Today at GDC, John Hopson from Microsoft Test Labs delivered a talk on Behavioral Game Design covering the psychological foundations of games. The talk explored classic game design constructs and their impact on player satisfaction, frustration, game quitting, etc.
After introducing some basic concepts to the room-packing audience, Hopson analyzed several types of game rules, according to their rate of application, the level of activity they induce in the player, and the way they affect the overall gaming experience. For example, he explained in detail the player's psychological reactions to re-spawning items, whether it's a fixed respawn rate (as the tanks in Battlefield 1942) or variable rate respawn (as in health packs in Unreal). He also delved into in-game activities that involve maintenance and degrade with time, such as visiting your house in Ultima Online. All these design decisions generate effects, desired or undesired, on the player, and Hopson had the psychological background and test data to explain these effects to the audience.
The session was interesting as it provided a good number of do's and don'ts for game designers trying to create high-rate of activity, rewarding titles, while fighting player frustration and making sure players just don't quit playing. As Hopson put it in his closing remark, a player is constantly evaluating his expectations for the next step in the game against all other activities in the real world. The key to creating a successful game design is to ensure that next monster or situation awaiting around the corner is always more interesting than other possible activities, like watching TV or going to bed.