30 I think. This means that I one shot kill the boss at the end of the game, leading to an anticlimax.

I also gather ALL THE THINGS meaning that a crafting system such as the one in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt soon becomes bloated for me.

If I don’t have a sink for the resources, which I don’t in the Witcher, this is what my inventory looks like after a while. And let’s not get started on how this inventory is built up, because it just makes me sad.

Does this make The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt a bad game?

No it doesn’t. But it detracts from the value of crafting items and crafting potions and finally being able to get that ingredient that’s been missing for so long. For me, most of the time, the ingredients are already there, since I’ve vacuumed the map.

And then another example, which in a way ties back to Mass Effect and the expectations players had on Mass Effect Andromeda based on the Mass Effect Trilogy. I’ve played three games in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I loved both Odyssey which I played first because I could play as a woman, and Origins, which to be honest has one of very few male characters that I’ve liked playing. I blame Bayek’s radiant smile and actual emotional depth for that.

I also played Valhalla and found I didn’t like it at all to start. The reason I didn’t like it is because after having played Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla’s systems made me feel lost.

In Origins I have a clear path and understanding of what kind of abilities I can get. The overview is pretty awesome. I can also see what I need to do in order to reach the next level.

The same thing goes for Odyssey. Odyssey also gives me a good overview of what I need to do to reach the next level or the next ability.

And then there’s Valhalla which doesn’t allow me to level up to get my abilities. I actually have no idea which abilities there are until I’ve acquired them, and I acquire them by breaking into strongholds and military bases.

I have no overview, no aspirational gameplay, because I have no idea where the next ranged ability is or where I can find my favourite axe throwing trick. Unless I look it up on a wiki somewhere.

The same thing goes for skills. I have no overview, and the increments that I get are too tiny to make any major difference. So what if I get 5.2 extra health? It barely shows up on the health bar. The only reason I go into the skills menu is to randomly assign my XP because the first time I play I have no idea how to interact with this menu.

Does this make Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla a bad game?

It kind of feels like it, doesn’t it? But the answer is once again no. It does fail to live up to my expectations, though, just like the previous games I’ve used as examples fail to live up to the experiences I’m hoping to get out of them. Not all games can be good at all things, but we can look at the games we make with the lens of experience and expectation in mind.

So what do we do?

How do we avoid these traps?

Well, we can start by knowing who we’re making the game for. Who’s our audience? What motivates them? Do they enjoy killing stuff or do they enjoy crying alone over sad game endings? We find out who our players are, and then we craft our experiences. If our game is part of a series, how do we live up to the expectations of the series? If our game is a completely new game in a completely new genre, how do we SET expectations?

So how do we craft experiences that both live up to expectations and become memorable for players? I’m going to show some examples of what we did for Mad Max, because it’s still one of the best user experience experiences I’ve had.

I worked with our narrative director, Odd Ahlgren and came up with a few scenarios that we could use to show that Max really was a bit unstable. We had tried previously with vignettes and voices but players didn’t understand it. So we figured, how about when Max buys skills? Couldn’t that be a good way to show he’s not entirely sane? We started out with a few ideas. Some were too intricate, some were too technically difficult, some would take too much time away from the player. We settled on one that we thought was decent without annoying the player too much.

We used the mechanic of buying skills to set up the experience. Odd crafted a character named Griffa. Level design looked into triggering specific areas he would show up and textures that would appear when he was at that location.

We even got some momentum to create cutscenes and additional build up to set the scene for Griffa. This is the first and second encounter with Griffa. This is where we start setting expectations for the Griffa encounters. Not many players saw the second of these two interactions, Griffa walking away from Max.

We kept on establishing Griffa as a mystic, but we were also careful to only show Griffa when Max was alone. This is the third and fourth meeting Max has with Griffa in the game.

The final, or rather the first real encounter is part of the narrative progression. The cutscenes themselves can still be skipped, but the player must go to Griffa to move forward this one time. After this, the player can choose to not upgrade their skills, even though they may be at a disadvantage if they don’t. Note the audio updates, the texture and even the lighting in the game changing as Max goes to meet Griffa.

Did this make Griffa an unmitigated success?

No, not really. But it was one way for us to communicate that Max isn’t quite sane, and it was also a good way to recap what had happened to Max as the narrative progressed. Griffa is of course a figment of Max’s imagination. There is no Griffa, it’s only his way to deal with learning and growing in a reluctant manner.

The reason Griffa was a good experience, both for developers and for players, was because we integrated him both in the game design through the tokens, the level design through the changes in texture and secluded locations he would appear, in audio because of the changing soundscape around Griffa and in narrative, in that he tries to bring Max back from his reclusiveness and be integrated in society again. Maybe I thought it was so much fun because it was crafting an actual experience and not just another user flow or menu. I should mention that some players felt it unecessary to go to Griffa every time they wanted new skills and sometimes avoided it, so if we could have done something different there, maybe it could have been to add Griffa to the menu after the first encounter.

“There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: the best tales. The ones that last.”
– Varric Tethras, Dragon Age

The last aspect I want to bring up is how to make a moment memorable. Not just because I’m a total narrative geek, but also because we don’t spend much time on emotions in games. We spend time on reactive emotions, but we don’t really think about building relationships between NPCs and players, or in some cases even between players and other players.

Yes, there are the ye olde “you killed my wife and now I will seek revenge!” stories, but they’re not really anchored in the storyline since the death usually occurs within five minutes of starting the game.

One of the best ways to anchor stories is to let the player experience relatedness. Build up a relationship, make sure the player is onboard with it, and then stab the player in the back in the most brutal manner possible. BioWare writers are very good at this as evidenced by their uncanny ability to make me cry.

This is a clip from Mass Effect 3, and it kills off Mordin, a companion you’ve had with you since Mass Effect 2. Mordin is, though his death, making sure that the Krogan are freed from the genophage, a bioengineered fertility dampening virus that kills off most Krogan babies before they are born.

Mordin was a part of making the genophage happen and through Mass Effect 2, he’s struggled with his part in it. Getting close to Mordin in Mass Effect 2 also assures the player that they will hear him sing a patter song based on I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from Gilbert and Sullivans The Pirates of Penzance, which he repeats just before dying.

Spending at least 40 hours with each of these characters before they are killed off makes certain that the player is invested in their lives and deaths, even if it is as in the case of Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams, the opportunity to get rid of one of them, which seems to be a common sentiment. I like them both so it’s always been a difficult choice.

The player even has the opportunity to react to Mordin going up the tower, even if it makes no real difference, which does make a difference, at least to me. The opposite, in fact, to the God of War Clip earlier.

So how do we go about doing something like this, something that resonates with the player?

Use data, do UX research.

The most important part of this is to work with data and UXR to make sure that the designs you make live up to expectations for the audiences you have chosen. For that to happen you need to know what your intent with a design is. What are you trying to achieve? You also need to know that you are not all players. Not all players are motivated by the same things you are. Keep that in mind when designing.

Involve marketing.

Make sure marketing understands the limitations and that you understand what marketing needs in order to orchestrate a good game launch. Usually the game is pretty neat on it’s own. Just make sure marketing knows what’s neat about it. We had major issues on Anthem when marketing was promising things we couldn’t deliver, but that we later had force into the game, because the items they had promised were already “sold”.

Know your player.

The most important thing here is to know your audience. Know who the player is, understand how they would react to your game and understand how you can make them feel motivated to play. Balance the game accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be about narrative or emotions, I’ve used those examples because they resonate with me and the kind of player I am. Not everyone needs story to enjoy a game. Maybe you are more into hanging out with friend and socialising or competing with other players to get to the top of a leaderboard.

A narrative game looks very different from a competitive game because the focus is different. A game that caters to completionists looks different and is balanced different than a game that expects the player to breeze through it.

A single player game looks different than a multiplayer game.

You cannot make a game for everyone. That is impossible. Choose the players you want to focus on, and build the game for them. Find out what their expectations are, and craft the experience accordingly.